Diving into the journalism ocean since 2008, Yemeni blogger and freelance writer, Afrah Nasser has been telling the untold stories about Yemen. Such stories had a high price for Nasser that she had to pay. She's been a political refugee in Sweden since May 2011 after receiving death threats for her anti-regime writings during Yemen's 2011 uprising.
People participate in a Yemeni protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S. February 2, 2017. Lucas Jackson/Reuters.
For Ayyad Algabyali, the struggle against President Donald Trump’s travel ban is personal.
The advocacy director with the Yemeni-American Merchants Association helps members of his community affected by the ban gain entry to the US. A naturalised American, Mr Algabyali, 22, came to New York City from Yemen at the age of eight to join his father, a US citizen who arrived in the country in the mid-1980s.
But his mother, who holds a Yemeni passport, has been stranded in Egypt for the past year and a half after going there to apply for an American visa – the US embassy in Yemen has been shut since 2014.
“Among the many applications I am working on at the moment is my own mother’s application,” said Mr Algabyali, who received his bachelor's degree at the end of May. “It pains me that she missed my graduation ceremony in New York because of the ban.”
Ayyad Algabyali/ by NBC Left Field.
Like many Yemeni-Americans, Mr Algabyali’s family has kept one foot in Yemen and one foot in the US, travelling back and forth over the years.
His mother had never left Yemen until – seeking to escape the war – she went to Egypt for her visa.
“For my mother, it was extremely important that my siblings and I were raised in Yemen so we would be close to our heritage and traditions,” Mr Algabyali said. “So she never had the need to apply for US citizenship ... before the war.”
Her visa application has been rejected despite her qualifying for a waiver from the travel ban – but she continues to apply.
The waivers are granted at the US consul’s discretion, based on whether the applicant’s entry to the US is in the national interest, does not pose a security threat and denying it would cause undue hardship.
The travel ban applies to five other Muslim-majority countries besides Yemen – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Chad – as well as North Korea and Venezuela. But it has had the biggest effect on Yemenis, says Iman Boukadoum, senior staff lawyer at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“The ban on Yemenis has meant an absolute devastation of a population that’s already suffering the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” she said.
Ms Boukadoum has been handling dozens of cases where Yemeni Americans are trying to reunite with loved ones, obtain urgent medical care or even see a dying relative.
“What’s complicated about the travel ban is that it doesn’t only affect Yemeni Americans and Yemenis who live in the US, but also people who live outside the US.
There are tens of thousands of Yemenis stuck in Djibouti, Malaysia, Egypt and other places who are denied entry while having legitimate reasons to come to the US.”
Yemenis have a long history in the US, with the first immigrants arriving in the 1860s.
Precise figures are scarce, but Americans of Yemeni origin are believed to number about 70,000, about 2 per cent of the 3.6 million Arab American population.
Despite their relatively small numbers and no previous history of political organisation, the Yemeni American community has played a significant role in opposing the travel ban and anti-Muslim hate speech.
This is particularly the case in New York City, where Yemeni Americans are the largest group among citizens with origins in countries affected by the travel ban.
“Within just a few days of the ban coming into effect on February 2, 2017, we managed to organise a strike and rally in New York, where about 1,000 Yemeni-American-owned shops and delis shut down for a day in protest against the travel ban,” said Debbie Almontaser, a founding member of Yama.
“We expected a maximum of 2,000 people to join the rally but 6,000 people showed up. We were blown away.”
How it Started- Yemeni American Merchants Associatio (YAMA) - YouTube
About half of the estimated 10,000 small convenience shops in New York, known locally as bodegas, are owned by Yemeni-Americans.
Despite their long history in the country, Yemeni-American business owners did not have an official group until the travel ban, which triggered the formation of Yama.
Ms Almontaser attributes the current mobilisation of the community to two factors: the war in Yemen, which has raged since 2015 and raised fears among many that they might never be able to visit Yemen again; and the travel ban, the biggest political challenge they have faced.
“There used to be a Yemeni-American association for the last 40 years that didn’t do anything substantial and eventually faded away,” Ms Almontaser said.
“But the war in Yemen and the travel ban posed a wake-up call for many.”
