Nobel prize 2011: the role of women in the Arab world reform

On 10 December, Tawakkul Karman was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for her activism in Yemen during the Arab Spring. A member of TI’s contact in Yemen, Tawakkul was congratulated by our Palestinian chapter, whose executive director Ghada Zughayar, talked to us about the prize.

Q. What does this Nobel Prize mean to you?

Karman is the first woman from the Arab world to win this prize, a prize that few men or women from the Arab World have won.

We are not used to women from the Middle East getting worldwide recognition. We would hope that recognition of women’s achievements would start at home, not abroad, but it is good that the international community recognises the importance of women’s participation and their role in the Arab Spring.

It gives us hope that lessons have been learned, that people in Arab countries now recognise the value of women actively taking part in society.

I also feel very proud as a woman, struggling for transparency in democracy and politics.

I hope it will also give other women trust in their own competence, confidence which is often undermined in male-dominated culture countries.

Q. What does this prize say about the Arab Spring?

In our countries, officials have behaved as if they own the country and its resources.

If people are to feel greater ownership of state institutions, we have to enable more participation in decision making and policies.

All our studies in the region have revealed a culture which engages in corruption – nepotism, patronage and so on. They revealed that the public good has not been of interest of importance to Arab citizens.

The Arab Spring has proved that this culture can be changed. What we saw indicated a shift from the private “everyone for themselves” mentality to one of shared responsibility for public affairs.

I admire what Tawakkul Karman did with her Nobel Prize money: donating it to Yemen’s public treasury, rather than using it privately, or giving it to a charity.

The message I read in this donation is that the public interest is more important than private effort. This will be an important message in recent years, as we try to build greater sense of public good.

Q. What can be done to make sure the Arab Spring leads to lasting change?

We have to pressure for open dialogue on new constitutions. We need a new contract with the state.

There is a risk that people’s movements are not institutionalised, and that they do not continue until they see their goals met. They need to be helped by NGOs working on governance, democratisation and human rights to make use of the opportunity to change culture and constitutions.

However, the constitutions of several regimes were developed without the involvement of citizens and civil society organisations.

Q. Do you see the role of women changing in the region?

The Arab Spring has reminded us of the positive impact of peaceful protests, protests that engage more people, especially women, that violent protest.

More and more people have arrived at the same conclusion: peaceful demonstrations in which more people can get involved bring better results to our world.

This award is breaking another taboo, the perception that women cannot rule.

When it was announced that Karmen won the prize, men came to her with placards congratulating her and that bore messages like:

“We hope to congratulate you again one day on becoming a Prime Minister one day.”

I feel emotional when I repeat the words: men and women both think she can be their leader, and that is something that is yet to happen in our region.

That is why the message of this Nobel Prize to Arab women is so important, it tells them not to give up their roles, to continue their action in high spirits and to have confidence in themselves.

Women can be in the front lines, they don’t need to step back and let men take the reigns when things become complicated.

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Thomas Coombes

About Thomas Coombes

Thomas Coombes is Senior Communications Officer and speech writer at Transparency International.

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