Yemeni Women at the Front Lines for Change

In Yemen’s traditional society, women bear the brunt of hardship. Statistics show that they are far behind men in human development. However, the Yemeni revolution has altered women’s awareness of their role in society. For Dr. Souad al-Sabeh, Yemeni women are determined to change their country for the better, regardless of the obstacles ahead.

al-monitor A woman looks at a ballot paper with a photo and name of Yemen's Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as she casts her vote during the presidential elections in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden February 21, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi.

Topics covered

women’s rights, women’s issues, literacy, education

Mar 26, 2012

Yemeni women, like Yemeni men, still suffer from human development issues such as ignorance, poverty, and disease. And the traditional culture that keeps feeding the perception that women are inferior may have worsened these issues for women. Statistics show that women are 50.8% of [Yemen’s] total population, so it is only fair that women be treated like men when it comes to services and opportunities for their development. But in reality, women still significantly lag behind in human development when compared to men. The illiteracy rate is 69.1% for women, compared to 27.3% of men. The problem is worse in rural areas, where women’s illiteracy is estimated at 80.56% compared to 40.25% in urban areas.

Female school enrollment is still low for all grades. Official statistics indicate that 42.5% of women receive basic education, 35.6% receive secondary education, and 11.5% receive technical or professional education. Women are 30.8% of university students.

Yemeni women continue to be excluded from economic development. Although women account for 49.3% of the [eligible] workforce, only 12.1% of the workforce are women. Only 9.9% of Yemeni women participate in economic activities and 8.1% of salaried employees are women. The unemployment rate is 40.2% for women versus 11.3% for men.
Even for jobs that the culture has traditionally reserved for women, such as health and education, there is no gender equity. Women are still severely underrepresented in those fields compared to men. Women are 29.51% of the health workers and 19.62% of the education workers.

Despite all these obstacles, Yemeni women have not surrendered to this painful reality. They are trying very hard, no matter the sacrifices, to change their reality by taking advantage of any opportunity that presents itself.

Yemeni women are challenging the status quo not only to prove themselves but also to help all of society, both men and women. When women look to the future they look to building their families, which include their husbands, children, parents, and other relatives, and they work to advance their families.

Before the revolution [in 2011], Yemeni women significantly participated in the elections, even if their participation ended up supporting men at the expense of women's political rights. They participated because their female instincts told them that they would be able to influence the men’s decisions after the elections because of their familial ties to these men.

Of course, a Yemeni woman - by virtue of traditional culture - indirectly influences political decisions according to the nature of her relationship with the male decision-maker, and according to how much she influences this man in everyday life. Her influence is not explicit or direct because Yemeni men are accustomed to making decisions on their own; their traditional culture discourages consulting a woman on business decisions, even if she is educated. Nevertheless, the way a woman treats her man will affect the way he deals with his responsibilities - even political ones - outside the home without him realizing it or without admitting it, for fear of being accused of taking a woman's opinion or being influenced by her, which would subject him to ridicule in the traditionalist society.

Even though Yemeni women realize that Yemeni politics is controlled by traditional culture, and even though they are not satisfied with being kept away from direct political positions, they participated in the elections because they knew that they would be choosing the decision-maker for their families and homeland.

In the 2003 Yemeni parliamentary elections, women were estimated at 42.18% of the voters. Some courageous women even nominated themselves [for office], thus breaking with the traditional culture. There were 518 male and 11 female candidates, but only one woman reached parliament, along with 300 men.

The situation repeated itself in the 2006 local elections. Only seven women, along with 400 men, were elected to the provincial councils. For the district councils, 29 women and 6771 men were elected.

In spite of the painful human development indicators for Yemeni women and the negative figures stated above on political empowerment, the current situation - especially with the Arab Spring revolutions - has forced Yemeni women to face challenges and take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them in order to change the political reality in Yemen. They played an important role in influencing the men's political roles by standing next to them as wives, mothers, or sisters in the home, and by participating in the struggle for change. In the [city] squares, at the demonstrations, sit ins, and through all forms of political activism, Yemeni women stood at the forefront facing sniper fire, from both known and unknown sources, and a number of women were martyred. For the first time in history, Yemeni women were demonstrating in front of the men because they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of change or to provide protection from armed Yemeni militants, whatever their political identities. By placing themselves in front of the men, the women deterred the militants from shooting because a Yemeni man is naturally ashamed of killing a woman, regardless of the circumstances.

To this day, the Yemeni woman has been present on the revolutionary scene with her veil and niqab. She suffers the consequences of her traditional culture’s poverty, ignorance, and deprivation, but she has not surrendered to them. Out of pain, she forged hope. She is building the future for herself, her family, and all of Yemeni society. She demonstrated her ability to face the challenges and participate in the process of change intellectually, on the ground, at home, and through the media. She is a medium for [demonstrating] Yemen's problems and supporting positive change. She warns against deviating from the path of change. Yemeni women have participated in investigative journalism and have shed light on the Yemeni situation through their writings, dialogue about the revolution, its goals, how to support it, and how to guide it toward a united Yemen.

