Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Afrah Nasser: For the Sake of the Sun

The Yemeni journalist on chronicling catastrophe in exile.

by Meara Sharma in Adi Magazine

When Afrah Nasser was growing up in Sana’a, Yemen, “freedom” was an alien word, a Western concept associated with the erosion of traditions and culture. “More relevant to Yemenis is a life without oppression,” she says—a life marked not by violence, corruption, and poverty, but rather by a sense of possibility. It’s those aspirations that drove her to become a journalist, and to both cover and participate in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, which began as a peaceful, youth-led movement against an authoritarian regime.

In the face of death threats from regime supporters, Nasser was forced into exile in Sweden, where she’s lived for the last eight years, documenting Yemen’s slide into civil war, the overwhelming humanitarian crisis—some 14 million people are at risk of starvation and death because of displacement, disease, and famine—and the failures and complicity of international actors. Deeply connected to the home she left behind, Nasser occupies a vital position as a sensitive chronicler of both international diplomacy and the ground realities in Yemen. “Yemen experts tend to be 40-year-old academic guys sitting in New York,” she says. “Whatever I am part of, I always stress the agency of Yemenis. Talk with Yemenis, not just about Yemenis.”

Nasser’s reporting and analysis has appeared across international media. She’s received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and has been featured repeatedly as one of the “100 Most Influential Arabs” by Arabian Business Magazine. Recently, she joined Human Rights Watch as a researcher investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen.

I spoke with Nasser over Skype from her adopted home in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she described how winter’s scant daylight casts an additional pall over her challenging work. Nonetheless, “a story of resilience” is what Nasser strives to tell. “I will make it, Yemen will make it. Eventually.”

Meara Sharma: How are you doing? Give me a sense of your context.

Afrah Nasser: I’m coping. I mean, Swedish winter is very harsh. It’s nonstop evening. Can you imagine that? Evening all day long. Then the nature of my work is about people in famine, people persecuted, detained, tortured. I spend most of my time talking to people on WhatsApp, whether inside Yemen or in the diaspora. It’s just so depressing. The weather is depressing, the work is depressing.

I don’t recommend Sweden at this time of year.

Meara Sharma: What are the big questions occupying you right now, as a researcher and journalist, but also just as Afrah, a Yemeni?

Afrah Nasser: There are multiple fronts to the conflict in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis is absolutely horrific. But the main question is: how can we save Yemen from being a failed state? Ensure it is a state where basic rights are protected, where people can enjoy life without human rights violations and misery?

As someone who grew up in Yemen and is living in exile now, I’m pretty much dominated by the feeling of guilt. It’s like, I survived, you know? Survival guilt. And I see, from people inside Yemen, especially those who have access to social media, a tendency to say, “Look, these Yemenis outside, they’re not doing enough to help us. They’re enjoying their time.”
It reminds me that I have a responsibility from the outside towards people who are stuck inside.

Meara Sharma: What was the context in which you left Yemen?

Afrah Nasser: I was working as a journalist, and then the uprising started I became involved with that. We were a really tiny group of Yemeni journalists writing in English, so the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime and the pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh people tried to control us. I started getting a lot of online bullying, hateful comments, death threats.

Around then, I was invited to attend a workshop in Sweden. I didn’t have any idea of what Sweden was at that time. But I came, and while I was in Sweden, violence broke out in Yemen. My family was displaced from one area in Sana’a to another area. When I called them, they were like, “You can come back but there is a lot of violence and also, if you come back, you cannot write again.” My family, out of a sense of protectiveness, was threatening me, not allowing me to write again.

I couldn’t imagine myself not writing. I decided to stay here in Sweden. I became a political refugee. And the violence never ceased in Yemen.

Meara Sharma: You left without realizing that you were actually leaving for good.

Afrah Nasser: Exactly. I went through a lot of phases. Now when I look back, I just feel so sad. But I also think how courageous I was. I said, “Let me write here for at least some time. Then maybe I can go back, at some point.” I mean, my passion for writing and journalism became home.

Meara Sharma: You’ve been covering diplomatic aspects of the conflict, some of which play out in Europe, but you’re also in touch with what’s actually happening to people in Yemen. What’s it like to move between these realms?

