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.
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.”