Only one female lawmaker in parliament, nearly 60 percent of women are illiterate
Sana'a — "My face is not shameful; I have every right to walk in the street without covering my face and not be cursed or harassed by people," posted a 20-year-old Yemeni girl on her Facebook page. Her comment drew mixed reactions, reflecting Yemenis' polarized positions regarding women's rights.
“You are right and we all stand by you,” posted Yusif Saleh, adding “Who said women’s faces are shameful?
But another responder, Mohammed Ali, felt very differently. “You can’t under any circumstances call into question our Islamic teachings and you just have to take them as they are,” he wrote.
Muslim scholars do not agree on whether showing a woman’s face is permitted under Islam. Egyptian scholars unequivocally say yes, while those in Saudi Arabia and Yemen say no.
But the issue goes far beyond whether women can show their face. Women in Yemen, who account for just over half of the country’s population, complain of inequality, discrimination and denial of their basic rights. They say they are widely regarded as secondary to men and that unfair tribal and traditional restrictions are imposed on them.
"Women's rights are ignored and violated in our community," math teacher Asma Al-Wesabi, 30, told The Media Line. "Before marriage, the father and brothers act as guardians for the woman and when she marries, she gets a new guardian, her husband."
Covered in black from head to toe including a veil over her face, she said: "Most of us have no say in important matters that concern us, like choosing our husbands, because it’s up to our guardians —either fathers or elder brothers — to decide for us. And we have to accept what they say, even if we disagree with them."
Yasmeen Al-Wajrah, a 23-year-old college student, told The Media Line that the women's situation is worse in rural areas. "Thanks to education, women enjoy more rights in urban areas," she said.
Illiteracy remains the biggest problem facing women, with official statistics indicating an illiteracy rate of 69% for women aged 10 and over, compared to 27% of men. In some rural areas like the Al-Mahra province, illiteracy reaches 90%. Even of those women who are educated, almost half receive only very basic skills.
"We [the women living in urban areas] enjoy some rights such as choosing our life partner [husband], but we are still considered subordinate to men," Al-Wajrah said.
Ibtisam Abdul-Karim, 35, told The Media Line that "the society's perception is that women’s main duty is to serve men, so traditional Yemeni women are more or less housemaids.
"Nothing has changed in Yemen after the revolution,” the mother of four girls added, referring to the demonstrations that forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down earlier this year. “We were happy when the revolution occurred in the hope that it would improve women's status in the country, but things have not changed at all. There are a lot of social restrictions on women, although most of them have nothing to do with the Islamic religion but rather with tribal norms and traditions."
Women effectively participated side by side with men in the revolution against the former regime. Although Saleh has been ousted, women’s struggle for equality in the male-dominated country is far from over. Many men say giving women more rights violates Islam, and is an imitation of the West.
Earlier this year, women called for at least 30 percent female participation in all of Yemen's decision-making bodies, including the parliament. However, many observers say that demand is unlikely to be realized in the near future.
Lawyer and vocal women's rights activist Bilqis Al-Lahbi told The Media Line that women's rights are going to be in jeopardy if the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood's branch, the Islah Party, rises to power, something she thinks is highly likely following the precedents set in both Egypt and Tunisia.
Al-Lahbi believes that the most important thing for women at this stage is to be fairly represented in the committee to be charged with rewriting Yemen's constitution, which she says includes discriminatory provisions against women.
"Unfortunately the legislators were biased against women when they wrote the Yemeni constitution. When the Islamic Sharia [teachings] are on the women’s side they simply ignored them, and when they’re against women they applied them," she said.
Women participated significantly in the last parliamentary elections held in 2003, but as voters, not candidates. While women accounted for 42.8% of the total voters, only 11 female candidates entered the contest, of whom only one won a parliament seat.
Al-Lahbi stressed the importance of awareness among Yemeni political parties about the significance of women's participation in decision-making, urging them to increase their female representation.
But while there are women calling for rights, others vehemently oppose them, considering their calls for rights including more political participation as equivalent to embracing a Western lifestyle. Most of the women who oppose women’s rights activists are either deeply religious or uneducated.
"Islam has honored women and made their main job to raise children and be loving wives. This is the women's job. The women's rights that some activists are currently calling for only aim to divert women from the right path," Yasmin Saleh, 28, told The Media Line from behind her niqab.
The imam of the Al-Rahabi mosque, Faisal Attaf, shared Saleh's thinking and added, "Who said Muslim women have no rights? On the contrary, Islam granted women more rights than any other religion."
However, both Saleh and Attaf admitted that there are some illegal, unfair violations of women's rights in Yemen, including forcing women to marry men they do approve of or preventing girls from continuing their education, stressing that such practices are not part of Islam.
Amat Al-Salam Al-Dharhi, a women's rights advocate, told The Media Line that the fact that Tawakol Karman, a politician and human rights activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year has given Yemeni women more confidence in themselves. Karman is the first Arab woman to win the prestigious award.
Almost all the women interviewed by The Media Line said they need more rights, but made it clear that they are demanding rights that comply with the Islam and not Western-type rights.
Al-Lahbi expressed doubts that there will be considerable progress in women's rights in the near future. Nevertheless, she said women's rights activists are determined to continue their struggle until they ensure equality between men and women in every sphere.