by Olga Ghazaryan
The stories from Yemen generally covered by the media are those about the Al Qaida insurgency, political turmoil, and occasionally the shocking levels of hunger and poverty. However, there is another story unfolding in Yemen that is going 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. The 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman is the recognizable face of this struggle, but she is one of many.
Women’s spontaneous support of the revolution is a powerful challenge to the traditional perceptions of women’s roles and how they should or should not behave in public. Women did something unseen and unheard of before - going 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 25 percent chance of working outside the home or holding a job of any kind, a 70 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 tethered to their homes, out of sight, out of work, and out of public spaces and institutions.
In Yemen, early marriage for women, restrictions on their mobility, and denial of basic education and economic opportunities are justified by a conservative interpretation of Islam. Such conditions 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 and confident women - are treated as perpetual minors, unable to get passports, travel alone, or rent houses without the permission of a mahram 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, because she dared to go out with a young man and ‘disgrace the family;’ a group of women who shared their most cherished dream of being able to write their name; and a 12-year-old girl, the age of my own daughter, in Hadhramout, on the eve of her wedding day. On numerous occasions, the Yemeni Parliament has withdrawn attempts to pass a law on the age of marriage. Sadly, previous demonstrations in favor of 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 seeking legal justice in prisons and in their communities. They are training hundreds of girls to become midwives and providing women with cash and loans to start small businesses. We know this work can be transformative. For example, Nour, 18, is one woman that Oxfam helped train as a midwife. Nour told us she feared an early marriage before starting her training: “Before I was nothing: I stayed in the house and just did what my parents and brothers told me. Now I feel proud because I will have a good status in my community when I become a midwife.”
In a country where every step a woman takes is circumscribed by rules and restrictions, the revolution is creating a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to truly address the gender gap - one of the main drivers of Yemen’s chronic underdevelopment. The new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Basindwah, is championing women’s representation. On numerous occasions, they have talked about 30 percent representation of women in transitional institutions, such as the Conference for 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, they talked about the formidable challenges they face. The women’s movement is fragmented with party politics undermining the unity of women. Young women activists are not included in the traditional networks. The newly emerging activism is 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, where Western and Gulf State leaders gathered with the transitional National Unity Government of Yemen to support transition and development in Yemen. The international community itself is not focusing on women’s advancement in ways that give it the priority and the profile it deserves.
True friends of Yemen need to support the leaders in the women’s movement and learn from successful examples showing that women’s rights can be upheld and needs met within Yemen’s religious and cultural frameworks. The true friends of Yemen also need to broaden their 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 encourage women to put aside their differences, transcend party politics and individual feuds, and rally around issues that really matter.
It is only Yemeni women and men who have the power and the opportunity to make the advancement of women a reality. I very much hope they will seize it.
About the author:
Olga Ghazaryan is the Regional Director for Oxfam in the Middle East and Commonwealth of Independent States. In this role, she manages Oxfam's regional and country teams in Yemen, Occupied Palestine Territories, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Olga has worked with Oxfam for the last 16 years. Before joining Oxfam she worked for the Norwegian Red Cross and US private voluntary organizations such as the World Rehabilitation Fund and Project Hope. She also worked in academia and as an entrepreneur. Olga has an MSC in public policy and management from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a graduate of Executive Education in Advanced Management and Leadership, Said Business School, University of Oxford. She is a dual British and Armenian national and lives in Oxford with her husband and daughter.