Afrah Nasser: At some point I realized it was useful for me to engage with the international diplomacy aspect of what’s going on in Yemen, because I felt like there were a lot of misconceptions. For example, about Yemen being this land of al-Qaeda and terrorism. I think the real terrorism in Yemen is poverty and corruption. So I started to focus on the disastrous foreign policy from the US and the EU, and I found myself becoming a sort of ambassador for Yemen. I went around the world, talked with international actors, journalists, et cetera, and tried to connect Yemen to international politics.

Meara Sharma: And in those spaces, what are you trying to convey?

Afrah Nasser: Yemen experts tend to be 40-year-old academic guys sitting in New York, talking about Yemen. So in any talk, interview, article—whatever I am part of—I always stress the agency of Yemenis. Talk with Yemenis, not just about Yemenis. Let Yemenis be part of whatever Yemen project you’re doing. I think that has been the most effective way to combat misconceptions.

I used to wear a hijab and then I took it off here in Sweden. People would say, “Are you Yemeni? No, you’re not Yemeni. You can’t be Yemeni.” I’m like, “Of course, I’m not Yemeni to you because you never saw Yemenis before.”

In Sweden, there is something called Almedalen, an annual political week. This year they had three panels about Yemen, and none featured any Yemenis. I emailed the organizers saying, “Thank you for being interested in Yemen but it could have been beneficial to have insight from someone from Yemen.” I’m not necessarily saying me. There are many Yemenis in Sweden; they have the resources to bring someone from Yemen. Their reply was, “This panel was about the Swedish role in Yemen. So we felt like it wasn’t important to have someone from Yemen.”

I find this all the time. Many Westerners don’t give significance to people from certain communities speaking for themselves. Often in Sweden, there is a huge focus on “objectivity.” But it’s limiting. It’s not enriching.

Meara Sharma: How do you deal with this notion of objectivity in your own work?

Afrah Nasser: I’ll tell you about a journalism fellowship I had at the United Nations in New York last year. Longtime war correspondents talked with me about the psychological impact of covering tragedies and how journalists need a certain level of detachment from the story being covered. Of course, I didn’t totally believe in that. Steeling oneself against pain need not mean total detachment, particularly when the stories you cover hit close to home.

My fellowship at the UN was a bittersweet experience. On one hand, I got access to resources and connections to people that I would never have had otherwise. But on the other hand, I was ashamed to tell my friends in Yemen that I was benefitting from the United Nations, because they see the UN as having failed them.
During the farewell celebration in November 2018, I gave this speech and I told everyone my takeaway from the fellowship is that the UN Security Council is just a talk show. We only hear words, while we know exactly who’s responsible for the war and violations and sometimes war crimes. But we want to have a good time and talk and discuss and just show how we’re elegant and good with words and that’s it. What’s next? You don’t show the political will to take action and bring justice to these people, to the people in the conflicts. Take Yemen as an example, take Syria as an example.

Meara Sharma: What was the reaction to your speech?

Afrah Nasser: People were having drinks; it was a typical mingling, high-society kind of gathering. After I finished, a few women journalists came to me and said, “Thank you for saying that. We need someone to shake the system.”

Nothing happened, nobody followed me home and attacked me or something like that. I guess they accept the criticism.

Meara Sharma: As we speak, a new round of behind-the-scenes talks are going on between Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. What’s your analysis of how things might unfold?

Afrah Nasser: Based on my interviews with people inside the government or close to the Saudi-led coalition, I think next year will have some good news for the Yemenis. It could be the year that the war ends. I think Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are interested in dialogue. Not necessarily peace talks, but de-escalation and reaching a political settlement.

But also as a human rights researcher and advocate, I think the aftermath is when the work really begins. There are multilevel violations happening in Yemen and it’s very, very critical to start the accountability conversation for those who have suffered most.

Meara Sharma: Yes—you’ve often stressed a need to understand the multidimensionality of injustice in Yemen; how domestic problems can’t be understood in isolation, but rather, need to be considered in light of international and regional policies.

Afrah Nasser: In hierarchical sequence, the powerful step on the weak. Western powers suppress or fail to support transformational movements in the region in order to preserve their economic and security interests; Arab regional powers step on poorer nations like Yemen for similar reasons; and Yemen’s corrupt political elites step on the population as a whole.

