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Yemen Nobel laureate a figure of hope, controversy

SANAA (Reuters) - Just a week ago, many Yemeni opponents of President Ali Abdulah Saleh would have said that Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman was an out-of-touch protest leader whose star was fading.

But on Friday, any criticism of the aggressive style of the 32-year-old mother of three was forgotten in cheers of joy for Yemen’s first Nobel Prize winner. Many Yemeni protesters hope she can spark another turning point for their mass movement.

“She’s a controversial figure for the protesters, but either way everyone is happy today -- this is a sign the world supports our peaceful protest movement, people feel the world is standing with us,” said youth activist Atiaf al-Wazir.

Karman was sidelined in recent months for what other protest leaders called a “dictatorial” style that had even alienated many of the youthful demonstrators she had helped to inspire.

For nearly nine months, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been demanding an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule. The veteran president has clung on even as his country fragments and violence between loyalist and rebel troops threatens civil war.

“Yemen is usually a source of bad news, and it has been nine long months for protesters. Today everyone is happy,” Wazir said. “We don’t have too many role models.”

Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan said: “This is a transformative moment for our society and the revolution -- a woman has become its most prominent figure.”

This is unusual for Yemen, which tops the U.N. Development Programme’s gender inequality index and has been criticised by rights groups for violence and discrimination against women.

A fiery journalist and member of the Islamist party Islah, Karman was an activist long before this year’s Arab uprisings which have toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Yemeni Tawakul Karman is hugged by her husband in her tent at Tagheer square in Sanaa after it was announced that she won the Nobel Peace Prize October 7, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Her star rose quickly when Yemen’s protest movement began in January. Her brief detention by authorities in February brought thousands to the streets and focussed the media spotlight on her.

She was among the first to organise protests when only a few battered, plastic tents dotted Sanaa University gates -- the “Change Square” protest encampment now stretches at least 4 km (2-1/2 miles) down a major road in the capital.


Before she became a journalist, Karman had been considered a shy and conservative member of the Islamist Islah party, wearing a long black face veil and cloak like most Yemeni women.

But after working on women’s rights she began to confront Islah about women’s roles, drawing criticism in the party, and started wearing colourful scarves that frame her face.

“She now leads a moderate wing in Islah among its many extremist elements,” analyst Ali Seif Hassan said.

For years Karman organised protests in Sanaa and elsewhere to demand the release of political detainees and journalists, and founded Yemen’s “Women Journalists without Chains” in 2006.

But her intense, individualistic style grated with some other protest organisers and many had stopped working with her.

“We fear the West will want her to be the next president -- she has a dictatorial style,” joked Bashir Othman, a leftist protest organiser,

Defying an agreement among organisers, Karman stood on a platform in Change Square in May and urged protesters to march to the presidential palace -- a move that ended in bloodshed.

“She called for that march, the police brutally attacked it and 13 people died. She didn’t apologise for it and it really upset a lot of people,” said one protest organiser who declined to be named. “But today is a moment for celebration. We will use it for solidarity and forget that.”

Karman dedicated her Nobel Peace Prize to the Arab uprisings and to those killed in the upheavals.

“I dedicate this award to the Yemeni people and the youth of the Arab Spring...and to every martyr who has died for the sake of freedom,” she told Reuters.

Editing by Alistair Lyon