Most Yemenis living in the US were not much interested in forming organisations to represent them.
For many, the objective was to stay in the US for a few years, work hard, live frugally and ultimately return to Yemen with their savings.
“Basically, so many Yemeni Americans never saw themselves as US citizens even if they were already American citizens,” Ms Almontaser said.
“Although the strike didn’t end the travel ban, it made the Yemeni-American community realise their agency in this country and the influential political role they could play. We had to be more organised and established Yama immediately.”
Yama's campaign for Yemeni Americans’ rights has received great recognition and support from other organisations and politicians.
In April 2019, Yama launched its second biggest civic action: an indefinite boycott of the New York Post following the newspaper’s attack on Somali-born congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The Yemeni-owned bodegas refused to sell the Post in their shops after the newspaper published a front page that showed a picture of World Trade Centre towers on fire with a quote from the Muslim congresswoman.
Ms Omar was one of the keynote speakers at Yama’s first annual gala dinner in February. Revealing that her mother was originally from Yemen, she praised the Yemeni-American community and the political mobilisation led by Yama.
“The work that was getting done in New York was going to be one that transformed the conversation,” Ms Omar said. “Because when people saw 5,000 Yemeni merchants and their neighbours rising up, they knew that Muslims here in the United States were not playing; that we were no longer going to sit on the sidelines. That we weren’t afraid and that we recognised our power.”
Ms Omar was one of the keynote speakers at Yama’s first annual gala dinner in February.
Ms Omar has been one of the foremost voices calling to repeal the ban. In April, she declares support for the National Origin-Based Anti-discrimination for Non-immigrants Act, also known as the No Ban Act, introduced by Democratic senator Chris Coons and representative Judy Chu. The bill aims to end to the Muslim travel ban and change the standard by which presidents can invoke such a ban in the future.
Among the 400 organisations supporting the proposed law is the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a an NGO in San Francisco. “The No Ban Act to date seems like most promising bill, especially as 2020 is coming around," said founding member Jehan Hakim said, hoping that the presidential candidates make repealing the ban an immigration policy priority.
Rowaida Abdelaziz, an Arab-American reporter on Muslim civil rights at the Huffington Post, said it remained to be seen whether the bill will pass, but it is very difficult to argue the travel ban has served the US national security interest.
“The travel ban isn’t keeping the US any safer. Rather, it made our national security even worse,” she told The National, noting that the ban has thrown many American families into chaos.
“I know this young Yemeni-American mother who just had a baby and was unable to reunite with her husband – a Yemeni national – so she decided to take her baby and move to Yemen because she couldn’t take the distance and raising a child on her own,” Ms Abdelaziz said.
“So this is an American citizen, born and raised here and not feeling fully protected in her own country. She was forced to make that decision, which essentially meant that she has now put her life and her baby's life in danger.”
___________________________________________________ *This feature was first written for/published in The National newspaper on the June 16, 2019.
On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.
Before you keep on reading, please do understand that I am not aiming to bash or glorify Sweden. I am simply sharing my experience of living in Sweden since mid-2011. As a journalist from Yemen, I have seen how it’s been difficult to convince the world that there are good things about Yemen beside the bad; same problem I find when I try to convince the world that there are bad things about Sweden beside the good. So, please put all the stereotypes aside for a moment.
Sweden is a great country, and like anywhere else, it has the good and the bad. It’s never perfect, just like nowhere else is perfect. There are many issues about Sweden that are so true but we never talk about, especially among the international media; such as racism, discrimination, poverty, Sweden’s Arms Industry, etc. I tried a couple of times to write about Sweden in English and Arabic. I was shocked by the level of hatred and threats I received online by Sweden’s far-right wing.
“Go back to your home in Yemen”, “You should have been in Yemen and married off when you were a child”, “Go back to your Al Qaeda country, you terrorist”, these are some of the comments or messages I used to receive when I “dared” to speak about Sweden.
So, I kept quiet, while knowing that my silence won’t protect me, as Audre Lorde once said.
I was very inspired when a group of Swedish writers and journalists made an online campaign denouncing the hateful and death-threats they were receiving online. I recognized that the problem was massive.
