Friday, August 23, 2019

Southern Yemeni Women Enter Storm of Politics & War

Image result for A Yemeni woman + in the southern city of Aden

*Speaking from a suburb of the southern Yemeni city of Aden, a journalist explains how she fears for her life as neutrality is no longer accepted there.

“I had to leave home and hide for my own safety as I am facing an online smear campaign by unknown groups, saying I am disloyal to the south because I didn’t show support to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), even though I am pro-southern movement,” the journalist told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

“What’s most dangerous is that such smear campaigns against us females could ruin our reputation forever,” she said.

Fighting in Aden between STC military forces backed by the United Arab Emirates and the forces of the Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi since early this month has killed or injured at least 300 people, with a major impact on the humanitarian situation for civilians and a rise in oppression against dissident voices. The STC has taken control of most of the state’s buildings in Aden; the southern secessionists' move undermines the Yemeni government's efforts to restore its legitimate authority and the unity of the country as a whole. There seems to be a de facto partition in which the north is controlled by the Houthis and the south is to be controlled by the secessionists.

Southern women are divided over the current situation and how it will serve women’s rights in the future.

Women’s political activism in Yemen has been typically depicted as homogeneous, whereas in reality it takes many different forms. In the context of women’s political role in southern Yemen, notably, Southern women have diverging tracks — for example, there are those who campaign for peace and unity and those who struggle for peace and independence.

“Working as a journalist for more than a decade attracted me to politics but ever since I joined the Peaceful Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Salmiy al-Janubi) in 2007, I realized the significant role I could play as not merely a woman but as a citizen of south Yemen in the first place,” said Sara al-Yafi’e, an STC member in Aden.

The STC was established in 2017, and Yafi’e was elected to a seat on the council's National Committee. The STC seeks to restore the South Yemen state that existed before South Yemen and North Yemen united in 1990. It is believed there are around 25 other political groups in the south seeking independence.

“I wouldn’t have joined STC if I didn’t believe it can achieve our demand for independence,” Yafi’e said.

Image result for A Yemeni woman + in the southern city of Aden

Women such as Yafi’e have been playing critical and various roles in politics, including activities involved in military efforts, the defense of human rights, peace-building actions and the push for women’s political power in the south of Yemen.

Under Socialist Party rule in the south (1970-1990), women’s rights used to be more progressive than in the North, with a more progressive family law and prohibition of polygamy, among other things. While socialist rule showed a political will to protect women’s rights, this was reversed following unification. North and South Yemen's civil and family laws were merged, causing an erosion of the more progressive women’s rights in the south. Conservative constitutional limits from the north gradually became dominant.

“I was born in 1977 and I have witnessed both life before and after unification, and I saw how, pre-unity, women’s rights were not only respected but also women were included in almost all decision-making processes,” said Huda al-Sarari, a human rights defender in Aden.

“But since the 1990 unification, gender equality eroded, education quality deteriorated sharply, gender-based segregation began and expansion of northern culture to the south contributed to the weakening of women’s role in the south,” she said.

After unification, an ill-thought-out and failing nation-building process was applied in the name of integrating the two societies of the north and the south. Southerners faced a northern-dominated central government, and dismissal from the civil and security services, among other grievances. The southern movement (al-Hirak) was officially born in July 2007 with regular sit-ins, marches and demonstrations — which were met with brutal repression by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.

The 2011 uprising realigned the general national debates. The UN- and Gulf Cooperation Council-backed National Dialogue Conference managed to work out a federal plan to resolve the southern issue and make advances in women’s rights all across Yemen. But all that progress was obstructed as Houthis began their takeover of Sana’a in 2014 followed by the Saudi-led coalition military operation in 2015. As the war rages on, various women have played different roles and southern women once again faced the “southern question.”

The south has witnessed relative stability and progress since its liberation from Saleh and Houthi forces in August 2015 but economic, political and security instability have impacted women and their families and communities.

“Deterioration of the education sector, ruralization of Aden, security instability, terrorist attacks, economic hardship, political marginalization, a rise in child marriage, institutional aggression against women and growing gender-based violence and shrinking access to public spaces are some of the obstacles females in the south face today,” Sarari said.

