Friday, August 31, 2012

Discussion with Al-Dawsari: Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen

Part I of II
Image via Rutgers

Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni woman working in Washington DC with Partners for Democratic change, wrote a research paper about Yemeni tribes. In Al-Dawsari's opinion, tribes are an indispensable stability agent in Yemeni society. Her paper was published by Carnegie Endowment center for International Peace and her article can be found here.

Al-Dawsari begins her paper by stating that;

"The role of tribes in Yemen is often overlooked or misrepresented in Western and sometimes Arab media and policy analyses alike. The common wisdom often holds that Yemen is a lawless country where tribes, defined as small political units, have resisted the presence and extension of the state into their territories. These tribes are frequently described as “fiercely independent” to signify their aversion to the state and are often said to prevent the development of state institutions in their territories. It is often argued that the state is weak because the tribes resist it. Contrary to this traditional assumption, the strong presence of tribes in Yemen is due to the corruption and weakness of the state institutions there. The tribes in Yemen provide social order outside the formal system. Tribes and tribal law act, in the words of political scientist Daniel Corstange, as “second-best substitutes for an absent or weak state.” People approve of the tribes because they provide basic rule of law in the form of conflict resolution and regulation".
Here is more on Al-Dawsari and Yemeni Tribes.

Question: You recognize that some sheikhs were “corrupt” and “traded the needs of their people for political influence”. Would you describe the northern influential tribes as “principled”? 

Answer: I think there is a great deal of stereotyping and misunderstanding of tribes in the both mainstream media and “intellectual” analysis. I think the description of “northern influential tribes” is misguiding. What we had over the past 35 years is a patronage network of individuals including tribal sheikhs who utilized their influence and status in exchange of some incentives from the former regime. The vast majority of tribal people in the Northern areas remain marginalized and the tribal areas remain underserved and cursed with tribal conflicts.

The notion of tribe is also changing. The tribe as a social unit has been dramatically disintegrating and the systems and structures that kept the tribes strong for centuries have been increasingly deteriorating over the past two decades. The fact that certain tribal leaders were part of the regime’s patronage network is one of the major reasons behind the deterioration of the tribal structures and systems and hence to increasing tribal conflicts. Tribal leaders no longer have the same influence and control over tribesmen. Unemployed and marginalized youth engage in violence as a means release frustration but also to make money.
I think it is important that we urban elite question our bias against the tribes and try to understand the complex issues that affect tribes and tribal areas and find better answers to the challenges we are facing. The easy simplistic answer will be to blame the “northern tribes”.

Furthermore you mention tribesmen of Marib, Al-Jawf, Shabwa and Al-Bayda as upstanding and are “eager to see legitimate and functioning state institutions in their areas”, do they expect to have a political role in the transitional government or future governments? If yes, does that mean that their sons will have to take over after them? If no, What role do you expect these sheikhs to have? The scenario of a federalism seems less likely to happen now.

Well, the tribal structure is not hierarchal. Sons do not automatically inherit “sheikhs positions” from their fathers. You are recognized as a sheikh only when you prove of help to your community. All that you need is for the community to come to you asking for help in order to be recognized as a sheikh. There is no ceremony or anything of that sort. There are cases in which communities ignored what is supposed to be their “original sheikh” and choose other well respected individuals in their communities to help them resolve problems and conflicts. As a consequence those individuals became recognized as sheikhs. Again people tend to talk about tribes as if they were solid political entities which is not the case. Tribes are rather social entities and the structure is not hierarchal. Moreover, the tribes are disintegrating rapidly which gives room to more conflicts and undermines security.

Men, women, youth, NGOs, political activists, sheikhs, religious leaders and others that I have worked with in tribal areas are eager to take part in the transition and to have a political role in the future, not as tribes but as citizens who live within the geographic boundaries of their country, Yemen. They’ve been marginalized for decades and they see this as opportunity to voice out their needs and influence the decisions that affect them and their country. Tribal people long to see a legitimate government with strong state and rule of law institutions to help address the many complex issues they face in their communities including tribal conflicts and lack of development.

Question: At the moment, there is a dichotomy between the reality of the urban Yemeni citizen and the Yemeni tribal one; in terms of lifestyle, education, goals, etc. How do we bring the two worlds together without compromising the experience of either one?