After being a political refugee in Sweden for about four years, by July 2015, I became a Swedish citizen. It was the same time the war broke out in my home country, Yemen. I had a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. I was dying for that moment to come - of having the Swedish passport so I could fly to Yemen to see my family, but I couldn’t because of the war and the blockade imposed on the country. I had to postpone my plan indefinitely. Meanwhile, I was happy that I was a Swedish citizen and finally can vote. On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.
Google celebrating the National Day of Sweden, today.
The far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats political party has been gaining popularity over the years. When I first arrived in Sweden, they used to be a small group. Today, they are the third-biggest party in the Swedish parliament. I used to underestimate the rising climate of racism in Sweden until I saw how one of my own close friends from Yemen, who came to Sweden seeking refuge, has joined the white-supremacist Sweden Democrats. He’s been promoting all their fascist propaganda without reflecting of how he himself is everything that group doesn’t want to see in Sweden.
The rise of white-supremacist, far-right, populist, fascist tends is global.
Sweden is part of the globe.
I appreciate all the friendships I have made in Sweden with Swedish, Ethiopian, Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Turkish, Somalian, French, Serbian, German, Iranian, Roman, Eritrean, El Salvador, Spanish, Portuguese, Afghani, Egyptian, Palestinian and many other nationalities. It’s like the whole world lives in Sweden. Statistically, about 25% of Sweden’s 10 million population has a total or partial birth-connection with another country besides Sweden, but I would go as far and estimate that it’s almost half of the country.
Sweden is so diverse culturally and I love it!
Then, there’s the problem of integration vs. assimilation. I try not to care much about that — all I care about is to live in Sweden in the way I want to live, with freedom and dignity. I am experienced in that, as I had my Ethiopian roots with me while growing up in Yemen.
Naturally, anywhere you live in, you’d need to speak the language of the place. So I was enrolled in the free-of-charge Swedish language class, what we call in Sweden as “SFI”. The SFI class is an interesting experience for many expats, immigrants and others. Since day one, I noticed how ill-structured the classes were. From putting students with widely different academic backgrounds (like B.A. degree holders and illiterate individuals) to teachers wasting time on things irrelevant to teaching Swedish language. During my four years in the SFI school, I only had one excellent teacher who focused on teaching us pedagogically the Swedish language. The rest were somehow obsessed with assimilation topics. For instance, we had one teacher who kept asking us about feminism and women’s issues in the Arab and Muslim world.
“You do hit women in your region, but we don’t do that in Sweden,” she would tell us in the class.
Well, I am a feminist but I don’t see the use of taking a pedagogic session time about the Swedish language to lecture us about feminism.
Most importantly, the teacher’s attitude was so condescending.
I have learnt more Swedish language from reading Tove Jansson’s children books, speaking to drunk old men at bus stations or TV and radio, than at the SFI classes.
Believe it or not, it is difficult to speak Swedish with Swedes. Once they notice you speak broken Swedish, they switch to English which they love to do as it allows them to practice their English. They think English is so cool. They speak English fluently. However, at job interviews, Swedes don’t find the English language so cool.
It is so difficult to find a job in Sweden — with basic or even advanced Swedish, it doesn’t matter really. What matters is how much working experience you have in Sweden. But how am I going to have working experience if you, Sweden, doesn’t allow me to have an opportunity to get that experience in the first place?
I have submitted countless job applications and almost all the time I don’t even hear back from them with any feedback — even the rejection. I remember one woman taxi driver from Iran who drove me once to a TV interview I made in the Swedish TV building. She told me how she has a degree in engineering from Iran but taxi driving was the only job she could find in Sweden. This made me remove from my CV all the details about all the Swedish and international awards I’ve received for my journalism work. I even started to consider working as a taxi driver or waitress. I have tremendous respect for all taxi drivers and waitresses — and, surely, these jobs are nothing to be ashamed of.
I know my potential and I keep asking myself, why in Sweden am I feeling this unworthiness? Why am I constantly economically struggling? Why the Swedish system doesn’t allow me to fulfil my fullest potentials, find a job and feel settled? Something about the system keeps you as an outsider. Dating in Sweden? I've given up a long time ago.
