The Middle East Channel

Tawakkol’s revolutionary pluralism

Watching Tawakkol Karman jump to her feet and clap along throughout Jill Scott’s anthem, "Hate on Me," at the Nobel Peace Concert on Sunday was a moment I will most certainly never forget. As a visibly emotional Scott sang with defiance, "You cannot hate on me, ‘cause my mind is free. Feel my destiny, so ...


Watching Tawakkol Karman jump to her feet and clap along throughout Jill Scott’s anthem, "Hate on Me," at the Nobel Peace Concert on Sunday was a moment I will most certainly never forget. As a visibly emotional Scott sang with defiance, "You cannot hate on me, ‘cause my mind is free. Feel my destiny, so shall it be…" the room was electric, each of us watching to see the faces and reactions of the extraordinary women for whom we were told this song was specifically requested. 

But aside from the unifying fact that the three recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — Tawakkol Karman, Leymah Gbowee, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — have each persisted in the face of personal and political adversity, it has sometimes been hard to determine the common thread connecting their work. Throughout a range of festivities this last weekend, I was frequently asked how Karman, in particular, fit in.      

This year’s co-recipients were commended "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work." And yet, as I argued in October and as Karman herself made perfectly clear in her own remarks on Saturday, her project in Yemen is not really "about" women’s rights, per se. It rests instead on a conception of non-violent revolution that views society as a holistic unit composed of differently-situated citizens, defined by gender, region, class, tribal affiliation, ideology, and more, endowed with the right to make claims against their government. And as she led 6,000 people in the Oslo Spektrum through a call-and-response chant straight from Change Square, we raised our arms aloft for peaceful revolution, democracy, rule of law, and comprehensive development — rights to which Karman believes all women, but also all men, are entitled.

But understanding why and how Karman’s project speaks implicitly to women’s rights is important in this transformational moment in the Middle East, a moment in which authoritarian regimes are being challenged, and Islamists appear to be ascendant. We should remember that Karman has been roundly criticized in Yemen for her approach — by hardliners in the Islamist party from which she has risen, who have found her visibility as a woman unseemly or inappropriate, and by secular women’s rights advocates who are nervous about the Islamist tone of her approach. Karman’s holistic language is indeed consistent with longstanding arguments put forth by Islamist modernists across the region, who argue that society is ordered by relationships of interdependence and mutual respect but not necessarily full legal equality. But in words and in deeds, she also departs in an essential and revolutionary way from Islamist affirmations of tolerance, emphasizing pluralism instead. The message of tolerance is that some actor or class of actors has the power to permit (and, implicitly, the power to deny) others to share social or political space. This is not an articulation of the other’s right to difference. One of Karman’s key themes, by contrast, is the necessity of affirming one another’s right to be different – and diversely so.

This concept of "diverse difference" is one that has been central to the work of another Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, who has argued against solitarist ways in which we regard each other through one and only one lens. Instead, Sen argues for institutions that allow each person to define for herself the many ways in which she may be different from (or similar to) others and thus to deliberate publicly and make meaningful choices between competing forms of political solidarity. It is with this in mind that he offered in his 2010 work, The Idea of Justice, a forceful philosophical argument for his longstanding contention that democracy is both a means and an end of development.

These two ideas — that individuals are diversely different, and that democracy is both a means and an end — are central to Tawakkol Karman’s worldview and work, but also to Islamist political commitments that have been expanding in the Middle East over the past year (and, indeed, over several years, if cross-ideological opposition alliances across the region are any indication). Without question, Karman does not represent all or even most Islamist thinking — but her star is rising, as is her message.

So is Karman — an Islamist, a woman, a journalist, an activist, a revolutionary — working for women’s rights? She is unquestionably working for the rights of women to self-definition and political agency. She inhabits many (sometimes compatible and sometimes contradictory) social roles, and assumes that each of her fellow Yemenis — and each of us, more broadly — is as diversely different as she is. This fact of diverse difference is thus ironically unifying, and it is only through democratic institutions that the multitude possibilities of our coming together can genuinely emerge.

Karman is articulating this revolutionary pluralism against a legacy of "state feminism" in Yemen (and throughout the region), where women have largely been positioned as objects of state discourse and policy, with nominal opportunities to shape policy outcomes. This has been true even with regard to the most gender-progressive policies, like those in Tunisia, where women’s gains as women have been guaranteed by fiat, not through deliberation or choice. Her revolutionary pluralism promises to expand opportunities for women to define themselves, to become agentive subjects empowered to join with others (women and men) along axes of politics that matter most to them. Karman’s project offers this even as she avoids singling out gender as a category of singular significance. 

And democracy is essential to peace, insofar as it allows for the meaningful expression of diverse difference that is so important to coexistence. Pluralism, and the institutions which are required to protect and nurture it, allow women (and men) the right to multiply, not reduce, the complex ways in which they see themselves and others. This last weekend, a woman who has in the span of two short months become one of the region’s most visible leaders affirmed that each person must have the unassailable "right to be different." It is hard to imagine how a political order built on this vision would be anything short of revolutionary. 

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an assistant professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and was a contributor to the SHEROES exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. 

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