Making the most of the space available
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.
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.
When the two Yemeni states unified in 1990, a reform of the family law took place that was considered an advancement for Northern and a setback for Southern women, as the South had already introduced more progressive women's rights than the North, for instance legal equality in family affairs.
Then, in the wake of the 2011 uprising, women fought hard for greater and more effective political participation, eventually achieving an unprecedented 30-per cent quota for women in parliament.
Women also took part in the Constitution Drafting Committee for the first time in the state's history.
Where women's political rights stand today
Yet, today, all these advancements in the name of women's rights have been eroded. As the four-year-long war rages on, the political system as a whole has descended into chaos and the push for women's representation has shifted from political institutions to diplomacy and advocacy.
During the time from the Houthis' takeover of Sana'a in September 2014 to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, the formal political process has ground to a halt. Militarisation has meant a significant loss for women's political voice and role in decision-making. In fact, the discussion of women's political rights in Yemen right now, in its current apocalyptic state, seems an extravagant thought.
Women and girls bear brunt of conflict
The conflict has made Yemen the site of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Millions of lives are threatened by famine; but the heaviest toll is taken on women and girls of childbearing age. Females are facing a rise in child marriages and a 63-per cent increase in violence against them.
With dozens of women detainees held in Houthi rebel prisons, facing torture and abuse, the conflict has destroyed some of the tribal safeguards that protected women from abduction or imprisonment. In Taiz, women activists are a target of Houthi bullets. Across many cities, women agonise over their missing male relatives and are barely able to feed their starving children.
What I lament the most is that pre-war Yemen, with all its institutional injustices against women, had nevertheless overtaken Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in its advancement of women's rights – a progress that today is basically undone.
Over the course of the Yemeni war, women in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have witnessed some positive developments, such as the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia and an increase in women's political representation in the UAE, while Yemenis are facing the decline of their rights and freedoms. This is a very important comparison as the disastrous bombing of Yemen is carried out by none other than its neighbours: Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Independent press and CSOs have disappeared as a venue to raise awareness about women's empowerment. Journalists, activists and aid workers have been harassed, attacked, and/or made to disappear by all warring parties. The space for civil action has shrunk drastically. Voices that dare to speak out in support of women's rights are effectively being silenced.
Women are fighting back
Meanwhile, women are pushing back. At the grassroots level, with some 12,000 men arrested and more than 3,000 forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters and daughters of those abducted have begun to gather in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities in search of their sons, fathers or brothers. They have organised themselves as a collective named "Mothers of Abductees Association". At the political level, UN Women has supported the establishment of the Yemeni Women's Pact for Peace and Security, which calls for women's inclusion in the political dialogue and peace process.
In addition, Yemeni women's political activism has been supported by the three UN Special Envoys for Yemen – Jamal Ben Omar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and currently Martin Griffiths – over the past eight years. In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – on the full involvement and equal participation of women in conflict resolution processes – Griffiths has ensured the presence of women in the Yemeni peace talks in Kuwait, Geneva and Stockholm through consultancy groups.
Even though Yemen has not witnessed a strong women's movement in recent history, women have become an important pillar in the formation of a new democratic Yemen since the 2011 uprising. Their activism under the difficult circumstance of continuing conflict has played an important role in shedding light on gross human rights violations and in peace advocacy.
The future of Yemeni women depends on the future of Yemen. Women activists will therefore not rest until the country is back on its feet and peace prevails. Within the space available to them, Yemeni women are looking to achieve something that is worth the world's solidarity.
© Goethe-Institut Perspectives 2020
Afrah Nasser is an independent Yemeni journalist, living in exile in Gothenburg, Sweden. Her reporting on Yemen's political affairs has been published in numerous international publications, such as the Huffington Post, CNN, Al Jazeera English and The National. Nasser was also mentioned as the 15th most powerful Arab by Arabian Business. In 2017, she won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. She is also the recipient of the Pennskaft Award 2016 and the Dawit Isaak Prize 2014.