Yemeni women’s fight for freedom

August 31, 2017

From the September-October 2017 issue of News & Letters

by Afrah Nasser

You are reading the perspective of a feminist and reflective Yemeni journalist.

More than half of Yemen’s female population is married before they reach 18—many marry as young as nine, and they endure one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Women’s rights campaigners have exerted great effort to ban child marriage, including calling for the ban in front of Yemen’s parliament in Sana’a in 2010. Now, child marriage is rapidly increasing as a result of economic devastation and the increasing rate of displacement.
When the 2011 revolution came, women were leading the uprising. Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman is the most well-known. The uprising was an opportunity for female opinion leaders, activists, writers and intellectuals to challenge the social construction that was boxing us in and demeaning us.


Unfortunately, male-dominated political parties used women as a decorative tool. In April 2011 a group of women activists wanted to make a statement in response to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decree condemning the mixing of the sexes at protests. Female protesters and their male supporters marched together and were attacked by men affiliated with General Ali Mohsin, who held power at the time.

Both the Houthi-led takeover of Yemen’s capital city in September 2014 and the Saudi-led coalition’s military operation in March 2015, worsened the fragile Yemen humanitarian situation and led to the collapse of existing political processes.


Demonstrators march in front of Yemen’s parliament in Sana’a in 2010 protesting against child marriage. Photo courtesy of Afrah Nasser.

Demonstrators march in front of Yemen’s parliament in Sana’a in 2010 protesting against child marriage. Photo: Afrah Nasser.

Today, Yemenis are facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 10,000 people have been killed and I am certain that the toll is higher because if the bullets don’t kill you the famine, the paralyzed healthcare system and the spread of diseases like cholera will. About 17 million people are barely surviving. The UN said over two months ago that Yemen is facing “total social, economic and institutional collapse….The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease and death as the world watches.” Women bear the greatest burden of war but still fight.

As war began in 2015, a young activist in Sana’a, Bushra al Fusail, led a group of women on bikes to defy the fuel shortages, Saudi-led airstrikes and gender stereotypes. Women also took up arms. In Taiz they are fighting the Houthis. In Sana’a, the Houthis organized women’s marches with weapons.

In response to the zero representation of women in peace talks, Women’s Pact for Peace and Security was established by a group of Yemeni politicians and activists.

As massive numbers of young men have been forcibly disappeared—activists, journalists and others who have been detained or abducted by Houthi men and other extremist groups in different parts of Yemen—their women relatives came together and established Mothers of the Detainees. I find it one of the remarkable grassroots groups in Yemen. You can follow them on Twitter.

In the war on Yemen, there have been massive war crimes: hospitals, mosques, weddings, schools, funerals and other non-combatant civilians’ areas have been targeted. One in three Saudi air raids hit civilian sites. Western governments, including countries from the European Union and the U.S., have been some of the top suppliers of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.

Enough with preaching about human rights and at the same time collaborating with states that are committing atrocities using European and U.S.-made weapons. That can only be stopped by EU and U.S. citizens questioning your government and politicians. Ask: Can we investigate how our weapons are being used? Is it used in a way that violates international human rights laws?

The tragedy in Yemen is a man-made tragedy. We can affirm our humanity and work together to end it. In this, Yemenis need your solidarity, now.

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