From the May-June 2011 issue of News & Letters:
by Shatha Al-Harazi
Sana’a, Yemen–This is one of the most conservative countries when it comes to how women are viewed. But the current political climate has changed some of this.
Yemeni society has offered limited roles for women in politics. It never expected women to be part of any revolution. Yet the most popular face of Yemen’s anti-government movement is a woman: Tawakkol Karman.
As Abubakr Al-Shamahi, a young male protester, said: “The average person looking at Yemeni women will see figures, mostly dressed in black covering their faces, and assume that this is Taliban Afghanistan. It is not. These women shout louder than the men, are more heartfelt, and more politically active. Look at the woman who started the protests, Tawakkol Karman.”
On April 14 President Saleh said women should not protest along with men in the street as it’s a social shame. The response was huge protests, whether women only or mixed, in many governorates [provinces] condemning what Saleh said.
“My father and mother don’t like me to be part of these protests. They try to stop me as they know what kind of cruel regime we have. I know how they feel but I can’t stop now. It’s the only time to make my children’s future better,” says Karman about her role.
WOMEN JOIN THE FIGHT
Anti-government demonstrations in Sana’a comprise four large tents especially for women. It is a stark contrast compared to mid-February on the first day of the sit-in demonstration when 30 men set up camping tents outside Sana’a University. There were no women.
But on the second day a woman joined them and set up her tent. This shocked a conservative society that viewed her as a criminal for daring to sleep in the same area with men she does not know. By now, a few weeks later, more women have joined the sit-in demonstration and are encouraging others to do the same.
Farida Al-Yarimi, a 47-year-old mother of five, was that first Yemeni woman to camp in the street in a bid to overthrow the regime. “I knew what I did wasn’t expected, but one of us had to start doing something. When I first came here I expected the worst, but it was great. The way the men protected me and secured the tent was good. Even traditional tribesmen don’t look down on us now,” reflects Al-Yarimi on her experience. Her family joined her two days after she set up her tent, and she has since become a leading female protester.
Most women protesters are older than 40, as many Yemeni families are still preventing their daughters from participating. But women have the same grievances that men hold. Um Ahmed, a mother in her mid-50s in the women’s tent at Sana’a University, says the government has offered her no assistance: “They think only of themselves. They never think of their people as human beings. They live in palaces with our money while we can’t provide food for our children.”
GIRLS JOIN TOO
Women have found different means to participate in protests. Some young girls who aren’t allowed to participate in public demonstrations have started a Facebook group to share their ideas and to ensure that their voices are heard.
Ashwaq Sobaie’, a 17-year-old high school student, was warned by her school principal that she would be dismissed from school if she continued participating in anti-government protests. Her reply was that she does not care what her school thinks of her. She continued protesting and also encouraged her school friends to participate.
“I started camping at Sana’a University from the third day of the sit-in. My mother encourages everybody at our house to protest. I put everything that I needed in my bag and ran away from school to the protest. That is where I belong,” says Sobaie’.
WE FIGHT THE REGIME AND OUR SOCIETY
Another young woman protester hid from her family her participation in protests. Yasmin Al-Qadhi, 25, is the daughter of a widely respected tribal sheikh who opposes President Saleh. Although she and her 15 sisters grew up in a political environment, they have to fight for the right to participate in politics. Al-Qadhi was one of three girls who joined thousands of male protesters on Feb. 3. She doesn’t camp at Sana’a University, but has an active role as a protest organizer. “We need to revolt twice as hard as men. We have to fight against the regime, but we also have to fight against discrimination from Yemeni men,” says Al-Qadhi.
One of her brothers said that women protesters who took to the streets alongside men were “prostitutes.” He is not the only person who holds this opinion, as Yemen largely is a tribal society with traditional values that define men’s and women’s roles.
“I didn’t care about what my brother wanted me to do. I’m a citizen of Yemen, just like any male citizen, and I have the right to work for goodness and change in my country. I won’t let anyone stop me,” says Al-Qadhi.
April 14, 2011