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Yemen Nobel Laureate's unlikely optimism

By Jonathan Mann, CNN
December 11, 2011 -- Updated 0416 GMT (1216 HKT)
  • Tawakkul Karman: Yemen 'worst place to be a human'
  • Karman optimistic youth and women will change Yemen
  • Arab Spring, Africa provide backdrop to this year's peace prize
  • Three winners recognized for struggles against injustice, sexual violence

Oslo, Norway (CNN) -- Tawakkul Karman stood out. Smiling.

Even in the company of the two other heroines who also made history and won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011, the camera and crowd in Oslo Saturday seemed drawn to the Yemeni activist's joyful eyes, energy and optimism.

"I'm so optimistic for the future because I believe women can do a lot," she said. "Youth can do a lot."

Karman's own youth set a record for the peace prize. At age 32, she was the youngest laureate ever to receive it.

She had never met her co-laureates -- Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 73, and activist Leymah Gbowee, 39 -- until they all arrived in Oslo. But when I first met them Karman and Gbowee were walking hand in hand.

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Unexpectedly partnered for the prize, the women were fast friends but clearly distinct personalities: President Sirleaf, formal and distant in her bearing, Gbowee, warmer and more direct. Karman was all smiles.

There was no sign of the strain she faced for months, leading the protesters camped-out in Sanaa's Change Square, defiantly calling on Yemen's government and military to give up power, braving the authorities' frequently fatal attacks.

Karman's optimism is hard to credit to her country. Yemen is one of the poorest nations on earth, a tribal society that barely came together as a single state and for a time has even broken apart.

Well before the upheaval of the Arab Spring, and all through it, Yeman has been fighting both northern and southern insurgencies and what may be the most active Al Queda offshoot in the world. Its rigid laws, customs and religious traditions are so restrictive that the nation has been called the worst place in the world to be a woman.

When I mentioned that to Karman, she said "it's the worst place to be a human."

Yemen's dictator, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been clinging to power through war, upheavals and setbacks for more than three decades. Saleh's compared the danger and uncertainty of ruling the country to "dancing on the heads of snakes." He's been "dancing" for 33 years, which is to say, longer than Karman has even been alive.

And yet, she greeted several questions about the future of Yemen with the simple imperative: "Don't worry." She said the world would soon see "the real Yemen, which is peace, which is dreams, which is achievement."

One of Karman's dreams now would be nothing short of a stunning achievement.

Under pressure from the demonstrations, President Saleh has announced he's transferred power to his vice president, who in turn appointed a new prime minister and government of national unity. The opposition is apparently being given a share of power. There are presidential elections scheduled in two months' time.

Karman told me she will run for president "if they let me." She says she's confident she'd win, too.

In a tradition-bound country where women often need male permission to leave their own homes -- and are expected to cover and veil themselves almost completely when they do -- the idea of a woman winning election as president seems characteristically optimistic.

But Karman has defied those constraints, has literally taken off the veil and shown her face to the world. It is now the most famous face of Yemen's struggle for freedom.

But she's endured death threats and at least one mob attack. She told me she isn't even sure her children are safe.

Can she really return to Yemen, campaign and win the presidency?

"I will if I am permitted."

For some reason, she is smiling and she seems optimistic.

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