Friday, March 13, 2015

Fail Better, Yemeni Women!

Photograph: Abdulrahman Jaber

It’s no longer Spring in Yemen. The consecutive upheavals have been nothing but stormy for all. Yemen is stuck in a vicious circle of failures. My generation has had to live with periodical armed conflicts and is trying to deal with the trauma. The trauma impacting women is especially complex because women suffer not only from everyday human rights violations but also gender-based violence and discrimination.
Photographs: Bushra Al-Fusail

For Yemen — the country ranked absolutely worst in the Global Gender Gap reportevery year since 2006 – the old imperfect reality for women might be considered the old good days.

Today’s reality is quite possibly the bleakest.

The latest upheaval is Houthi takeover of most of Yemen’s large cities. This has created an extreme sense of insecurity, fear and economic frustration. President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi hardly protected himself from the Houthi’s aggression, let alone ordinary citizens. Unquestionably, a critical implication of the Houthi’s new imposed social order is that all human rights are under threat in the cities controlled by them. Women’s rights are particularly endangered, unless Yemeni women reorganize with a clear (Islamic/secular) feminist conscious.

Dr. Raufa
Hassan. Photograph:
Abdulrahman Al-Ghabri

The F word, feminism, is taboo in Yemen. So is the word equality. And it’s really time to change that. I grew up being taught in primary school that equality was not in keeping with our culture and society; hence we must not discuss it. At mosques in the main Yemeni cities, brochures are distributed warning how equality is a sinful concept. As an adult, I was introduced to the concept of equality by local female pioneers such as Amal Basha and the late Dr. Raufa Hassan during seminars hosted by their organizations in Sana’a. I also realized how discussing gender equality was inconvenient for many. To talk about women’s rights, whether in times of stability or crisis, is considered irrelevant not only to anti-feminist groups, but also to those who consider themselves progressive leftist groups. I am certain that this essay won’t be attractive to many.

Yet women were the ones leading the uprising in 2011. Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman is the most well-known example. The uprising represented an opportunity for female opinion leaders, activists, writers and intellectuals to challenge the social construction that was boxing them in and demeaning them.

Unfortunately, women were used as a decorative tool by different male-dominated political parties in the uprising. Beyond that superficial role, they were not welcome. Only one protest defied that manipulative usage, embracing a conscious feminist vision, but it had an unfortunate end. It was April 22, 2011. A group of women activists wanted to make a feminist and political statement in response to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decree condemning the mixing of the sexes in the protests. The female protesters and their male supporters marched together and were attacked right there in the street by men affiliated with General Ali Mohsin, the powerful army man who held power at the time. Men’s political power was larger than women’s feminist power.

Former culture minister, Arwa Othman talking at a press conference how she and 
fellow female protesters were attacked, following their march in April, 2011.   

'When the national dialogue conference commenced on 18 March 2013, women's actual participation reached 28 percent.' Photograph: Nadia Abdullah

When the political transitional process began in 2013, women fought for and won a quota of 30 percent representation in the National Dialogue. But with the Houthi takeover in September 2014, the transitional process has taken a violent turn, and in the attempts to launch a peace process, the need for women’s participation in negotiations is hardly mentioned. When the different factions are approached by female political activists, the parties state that, “it’s not a priority now to include women; once peace prevails women might join,” — as if women’s role is secondary.

Former diplomat and NDC member, researcher Jamila Raja talks about what hinders women's full political participation and more issues on a TV interview. 

Historically, Yemeni women’s role in the country’s politics has been impressively fundamental. Yemen was ruled by three different queens during ancient history, and women played an essential role in the struggle against British colonization of Yemen’s southern region. A major problem with improving women’s current role is that not all politically active Yemeni women believe in gender equality. Those who do need to formulate a united strategic vision. Yemen cannot fully survive the crisis without women playing integral roles, nor can it have a lasting peace without women’s full participation in the process. Women and men alike must understand this. But it will be the women who will have to make this happen. Until then, the struggle continues.

The essay is originally published on Trials of Spring website.