Answer: I don’t think there is a dichotomy to start with. Tribal people face the same challenges that marginalized rural citizens in Taiz and Hodeidah which are not tribal face whether it’s poor education and health services, poverty, unemployment or other developmental problems. Tribal people have strong tribal identify only because the tribe offered them social security and protection. It is the tribe that have helped prevent and resolve conflicts over resources and services. It is the tribal values that make it an obligation under tribal law for members of the tribe to look after each other. But as I said this is changing. The tribal system cannot offer the services it offered as effectively anymore. There aren’t enough better-off people to look after the poor in their communities especially with increasing poverty and minimal opportunities. The younger generation in tribal areas are facing some kind of identify dilemma. The tribe is not offering them what it offered to their ancestors and at the same time the state is not providing for them.

In my work over the past 8 years I have seen tribal people working very well alongside people from urban areas around issues that concerns everyone in the country including fighting corruption, elections monitoring, women empowerment and promoting the participation of civil society. So I don’t think that there are two worlds. Like citizens across the nation, tribal people suffer from the same inconveniences and aspire for better future. They certainly haven’t expressed any desire to be treated differently based on their “tribal” merits.

Question: In the 21st century, Yemen lags behind the world in many ways. You promote the idea of incorporating tribal law into the formal law system; however, in the past the majority of Yemenis chose to take their issues and solve them in a strictly tribal order. This has, in turn, weakened the formal law system, and to maintain a legitimate exterior, the court system passed the Arbitration law in 1992. While Yemeni tribes have held the country for years, incorporating tribal law into the formal system would encourage tribal tradition to exist in Yemen forever. If Yemen succeeds in raising the literacy rates and providing better economic opportunities to their citizens, dependence on the tribe would decrease. What would happen to the Yemeni judicial system? Are you suggesting to preserve tribalism in Yemen? Some may argue that incorporating tribal tradition should only be a temporary compromise.

Answer: First of all, incorporating tribal law into formal law is necessarily a problem. On the contrary I see it as the perfect solution for a country that has very weak state and somehow effective indigenous traditions that governed large areas of the country for centuries. I think the tribal law continued to exist in Yemen because the state was never there so it was sustained out of necessity. My own experience but also research showed that tribal leaders and citizens are eager to see functioning state and rule of law institutions. They are tired of conflict that have pretty much interrupted their lives and undermined every effort to bring development to their areas. But the big obstacle is that there was never a political will to build state institutions. I think the absence of that political will rather than the tribes is the reason behind the weakness of state institutions.

Secondly, I think people mix between tribal law or tribal conflict resolution systems and negative practices that some tribal people have done in the past including kidnapping and road blockage. These practices are in fact considered “black shame” in the tribal law. Corruption and patronage that have governed Yemen over the past 35 years have led to these practices. But tribal law in its true essence has over the centuries prevented and resolved community conflicts. It has helped contained conflicts that would have otherwise escalated and caused regional wars in the country.

Incorporating the tribal law into the rule of law system does not mean that it will substitute it. It means that it will complement it. Let’s face it. We will probably not see functioning rule of law institutions in Yemen for the next decade. It is a long term process. What is the alternative? And wait a minute? Why do we have to give up indigenous traditions that have worked for Yemenis for centuries? The most important thing in my opinion is that this should be done with a strong commitment to building state institutions. Almost all the tribal people I worked with and talked indicated that they want to see functioning state institutions. Check the research that Partners Yemen did in 2011 or the previous one that was conducted by NDI in 2006 on this issue. So I think that commitment will not be an issue as long as the process is transparent and credible. The West is moving into the direction of community mediation and conflict resolution processes to help reduce pressure on formal court system. You know what? We have that right here at home tested and been working for people for centuries so let’s take pride in what we have and use it to make this transition a success.

End of Part I

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eid in Yemen

Image via newshopper

I haven't been to Yemen in the past three years. As I watched the revolution take place from Washington DC, I felt an ache inside me to go back to Yemen. Unfortunately, going back was not an option for me; however, my desire to go to Yemen was not to participate in the revolution per se but to rather witness a new wave of political freedom. Today, many people claim that the revolution has been hijacked by radical groups and ideologies, while others claim that the revolution is a successful work in progress. Regardless, the truth is the country is going through a hard transition and is now struggling to recover. 

