If Tawakkul Karman still wore the niqab, as do the majority of Yemeni women, she would never have won the Nobel Prize. Her uncovering is the key to her success as an activist and has made her a figurehead that the West, still uneasy about the role of women in Islam, could embrace.
While it is not required by Yemeni law that women cover their heads or indeed their faces, a large proportion wear the niqab (also referred to as lithma or burqa). Educated women and those who originate from Taiz, or south Yemen, are generally less likely to cover themselves. Wearing the niqab is, in many senses, a northern Yemeni practice. In Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, the lithma is so common that many women who do not cover in their home villages choose to do so in the capital.
Yemeni women themselves tend to adopt one of two attitudes to the niqab. The first is that it is an issue of confidence. Self-confident women are able to fully engage with men and hence tend to uncover. The second is that they believe the niqab allows them to fulfill the requirements if their faith. Both attitudes reveal that the lithma is a cultural practice, an extension of the division of private male and female worlds into the public sphere, enabling women to partially engage in society whilst remaining segregated. Thus, only uncovered women such as Tawakul Karman can enter into the male world of politics unimpeded. Even then, it requires an incredible strength of character.
Writing on Al-Jazeera English, Larbi Sadiki suggests that presenting Karman this prestigious award “is a recognition that Islamists are legitimate pro-human rights and democracy agents.” He makes an important point, but Sadiki avoids the more awkward issue at stake here, which is that many in northern Europe remain deeply uncomfortable with political Islam in its current form. The niqab, both in the West and amongst many liberal Muslims, is a highly contested symbol of female oppression. Thus, in choosing Karman, the Nobel committee has shown the spotlight on a woman it believes to be a positive role model for Yemeni women.
When Karman uncovered her face, she could become truly politically active. You cannot be an icon if you are hidden. Similarly, Aziza Othman, the first woman to be killed in the Yemeni revolution, was covered, just another figure in a sea of black cloth. In death, her bloodied face was there for all to see, becoming another visual record of martyrdom and political struggle. Despite Karman’s media exposure, she remains a disputed figure at home, perhaps because of her membership of the Islah Party and connections to the political elite against which grassroots protesters rail. Thus it is Aziza, as much as Karman, who serves as a poignant reminder that in this revolution women have so much to gain and to lose.
Photo Credit: babasteve