Yemen: Women of the Revolts are Catalysts for Change

Publication Date: 
March 8, 2011
Gulf News
Tawakul Karman (centre) is president of Yemen’s Women Journalists Without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party.

Representing all age groups and various backgrounds, they have proved to be the catalysts for change.

Dubai: The words of a mother whose son was killed by the Tunisian police in Al Qasreen area last December still ring in the ears of Hedia Belhaj Al Sebai.

"I have given my son as a martyr to Tunisia, and I still have four more sons whom I am also willing to sacrifice for the sake of my country," said the mother after her son was shot dead by the police during a protest, according to Hedia, a woman activist in her late 40s.

"This mother has changed many people's perspectives, and everybody sympathised with her," said Hedia, who is in charge of documentation and data at the Centre of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) in Tunisia.

"I, myself, as a mother refused to let my son participate in protests out of fear for his life and safety, but after what that mother said, what can you do?"

The pouring of Tunisian people onto the streets in what many Tunisians described as a "people's revolution to regain their dignity", starting from mid-December, 2010, led to the ousting of long-time president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali nearly a month later.

Developments in Tunisia sparked protests and demonstrations in other Arab countries as well. Twenty days of protests in Egypt led to the overthrow of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and the eruption of fierce fighting in Libya between the ordinary people opposing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his supporters in the security apparatus. Other protests also swept some other countries, including Algeria and Yemen.

Apart from calls to introduce political and economic reforms, many Arab women are concerned about their own rights in the future and protecting their achievements.

Tunisian women have participated in every protest that took place before and after the overthrow of the Bin Ali regime seeking a bigger role in the future, and attempted to let their voices be heard. They represent different age groups and come from various backgrounds, including those who wear hijab and those who wear miniskirts, women activists said.

"There is an awareness among women that we should do something so we won't be excluded or marginalised during political developments. Women participation in protests was intense, but their presence in the first and second cabinets formed in the aftermath of the ousting of the Bin Ali regime has not reflected that participation," Hedia told Gulf News in an interview.

Only a few women were included in the previous two Tunisian governments in the past month that included scores of men.

Some explained the limited participation of women as a preference for staying away from "adventures" while many things are still unclear. Therefore, many women prefer to stay in the shadows, throughout the present stage, just watching. However, the other side believes there were not enough calls for women to join in deciding the future of their country.

However, women in almost every Arab country are involved in making history at the moment, including in Egypt.

Nearly half of the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in January were women, noted Egyptian women activist Amal Sharaf, a 36-year-old English teacher.

General impression

"There is a general impression in the country all people are participating in politics, so women should be also part of it," Sharaf told Gulf News.

Sharaf is also a member of the April 6 youth movement that has been active in the recent revolution that ousted Mubarak's regime. The movement was launched in 2008 to support the workers amid a price rise at that time. Its members were harassed and some were detained, including Amal herself.

Amal's mother used to advise her to stay away from politics, telling her she wouldn't gain anything but headache from such activities. But throughout the recent revolution, her mother's perception has changed.

"Now she is saying to me joking: watch out the counter revolution. Her heart is with us now," Sharaf said.

While Egypt comes in the list of Arab countries with relatively good achievements of women in the political process, generally Arab women don't participate in the decision-making process as much as men do, though female participation varies from one country to another.

In some countries, women have occupied senior posts in the diplomatic corps, judiciary as well as parliaments and governments. In some other countries, illiteracy stands in the way of women's advancement.

Both Bahrain and Yemen provide a contrasting image that has become clearer under the current circumstances. There are female judges, ambassadors and ministers. Women constitute nearly 15 per cent of the upper house of parliament in Bahrain.

The Bahraini "woman was given what she needs to mature politically", commented Jehan Mahmoud, a Bahraini writer in her 30s.

Sectarian split

However, in a country that has witnessed a sectarian split, women took part in the anti-government protests that took place in Bahrain to demand more rights to introduce more reforms, and women also participate in pro-government rallies to express their loyalty to the regime and its policies.

But in Yemen, women participation differs from one city to another. For example, only a few women were seen in the protests in Sana'a. Their percentage was "less than one per cent," said Samia Al Agbhry, a 31-year-old Yemeni journalist and woman activist with Al Thawri newspaper of the Yemeni Socialist party.

"But in other [southern] cities, such as Ta'z and Aden, the percentage reaches 20 per cent," she told Gulf News.

According to Samia, various percentages reflect variations in the status of women.

In the southern cities, women are more educated and advanced, while in Sana'a, a high percentage of illiteracy coupled with strong norms and traditions in almost all aspects of life and fatwas prohibiting women and men from mingling are behind the low female participation. Yet, Samia expects women's voices in politics to become louder with an increasing number taking part in rallies and demonstrations.

Regardless of the outcome of the current developments in many Arab countries, the size of women's participation, and the impact on the status of women, Hedia says the real indicator would be whether women's current participation in making history will be reflected in the decision-making process in the future.

"What is much more important is what is coming and not what exists now."

Photo Caption

  • Tawakul Karman (centre) is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists Without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah. She has frequently criticised the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics since 1978. Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights. She was arrested January 23 for her role in organising protests but later released.
  • Image Credit: AP