Prior to arriving to Sana'a, I was warned several times about the shock I am about to face. I stressed as I hopped on my flight to Sana'a, wondering about the appalling conditions that Yemenis live in. I recall the first time I came back to Yemen after living abroad for a few years; Sana'a, which was the most "modern" city in the entire country, looked like a big village covered in sand. The eyes of the people pierced through my window, they were puzzled by me as I was by them. This time, I came to Sana'a armed and prepared and to my surprise, nothing looked worse. At least not yet. Of course, I only saw the "60 road" (siteen) which was adorned by new bridges. Yemenis on the streets are known for being reckless, but for the first time, there are pathways and tunnels dedicated to pedestrians. That was a notable improvement! Not to mention the abundance of restaurants, pharmacies and Shisha stores opening all over the city. All this signifies that there is still hope for the economy (at least domestically speaking). 

Perhaps it was the smiles of people that distracted me from their misery. It was Eid-al-Fitr and although the prices of natural gas went up, the need to please families prevented people from holding mass riots. I sat at home, jetlagged as I greeted groups of family and friends who came for the traditional Eid visit. I even had to wrestle some family members over Eiadah (Eid money). At the end of my first day, I made 36000 rials! Just a little short of $200. To sum it up, it was surprisingly pleasant to be back and so quickly familiar. It wasn't until the next day that I noticed how much women have to work to make sure that everyone's Eid is smooth. 

First and formost, the house has to be cleaned every-time a new guest comes in, and the children always leave a mess (Oh so many children!). There needs to be a variety of chocolates, a bunch of handmade cookies where housewives display their pastry talents and hence, their superiority as homemakers, a variety of juices chilled at all times even when the electricity is off. After the men do their chews, all the qat needs to be vacuumed, all the silver needs to be shined and the room needs to be aired to let out the smell of cigarettes and Mada'ah then closed again to contain the smell of incense (Bakhour). Not to mention that while men give out the money, women are the ones responsible for keeping track of it. So by the end of the day, when the qat is chewed and the kids are fed and the dinner is made, women find themselves tired, but they never complain and wake up the next day to do it all over again. 

This is precisely why I love Eid-al-Fitr of 2012. I am in my motherland being cared for by my family, learning how to be patient and how to smile in the face of hardships. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

طلع الجهل علينا،من ثنيات الرعاع

طلع السّلفُ علينالبس الدِّين قناعْ
فرض القهر عليناورأى الأنثى متاعْ
ورأى النصر المبينا
فى نكاح وجماعْ
أيها المملوء طيناإنما العقل شعاع
وظلام الملتحينَا
يكره النور المشاع
أيها المدسوس فيناجئت بالقول الخداعْ
جئت خرّبت المدينةوقلبتَ السقف قاع
جئتنا الأمر المشينا
جئت بالهمج الرعاعْ
سكنوا الكهف سنيناسَلَفٌ فقدوا الشراعْ
شَوّهُوا دنيا وديناجعلوا الله صراعْ
وأباحوا القتل فيناكوحوش فى المراعْ
فى ديار المسلمينَا
مرض مسَّ النخاع
طلع الجهلُ عليناقال للعلم الوداعْ
إدَّعَى القول الرصينا واشترى الدِين وباعْ
وجب الصبر عليناما دعا للصبر داعْ
ليسوا أتباعَ نبينا
إنهم محض صداعْ

كتابة أحمد عمر زعبار، شاعر وإعلامي

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Op-ed: Women Ruling during the Transitional Period

Image via The Open Majlis

I wanted to share a comment I received from a female colleague who read my comments on"Leave the Power to Women" by Abdullah Mahwari

"The analysis is very interesting and highlights the confusion that some people have regarding the ability of women to contribute positively to the future of Yemen.
Like Yemeniaty, I was surprised with the time frame that the writer of the article used "transition period". It weakened his argument. Transition is the most challenging period for any nation. It shapes its future. If the author truly believe that women are capable in managing the country during this period than he would not have limited it to a time frame. In the contrary, the article seems like an attempt to protect men from failing by calling for women to take over. If women failed than it would be difficult for them to have another chance but if they succeed then it is the time for men not women to build on this success!!!

I hope one day we will go beyond men or women and will start focusing on having the right person in the right place regardless to gender.

Eid mubarak in advance,

Best regards,


*Jeehan is the assistant of the World Bank executive director for Yemen and Arabia 

Women Outside the Shadow - II

Today, we continue to honor women whom Ghada Mutahar dubbed as "Women Outside the Shadow". 

Image via Montreal Gazette

9) Amal Al-Makhithi: Amal has always been a human rights activist but she joined the revolution because she wants Yemen to remain united. She also wishes that the new constitution stipulates that a president can only be elected for two terms and that the country operates according to the democratic model. During the revolution, Amal made sure that protestors had blankets when the weather was cold and food at times of hunger, among many other volunteer activities. Overall, she strongly opposes a government that creates domestic turmoil in order to gain monetary profit. 

