SANAA, Yemen (AP) — She is known among Yemenis as "the iron woman" and the "mother of the revolution." A conservative woman fighting for change in a conservative Muslim and tribal society, Tawakkul Karman has been the face of the mass uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The 32-year-old Karman has been an activist for human rights in Yemen for years, but when she was arrested in January, it helped detonate protests by hundreds of thousands demanding the ouster of Saleh and the creation of a democratic government.
When the announcement was made Friday that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Karman was where she has been nearly every day for the past eight months: in a protest tent in Change Square, the roundabout in central Sanaa that has been the symbolic epicenter of the revolt.
"This prize is not for Tawakkul, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice," she told The Associated Press from her tent as she received congratulations from other activists.
In choosing Karman — who shares the prize with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee — the Nobel committee gave a nod to the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings that have swept the Middle East, forcing out the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In Yemen, millions have been turning out for protests in the capital Sanaa and cities around the country since late January. Still, Saleh has determinedly refused to step down.
Karman and the other young activists who have led Yemen's uprising have created a movement that is unique in this impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where tribal allegiances run deep, much of the public is religiously conservative and weapons are rife, with guns in nearly every home.
Like the majority of Yemeni women, Karman once wore the niqab, the conservative Muslim garb that covers the face with a veil and hides the body in heavy robes, leaving only the eyes visible. But last year, she changed to a more moderate headscarf, covering just her hair — she told AP she wanted to be "face to face with my activist colleagues."
She is also a member of Yemen's opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party, but her participation in the protests brought sharp criticism from conservatives in the party, some of whom denounced her in mosque sermons. Saleh's regime itself tried to discredit her by spreading a photo of her sitting in a protest tent with a male colleague — with others around them cut out from the picture — seeking to taint her as sinful for being alone with a man.
Women have participated heavily in the protests. The organizers have intentionally sought to cut across tribal lines. And they have resolutely remained peaceful, even as Yemen seems to explode around them. Saleh's security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters. Sanaa and other cities have turned into war zones as regime forces battle with dissident military units and tribal fighters opposed to Saleh.
"Neither Ali nor his gangs will drag Yemen toward war and infighting," Karman told the AP. "We chose peace, we could have resorted to violence in this revolution and we could have settled it in days and not months by resorting to our weapons ... But we chose peace and only peace."
"Don't worry about Yemen. Yemen started in peace and it will end its revolution in peace, and it will start its new civil state with peace," she said.
Her husband, Mohammed al-Nahmi, sitting with her in the tent as he received congratulations, told AP, "This is a prize she deserves. Before she is my wife, she is a colleague, and a companion in the struggle."
Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told AP that including Karman in the prize is "a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it."
He also said Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim brotherhood, "which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy." He added that "I don't believe that. There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution."
Karman, a mother of three, originally hails from the southern city of Taiz, a city known for its prominent middle class and university intellectuals that has long been a hotbed of opposition to Saleh. Her father, Abdul-Salam Karman, was once the legal affairs minister under Saleh, but resigned to protest corruption in the government.
Karman had organized protests and sit-ins as early as 2007, referring to her regular gatherings outside government offices in Sanaa as the "Freedom square." She campaigned for greater rights for women and an end to harassment of journalists. She headed Women Journalists without Chains, an organization advocating for press freedoms.
In December 2010, the uprising erupted in Tunisia after a local fruit vendor in the North African nation, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire.
In Yemen, Karman led protests in support of the Tunisians. The small protests, comprising no more than 200 people roving Sanaa's streets, were met with strong government resistance, and were broken up with water cannons and batons. Karman would send text messages to protesters and journalists to organize protests, urging people to join.
On Jan. 23, authorities arrested Karman.
The move was meant as a warning to her, but it backfired, sending a wave of women protesters into the streets of Sanaa and other cities, a rare sight in Yemen. Karman was released early the next day and by the afternoon she was leading another protest.
She and other protest organizers were further inspired by Egypt, where protesters seized control of Cairo's central Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Days after Mubarak stepped down in February, Yemeni protesters, with Karman and other male protest organizers at the helm, seized a major intersection in the heart of Sanaa, which then came to be known as Change Square. Karman has been part of a council grouping the disparate protest groups and an organization representing the youth of revolution.
Since Feb. 17, the protest camp has remained in place, even as security forces have repeatedly opened fire on it. In a recent wave of fighting between security forces and dissident military forces in the capital last month, more than 150 people were killed, most of them protesters.
El Deeb reported from Cairo.