One of my last attempts to feel that I fit in Sweden, I contacted the Swedish public service, SVT, inquiring if they’d be interested in an op-ed by me about my experience with the Swedish language. They politely told me they weren’t interested.
It is my fourth time to celebrate the Swedish National Day as a Swedish citizen and I am still struggling to fit in and feel Swedish and, most importantly, be seen as a full Swedish citizen.
Maad al-Zekri, Yemen’s first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize tells what happened to him over a phone call from Egypt:
Yesterday was a big day for me and my colleagues, Maggie Michael, and Nariman El-Mofty. It was the award ceremony for us to receive the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, in New York City in the United States. As a team of Associated Press journalists, Michael, El-Mofty and I have done about 14 stories from Yemen, covering a wide range of issues; like, the U.S. drone strikes on Yemen, the UAE’s secret prions in Yemen and Houthi military recruitment of children, among many other stories.
We actually won other awards as well for our reporting, not only the Pulitzer Prize. Generally speaking, because of the great security threats I face from the different warring parties, very often, I have put away publishing my name on stories I worked on.
Maad al-Zekri with Maggie Michael, Yemen 2018.
I wasn’t able to join my colleagues in NYC and celebrate this important achievement because I was denied entry to the United States. As all embassies are shut down in Yemen, I had to travel to the closest country to Yemen and apply for the visa in a U.S. embassy. So, two months ago, I visited Egypt and applied for the visa. My application was supported by so many letters from high-ranked institutions in the U.S.; like the State Department and the Congress. And yet, my application was rejected.
The embassy told me that the reason was that Yemen was ranked as a place that has terrorism. AP exerted the fullest pressure on the embassy and we planned that I apply again. My second application required that I meet an American Counselor. I explained that Yemen wasn’t a terrorist country and I asked, “Does the U.S. embassy think that a Yemeni investigative journalist doing reporting for AP is a terrorist? Are you saying that I am a terrorist?”
It was baffling to me. As a Yemeni citizen, I know how we Yemenis are the first victims of terrorism. Terrorists in Yemen are foreigners who come from outside. They exploit the deteriorating security situation in Yemen and use that for their own interests.
I was told by the American Counselor that they would work on my application and I should expect the visa anytime - even one day before the award ceremony. So, I waited and waited - and waited. And till now, I heard nothing from them.
Last night, I had a beautiful surprise when my colleagues Michael and El-Mofty video-called me on Facetime as they were receiving the award on stage. Somehow, seeing Michael and El-Mofty and the audience's standing ovation made me feel like I was there with them. It was a delightful surprise! So grateful that I am working with these ladies.
I don’t know what to say about the wonderful messages I’ve been receiving from relatives, friends, journalists (and especially American journalists) and people from Yemen and around the world. So heartwarming! Not being able to travel to the U.S. and receive the award in person was disappointing to me but it also made me realize all this solidarity I have as a Yemeni journalist and citizen. I do journalism not expecting to get awards, rather to shed light on this impoverished land, my country, Yemen. The love and support I’ve been receiving give me more energy to keep up my work.
My message to the U.S. administration is that it has to rethink its policies against Yemen and Yemenis. One of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in the tragic condition it has reached to today is the U.S. administration's long-standing devastating policies on Yemen. They must rethink that. The rift has been immense.
The US has played a major role in fomenting violence across Yemen, backing the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led forces attacking the country while also conducting a direct war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula under the guise of counterterrorism. But while it’s understandable that US involvement is the top focus for the American left, understanding the war in Yemen requires a much broader analysis. The Yemeni conflict not only includes multiple outside actors but also multiple groups of Yemenis pursuing different outcomes, rooted in a complex history that a few outside of Yemen understands.
Explaining that context is what this show, in partnership with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), is all about. This special episode includes two interviews with contributors to the Middle East Report, MERIP’s print publication. First, up is Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser and political scientist Stacey Philbrick Yadav; and then, Dan speaks with political-economist Adam Hanieh.
Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yet they continue to struggle for their rights and representation.
To continue reading this article, please subscribe with MERIP here.
Iran is likely to use the Houthis to give Saudi Arabia and by extension the US, a bloody nose - ruining any chance for peace in the process.
*Last week witnessed a significant escalation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi rebels, eroding around six months of discussions in Yemen following the Yemen Peace Talks in Sweden at the end of 2018.