10) Ehssan Doughaish: Ehssan attended the protests in February 2011 with her husband, even though she is a mother of 5. She recruited women to join the protests and she even voiced her opinion on media outlets that had strong ties to the previous government (Saba News). While the revolution was taking place, Ehssan decided to give the youth (girls and boys) lessons since the school was out. Although her intentions were well, several extremists voiced their concern about boys and girls studying inside the same tents, and eventually spread rumors about her intentions. Ehssan was disappointed to see her educational program fail. 

11) Haneen Al-Rous: Haneen joined the revolution because she was fed up with the status quo of Saleh's government. She was fed up with the nepotism that favors unqualified people in the few jobs available, the poverty that most of the population was living in and the corruption of the legal system that no longer serves its people but rather the elite. Haneen documented the revolution and created a group called "I am Yemeni: Freedom, Equality, Justice". Her hope is that Yemen becomes a country that Yemeni immigrants want to return to live in. 

12) Fatima Saleh: Fatima was a junior undergrad business student. When the revolution started, she decided to voice her growing frustrations against the government. Fatima joined the Revolution's Information Committee and the Media Center. She even prepared reports that were displayed on the revolution's website. Fatima wishes for a better Yemen where the population is well informed about their political rights and their role in creating their own future. 

13) Thourayah Mujahid: Thourayah is a reporter with Saba news and the vice president of the Yemeni Union of Anti-corruption and Transparency. During the revolution she hosted workshops training the youth about political empowerment and future planning. Thourayah also helped raise funds for the Service Committee. Her message to the Yemeni people: "resilience, and then some more resilience, and then patience. There must be sacrifice because this is a revolution and not a journey". 

14) Ghaida M. : Ghaida is a Masters studednt who began her career as an activist when she worked in the rural parts of Yemen. There, she witnessed the suffering and poverty of the Yemeni people. That part of the country lacks the most basic services like drinking water. she believes that the "Separatist Movement of the South" is nothing but a protest of the deteriorating conditions of the people. Ghaida was member of the Awareness Committee of the revolution and lead a blood drive after the massacre of Juma'at Al Karamah (the Friday of Pride). She wishes to see Yemen as a civil state with less power in the hands of the military. 

15) Raghda Jamal: Raghda was a participant in various informative and cultural activities in change square. She wrote a small collections of poems in English called "Lost in a Fairy Tale". Raghda dedicated a poem called "Sailor" to the revolutionaries and held a signing ceremony in the protest square. For the future, Raghda wants to have a country that she is proud of and she has full trust in the capabilities of the Yemeni youth. 

16) Huda Al-Asbahi: Huda opposed Saleh's government because it ruled with only one man at the top, leaving what was supposed to be a democratic country under the rein of an individual. She wants to see Yemen with a pluralist system that respects the diversity of opinons. She led a campaign that cleaned the change square. Furthermore, Huda participated in various marches and volunteered with the Medical Unit. Huda says that she is proud of Yemenis who are tribal in nature and heavily armed for displaying a peaceful and civil demeanor regardless of the bloodshed that occurred. Overall, Huda urges those who did not join the revolution to join it. 

17) Elham 'Alwan: Elham felt that a war was waged against her during the revolution. People ruined her reputation and accused her of having connections with the National Security and of being a mole amongst the revolutionaries. Elham explained that this accusation was the "shock of her life" especially after she dedicated so much time to organize and promote democracy with the Youth. She believe in the revolution; however, she became suspicious of corrupt figures who joined the revolution. She hopes that Yemenis try to understand each other better in the future in order to avoid further divisions. 