Yemen still faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UN report says, “Conflict-related loss of male breadwinners in Yemeni families adds to the economic burdens women face, especially in the case of female-headed households.” The absence of adequate empowerment and support have led women and girls to negative coping strategies such as child marriage and child labor, according to the UN report.

Sarari said, “When one argues that everyone in the south today is marginalized, I’d argue that the situation is worse for us women because females used to at least enjoy positive discrimination but today their suffering is double.”

While women from both north and south have had an extremely limited space to participate in previous Yemen peace talks, the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security (WPPS) group sponsored by UN Women was formed in 2015, working as both a consultative body to the UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and to advocate for increasing women’s political participation in official processes.

Many claim UN Women has not paid enough attention to southern women’s political demand for independence and peace. Heba al-Aidarous, a WPPS member who is a lawyer and a former STC member, said, “Every time I attend UN-led women events it becomes increasingly clear to me that the UN doesn’t support the southern issue at all. Yes, I am a member in WPPS but the UN’s intention in including southern women in the group has been only to have a balance between northerners and southerners — and the majority of the southerner members were chosen for their pro-federal system stance.”

Al-Monitor repeatedly contacted the UN Women’s Yemen team for comment but received no response.

The independence of the south would not mean that women’s rights in the south would be automatically like how it used during Socialist rule, Aidarous said. “During the unification, I believe every aspect of civil rights, including women’s rights, has dramatically deteriorated, even worse than how it is in the north,” Aidarous said.

“I think we need one or two generations to achieve the progress we need.”

Meanwhile, meaningful women’s political participation has been limited in the major presidential body in the STC, with only three women out of a total membership of 26. One of the three women members, Suhair Ahmed, justified the limited women’s participation by saying that full gender equality hasn’t been achieved globally yet. “STC is still evolving but for now the current women’s participation is sufficient for the patriarchal society we have,” Ahmed said.

Patriarchal laws have impacted women all across Yemen in its modern history. Some southern women see significance in one of the outcomes of the UN-GCC-backed National Dialogue Conference, which produced a new constitution draft that represents a step toward gender equality for all women.

“I am a strong believer that unity is the key for Yemenis and especially Yemeni women,” Samira al-Awlaqi told Al-Monitor in Yemen. “The constitution draft would not only serve all Yemenis more progress and justice but it would also advance all women’s rights across Yemen. So why don’t we all advocate for that?”

*This feature was first written for/published in Al-Monitor website.

Friday, August 16, 2019

(AR) Saudi Arabia, UAE & Fighting in Aden

On Al-Araby Al-Jadeed TV, I discuss (in Arabic) the latest developments in Aden alongside guests from Aden and Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Today marks a day of huge pro-STC protest in Yemen's Aden, celebrating victory in seizing Aden. Does this mean that separation is already taking place? 

Could Yemen as a country fall apart? 

I was on Al Jazeera English, co-discussing the different possibility for Yemen's unity or/and un-unity. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Could the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen soon fall apart?

Al Jazeera English - Inside Story:

In a complicated turn of events, and despite being part of the same coalition fighting Houthi rebels, forces loyal to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and those loyal toSaudi Arabia appear to have turned on each other.

Fighting has been ongoing for days, killing dozens, as a battle for control of the southern city of Aden intensifies.

The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council wants the Yemeni government out.

So what does it all mean? And how might it affect the war?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization

Women in Taiz, Yemen, commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled t
he country's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, February 11, 2018. Photo by Reuters.

*Yemeni women are typically depicted either as heroic icons—such as the Arab region’s first woman Nobel Peace laureate, the journalist and peace activist Tawakkol Karman—or as suffering mothers living amid crushing poverty and violence. This limited frame excludes the everyday activism of Yemeni women who have been working for decades to expand women’s political power and shape their society, under often rapidly changing and difficult circumstances. In the context of the war that broke out in 2015 and the immense suffering it has produced, women have been war-makers and peace-makers alike. They also resist efforts to instrumentalize them for narrow political gains or to exclude them from the political processes that impact their lives.

Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yemeni women join others—including youth and the southern movement—who are absent from the negotiation table. Yet women are also doubly-excluded, given the gendered impact of the war and resultant humanitarian crisis. Indeed, women and girls have often borne the brunt of the collapsing social order, with its poverty, famine, disease and dislocation.

Gains and Losses

Prior to the war, Yemen consistently ranked among the least developed countries in the world. For its female population, this translated into widespread legal discrimination, illiteracy, child marriage and a high maternal mortality rate. Advances in women’s rights in modern Yemeni history, nevertheless, have far outpaced the political and economic rights of women in other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, despite the Gulf’s far greater wealth.

The experiences of Yemeni women, however, have been shaped and limited by the top-down manner in which rights were extended: first in South Yemen in 1967 and then under North Yemen’s 1970 republican constitution. When the two states unified in 1990, universal suffrage rights and civil rights in the associational sector were extended to all, although discriminatory provisions in the constitution remained and were eventually expanded via amendment. Despite (or perhaps because of) these discriminatory provisions, women have consistently used the political and civil rights they do enjoy to contribute to Yemen’s vibrant civil society and media sectors. They also have been on the frontlines campaigning against discrimination and political marginalization.

Women’s activism has taken many forms, from the political and academic activism of feminists like Raufa Hassan and Amal al-Basha to the Islamist activism of women like Karman. As the Yemeni state eroded during the 2000s under severe economic and social pressures brought about by Yemen’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies, women became increasingly active in addressing the needs of their communities.[1] Accounts of women’s activism during this period indicate that while women felt excluded or constrained by partisan political activism, their substantive demands for political inclusion and political and economic accountability mirrored those of many opposition parties.[2]

Women’s capacity for leadership in this landscape of opposition politics crystallized with the outbreak of Yemen’s 2011 uprising, when Karman earned widespread recognition. A campaigner for press freedom, especially through her organization, Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her leadership in the uprising.[3]

The most significant achievement for women in the transitional period following Salih’s departure from office came in 2013, when women fought for and obtained 30 percent of the seats in the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Women’s participation shaped the content of a number of the NDC’s declarations, while they worked to secure their representation moving forward by establishing a 30 percent quota in any new government body or institution established in the country. The National Board for Monitoring the NDC’s outcomes, for example, was established with 30 percent representation for women. Women also took part in the Constitution Drafting Committee, a first for Yemeni women despite both North and South Yemen having drafted and adopted several constitutions over the past decades. Although the new draft constitution did not address all forms of gender discrimination, it represented a step toward gender equality: The draft took up issues on which women had campaigned for years, such as a ban on child marriage and measures to ensure equal access for men and women to the justice system.

Yet these advances occurred at the same moment that the political system as a whole was descending into chaos and war. From the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, the formal political process ground to a halt. Militarization constituted a significant loss for women’s political voice and role in decision-making. Under conditions of war, the push for women’s representation has shifted from political institutions to diplomacy, reconstruction and transitional justice.

June 2018 - Yemeni women at UN Women-led workshop about peacebuilding, held in Jordan. Photo by UN Women.

Gendered Impacts of War and Crisis

More than two thirds of Yemen’s 29 million people are currently facing what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.[4]Cholera and other infectious diseases continue to threaten millions of people amidst a collapsing health care system.[5] More than 10,000 people have been killed or wounded (according to a UN report in 2016, which surely underestimates this number), and numerous human rights organizations and UN investigators have documented various war crimes committed in the country by all warring parties.[6] By 2018, the UN Panel of Experts concluded that Yemen’s state “all but ceased to exist.”[7]

Women and children are typically the first casualties of such dire crises. The ongoing state of violence and bombing, and the blockade and siege that the Saudi-led coalition has imposed on Yemen, have had a devastating impact on maternal and children’s health. According to UNICEF, a child dies every ten minutes in Yemen because of preventable causes.[8] Millions are facing famine, yet the most alarming toll has been on women and girls of childbearing age.[9] Some estimates indicate that up to 3 million Yemeni women and girls are in acute need of humanitarian protection, with more than 1 million pregnant women suffering malnourishment.[10]Oxfam also reports an alarming rise in child marriage in Yemen, whereby “families marry off their daughters earlier to get money to pay for basic food items and at the same time reduce the daily cost of feeding the family.”[11] Child marriage compounds the risk of violence: The UN estimated that Yemeni women and girls saw an increase in gender-based violence of 63 percent in the first two years of the war.[12]

