Yemen prides itself on its relatively progressive women’s rights policies, especially when compared to neighboring states. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Yemen allows women to drive and also gives them the right to vote.
But, as some activists have pointed out, women’s status in Yemen leaves much to be desired. “In [the Yemeni] narrative, driving is treated like a privilege for women, when really it should be natural that women have the right to drive a car,” says Amal Nasser, a young Yemeni.”Further,” she continued, “this narrative overlooks the manifold problems that exist for women in Yemen, including child marriages.” Together with a group of women from various Arab countries, Nasser organized an event in Berlin on the Yemeni feminist movement under the auspices of “Arab Hub” on Saturday, May 24.
Over Skype, two Yemeni women from different generations spoke about the state of feminism in Yemen. Jamila Raja, a well-established women’s rights advocate and member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), represented an older generation of politically active women. Alia Eshaq, a recent graduate of the American University of Cairo, spoke on behalf of a newer generation of Yemeni women who are active in politics. Working for the German Berghof Foundation, Eshaq was an observer at the NDC. The NDC was a forum for various social and political groups to discuss the foundation of the future Yemeni state, as mandated by the GCC Initiative that brought about former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation.
Raja and Eshaq shared similar perspectives on feminism in the country, but had somewhat different perceptions about themselves as “feminists.” While Jamila was reluctant to label herself a feminist, Alia immediately described herself as such. Both said that stereotypes about feminists as “angry women and men haters” were the reasons why the term has been difficult to use in Yemen.
Both Raja and Eshaq are active in a society where women’s efforts to gain political, economic and social rights are marginalized. “A first priority of women’s rights activists in Yemen was education and literacy. However, the movement was fragmented, with everyone focusing on distinct issues. This changed with the protests of the Arab Spring and the opportunity to participate in the NDC,” explained Jamila. “Women’s goals were to achieve political, economic and social rights. For that reason women focused on gender budgeting, health, education, as well as the quota.”
Since the start of Yemen’s revolutions, one great achievement for women’s rights has been the 30% quota for hiring women to positions in all three branches of government, which was included as a recommendation in the NDC’s final report. Alia noted, however, that while women were well represented at the NDC, with regard to women’s rights they remained poorly organized.
In Yemen, a particular gap exists between liberal and conservative women, who follow the Islamist Islah party. Child marriage is one bone of contention between the two groups. Amal expressed concern that the 30% quota would open the way for conservative women to obtain positions within the government, where they could advocate against legislation banning the practice. Amal referred to protests organized by conservative women in 2010 against a law setting a minimum age for marriage, which ultimately never passed.
“We cannot blame them for our own weaknesses,” Jamila said, “it is our problem that we are unable to mobilize more women. We lack the skills not only to mobilize supporters, but also to convince conservative women of our cause.” Jamila noted, however, that the NDC represented an opportunity for the two sides to approach each other, even if just on a personal level.
Conservative women in the media are also an obstacle for the advancement of women’s rights. While the media has enabled many Yemeni women to express themselves and advocate for women’s rights, it has also given a voice to women advocating for positions that are antithetical to these rights. In this way, media both helps and harms the women’s movement, according to Jamila.
Alia pointed out that it is not necessarily men who oppress women in Yemen, but that women themselves are comfortable with the roles they are given by society. Women teach this submissiveness to their daughters. “But Yemeni women are not like they are often being portrayed in media: oppressed, weak, and always covered in black. If you were to see them in their homes, you will see that Yemeni women are strong.” Alia said that her goal was to break these stereotypes. “But rather than society telling women what to do, they should have the freedom to choose,” she continued, “and for that reason, women must be given the tools to make informed decisions.”
Addressing Amal, who has spent the last seven years in Germany, Jamila stated that women, who have stayed abroad for long periods, have great potential to positively contribute to the struggle for women’s rights in Yemen: “They return to the country with much stronger conviction.” Because of a lack of organization within the women’s rights movement, Alia believes young Yemeni women should organize and define clear goals for the cause. Most importantly, as Alia argued, women’s rights activists must develop a good understanding of the realities facing women on the ground, in order to identify entry points and suitable approaches to various problems. According to Alia, the problem is much less about politics and more about society.
Jamila does not believe the outcomes of the NDC will immediately affect the situation of women on the ground. However, she does believe that the NDC will contribute to improved living conditions in the long run, as topics such as education and health were discussed during the conference. “The NDC was only the beginning,” Jamila concluded, “Yemeni women are no longer in the shadow, and they enjoy being part of the picture.”