18) Sarah Al-Fa'iq: Sarah is utterly disappointed of the progress that Yemen made under Saleh's leadership, especially when she compares it to foreign and neighboring countries. She believes that Yemen has the resources and capabilities to be better than some states (and definitely better than this). Although she feared the rise of a civil war, Sarah participated full heartedly in the revolution. She conducted polls prior to Jum'at Al Karamah (Friday of Pride) to see if people living around change square were bothered by there presence. She began restructuring the protests in a way that pleases the people living in that area until the massacre of March 13th happened. She was disappointed to hear that some of the people she interviewed had a hand in the bloodshed. She ends with; "the revolution gave Yemen a new age and I hope to create a bright future for Yemen". 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Women Outside the Shadow - Part I

Photo via Boise Weekly

I recently stumbled on amazing piece of work by Ghaida Mutahar on Yemeni women during the revolution of 2011 (to read the Arabic version Click here). Mutahar called her paper "Women Outside the Shadow" and in it she presented to the world a group of pioneering women who are barely recognized for their activism and who remain unknown to the Yemeni populace. 
This work glorifies the role of 16 women as nonconformist political actors. The objective is to provide these women with a voice in the world, so we do not forget the capacity and achievements of Yemeni women during political turmoil. Mutahar is providing testimony so women are not forgotten again like they were in the struggle against the British colonizers and the Northern Imamate. 

In an attempt to honor these women, I will provide a brief summary of eight women today and the following eight tomorrow.  

1) Ghada Al 'Absi: She graduated in 2003 and attempted to pursue a higher degree in journalism; however she could not afford it. Ghada demanded an improvement in the quality of life and hopes that things change before she retires. On several occasions, she donated blood and other goods to Yemenis during the revolution and wrote various articles addressing the revolutionary youth. Ghada was accused by Islah members of being a spy and was detained in a tent. She hopes that that Yemen becomes a civil state; a nation that respects human rights without differentiating between individuals based on religion, ethnic background, or political ideology. 

2) Samar Al Jahmi: Samar's entire experience can be summarized as that of a victim of a very corrupt government. In 2003, Samar's cousin was killed by her husband who avoided imprisonment by bribing the judges. Prior to that, in 1994, her father (who was an immigrant) lost  a home he purchased in Al-Asbahi when the housing program was given to other individuals. Although Samar lives in Saudi Arabia, she helped the revolution by participating on websites and forums. Ofcourse, her dream is to improve Yemeni law in the future.

3) Sarah Al-Maqtari: Sarah is a radio host on FMShabab (FM Youth) and is the epitome of a nationalist. She feels betrayed by the government that failed to provide services to its humiliated population. Furthermore, Sarah was active on twitter, reporting to the world what happened on ground during the Yemeni revolution. She fears that the revolution maybe hijacked in the future by other groups who do not care about the future of the youth. 

4) Shatha Al-Harazi: Shatha reports a story of meeting the former Yemeni president, Saleh, and asking him to "leave" infront of his face. She is a reporter that worked with Yemen Times. Shatha portrayed the revolution as a humanist movement. During her life, Shatha lived under a dictatorship (Saudi), a democracy (UK), and a false democracy (Egypt) and she believes that she has the right to change the world that she lives in. She hopes to live in a world where individuals within a political system are not treated like divine beings. (FYI: Shatha Al-Harazi is one of the recipients of the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for 2012). 

5) Manal Al-Hammadi: Manal, a mother and an employee at the Global Fund against AIDS, has been a life long opposer of Saleh's regime. She has actively participated in the protests and engaged in dialogues with various groups. Manal fears that after the revolution unqualified personalities would rise to power. One of her biggest concerns is the economic recovery and the rebuilding of the Yemeni infrastructure. 

6) Ashwaq Al-Rabi'ey: Ashwaq is an administrative employee and a translator. She presented the news to the world in the English language and helped educate protestors about the use of social media during protests. She fears that political parties in Yemen would alter the objectives of the revolution and is proud that Yemeni population finally acquired the self-confidence need to demand a better life. She wishes reform in order to combat corruption. 

7) Basma Abdulfatah: Basma is a PhD. student who opposed Saleh's government due to its militaristic style. She argues that there was too much power in the hands of certain individuals. Basma helped take photographs of the protestors and is very optimistic about the future of Yemen; due to the revolution's cooperative ambience. 

8) Nadia Mor'ai: Nadia is a poet, journalist, and teaching assistant. She supported the revolution because it provided a peaceful exist to all the corruption and a hope for a new democratic beginning. Nadia participated in the protests, continuously updated her facebook, marched with women in opposition and recited poetry that she wrote on the revolution of 2011.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Job First

Photo via Oxfam

If you are a Yemeni women living in Sana'a or Aden, by the time you finish high school, half of your female classmates are married or have plans to marry. If you are a Yemeni women from a rural area, then the odds are you are not going to school. The poorer your family is and the more siblings you have, the more likely that you will be one of those girls that has a child by the age of 13. The girls that make it into university are fortunate, but many are preoccupied searching for a husband, not necessarily because they want one but rather because they want to fit the societal expectation. I read an article once that stated that girls who are not married by the age of 27 are considered spinsters in Yemen (and I think they were being generous). Some countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are launching campaigns against spinsterhood, such as "Say Yes to Marriage". In Yemen, there is no need for such campaign because by the age of 21, odds are a girl is married and with a couple children. 