While Yemen’s tribal customs strongly condemn abducting women, the deteriorating security situation has begun to change this norm. Dozens of women have been victims of forced disappearance and unlawful detention, facing torture and mistreatment in Houthi rebel prisons.[13] As women’s lives have deteriorated, Yemen remains the lowest-ranking country in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index, with a gender gap estimated today to be 90 percent or more.[14]

The impact of the war’s violence and social collapse on women may also be underreported, in part because of the opacity of the war itself. Death-toll numbers in Yemen are contradictory even across UN agencies, where some estimate that 10,000 people have been killed or wounded while others state that a child dies every ten minutes. The Washington Post has documented the obstacles facing the UN accounting and reporting of death tolls, strongly suggesting that UN estimates are undercounting the dead. As Kareem Fahim argues about death tolls, “It is rarely covered in the media because of restrictions and difficulties traveling there, but also because of a reticence about explaining the confounding array of actors and grievances attending a conflict in the poorest country in the Arab world.”[15]

Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, claims that female children in Yemen tend to be the most vulnerable and face the worst malnutrition.[16] While not counted as killed or wounded by combat, girls’ and women’s disproportionate exposure to humanitarian costs and gender-based violence must be considered a major component of the war in Yemen. It is in this context that Yemeni women are again carving out agency under unimaginable constraints, albeit not always in ways that expand (other) women’s agency.

Women in War and Peace

The war in Yemen is not something that is simply happening to Yemeni women, but rather a process in which women themselves are playing diverse roles across different regions of Yemen. In the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, for example, women have been recruited into the military. The Houthis have opened training camps for women, creating a women’s military unit known as Zeinabeyyat.[17] These female forces have been deployed to crack down against women in peaceful public protests over the past three years.[18] In the context of existing norms of gender segregation, especially in the North, these women soldiers are necessary for the detention and policing of other women and have thus been essential to Houthi rebel governance.

The southern regions of Yemen, by comparison, have not witnessed women taking up arms in the battle between the southern resistance forces and Houthi forces during or since the Houthi advance on Aden from March to July 2015. The strong presence of conservative salafi fighters in southern militias has meant that women are neither recruited nor welcome as fighters. In the frontline city of Taiz—a city in southwestern Yemen that has been under siege by Houthi forces since the war began in 2015 and is consequently perhaps the most lawless and dangerous place in Yemen[19]—women have joined a range of different resistance groups, including periodically fighting the Houthis. Reliable estimates of the number of female soldiers are hard to obtain, but military work is an attractive choice for Taizi women because few reliable sources of income exist since the Yemeni economy’s collapse. All warring parties prioritize salaries for their militants over the provision of public goods or services. Given the fact that more than a million civil servants in the Taiz region have not received their salaries for more than two years, women and men alike have joined military factions as a source of income, perpetuating the continuation of conflict.

It is a perverse irony that women have been recruited as military actors by many groups, but largely deprived of a political voice in how the conflict will end. Far from contributing to women’s political empowerment, the military recruitment of women is primarily aimed at the more efficient oppression of (other) women.

Meanwhile, women have been told during successive stages of the conflict to step aside whenever they attempted to participate politically. Women were excluded from the first peace talks in 2015, for example, leading a group of Yemeni politicians and activists to form the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, a body endorsed by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (also known as UN Women).[20] The Women’s Pact has not achieved significant progress for women’s political participation, as they face reluctance from the Yemeni government officials to include women members in any political or peace process.

At the grassroots level, the Mothers of Abductees Association was formed by female relatives of thousands of forcibly disappeared men in different parts of Yemen, following the model of the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Association works as a pressure group, raising awareness about the missing men and advocating for their release. Given the severe restrictions on journalists, these women have faced considerable difficulty in reaching an audience even in different parts of Yemen, let alone internationally.