The latest deadly episode in the four-year conflict was a Saudi-UAE airstrike attack on Sanaa, in retaliation for Houthi drone strikes on Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, near the Straits of Hormuz, and drone attacks on two Saudi oil pumping stations west of the capital Riyadh.
The Houthi Defence Ministry stated that the recent drone strikes came as the first shot of a military operation which includes a list of 300 targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Even the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who is known to be optimistic, expressed serious concerns about the Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities, and admitted that recent developments “affect the political process".
“Affect” seems too soft a word to describe the potential fallout from the recent military confrontations, especially when one places it within the context of the war of words raging between the United States and Iran, and Washington’s efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero.
Recent developments have severely undermined all peace efforts following the talks in Sweden, and have revealed the true nature of the military sophistication of the Houthis.
The huge focus on resolving the conflict in Hodeidah has only posed as a distraction from the other major emerging conflict in the country. The UN recently announced that the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa ports has begun and in parallel both the Houthis and the Yemeni government have initiated discussions over the economic provisions of the Hodeida Agreement.
These steps would seem positive ones only if new major fighting fronts did not emerge; such as the Houthi drone strikes against Saudi Arabia, the ground fighting in Hajjah, Taiz and Al Dhale, among other areas in Yemen, causing more civilian casualties, and the fact that the fight against famine and cholera is still not over.
The failure to completely resolve the Hodeidah battle means that we are now back to square one. UN peace efforts will remain limited in what they can achieve because international dynamics tend to play a more decisive role in the trajectory of the conflict and its resolution.
We have seen that with the Qatar Crisis and Al Jazeera, unshackled from Saudi-UAE pressure, broadcasting nonstop coverage on the atrocities in Yemen, eventually influencing public opinion.
The Jamal Khashoggi killing and the international movement and sentiment that followed has played a significant role, along with many other matters, bringing about peace talks in Sweden.
Nothing enhances or undermines peace efforts in Yemen as much as external factors do.
Evolved military capacity
While UN peace efforts have been impeded, there has been an opportunity for the Houthis to reposition themselves and improve their ballistic missile technology - primarily obtained from assassinated former president Saleh’s air munitions.
In other words, crippling peace efforts helped the Houthis buy time to enhance their military force.
In November 2017, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia’s capital, which was intercepted. In July last year, Houthis attacked two Saudi ships near the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandeb strait without inflicting significant damage. Then, in January this year, the Houthis launched drone strikes attacking a military parade run by the Yemeni government in Yemen’s southern province of Lahaj, killing several military officials.
Recent Houthi drone strikes, however, are different. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of 'ordering' the attack, something the Saudis didn’t do in the previous incidents. The geopolitical dimension in this war is slowly coming to the fore.
Stuck between the US and Iran
Amidst the economic, proxy, and information wars between the US (and its close allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Iran, Yemen is a battleground for them all. Iran’s desire not to go into a direct military confrontation with the US or Saudi Arabia has only meant that it has a desire to confront through proxy, with Yemen and the Houthis as its trump card.
With little or no evidence that Iran was militarily supporting the Houthis, the Saudis imposed themselves in this war. As it raged on, the Saudi claim has come true.
Iran’s influence throughout the war has dramatically increased - which is crucial to understanding the conflict’s direction. An investigation by Conflict Armament Research points out that some “Iranian technology transfers to Houthi rebels”.
In his first interview with his channel, al Masirah TV, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al Houthi last month did not deny or confirm direct military support. He asserted, however, that Houthis receive 'how-to' military teaching from some friends.
Objectively, whether militarily or diplomatically, the Saudi-UAE coalition enjoys global goodwill and support while the Houthis have only the support of Iran and Hezbollah. Attacking Saudi oil facilities – claimed by Houthis – and the Iran-US crisis is connected. It's impossible to believe the timing is coincidental.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated the attacks, as a Norwegian insurers’ report indicates. For Iran’s convenience and in line with its cautious strategy, it wants to show a military operation which is strong enough to shock but not pull them into a full-scale military confrontation. There is no better tool for that than Yemen and the Houthis.