Take women as an example. In the Gender Equality Index reports, Yemen is always at or near the bottom of the list. And then, I’m in conferences in the West where we’re talking about gender issues in Yemen. But there is a big elephant in the room in these discussions about women’s rights, and that is militarization. And, how Western states are fueling the conflict in Yemen, how they are contributing to the devastation of a country. That’s one facet of modern colonialism.

Yes, Yemen lacks legislation protecting women; laws that ban child marriage, for instance. But also, Western policymakers, you have a hand in the political and military situation in Yemen today. If you stop fueling the conflict in Yemen, with your arms sales to Saudi Arabia, you would be helping the protection of women. International powers, regional powers, and misogyny in Yemeni society—how the tribal system works to oppress women, how the patriarchy dominates—each layer has to be looked at seriously. We need other countries to have a cooperative relationship with Yemen instead of just fueling conflict through militarism.

There was a Saudi diplomat at the UN who was stopped by a journalist. He was asked something like, “When are you going to stop bombing Yemen?” The Saudi diplomat started laughing and said: “What a strange question. It’s like you asking me, When are you going to stop beating your wife?”

That gives you an idea of how the Saudi understanding of violence against women influences their understanding of using violence in Yemen.

Meara Sharma: You’re saying we can’t look at violence against women and not connect that to the militarization of society more broadly.

Afrah Nasser: Right. Consider the story of Samira, which spiraled across Yemeni media earlier this year. She’s a mother of two girls who was kidnapped and shackled for about five years by her cousin, a man named Mahdi. Throughout, he was either trying to force her to turn over her entire inheritance, or trying to kill her.
Samira’s story reflects how the war’s assault on liberty has manifest itself in a war on women. Violence on a personal level, really, is a measurement of the well-being of a country as a whole. That kind of violence inside each Yemeni house is a product of the conflicts that happen in the country. Violence breeds violence. These cases, like what happened to Samira, are a manifestation of the cycle of violence that the country has endured year after year. That eventually will crack. But even if there are no air strikes or snipers anymore, citizens will have normalized violence with each other, which is, I think, a disruption that you cannot even quantify.

Meara Sharma: Yemen has become defined by the scale of the humanitarian crisis; indeed, the suffering is so extreme that the story of where this all started feels very distant. Where does the uprising of 2011 live for you, now? What kind of energy remains around forging a new political reality?

Afrah Nasser: From the grassroots, I think there is still a desire to be something other than what the Houthis are or what the Southern Transitional Council is or what the Saudis want to bring. There is a very different Yemen that we still can’t imagine or can’t see—but it wants to emerge despite all of these powers.

Yemenis want a life without oppression. This is what my generation sought when we joined the 2011 uprising. I remember how women filled the streets next to men, chanting slogans demanding the fall of the regime, the establishment of a civil state, a society where equal citizenship was guaranteed for all.

And even though the humanitarian crisis is massive, I think if it wasn’t for civil society today, the country would have collapsed completely. It’s the people that are keeping Yemen together. Take my mother as an example. In Sana’a, when the economic situation started to get really hard, she and other women started to mobilize themselves in their own neighborhoods. They started pooling money together each week, so that if a family had health problems or food insecurity, there was an economic safety net. This is just one tiny example, but it’s so impressive for me. People are mobilizing themselves in whatever means they can, and they are the core of Yemen.

Meara Sharma: You recently described how Yemen is fragmenting into many Yemenis. You said, “I know that whatever I’m missing is not there any longer.” What do you mean by that?

Afrah Nasser: Khalas! Rest in peace, Yemen that I used to know. It feels like it died.

I only have the memories. Most of my friends have migrated. My main connection to Yemenis are victims of violence or families of whatever story I’m writing about. There are neighborhoods in Yemen that are pancaked. My sister sent me a picture of our neighborhood and it doesn’t look the same anymore. Streets we used to walk on—some of them are completely devastated, completely destroyed. Even if you build them back, they will not be built in the same way that they were before. That Yemen is gone.

Meara Sharma: But even as you describe this loss, you also seem very keen on emphasizing how there is life, and agency. What is the story of Yemen that you want told?

Afrah Nasser: A story of resilience. Yes, it’s horrible what’s happening in Yemen, but we will make it. I will make it, Yemen will make it. Eventually. I can’t wait for the end of the war. I can’t wait to tell Yemenis, “You deserve to live a life with your full human rights protected.” I mean, I can’t wait.