The Yemeni woman was not only visible during the revolution for change. She also had an active presence in the former regime because she was convinced that being committed to constitutional legality was important and because she understood the political reality. She openly and fearlessly stated her opinion, especially when those responsible for Yemen’s deterioration poured into the revolutionary arenas.

Perhaps the most important [political] contribution by Yemeni women - of both types (pro-revolution and pro-regime) - was when they participated in the early presidential elections. These elections - held on February 21, 2012 - were firstly for the sake of Yemen, and secondly, to implement the Gulf Initiative, which was accepted by all parties. [Female] participation this time was different than before. This time, women participated with a greater passion than men, despite the security risks present throughout Yemen. Their bravery at the polling stations surprised everyone. I was personally stunned by the high turnout of women of all ages, especially older women who were voting for the first time. This prompted me to visit several polling stations and ask a number of women why they were so eager to leave their homes and deal with the hassles in such a situation, just for the sake of voting. Based on an analysis of their answers, 55% of them voted to restore security and stability to the country; 35% voted to create an atmosphere that would improve the living conditions of Yemeni families; and 10% voted to pave the way for regime change in a constitutional manner and to start building a modern civil state.

Interestingly, not one of them told me that she voted in order to exercise her right as a Yemeni citizen. This may indicate that Yemeni women participated in the early presidential elections on February 21, 2012 not to gain political rights, but to help solve post-war problems and to make a positive change for Yemeni citizens, regardless of their gender and political identities.

I was amazed by the elderly women who suffered in the waiting lines, congestion, and stairs, only to see ballot boxes made specifically for women. They did not get discouraged. They waited until they voted. Below are some of my observations, which illustrate the Yemeni woman's increasing awareness about her role in [creating] change despite the traditional culture’s oppression.

  1. A woman, more than 70 years old, drew my attention when she loudly called for the highest-ranking official in the polling station. I asked her why is she seeking him. She said they would not allow her to vote because she had no voting card and was carrying a passport that she only used once to go on pilgrimage. I accompanied her to the head of the polling station, who was instructed to allow any citizen who can prove their Yemeni identity via any official state document to vote, since [the elections took place under] exceptional circumstances. He allowed the woman to vote, and she left the polling station ecstatic; she thanked the man for allowing her to vote and for dipping her finger in ink.
  2. I saw a middle-aged woman who appeared to be one of the socially marginalized. She had bags filled with empty cans that she had collected from the streets. She put the bags in the building's courtyard and went to the woman's ballot box. She had a stamped identification paper. She waited there until she voted.
  3. A young woman stood in the waiting line carrying her child, who looked no older than six. I felt she was annoyed by the long wait and by her child's nagging to enter the voting station. I approached her and asked, "Why did you bring your child to this crowd?" She said that he cried and insisted on seeing what she was going to do. Then the child interrupted us and said, "Mom, when will they allow me to vote?" She confidently answered him, "Three presidents later my love." By that, I realized that she wanted to change the system and pass a law that would limit a president’s term to four years.

I saw many scenes like these on February 21, 2012. They truly illustrated a change in Yemeni women’s consciousness about the importance of participating in elections. I am certain that there is a growing awareness among Yemeni women about their role in human development. What caused this awareness was a full year of intellectual tumult and military pressure, which shook the women's consciousness as they suffered through a revolution for change, where women’s suffering was double that of men. They felt fear during the conflict. They were worried about the men - as their mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters - when they left home during wartime, and they were most worried about armed militants on both sides. Lastly, Yemeni women endured the harshest economic suffering because they are the most responsible for the family's needs.

Yemeni women were present in the Arab Spring revolutions. That presence was recorded by Arab and international media. Yemeni women were being congratulated on websites and social networks like Facebook. I was personally very pleased to read the congratulatory messages sent to many Yemeni women; these messages are very dear to my heart. One of the messages was from Professor Amer Al-Adham who wrote about what the Yemeni woman accomplished for the sake of change. Here is some of what he wrote: “In all the Arab revolts, the Yemeni woman demonstrated the highest attendance, participation, patience, and vitality. . . . Who would have thought that she would be incessantly active for months in the demonstration squares? . . . Just imagine the size of the intellectual and cultural achievement of the women in Yemen, [a country which] has an armed tribal society. . . . We don't need to say a lot of words; we need to salute Yemeni women.”

Because the Yemeni woman has succeeded in writing her own history for the sake of change, she was honored and praised in the local, Arab, and international media. That honor was bestowed upon Ms. Tawakel Karman when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Most reports (local, Arab, and international) admired Yemeni women. That is a great testament to Yemeni women’s role in the Arab Spring’s political landscape. Despite the harsh reality in Yemen, Yemeni women managed to transform pain into hope. This will be the launching point for restoring the country’s security, stability, and peace, and for achieving the modern civil state that most Yemenis are waiting for.

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