Yemeni women fight back against sexual harassment

In light of Yemen’s conservative society where women are often removed from the public eye, some women have started to rebel and assert their power through education and employment.

al-monitor Women walk at the Bab al-Yemen area in downtown Sanaa, Feb. 23, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Topics covered

yemen revolution, women in society, women and islam, women's issues, women's rights, society

Jun 1, 2014

“May God protect you, [you are] sexy and hot.” “Your looks do not represent Yemen, Islam or chaste women.” “I am waiting for you tomorrow at 7 p.m. to have dinner and a drink, so we can relax, and then I will proceed with your employment process.” These are some examples of harassment, an issue tackled by Yemeni Hind al-Nusairi, 23, in an article titled “The Struggle of a Free Woman in Yemen.” The article won first prize in a competition on the topic of gender-based violence organized by the Cairo Center for Development and Human Rights. The article depicts the daily harassment that liberal women in Yemen face on the streets, in college, at work and through social media.

In a conservative society like Yemen, liberal women are a target for the culture of shame — a culture that targets all members of society, particularly women. Religiously committed people perceive liberal women as indecent and believe they should be oppressed. Nonreligious people see these women as an easy catch. Some women believe that the unveiled women are morally degenerate.

In fact, the liberal women mentioned in Nusairi’s article are not liberal in every sense of the word. These women are unveiled; they do not wear the black cloak, and their looks do not align with custom. They are merely trying to gain the basic liberties of women, and they are faced with familial and societal obstacles.

Harassment has spread in Yemen in “an alarming way,” as 26-year-old Farida Ali affirmed. “Veiled women are faced with upsetting verbal harassment, let alone unveiled women. They look at women as if they are watching adult movies.”

Some actresses, media figures and traditional dancers are compelled to wear a cloak to avoid street harassment. However, there are women who have displayed a remarkable ability to rebel and break the isolation that society is trying to lock them into.

Contrary to Nusairi, who hails from a cultured and open family that has helped her to seek freedom, Farida represents a rare example of women who were able to achieve freedom through self-effort amid a conservative family and environment.

Farida’s father passed away when she was 10, leaving the task of raising the family to her mother. When she graduated from high school, she worked in a coffee shop and enrolled in college to study English literature, a step the family strongly opposed. “I insisted on my right to choose my life’s path,” she said. “During my third year in college, I worked for a local branch of an international company. As the family’s opposition grew even more, I decided to live with my brother in a separate home.” The family was not satisfied with this step and with the fact that “I go in the street without a veil, and publish my photos on social networking sites and newspapers. They saw me as a disgrace.”

Harassment of women has spread on university campuses and in media institutions, whether public or private. In April, a broadcaster on an Aden TV channel complained on her Facebook page about harassment at her workplace.

According to Farida, harassment is most common in government institutions and local private sector companies. “Girls at their workplace are subjected to [sexual] remarks that they do not hear in the street,” she said. In foreign and international organizations, however, harassment is less common.

Political Islam groups of every stripe — whether Shiite or Sunni — have expanded in a striking manner. The parties claiming to be advocates of women’s freedoms are merely affiliates of this group or that. Cultural elite groups are also accused of having double standards and of not genuinely supporting gender equality.

“Everyone calls for women’s freedoms while excluding the women in their families, as they are considered as a red line,” said Farida. She added that they failed to understand that not all Yemeni women are the same and that they had to accept them and live with them.

According to researchers, laws alone will not pave the way for freedoms. This change needs a cultural transformation among women themselves.

Fawziya Shamsan, professor of philosophy at Sanaa University, said that mental capabilities have great influence on a woman’s sense of freedom. Education is not enough for girls to become aware of their freedom and to develop their character. She added that many of her female students fail to gain their own sense of individuality.

Farida added that her brother "used to be like [the rest of] my family, but, little by little, he started to understand that I am different and became my biggest supporter.”

Farida participates in general civic activities and in graffiti campaigns. She said that girls who were used to sitting between four walls would not be able to feel their freedom.

For her part, Shamsan stressed that economic independence of women would help promote their self-confidence and their will to search for freedom. She considered Islamic misconceptions to be the most prominent obstacle facing Yemeni women in their quest toward freedom and equality. However, Shamsan admitted that there were a rare few women in Yemen who have been able to swim against the tide and overcome these obstacles. 

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