Confronting Women’s Marginalization

The future of Yemen, not just the future of Yemeni women, will depend on how women—as individuals and in groups—fight for inclusion in any peace process designed to end the war. Smear campaigns against women in the media, the removal of women activists from peace talks and the undermining of the work of the Women’s Pact all suggest that Yemeni women are finding few allies, whether among Yemeni (male) political factions, foreign governments or international agencies across the (male) political spectrum. The only UN agency to offer consistent support for the Women’s Pact is UN Women, which itself plays no direct role in brokering peace.

As news spread in November 2018 that Sweden would host a new round of peace talks, the Swedish ambassador to the UN Security Council, Carl Skau, affirmed that Sweden was keen to see women participate and that Sweden would continue to support the Women’s Pact.[21] Yet when the talks took place in Stockholm in December 2018, the assistant secretary of the Yemeni Popular Nasserist Party, Rana Ghanem, was the only female member of any delegation. Research on women’s involvement with political parties in Yemen suggests that women’s exclusion is not a function of party ideology, as secular and Leftist parties rarely commit resources to the gender equality they espouse.

Indeed, during the past three rounds of peace talks, only three women have sat at the negotiation table.[22] “One of the reasons why I was able to be in the negotiations was my leading position in the Nasserist Party,” explains Ghanem, who has been involved with the Nasserist Party since 1991. “Yemeni political parties’ leadership has always been occupied by men and that has reflected itself in the lack of female representation in all these peace talks…This should not be an excuse, though, and the Yemeni government has to fulfil its promise of the 30 percent quota for women.” Ghanem argues that this commitment should be on coequal standing with the implementation of the NDC outcomes and UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as conditions for any agreement.[23]

Some sources of support for Yemeni women’s political activism do exist. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths (along with his predecessors, Jamal Ben Omar and Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed) has ensured women’s political participation in peacebuilding processes through creative ways, in order to apply UN Security Council Resolution 1325.[24] Women have worked closely with Griffiths’ team in a variety of advisory groups during the four rounds of Yemen peace talks in Kuwait, Geneva and Stockholm.

In the recent Stockholm peace talks, women members participated in three groups. Two groups were supported by the UN envoy’s office: the Women’s Technical Advisory Group comprising eight Yemeni women,[25] the Political Advisory Group consisting of three men and two women and the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security supported by UN Women. “All these groups have compensated for the lack of women’s political participation, as the warring parties refuse to include sufficient female representation at the negotiation table,” says one female member speaking on condition of anonymity. “Some in both parties make the excuse that the UNSC resolution 2216 didn’t mention women representation in the negotiation process, some think it’s still not the right time to include women at this stage of the conflict resolution process and some simply think that women are less competent in leadership.”

The setting of the 2018 Stockholm peace talks enabled these women’s groups to access and engage with the warring parties’ delegations. Jamila Raja, a Yemeni diplomat and a member of the Political Advisory Group, believes that the opportunity made her more knowledgeable than ever of the two sides’ needs and fears, and it gave her a sense of where to direct her influence. “Our work in the group focused on thinking of ways to find common ground between the parties, which was a challenging task. We weren’t at the negotiation table, but we managed to work on agreement proposals.”

Najat Joma’an, a professor of Management and Finance at Sanaa University and a member of the Women’s Pact, argues that much more needs to be done. “These groups are a good step, but we need an effective women’s political participation [process] and both parties have to be pressured to include women in their delegations.” Ghanem suggests that one way to do so is to compel inclusion of women members in these peace talks. “I think the UN Special Envoy could play a different role in his gender representation approach than how things look like right now,” explains Ghanem. “While each party is asked to bring 12 members, I think Griffiths could increase the number of members and ask the parties to bring, say, 16 or 17 members, and dedicate these new seats for women only, and if a party fails to bring the women, the seats shall remain empty.”

A stronger political will from the warring parties and the international community to address the political marginalization of women is necessary for increasing women’s political representation in Yemen’s conflict resolution process. Meanwhile, Yemeni women from all sides of the political spectrum keep playing a central role, within the available space. One lesson from the long history of women’s engagement and activism is that women will not sit by and passively wait to be invited in.

*This essay was first written for and published in the 'Middle East Research and Information Project' magazine, end 2018.