While Yemeni society continues to obsess about marriage, the country continues its downward economic spiral. A recent report concluded that early marriage is a huge obstacle in the path of development. A political sociology professor at Sana'a University, Dr. Abdulbaqi Shamsan, recently told Yemen Times that Yemen's demographics are changing; 70% of the population is young and about 50% of it is female. When women marry young, they retire to their homes  leaving the country depleted from a much needed workforce. Moreover, these young brides are increasing the country's poverty rates (more than 50% already below poverty line) and often suffer from illnesses and malnutrition .  Reem Al-Najar, director of The Marriage and Safe Pregnancy Project in the Yemen's Women Union (YWU), shared with the newspaper that YWU will be launching a campaign to educate the public about the harms of child marriages. 

Unfortunately, awareness campaigns can only take you so far. What Yemeni women need are opportunities. The economic outlook for the upcoming period is extremely bleak. Many men will have to accept the idea of their wives working if it means that their quality of life would improve. With high unemployment rates, it is hard for uneducated women to compete with men in the market, especially since most of the female working force is not paid. The transitional government will provide more economic opportunities for the population especially if the port of Aden is revived.  Perhaps the next campaign should say "Work First, Marry later". Women need to know about their rights as workers and must demand equal pay for the work they do. To those ladies who are looking for a husband, who knows perhaps a husband will find you because economically, as a couple, you are a lot more likely to live better.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Should Yemeni Women Govern the Transitional Period?

I stumbled upon this op-ed by Abdullah Mahwari and I needed to share it. For the Arabic version, click here.  For a loose translation of the article, look below.  
Leave the Power to Women
By Abdullah Mahwari 
Monday, August 6, 2012 

All political sheikhs, party sheikhs and fatawa sheikhs must leave the political arena and take an open ended vacation and a comprehensive period for recovery and  self-reflection, away from the spotlight. They should leave the political arena to the Yemeni woman, the granddaughter of Queen Bilqis and Arwa,  and let her take charge on all fronts, for the interim period only. This is in order to allow male politicians (of all parties mentioned above) to arrange their papers, organize their files and hone their brave men for the upcoming elections.

Give women this critical transitional period because you, gentlemen, are not good at it at all. "May God bless a man who knows his limitations", believe me you will never regret this. For once in your lifetime confess that you are "futile with excellence" in crisis management and that you are not capable of this responsibility at the present time.

Admission of guilt is a virtue. We, the men, on the land of Bilqis (May she rest in peace) are unfit to rule. This is the truth that is obvious for everyone to see and it does not require intelligence to realize. Withdraw from political life! all of you with beards, guns and empty minds and leave the political ring for those who deserves it.  You who are futile with excellence, history will write that you are the worst rulers of Yemen over all the previous centuries. The Yemeni politician, and I mean the man, is money oriented who does not serve the country but rather his benefactor.  He is also selfish and lacks nationalism. We want a Yemeni woman to govern us; we want originality, sincerity, loyalty and honor  to lead us.  We want our leader, our teacher and our  symbol of pride among the nations to be a woman.

O men, disappear from the political scene and get out of the ministries and the parliament. Do independent work and form associations where you can trade lies and hypocrisy out of the political arena. Sell each other outside the country, and feed on each other outside of our homes and in private rather than on our audio-visual media. Do not ruin our children as you are not fit to be anyone's role model. Do not spoil our tastes with your ruddiness. We are done with your boring appearances, your yelling, your wars and your display of power on each other. We are fed up with your  meekness, your clock and dagger activities, you lack of chivalry, and your betrayal. You who are futile with excellence, disappear from our view.  
There are two ways to read this article; either this man appreciates the efforts of women, or he is attempting to insult men by telling them that women can do it better. I do not know the background of Abdullah Mahwari, so I cannot tell you where he stands. For those who choose to believe that he is flattering women, then this man is excellent in the politics of flattery. Most women, especially those who are actively involved in Yemeni politics, will feel honored by his words. I feel sincerity in Abdullah's frustrations with the Yemeni politicians, but I can not get over this line: "[men] should leave the political arena to the Yemeni woman and let her take charge on all fronts, for the interim period only". So, consider this a freudian slip. 