The logical conclusion is that the higher the tensions between the US and Iran, the more Iran will use Yemen as a battleground to antagonise the US and its partner, Saudi Arabia.
All UN diplomatic efforts seem futile, as international actors involved in the conflict continue to shape it through their rivalries. Unless we witness a drastic shift in these states, greater violence is coming.
*This aricle was first written for/published on TRT World website, 21st of May, 2019.
During my early childhood in Sana’a, in the 1990s, the idea of gender equality was confusing to me. On the one hand, my mother was teaching me how women must fight for their rights. On the other hand, outside of the home, concepts like “gender equality” or “feminism” were portrayed in a negative light. I recall that, in secondary school, our female teacher told our class how “equality” between the sexes was a notion manufactured by the West to destroy Arab and Muslim communities. I also recall how my religious neighbour urged me to accompany her to a women-only Quran study group in the nearby mosque. We would go and listen to a sheikha (female religious leader) explaining how “gender equality” and “feminism” were against Islam, and how Allah wanted men and women to have different and unequal roles and responsibilities.
When I started college, however, I became exposed to a different kind of discourse about women’s rights. Both the independent press and events about women’s rights, organised by pro-democracy local civil society organizations (CSOs), opened my eyes to Yemen’s feminist women. Women’s rights advocates in political positions or leading CSOs, such as Radhya Shamsheer, Amat al-Alim Alsoswa, Raufa Hassan, or Amal Basha, speaking eloquently about women’s activism in Yemen, have all been crucial in shaping my feminist consciousness. They were working on issues like child marriage, gender-based violence, discriminatory laws, and women’s political participation, among many other things.
The word feminism, though, was not always explicitly used because it was dangerous and antagonising.
For instance, in 1999, leading feminist figure Raufa Hassan was subjected to an aggressive religious attack over her work and was eventually forced to leave the country. The anti-feminist backlash from some influential religious members of parliament and conservative clerics compelled most feminists to adopt a more pragmatic approach to their activism and to use less antagonising labels, such as women’s empowerment advocates. Only a handful would fearlessly continue to call themselves feminists. They were all involved in the same feminist struggle, to be sure.
Yemen’s modern history has never seen a coherent and consistent women’s movement, but rather temporary and fragmented movements with different priorities, such as women’s struggle against human rights violations, and feminists’ focus on combating patriarchal tribal structures that discriminated against women. They all stemmed from genuine concerns for human rights and democracy.
In the country’s modern history, three major events have influenced these struggles and women’s political rights: 1) the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, 2) Yemen’s uprising in 2011, and 3) the war that has been ongoing since 2015.
When the two Yemeni states unified in 1990, a reform of the family law took place that was considered an advancement for Northern and a setback for Southern women, as the South had already introduced more progressive women’s rights than the North, for instance, legal equality in family affairs.
Then, in the wake of the 2011 uprising, women fought hard for greater and more effective political participation, eventually achieving an unprecedented 30 per cent quota for women in Parliament.
Women also took part in the Constitution Drafting Committee for the first time in the State’s history.
WHERE WOMEN’S POLITICAL RIGHTS STAND TODAY
Yet, today, all these advancements in the name of women’s rights have been eroded. As the four-year-long war rages on, the political system as a whole has descended into chaos and the push for women’s representation has shifted from political institutions to diplomacy and advocacy.
During the time from the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, the formal political process has ground to a halt. Militarisation has meant a significant loss for women’s political voice and role in decision-making. In fact, the discussion of women’s political rights in Yemen right now, in its current apocalyptic state, seems an extravagant thought.
The conflict has made Yemen the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Millions of lives are threatened by famine, but the heaviest toll is taken on women and girls of childbearing age. Females are facing a rise in child marriages and a 63 per cent increase in violence against them. With dozens of women detainees held in Houthi rebel prisons, facing torture and abuse, the conflict has destroyed some of the tribal safeguards that protected women from abduction or imprisonment. In Taiz, women activists are a target of Houthi bullets. Across many cities, women agonise over their missing male relatives and are barely able to feed their starving children.
