In February 2011, Umm Hashim, a 45-year-old mother, and resident of Yemen’s capital Sanaa was glued to her television. For hours she watched the opposition channel Suhail broadcast images of injured protesters being rushed into the makeshift field hospital in Change Square. As tears rolled down her face, she vowed to go to Change Square and help in any way she could. Today, one year later, Umm Hashim has become one of the managers of the field hospital in Change Square who administers volunteers and checks on the medical supplies.
In some instances, women’s participation challenged cultural taboos. In a country where reputation is at the heart of many cultural practices, women of the revolution began challenging some of these traditions by sleeping at the square. Traditionally it is not accepted for women to sleep outside their home without a guardian. A handful of female protesters and volunteers at the medical committee spent many nights in change square without their male guardians.
Another interesting change is the acceptance of Tawakkul Karman’s photo in public places. In a society where a woman’s appearance is not commonly seen on large billboards (with the exclusion of television and business advertisements), the Nobel peace prize winner and Islah member’s photo has spread throughout change square. Her image has become a new fashion brand. Tawakkul mugs, posters, clocks, pens, and key chains are sold in various corners of the square. In the midst of a male qat chew, tough traditional men chew in a tent decorated by her photo. This symbolism represents the baby steps women are taking to regain full equality and recognition in society.
For some, like Nadia, a 22-year-old volunteer in Change Square, this type of participation in the public sphere is their first. “In the early days of the revolution, my father told me that I was not allowed to go to Change Square, so I began sneaking out of the house without letting him know. I had a strong conviction that participating in the revolution is my Islamic duty. After a month, my father found out about my participation, but allowed me to continue going and said he was proud of me,” she explained.
For other women such as Umm Khaled Al-Hamdani, a 35-year-old mother, her participation was life-changing. She promised to continue volunteering as a way to give back to the community even after the revolution is over.
It is important however, not to take what we see on the surface as an indication of a cultural revolution. One cannot romanticize these personalized gains nor confuse them with something greater, unless the women’s movement will capitalize on them and push them further.Instead, a deeper examination of women’s rights is necessary. While some very basic cultural taboos have been challenged or questioned, none of the major cultural practices that stand in the way of women’s rights were addressed. These include the selective use of religion to exclude women and the politicization of women’s rights. In addition, deep-rooted cultural beliefs will take years to transform. For example, some men have proudly accepted women’s participation and have shown a great deal of admiration for the women leaders of the revolution, while many feel the need to define them as “manly” in order to accept their leadership positions. Many male supporters of Karman or Boushra Al-Maqatary feel the need to describe them using masculine terminology, stating that they are “more manly than 1,000 men.”Patriarchy continues in the square
After former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s infamous speech denouncing the mixing of men and women, the people in the square were instantly divided on reaction methods. Certain elements in the movement reacted by “proving” that mixing does not occur in the square, something that is factually incorrect. A popular song blasted in the square called Saleh a “liar, liar” for accusing the protesters of mixing.
Others wanted to show that there is nothing wrong with mixed marches and attempted to do that the next day. Some of these women were then beaten by members of the square’s organizational committee (controlled by Islah hardliners) and assisted by some military personnel from the First Armored Brigade, who had joined the protesters and vowed to provide protection.
None of the Islah leadership condemned the attacks and physical beating of the female activists, but when Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Islah party used her prize in their political campaigns as an example of their promotion of women’s rights. Time and time again, women’s rights proved to be a political tool used by both the opposition and the ruling party with no real promotion of women’s agenda.
Deep-rooted cultural beliefs will take years to transform.
The selective use of religion to exclude women has not been publicly questioned or debated to the extent necessary. Recently, some Imams resorted to the use of takfir against Boushra al-Maktary, novelist and activist who lead the peaceful march from Taiz city to Sanaa, after an article she published titled “First Year Revolution.” The Imams along with some hardliners began a campaign against her via mosque sermons, articles tarnishing her reputation, death threats, and a march to her house condemning her actions. Given Boushra’s declared socialist leanings, some hardliners found her liberal background to be an easy target. This illustrates that women from a liberal background face numerous challenges not only from the state but also from religious institutions.
On the other hand, Imams on the stage of Change Square encouraged more women to join the revolution. “You do not need the permission of your husband or father to come to the square, because this is a struggle for justice,” said one Imam on stage.
However, on two different occasions, different Imam prohibited women from marching. “My dear sisters, today is a male march, it is your duty to stay inside and protect the tents,” he said. Of course, not all Imams on stage were negative towards women’s rights. Many other Imams encouraged women’s participation and recited various stories of active women in Islamic history. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that both hardliners and progressive religious scholars are present and both have openly addressed women’s issues from their own different perspectives.
The stage where these speeches are made is placed in the heart of the square, serving also as the media hub. As a result, it is at the epicenter of internal conflict between independents and Islah hardliners controlling it. Numerous disagreements arose but with time and constant negotiations, compromises were made. What was not negotiated was the segregation between men and women in the area surrounding the stage.
At first, there was no barrier between women and men near the stage. On March 8, when women celebrated international women’s day, men and women were seated near each other with only a human barrier to separate them.
With time, the human barrier was replaced by a thin blue rope to separate the women’s section, then a blue curtain and eventually a wooden wall and a metal door.
While some women protested this “cage,” others believed it was not the time to struggle against it. One female women’s rights activist from Aden said that protesting against this cage was not a priority when people are dying, adding, “It’s not the time to complain about this wall, it would be too petty of us to do so now.”
Spring or Winter?
There is no doubt that women’s participation was a leading factor in the movement. This, however, does not mean that taking part in the protests has led to greater participation in social and organized political life. The revolution alone has not been the remedy for women’s exclusion from society as many media and experts claim.
As is exemplified by the low number of women in the “national unity government,” if women do not push for a stronger women’s agenda, they may, in fact, take a backseat in the future. In that case, the gains made in the revolution may become peripheries in the long run.
Women lost a golden opportunity in the past year to turn these political calls into a true cultural revolution, but there is still an opportunity to guarantee legal rights in the transitional period. This realization has pushed activists to hold events such as the march entitled “no spring without women” and to work together for the national women’s conference in order to set a unified agenda on priorities for the next two years.
Women have an opportunity to guarantee their rights through legal reforms by capitalizing on the vague and general stipulations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative. The GCC only stated that women should be represented “appropriately” in the national unity government. But, it also stated that women should be part of all the committees formed including the military, GCC initiative, communication, constitutional, and national dialogue committees.
Women should also make use of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2014. This resolution calls “upon all concerned parties to ensure the protection of women and children, to improve women’s participation in conflict resolution and encourages all parties to facilitate the equal and full participation of women at decision-making levels.” Yemeni women should also take advantage of the international conventions signed and ratified by Yemen as references for equal participation between men and women.
The interplay between current government actors, tribal and religious leaders, and members of the women’s movement, and the extent of the movement’ ability to use this window of opportunity to advocate for its interests will determine whether a real spring will flourish in Yemen.
*First published in Al-Akhbar