And I know from history that it will happen. Life will continue. The more you learn about history, the less shocked you are about reality. You have to be empowered by history, I think. All I want is for Yemenis to enjoy life, to enjoy respect, to enjoy dignity.

Meara Sharma: Do you want to move back to Yemen eventually?

Afrah Nasser: Of course. I can’t wait to be back in Yemen. For the sake of the sun.

Meara Sharma: No more dark Swedish winter!

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. The sun is always shining in Yemen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

A critical discourse analysis of how BBC World vs. Al Jazeera English Constructed Yemen’s 2011 Uprising Coverage

After some correspondence, my previous university, the University of Gothenburg just published my MA thesis. Written in 2015, titled, "Discursive Construction in Media: A critical discourse analysis of how BBC World vs. Al Jazeera English Constructed Yemen’s 2011 Uprising Coverage" discusses how, in comparison, both online media outlets covered the first 100 days of the uprising. Every chapter is dear to me but I enjoyed the most analyzing postcolonial theories & their relations to Yemen.

2015 was an awful year for me as the war began. If it wasn't for the support of my supervisor, Jenny Wiik, I don't know how I'd have done it. I hope this thesis contributes to the academic world somehow. You may read it here: Link.

Picture: Abdulrahman Jaber. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Podcast: Investigative Journalists Speak Out

Early September, I spoke with TV & radio presenter, Sam Asi for the Golden Globes' Hollywood Foreign Press Association podcast.
You may listen to the interview here or find the transcript below.

INTERVIEW'S TRANSCRIPT: HFPA in Conversation with Afrah Nasser





Well, there are some good and some bad days. I've gone through a lot of phases, and at this moment I am really missing the language because as you know, Yemen is fragmenting and into so many Yemenis. So, I know that whatever I am missing is not there any longer. So, what I miss really is the language. I realized from my travels around the Middle East that home for me is Arabic language. So that's what I miss the most. But Sweden is a great country really. I've had really, really wonderful friends here who have been more than a family for me. But you know, you can't help but miss some fundamental things like language. 


Ah, that's a deep question. I can't remember exactly my relation to writings, to writing and literature. But I remember that my mom telling me that she remembers that when I was a teenager telling her that I want to be like Negi Bafult [phonetic 00:02:51] one day. I'm born to be a writer. Trying to think and remember so hard. I remember that I had a lot of journals. Every day I would write. So, when I had my job at Yemen Observer and Sanaa when they hired me, I was overjoyed. I thought this will not feel like work to be paid.

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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Yemeni Journalist Flees Aden after STC-police Raids his Home & Seeks his Arrest

Journalist Ahmed Maher, 22, fled Aden to unknown place inside Yemen after the issuing of an arrest warrant and a raid on his home in Aden, three days ago.

Maher, chief editor of ‘Marsad Aden’ website tells me in a phone interview, “Three hours after I received the warrant arrest, I escaped Aden. The warrant said that the Southern Transitional Council has ordered (Dar Sa’ad) police to arrest me. After I fled, they raided my house.”

Since the latest events in Aden, Ahmed Maher has been one of the most active journalists reporting from Aden. He has been a frequent guest speaker on TV channels, like Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic. He has been expressing anti-UAE and anti-STC views, and believes that was the reason for issuing an arrest warrant. “They want to punish me for my reporting via social media and TV channels, and especially my pro-government political stance.”

In a Facebook post, Maher explains how one of the policemen told him that his crime was his Facebook posts about the situation in Aden. He says over the phone that after he escaped and felt relatively secure, he posted about what had happened to him. Maher fears for what could happen to his family who lives in Aden and if he would be captured elsewhere.

Maher has been working as a journalist since 2013 but since 2016 he has focused primarily on the violations conducted by armed groups. Maher recalls that about two years ago he was attacked by armed groups while reporting on the deportation of northerners in Lahj province, south Yemen. “I was detained and tortured for a day after my reporting on Lahj,” says Maher, “the second assault I faced was awhile ago after I expressed my objection to how STC is weakening Yemen’s government. And now this.”

Maher says he will continue reporting no matter what.

Yemen’s Journalists Syndicate affiliated to Hadi government expressed its concern over violations against journalists in Aden and Ahmed Maher’s situation. It has also received complaints from journalist Saleh al-Issey who resides outside Yemen now and his home was raided by armed men.