Women's rights in Yemen

Making the most of the space available

Yemen's modern history has never seen a coherent and consistent women's movement, but rather temporary and fragmented movements with different priorities, such as women's struggle against human rights violations, and feminists' focus on combating patriarchal tribal structures that discriminated against women. But, writes Afrah Nasser, they all stemmed from genuine concerns for human rights and democracy

During my early childhood in Sana'a in the 1990s, the idea of gender equality was confusing to me. On the one hand, my mother was teaching me how women must fight for their rights. On the other hand, outside of home, concepts like "gender equality" or "feminism" were portrayed in a negative light.

I recall that, in secondary school, our female teacher told our class how "equality" between the sexes was a notion manufactured by the West to destroy Arab and Muslim communities. I also recall how my religious neighbour urged me to accompany her to a women-only Koran study group in the nearby mosque. We would go and listen to a sheikha (female religious leader) explaining how "gender equality" and "feminism" were against Islam, and how Allah wanted men and women to have different and unequal roles and responsibilities.

When I started college, however, I became exposed to a different kind of discourse about women's rights. Both the independent press and events about women's rights, organised by pro-democracy local civil society organisations (CSOs), opened my eyes to Yemen's feminist women.

Women's rights advocates in political positions or leading CSOs, such as Radhya Shamsheer, Amat al-Alim Alsoswa, Raufa Hassan or Amal Basha, speaking eloquently about women's activism in Yemen, have all been crucial in shaping my feminist consciousness. They were working on issues like child marriage, gender-based violence, discriminatory laws and women's political participation, among many other things.

Resistance from the political and religious spheres

The word feminism, though, was not always explicitly used because it was dangerous and antagonising.

For instance, in 1999, leading feminist figure Raufa Hassan was subjected to an aggressive religious attack over her work and was eventually forced to leave the country. The anti-feminist backlash from some influential religious members of parliament and conservative clerics compelled most feminists to adopt a more pragmatic approach to their activism and to use less antagonising labels, such as women's empowerment advocates. Only a handful would fearlessly continue to call themselves feminists. They were all involved in the same feminist struggle, to be sure.

Tawakkul Karman (photo: Imago images/CTK Photo/K. Sulova)
In 2011, Tawakkul Karman (pictured here) became the first Arab woman and the first Yemini to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She co-founded the group "Women Journalists Without Chains" in 2005. In 2010, she told the "Yemen Times" that "Women should stop being or feeling that they are part of the problem and become part of the solution. We have been marginalised for a long time, and now is the time for women to stand up and become active without needing to ask for permission or acceptance. This is the only way we will give back to our society and allow for Yemen to reach the great potentials it has."

Yemen's modern history has never seen a coherent and consistent women's movement, but rather temporary and fragmented movements with different priorities, such as women's struggle against human rights violations, and feminists' focus on combating patriarchal tribal structures that discriminated against women. They all stemmed from genuine concerns for human rights and democracy.

In the country's modern history, three major events have influenced these struggles and women's political rights: 1) the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, 2) Yemen's uprising in 2011, and 3) the war that has been ongoing since 2015.

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