For Yemeni women, the future looks uncertain

Every day, Ahlan Muthana breaks away from the past. At pro-democracy rallies, she leads crowds of protesters chanting against the government, an act unthinkable for a Yemeni woman only a year ago. Men who never took her seriously now listen to her ideas and, like disciples, join in her calls for justice.

But a few days ago, she was reminded that the future she seeks is still far away. At an opposition meeting, she and other female activists were told that they had to enter through the back door, a sober reminder of the obstacles they continue to face in a changing Yemeni society.

For thousands of women, the 11-month-old populist uprising has never been just about ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year-long rule. It is as much about gaining long-denied basic liberties, about altering the trajectories of subsequent generations of Yemeni women. The world applauded their aspirations, giving activist Tawakkol Karman the Nobel Peace Prize this year — the first Arab woman to receive this honor.

But casting a shadow over conversations with women at the heart of the struggle is a sense that their revolt has been overshadowed by competing forces, from geopolitics to regional power plays, from fears of terrorism to local grabs for influence.

The protests continued Sunday, a day after Yemeni security forces killed at least nine protesters in the capital, Sanaa. Thousands demonstrated there, demanding the resignation of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice president, who leads a transitional unity government.

Like tens of thousands of protesters, Yemeni women have felt left out of the transition. To them, the new Yemen looks a lot like the old, and they worry that the small but unprecedented gains they have made could be reversed.

“We fear that women will be pushed out after the revolution,” Muthana said. “We fear we won’t be included in the political process.”

Of all the Arab countries transformed by protest movements in the past year, Yemen arguably had the most to gain from change. Under Saleh’s authoritarian rule, tribalism, corruption, internal conflicts and an ambitious al-
Qaeda franchise
have plagued the country, the poorest in the region.

But among the countries that have witnessed the downfall of dictators, Yemen’s revolution is the most incomplete.

The United States and its allies — concerned that political upheaval could bolster al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch — have opted to deal delicately with Saleh, even as they forcefully pushed for the ousting of other embattled autocrats in the region. In a post-
Osama bin Laden world, American officials consider Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate one of the most significant threats to the United States. The affiliate was linked to several assaults against the United States, including an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.

Last month, Saleh signed an agreement, crafted by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States and Europe, to transfer power. But he’s widely perceived as still in charge, and his sons and nephews still control the security forces. He and his family have received immunity from prosecution. The transitional unity government sworn in this month amounts to a mere reshuffling of political elites; Saleh loyalists still hold key ministries, while some opposition leaders have previously held posts in his government.

“The world has not stood with us like they have with the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya,” said Isra’a Mahmoud al-Taieb, 19, whose activist mother was killed when government soldiers shelled Freedom Square in the south-
central city of Taiz last month.

A steep climb ahead

Taiz, where Nobel laureate Karman was born, was perhaps the ideal place for women to rise up. It has a history of resistance, driven by resentment toward Saleh for ignoring the region for decades. In a country with 60 percent illiteracy among women in some areas and the lowest rate of school enrollment for girls in the Middle East, many families in Taiz educate their daughters.

Inspired by female activists in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as by Karman, hundreds of women arrived daily at Freedom Square, the focal point of activism here, a sea of black head-to-toe abayas chanting for Saleh to leave as protests in Sanaa were heating up in February.

They were predominantly educated, middle- and upper-class women who believed that broader social change could be achieved only through Saleh’s removal. Those barred by male relatives from protesting baked food for the demonstrators, including cookies with red frosting that read “Get out.”

Lawyer Nadia al-Amery, 30, remembers how male judges never took her legal arguments seriously in the courtroom. Now, they view her with more respect, she said, although most still do not consider her their equal.

For months, Taieb’s uncle hunted for a man to marry his daughter. She’s 10 years old. Now, he has stopped the search, preferring that she receive an education and become like the women in Freedom Square, Taieb said.

Many women have discarded their veils, revealing their faces in public for the first time. Others wear traditional head scarves with bright colors, vivid symbols of defiance. On some occasions, they collectively burned veils and head scarves at protests.

“We go out with men, side by side, facing bullets together,” said Bilquis al-Abdaly, an activist who wore a floral head scarf like those favored by Karman. “Many men now view the women as true patriots.”

A year ago, a male relative had to escort Muthana whenever she left her house. Now, she can leave on her own.

But when a group of female activists, including Muthana, visited Cairo last month to attend a conference, they understood they had a steep climb ahead. Activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya spoke about how to bolster the rights of women and involve them in the political process in a post-dictatorship world. But for the Yemeni women, such discussions, they realized, could happen only if there was a complete overhaul of their political system.