If you are one of those who consider his article a sarcastic stab at the guts of men, then he is making fun of women too. 

When the Yemeni revolution first took off, women took to the streets with men. They slept in tents, shouted the same slogans and protested the same nuisances as men. It was a period of uncertainty. While I watched from abroad, I could not predict what was to come. My biggest fear was that all of these women, who exerted a lot of time and effort for the sake of democracy, will be confronted by the same realities that the Egyptian women are facing now (not a single woman was appointed as a minister). I was exceptionally delighted when three women were chosen as ministers and many others were appointed on various advisory committees. My anxiety for women decreased and I worried about other things; effectively increasing women's participation in the parliament, education and the labor force. Although Abdullah Mahwari's article is dubious, I can't help but wonder if women are only doing the heavy lifting temporarily. So wise up women! and make sure that whatever you do in the following two years will carry into the future. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

A New War on Women?

Bushra Al-Maqtari 

"The Arab Awakening protest movement encouraged religious tolerance among its participants, while in some instances, the resulting political crisis provided a context that stoked existing religious tensions" - Yemen's Religious Freedom Report

Is it possible that the Arab Awakening opened doors for a new war on women? is there a new form of sexism that is declared in the name of religion?
Women all over the Middle East have been demanding political equality and while we await their democratic freedoms to expand, newspapers are reporting rapes from Libya, sexual assaults in Egypt and deaths in Syria. Sexism is not the least bit a phenomenon in the Middle East; however, the utilization of religion as a tool of war against women is becoming a trend.  Religion, which was once implemented with care and knowledge, is now used in most political conflicts. 

In Yemen, the political war between the Houthis and the government has become about religious ideology. Underneath the religious facade, it is mostly about power to rule. This war even invited unwanted political involvement from Iran and Saudi, threatening the security of the nation with a proxy war; all in the name of religious authenticity. This July, the United States Department of State released the International Religious Freedom Report for Yemen and declared that religious freedom in Yemen is not ideal yet not too problematic. The report focused on religious pluralism and sectarian violence, but it failed to recognize Yemeni women as victims of religious partiality. 

Should Yemeni women be fearful? Perhaps, if they are to choose to have a voice and challenge Yemeni culture. Case in point, Bushra Al-Maqtari, a 31 year-old divorcee from Taizz. Bushra, a journalist, wrote an article about the revolution. In this article, she expressed her thoughts about the bloody battle of Khidar (Dec. 2011) between the demonstrators and pro-Saleh forces. She shared her feelings by saying that she questioned whether God was witnessing everything. While some may agree and many may disagree, religious extremists in the country declared Bushra an infidel who questioned the existence of God. In response, Bushra clarified that she is believing Muslim and that she did not question the existence of God but rather his presence in all situations. Regardless, what Bushra wrote may be a reason for many people to dislike her, but what happened after that made this about all women. 

On January 29, 2011, a public fatwa was issued against Bushra declaring her an "unbeliever", a charge punishable by death. Over night, more than 70 Imams supported this fatwa without solid proof. It is not surprising that many individuals are following these fatwas blindly as the total literacy rate is a mere 45.3%. More recently, Bushra has been threatened more seriously and her reputation was tarnished on facebook and newspapers. Is Bushra going to be safe? lets hope her friends and family can protect her and that Yemenis have more sense than to hurt someone for their opinions.

This is what happens in the absence of a central government. Chaos takes over and at the moment women are in danger. Hurting women by questioning their honor and integrity is not a new political tactic. In fact, it is used globally. Adding radical religion to the equation is what makes this tactic threatening, not only to Yemeni women, but to men who hope to see Yemen prosper. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Muftah: Women’s Rights and Revolution in Yemen: A Local Perspective

By: Saleem Haddad*

The role of women in Yemen’s Arab Spring has shocked international observers. In a country where the cultural, political, and economic gaps between men and women are some of the largest in the world, women did not simply ‘join’ the protests but were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that powered the revolutionary movement.

In taking their politics to the street, these women challenged homogenized images of ‘Third World Women’ as powerless, docile, submissive, and in the case of Muslim women specifically, in desperate need of liberation by the West. At the same time, many Arab feminists approached women’s rights in the Arab Spring with trepidation, wary of liberal feminist discourses that helped justify military interventions in the Middle East,

To understand women’s involvement in the Arab Spring generally and in Yemen specifically, we need to shift away from globalized media narratives influenced by imperial discourses of the likes of Mona Eltahawy and move toward local modes of knowledge production. Examining discourses of emancipation articulated by women in their localized context is necessary both to genuinely address women’s rights and move beyond liberal interventionism in the region.

