Yemeni Women Struggle During Time of War
Women in Yemen already face many obstacles in their quest to gain education and jobs, and to participate in community life because of societal norms, customs and traditions
Huda Al-Bakri lives in Seiyun in eastern Yemen. She is one of the few women who have delved into the world of politics, leading youth, peace and security issues advocacy campaigns in Yemen. Al-Bakri, 27, participated recently in TEDxWomen in Seiyun, which was held virtually after it previously was canceled due to social pressures holding that such events are outside the customs and traditions of the city. During the event, Al-Bakri told her story as a woman who has voyaged into the world of politics and discussed the importance of her journey for young men and women in Yemen.
Participation in the political process as well as in advocacy campaigns or in commercial activities in Yemen was traditionally limited to men. Women rarely got involved in such activities due because of local customs and traditions and, recently, the civil war, which only added to the restrictions imposed on women. This has led to Yemen being designated as one of the worst places around the world for women, according to Amnesty international. Throughout the war, the total number of women victims has reached 2,392, with another 2,798 women wounded, according to statistics issued by Entesaf Women and Children Rights Foundation in late 2020.
Yemeni women’s political presence
Al-Bakri says she first got interested in political work in 2018, the result of four years of volunteering and participating in youth advocacy campaigns, which all culminated in her belief in the importance of politics and led to her active participation. Al-Bakri added that she was able, in a brief period, to understand the political situation in Yemen, which led to an epiphany that the Yemeni political movements lack vision and objectives, and have not established firm community relationships. Following that, Al-Bakri decided to join a political movement in Yemen’s Hadhramout governorate and from there she decided to work to help “improve the political landscape in Yemen,” she said.
Upon joining the Inclusive Hadhramout Conference a political and social party established in 2017, a year ago, Al-Bakri worked at many tasks and activities. She participated in negotiations and official visits to other countries to discuss issues related to the political landscape in Yemen, including women’s roles and improving life in the community. Al-Bakri recalls meeting the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, in March 2020 to discuss her party’s vision on a number of subjects, including women’s issues.
“I sought, through the meeting, to highlight women and youth issues in Yemen, in order for [women] to have a share in Yemen’s future,” she said. Al-Bakri is now a candidate for the Inclusive Hadhramout Conference’s Supreme Committee.
Dream of owning an international brand
Fatima Al-Ahdal, lost her eyesight in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa when she was 17 in a home accident that caused her disability. However, she was able to fight her way to become an entrepreneur and a businesswoman selling women’s clothing, and seeks to have her own international brand for selling women’s purses. Additionally, Al-Ahdal works in the media management and public relations department of the Fund for the Care and Development of People with Disabilities, which seeks to inform about the suffering of people living with disabilities and making their voices heard, as well as addressing their needs and issues.
Al-Ahdal says that, in cooperation with her sister in London, she has been able to import clothes and display them on social media for sale, which was widely accepted by a large group of women in Yemen – and this was just the beginning. Due to the economic crisis that hit her family, caused by the civil war, Al-Ahdal decided to expand her project. She was able to obtain a diploma in project management as well as an international computer driving license, in addition to participating in other development courses. Through these courses and certificates, Al-Ahdal was able to advance her project. “My dream is to have a global brand through which I can reach the world,” she said.
Al-Ahdal won the Yemen Women’s Union Award in 2019 as the country’s first businesswoman with special needs. She says that her disability was her strongest motivation and that she participated in TEDxSanaa to tell her story and to inspire others in setting off and “creating a life,” especially in light of the war that has “frustrated many.” She says that she seeks, through her work with the Disability Welfare and Rehabilitation Fund of Yemen, to provide assistance and psychological support for all persons with disabilities and to bring their issues to the world’s attention.
Women’s participation is not as it should be
Al-Bakri and Al-Ahdal agree that the situation for women in Yemen is very bad and that women who want to gain their right to education, participate in community life and work in various fields, face many obstacles because of societal norms, customs and traditions. Al-Ahdal added that often many women stop working or studying because of these obstacles.
Al-Ahdal says that because of her disability and the extensive bullying she faced from being a visually impaired woman, she stopped her education more than once and was forced to change her field of study from the faculty of Sharia and Law to the faculty of Arts and Human Sciences. “Women, in general, encounter such difficulties that limit their choices in education and work,” she said, adding: “It gets worse because I am both a woman and a person with a disability.”
Al-Bakri, on the other hand, believes that during the last ten years women have begun to emerge and participate in political and social life, “but not at the required level.” She says that women have not been able to obtain even 20% of their rights. And it is necessary, during the next phase, to involve women in all fields, because that will impact society positively. “War and economic burdens forced women to go out and seek, this created a movement for women during this period,” she said.
The war also helped women emerge
Yemeni journalist, Alya Youssef, who writes about gender issues in Yemen, said of the status of women in Yemen: “Before the war, women only emerged in a few social roles, such as teaching and in the field of medicine.” She added that women “were absent in many important socio-political roles, and their involvement in these roles was limited to one or two government ministries.” Women were completely absent in the last government coalition in late 2020.
“The war and economic crisis helped highlight the role of women, and now women can work in several fields, including political, social and development roles,” Youssef told The Media Line.
Women have now gained a presence, including in political consultations and meetings with the UN envoy and other international bodies.
“Women were able, in a short time span, to prove their importance, despite the many difficulties they faced but, although this movement happened, women still suffer a lot from issues such as government neglect, denial of education and health services, and exposure to gender-based violence,” Youssef said.
Organizer of TEDxSanaa Waleed El-Haj said that the inclusion of women was one of the top priorities for TEDx this year and during previous years. “During the past years, we held an event (TEDx Women), which is a special event for women and, thanks to our belief in the role of women in building communities, women were present and speaking in all previous events and this year too,” he said.
“Women helped with more than 30% of the logistical activities needed to launch the [TEDx] event and proved their efficiency in doing so,” he added.
The TEDx Seiyun women’s event had initially been slated to be held late in November 2020, with a large number of people in attendance. But local authorities stipulated several conditions to allow the event to go forward in Seiyun, leading the organizing committee to cancel the event, and then hold the event online.
In 2012, a group of young men and women were successful in obtaining a permit to hold a TEDx event in Sanaa. Following that, several similar events were held in the cities of Sanaa, Aden, Al Mukalla and Taizz. In addition to several youth forums, women and children events and TEDxSanaa U were held in Sanaa, featuring many prominent professors and academicians.
Yemen has been enmeshed in an armed conflict since 2015, which, according to UN reports, has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Women have absorbed the largest share of the suffering brought on by this crisis.
The United Nations Population Fund said in a report published in 2020 that 2.6 million women are subjected to violence in Yemen, in addition to the prevalence of child marriage.