What I lament the most is that pre-war Yemen, with all its institutional injustices against women, had nevertheless overtaken Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in its advancement of women’s rights – progress that today is basically undone. Over the course of the Yemeni war, women in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have witnessed some positive developments, such as the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia and an increase in women’s political representation in the UAE, while Yemenis are facing the decline of their rights and freedoms. This is a very important comparison as the disastrous bombing of Yemen is carried out by no other than its neighbours: Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Independent press and CSOs have disappeared as a venue to raise awareness about women’s empowerment. Journalists, activists and aid workers have been harassed, attacked, and/or made to disappear by all warring parties. The space for civil action has shrunk drastically. Voices that dare to speak out in support of women’s rights are effectively being silenced.
WOMEN ARE FIGHTING BACK
Yemen Peace talks in Kuwait, 2016.
Meanwhile, women are pushing back. At the grassroots level, with some 12,000 men arrested and more than 3,000 forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters, and daughters of those abducted have begun to gather in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities in search of their sons, fathers, or brothers. They have organised themselves as a collective named “Mothers of Abductees Association.” At the political level, UN Women has supported the establishment of the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, which calls for women’s inclusion in the political dialogue and peace process.
In addition, Yemeni women’s political activism has been supported by the three UN Special Envoys for Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and currently Martin Griffiths, over the past eight years. In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – on the full involvement and equal participation of women in conflict resolution processes – Griffiths has ensured the presence of women in the Yemeni peace talks in Kuwait, Geneva, and Stockholm through consultancy groups.
Even though Yemen has not witnessed a strong women’s movement in recent history, women have become an important pillar in the formation of a new democratic Yemen since the 2011 uprising. Their activism under the difficult circumstance of continuing conflict has played an important role in shedding light on gross human rights violations and in peace advocacy. The future of Yemeni women depends on the future of Yemen. Women activists will therefore not rest until the country is back on its feet and peace prevails. Within the space available to them, Yemeni women are looking to achieve something that is worth the world’s solidarity.
With Yemeni activist and lawyer, Huda al-Sarari at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 2017.
I was very delighted to hear the news that Yemeni activist and lawyer, Huda al-Sarari won the 2019 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity for her brave activism and speaking out against the torture in secret prisons in Southern Yemen. The Aurora Prize, warded on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, is an annual international humanitarian award recognizing individuals or organizations for humanitarian work.
It's such a bittersweet moment for Huda - who I have the fortune to call her a friend - because the award comes less than a month after the passing of her teenager son in Aden following a serious bullet injury he sustained during a violent protest in Aden in March this year.
Huda has done outstanding work under extremely difficult conditions. While documenting cases of grave human rights abuses in secret prisons in the south of Yemen, Huda faced death threats, harassment and brutal defamation campaign. Referring to the danger Huda has been subjected to, the Aurora Prize cites a Middle East Eye-feature titled "Yemeni woman activist refuses to give up following death threats" that I authored in 2017 about Huda's work.
A demonstration in Aden demanding "Justice for the prisoners and justice for the innocent" with pictures of those detained held up (Photo courtesy of Huda al-Sarari).
I've been working as a journalist for more than a decade, experiencing work as a full-time staff reporter and as an independent freelance journalist. The latter type has been the most difficult because it has so many challenges.
Writing that piece about Huda was very important for me but it took so long time until my editors were convinced about the significance of the story. Very often, like what happened while pitching this story, I'd spend 70% of my time convincing some of my editors. Meaning, the process of writing one feature, like the one about Huda, won't only consist of writing the story. No. I'd need so long time (days or weeks) to convince my editor to approve commissioning the story - and then, I'd start writing. That often leads to an extreme delay in getting the story out and burning me out.
I am so so happy that Huda is receiving this recognition as it also makes me feel happy that my perseverance in pushing for her story to be out didn't go in vain.
Yemen isn't underreported in media just like that. It's underreported partially because there is a deliberate decision to ignore it - and dismiss its people's stories. I have so many stories about many Yemenis doing great things but I am frustrated with how I must push so hard to get just one story out, like Huda's story.
I am also fortunate to have some of the most supportive and understanding editors whom I cherish very much. Thank you so much, guys.
I think it's important for editors and publications to believe, trust and support Yemeni journalists who typically would bring untold stories about their community so people like Huda could also receive the recognition they deserve.