“We were hoping that we, too, could get rid of our regime and reach their stage of the revolution,” Muthana said.

Even in Egypt, though, profound obstacles remain. In recent days, thousands of Egyptian women have taken to the streets to protest the brutal beating of a woman by security forces who ripped off her abaya, revealing her blue bra and naked torso. Though they have played an important role in their revolution, Egyptian women have been excluded from key decision-making bodies during the hoped-for transition to democracy; early parliamentary election results suggest that few women will hold posts in the new government.

Second-class citizens

Yemen’s constitution stipulates equal rights for all Yemenis. But in reality, conservative tribal customs prevail over legal codes. Women have little say in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, nor are they protected against domestic violence.

Women have historically been excluded from public life, rarely participating in politics or business, and are required to wear black abayas and veils.

An estimated 14 percent of Yemeni girls are forced to marry before age 15, some as young as 8, according to figures from the United Nations and the Yemeni government. That has helped trigger a chain reaction of woes, including one of the Middle East’s highest rates of maternal mortality.

Female activists say Saleh’s government enacted some laws to advance women’s rights and handed a few minor political positions to women in an attempt to appease the international community. But the laws, they add, have rarely been enforced, and the tribal traditions that suppressed women were never challenged, but rather embraced by the government.

“We’re talking about a mentality that flourished for 33 years under Saleh that has started to change only in the past 11 months,” Abdaly said.

Mounting frustration

As the deaths of Muthana’s comrades have mounted, so have her anger and frustration. She recently had to flee for her life when government snipers opened fire on a protest. Three women were killed, she said.

Two days earlier, a female activist was fatally shot by a sniper, activists said. Rocks were placed at the spot where she died, as a memorial to her sacrifice.

A few feet away, inside an orange tent, Muthana spoke bitterly of how Saudi Arabia’s monarchy sought to prevent sanctions on Saleh or the freezing of his assets. They wanted him to remain a force inside Yemen, she said. If democracy flourished in Yemen, Muthana said, the Saudis fear it would spread across the border.

She dismissed U.S. concerns about al-Qaeda and said Saleh had exaggerated the threat of terrorism to scare the world into giving Yemen more funding, playing on those fears to ensure that he set the terms of his exit. “For this reason, as long as he and his regime remain, he’ll never get rid of al-Qaeda,” Muthana said.

She also expressed disappointment that the Arab League called for sanctions against Syria but had kept silent about Yemen. “Our revolution has been intentionally forgotten,” she said. “Is the blood of a Yemeni different than that of a Syrian?”

Some Yemeni women are worried about Islamists gaining influence in their country, like they have in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Islamists make up the most powerful bloc in Yemen’s opposition, though many are moderate. But there are also ultraconservatives who wield influence.

“The Salafists want to put women inside a prison,” said Nuria al-Jurmuzi, 40, a pro-government activist, referring to followers of a puritanical brand of Islam.

Afnan Yaseen al-Aghbari, 23, a Salafist university student, said she feels threatened by the revolution and the values it has brought, such as the mixing of women and men. She wants an even more conservative brand of Islam to govern Yemen. “Islam is not being practiced the right way today,” she said.

‘Back to square one’

On a recent day, about 200 women and an equal number of men marched through the streets of Taiz. Some carried pictures of female activists killed recently. Others clutched placards that denounced the power-transfer agreement and urged a boycott of U.S. and Saudi-made goods.

Through chants and speeches, women took turns condemning Yemen’s traditional opposition for agreeing to give Saleh immunity from prosecution and accusing them of betraying the revolution to gain power. With every chant, the men cheered along.

Only a handful of women were represented on a national council the opposition formed to function as a government-in-waiting. Of the 35 ministers in the transitional unity government, only three are women. None head prominent ministries.

Adding to the women’s worries was a sense among some that the momentum of their revolution was fading. Although some marches, including the one Sunday, continue to draw large numbers, the size of many protests has dwindled in recent weeks, in part because the political opposition has pulled out its legions of supporters from the streets.

“Where is our revolution now?” said Dalal al-Badani, 24, who wore a pink head scarf and a nose ring. “We were about to reach the end. But now that the opposition and the ruling party have divided the power, we’re back to square one.”

But other activists insist they have achieved a revolution of awareness. The populist forces unleashed this year, they say, have brought out a long-suppressed quest for equal rights and would be hard to lock up again.

“In Yemen, the revolution will continue for years, even if the regime falls,” Abdaly said. She paused, as if to remember the numerous miseries that faced her country, then added:

“We will need many revolutions in Yemen.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
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