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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that civil war broke out two years after Yemen's unification in 1990. Yemen's civil war started in 1994. This version has been corrected.

In Yemen, female activist strives for an Egypt-like revolution

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 3:40 AM

SANAA, YEMEN - Tawakkol Karman sat in front of her laptop, her Facebook page open, planning the next youth demonstration. Nearby were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These days, though, Karman is most inspired by her peers. "Look at Egypt," she said with pride. "We will win."

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In a nation where women are considered second-class citizens, Karman is determined to produce a nonviolent Egypt-style revolution. Young people in impoverished Yemen are grappling with many of the same frustrations felt across the region.

As the nation's most vocal and well-known activist, the 32-year-old mother of three is helping to shatter perceptions of women in this conservative society, while emboldening a new generation of Yemenis to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade-long grip on this country.

"We are in need of heroes," said Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. "She manages to do what most men cannot do in a society that is highly prejudiced against women."

Since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after nearly 30 years in power Friday, thousands of reenergized Yemenis, from students to laborers, lawyers to human rights activists, have taken to the streets of Sanaa and other cities to speak out against Yemen's corruption, high unemployment and lack of basic freedoms. The anti-government protests, while still small compared with those that transformed Egypt and Tunisia, are getting louder and more confident.

On Sunday, the protesters marched for the first time to the presidential palace. And Monday, they clashed with pro-government demonstrators outside Sanaa University.

"After Egypt, all the dictators in this region will fall, and the first one will be Ali Abdullah Saleh," Karman said. "Egypt has given us a model, because Mubarak was the strongest dictator in the region. We now believe we can bring revolution here."

Unequal treatment

While women have actively participated in the protests across the Arab world, the symbols of defiance have mostly been men. Tunisia had Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation triggered the popular uprising that ended the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt had Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who energized the pro-democracy demonstrations that ultimately pressured Mubarak to resign.

Few expected a woman to lead the charge in Yemen, where the vast majority of protesters have been men. Most women here are not free to marry whom they want; many are married off as children. In court, their testimonies are worth half those of men. When women are murdered, their families are compensated at half the amount they would receive for male victims. They are also treated unequally in matters of inheritance. Violence against women is rife, human rights activists say.

"Tawakkol is one of the bravest people in this country," said Khaled al-Anesi, a lawyer and pro-democracy activist. "It is not easy for a woman to fight and go to the streets demanding change in a country like Yemen."

Two weeks ago, Karman's brother Tareq approached her. A well-known poet, he personally knew Saleh, and he was carrying a message from him.

" 'You have to control your sister. Anyone who doesn't obey me must be killed,' he told my brother," said Karman. "This is the one threat I take seriously."


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