Nowhere is this truer than in Yemen, where decentralised politics makes it impossible to homogenize the experience and role of women in Yemen’s protest movement. To understand the Yemeni revolution from a gendered perspective, one must begin by looking at the differing local dynamics, which affected women’s participation. In Tai’z, for instance, women were front and centre in street politics and civil disobedience strikes, using the shame associated with threatening or attacking women to protect protesters from violence.

On the other hand, in the northern highlands of Sa’ada, where the Zaydi Houthi movement, and not the central government, has control, women were prohibited from demonstrating in the streets. Instead they conducted biweekly gatherings in schools and wrote anonymous letters to corrupt local council leaders. While women-only protests did exist, they occurred only when sanctioned and facilitated by the staunchly anti-regime, Houthi-run local authority. Many women jumped at the opportunity to attend these sessions both for political reasons and also because, for many, it was a rare chance to leave home for a social occasion.

In Sana’a, where tribal customs hold great sway, hundreds of women set fire to their veils in protest, a symbolic gesture used to appeal to tribesmen for support in desperate times. In doing so, these women ensured that the local tribes would take ownership of, and not be threatened by, the revolution.

In Aden, women navigated the complex politics of the city’s protest squares, where calls for revolution were intertwined with calls for secession. There, the Southern Issue—a set of political, social, economic, and historical grievances—formed the cornerstone of women’s calls for change. Women activists in the South have been frustrated with those in the North who dominate the discussions around ‘women’s rights’. According to a prominent woman activist in Aden, they “do not respect Southern women and the Southern Issue”.

In each of these instances, women have demonstrated a remarkable ability to carve out spaces of resistance, defying harassment and utilizing small openings to make their voices heard. Amongst this diversity, one commonality has consistently emerged: women activists throughout the country have insisted on articulating their struggle for equal rights within a broader revolutionary discourse calling for a ‘modern, civic state’ with ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ for all Yemeni citizens, regardless of gender, religion or geography.

This statement is simple, but subversive. Through this approach, women activists have placed themselves at the very centre of Yemen’s revolution, whose success now hinges upon the role these women will play in the coming years. Any regression in women’s rights will undoubtedly signal a failure of the revolution itself.

This not only embeds women within Yemen’s revolution, but also ties feminist discourses to wider systems of oppression. This is where international, liberal feminist approaches have failed. One cannot disaggregate the status of women in Yemen from the wider structures of oppression that drove hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to the streets. To support the role of women in the post-Arab Spring landscape one must not shy away from addressing the wider structures of economic and political oppression, which are undoubtedly complex and inevitably political.

By localising dissent and placing their calls for equality at the heart of the protest movement, women have also become targets. Violence against women during the Yemeni protests cannot be disentangled from wider counter-revolutionary objectives and attempts by more established forces to control, hijack, or weaken independent uprisings.

It is, therefore, no surprise that, in order to weaken the protest movement, the Islah party, a broad coalition of Islamists, descended onto the squares and segregated the sexes. Women were prevented from protesting with men. In Sanaa, for instance, women were forced to sit in a separate yard inside the square, covered by heavy curtainsand locked behind a thick iron gate.

While Islah members argued it was haram for men and women to mix publicly, this act also served to weaken and divide the protest movement that emerged in the first few months of 2011, and allowed Islah to control the squares. What better way to cut at the heart of calls for equality than by literally dividing the population in two under the false guise of religiosity?

A bottom-up approach to understanding gender dynamics helps us challenge liberal internationalist feminism that obfuscates more than it reveals. Similarly, approaching local articulations of feminism within the wider context of resistance against broader political, military and economic oppression is also necessary to ensure that feminist objectives are embedded within broader calls for resistance. In the end, we may find that it is not the broad sweeping statements, but the small localized spaces of resistance that we need to be watching.

In March 2012, a woman in Sa’ada, who had participated in the anonymous letter campaign to corrupt local officials, said in an interview, “I was dreaming of the day when I could raise my voice rather than write anonymous letters. With the protests I found I was able to say whatever I see to women during the festivals. But now that I’ve done this, a feeling inside me is growing everyday telling me that I am not satisfied. I am hungry for something more.”

*Saleem Haddad is a staff writer with Muftah.