Yemen: Women Toppling 'Tradition'

Publication Date: 
October 10, 2011
Women display their hands painted red, symbolizing bloodshed, and blue, symbolizing peace, during a demonstration 28 Sept 2011.

The leading participation of Yemeni women in their country’s revolt is raising hopes that regime change may bring along a mini revolution in the public and political role of women

Taiz — Yemeni women did not merely challenge the taboos surrounding their blackchadors, and break away from the isolation of their homes as they marched to the various liberation squares across the country. They may be precipitating a minor revolution against Yemen’s conservative customs and traditions. 

The first female icon to emerge from this new Yemen is Tawakul Karman, a journalist and activist who Friday became the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the protests. Karman’s actions, as well as those of other women like her, have restored prestige to a country often associated with the oppression of women. Some Yemenis think the international honor is a result of Yemeni women openly confronting the brutal regime.

Karman and other female activists have left their mark on the revolution. Women stood fast against the regime’s violence and oppression, despite numerous failed attempts to prevent them from joining the demonstrations. Their resolute commitment impressed both Yemeni and international communities.

Several women have risen to prominence during the events of the last seven months. In Sanaa, Huriya Mashhur became the official spokesman for the National Council. Other than Karman, a number of activists have joined Yemen’s ‘liberation squares,’ including Arwa Othman, Amal Al-Basha, Nabila al-Zubayr, Huda al-Attas, Wamid Schakir, Nadia Al-Kawkabani, Balqis Al-Lahabi, Samia Al-Haddad, Samia al-Aghbari, Majda Al-Haddad, Arwa Aoun, and many others.

Customs, traditions, and a lack of education restricted many women’s ambitions, but this group of trailblazing female activists will play a significant role in determining the shape of Yemen’s future. In Taiz’s Freedom Square, new female revolutionaries have emerged, such as Bushra Al-Maqtari, Shafiqa al-Qudsi, Ishraq Al-Maqtari, Maha Al-Shurbaji, Basma Abdel-Fattah, Ulfat al-Dabai, Balqis al-Abdali, Moeen Sultan, and many other women from conservative and Islamic parties. These activists have had a powerful role in calling for a civil state, some forming civil groups calling for freedom from traditional Yemeni political parties. The regime has openly confronted these women in unprecedented attacks against them.

Prior to the revolution, security forces dealt with women differently. Stopping them at checkpoints was ‘shameful’, a violation of tradition. But this ‘privilege’ evaporated once Yemeni women joined protests calling for the regime’s downfall. The state’s oppressive security campaign now does not distinguish between men and women, which has many describing the policy as President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s ‘moral downfall.’ Commentators believe that this represents a loss of providence and that he may be teetering before a final fall.

In Taiz, the regime has instructed its forces and armed civilian groups (known asBalatiga) to attack women and men indiscriminately. This savage repression began on June 31, two days after Freedom Square was burned down. Women had gathered on Wadi al-Qadi street for a demonstration near the town center. A number of security forces attacked the crowd of 70 women, which included several human rights activists. The women were chased down, beaten with bats, and attacked near the city center with tear gas.

At Taiz University’s Faculty of Arts, near the main security compound of Taiz governorate, female students came out to the gates demanding the regime’s downfall. Soldiers surrounded them and brought in women loyal to the regime from adjacent neighborhoods. The soldiers allowed the crowd of supporters to throw stones at the students and call out obscenities.

From the start of the revolution, the regime’s media has vilified women for their participation in public demonstrations, going so far as falsifying video clips that attempt to dishonor these women. Activists also claim that at one demonstration, anti-riot forces sprayed women with hot liquids, aiming for their heads. This tactic left many women in the crowd with burns on their hands and faces. Security forces have also frequently verbally abused the young female protesters in the Taiz, Sanaa, and Aden.

But the Yemeni regime miscalculated their efforts, as these attacks have in fact led to increased participation of women in the uprising. Bushra Al-Maqtari, an activist in Tazi’s Freedom Square, says, “They attacked women during this revolution using all means at their disposal. They chased us in the streets and alleyways, snatched the veil off some women’s heads, and abused us verbally...Despite all this oppression, we are now more determined. In Taiz alone, women are participating in mixed demonstrations with men in the mornings and female-only marches in the afternoon.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.



Photo: Women display their hands which are painted red, symbolizing bloodshed, and blue, symbolizing peace, during a demonstration demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa 28 September, 2011. (Credit: REUTERS - Mohamed al-Sayaghi)