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Yemeni women rise up – the untold story

June 7, 2012
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This guest post is from Olga Ghazaryan (right), Oxfam GB’s Regional Director for the Middle EastOlga Ghazaryan pic

The stories from Yemen that break through to the media are those about the Al Qaida insurgency, political turmoil and occasionally about the shocking levels of hunger and poverty.

However there is another story unfolding in Yemen that has gone largely untold – the rising up of the Yemeni women.  Emboldened by the revolution that brought down the 30 year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the women in Yemen are taking a stand to gain a voice in a society that has systematically oppressed and discriminated against them.  Tawakul Karman (left), the Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is the Yemen Tawakul-Karmanreu_2020666crecognisable face of this struggle, but she is one of many.

Women’s spontaneous support of the revolution was a powerful challenge to the traditional perceptions of women’s’ roles and how they should or should not behave in public.  They did something unseen and unheard of before – they went out to Change Square to protest side by side with men, staying out at night, interacting with people outside of their own family and tribe and daring to express their opinion vocally in public.  Suha Bashren – an Oxfam colleague – says “I was in awe seeing how women suddenly seemed to stand tall, dared to grab the microphone and share their aspirations in public for the first time.  I also saw women praying in the front row, rather than in the back, as was the custom“.

To understand the significance of the challenge one must understand what it means to be born a woman in Yemen.  Women have a less than 20 percent chance of working outside of the home or holding a job of any kind, an 80 percent chance of being illiterate, and a 1 in 19 chance of dying in childbirth.  There is also an extremely high likelihood that they will be married before reaching the age of 15.  Most women in Yemen, fully veiled from head to foot in black, are anchored to their homes, out of sight, out of work and out of public spaces and institutions.

Early marriage, restrictions on mobility, denial of basic education and economic opportunities are justified by a conservative interpretation of Islam, are engendered in the tribal and customary laws, and deeply entrenched in all aspects of the social fabric and cultural beliefs.

My Oxfam colleagues in Yemen, educated, articulate, confident women, were treated as perpetual minors, unable to get a passport,

Women queue for cash transfers. Credit: Wolfgang Gressman

Women queue for cash transfers. Credit: Wolfgang Gressman

travel alone or rent a house without the permission of a “khafir” or male guardian.  One of my colleagues told me how even her marriage contract was signed without her.

Over the years travelling to Yemen I have met women in situations that I find difficult to forget.  A 16 year old girl in Taiz prison brought there by her own father to serve years of sentence because she dared to go out with a young man and “disgrace the family”; a group of women who shared with me their most cherished dream – to be able to write their own name; a 12 year old girl – the age of my own daughter – in Hadramout, on the eve of her wedding day.  The Yemeni Parliament has on numerous occasions gone back on attempts to pass a law on the age of marriage, and sadly previous demonstrations for early marriage have been far larger than the ones against.

Oxfam is privileged to work with amazing organisations in Yemen that are supporting thousands of women in seeking legal justice in prisons and in their communities, training hundreds of girls to become midwives and providing women with cash and loans to start small businesses.

In a country where every step a woman takes is circumscribed by rules and restrictions, the revolution has created a “once in a generation” opportunity to address the gender gap – one of the main drivers of Yemen’s chronic underdevelopment.  The new transitional government led by Prime Minister Basindawa is championing women’s representation and has on numerous occasions talked about 30 percent representation of women in transitional institutions such as the National Dialogue Preparatory Committee and the Constitutional Reform Committee.  This is good news.

The bad news is that the threats of a backlash against women’s advancement by more conservative elements is real and strong – some of it driven by ideology, religious interpretation and culture, some of it mere political bargaining and willingness to compromise on issues that are not deemed “important enough”.  When I met a group of women activists last week they talked about the formidable challenges they face.  The women’s movement is fragmented; party politics undermines the unity of women.  Young women activists are not included in the traditional networks.  The newly emerging activism has not truly connected with the majority of the population in rural areas.  The government is failing to follow through on the commitments made on women’s participation – for example there were no women in the Yemeni delegation at the recent Friends of Yemen conference. The international community itself has not focused on women’s advancement in ways that give it the priority and the profile it deserves.

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith

The true friends of Yemen need to support the leaders in the women’s movement and learn from successful examples that show that women’s rights can be upheld and needs met within Yemen’s religious and cultural frameworks.  The true friends of Yemen need to also broaden the awareness of what the gender gap does to Yemen among stakeholders, including the government, the business community, the religious leaders, the parties and civil society.  The true friends of Yemen need to support women to put aside their differences transcend party politics and individual feuds and rally around issues that really matter, but only Yemeni women and men themselves have the power and the opportunity to make this happen.  I very much hope they will seize it.

Update: This week’s Economist also has a piece on Yemeni women


  1. “learn from successful examples that show that women’s rights can be upheld and needs met within Yemen’s religious and cultural frameworks” Can you show us some of these examples ? A cultural and religious framework that did uphold women’s rights would look so different from present day conditions as to be unrecognisable. Like comparing a UK where Sir Elton performs on the Diamond Jubilee with the UK where homosexuality was illegal and imprisonable.

  2. Good point , Ken , if you look at the issue from the western liberal lens . Yemen’s is an ultra conservative interpretation of religious doctrines and cultural rules. What I meant is that there are countries that have successfully managed to create legislative frameworks that protect women’s rights in societies that adhere to Islamic values ( eg Turkey , Morocco, etc) . And in Yemen changes are possible . For example in one of our programmes in Hadramout we have managed to convince parents to let their daughters be trained as nurses and be employed by the government in health clinics – something that was unheard of before and an example of creating positive role models , working with people where they are at and pushing the boundaries in ways that makes sense.

  3. I don’t think it’s just my western liberal view , that thinks Yemen is a conservative Islamic society. I’d guess the Yemenis themselves would recognise the diffeence between themselves and say Turkey , and if asked would prefer their current way of doing things. I think you’re right though in the long run Yemen is going to have to become more like Turkey

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