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Yemen's Women Push Hard for Equal Rights Using Islam and Bicycles


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It doesn't come as a surprise to know that Yemen ranks highest in the category of ‘worst country for women’ based on economical participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. International media outlets do not often portray Yemeni women, and if they do, the portraits fit the stereotype of what a woman in the worst country for women would look like: oppressed, weak and wearing her black abaya.


Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with Yemini women bearing the brunt of this poverty. The government is
one of the most corrupt in the world
, ranking 161 of 175 according to Transparency International. Illiteracy is extremely high, especially amongst women as they are victims of unequal treatment: the country has one of the largest educational gaps between men and women in the world. Yemeni women cannot marry without permission of their male guardians. They do not have equal rights to divorce, receive inheritances, or keep custody of their children. They also lack legal protection, leading to little help for victims of sexual and domestic violence.


Female Revolutionaries

Even though the odds seem stacked against these women, this hasn’t stopped several aspiring women to strive for equal rights, especially during the past conflict-filled years. One of the most significant leaders in the female-led revolution in Yemen is Tawakkol Karman, also referred to as the Mother of the Arab Spring and the first Yemeni (and first Arab) woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 in recognition of her peaceful struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peace building.


Another significant female figure in the peaceful struggle for improved situations for Yemeni women is Amal Basha, also known as Yemen’s most prominent advocate for human rights. Women like these often come across comments like: “Now is not the time for women. For their freedom, it’s not the right time.” Fortunately these women have a very clear goal in mind and don’t get distracted easily. Since the start of the revolutions, one of the major improvements for women is that their situation is being discussed in the establishment of the new constitution. This discussion took place during the 2013 Yemen's National Dialogue Conference (NDC), of which 161 women were part of, resulting in, amongst other things, the following suggested legal changes: a 30% female quota in parliament, raising the minimum age of marriage to18, and the ban of female genital mutilation(FGM).


Unfortunately, these laws are still draft laws in the new constitution awaiting approval by the, now due to the current war, Al Houthi movement. If the laws will ever be ratified, another question that arises is if this will have an actual impact on the situation of women in Yemen. Many women are sceptical about the gender quota; some say there are not enough qualified women to fill the position, others argue the pressure on these 30% will be too high and yet others think such a quota will never have an impact without complementary strategies and measures for women.


As for FGM, there are signs of it decreasing since the issue has been publicly raised, but the decrease is far too slow. The horrific stories that reached international media, of a 12-year old girl in 2009 and an 8-year old girl in 2013, who respectively died during childbirth and sexual intercourse on the wedding night, indicate Yemen does not seem to be anywhere near enforcing a minimum marriage age of 18.


Islamic Feminism

In the renewed violence of 2015, Yemeni feminist movements are once again at the forefront of demanding positive change with regards to human rights. A first thought that might cross your mind is that Islamic Feminists oppose the Quran. Nothing could be further from the truth. They actually want to turn to the Quran like it used to be, when women could be educated and nevertheless be seen as devout. Islamic feminists use their religion – and specifically the free interpretation of Islam – as their agent of change. I emphasize especially the free interpretation, as Islam as a tradition allows for “flexibility depending on contextual realities, so long as the core Islamic ethics are not violated”. It is also this free interpretation of Islam that allows radical movements like the Taliban to abuse Islam. Therefore, Islamic Feminists believe they need to strive for something much bigger than just the abolition of female oppression and they do not want to pursue a hierarchy with women at the top. They see it as their mission to separate culture from religion to re-establish the Islamic concept of equality of all human beings, like it used to be.


Female cyclists? That’s insane!

Bushra Al-Fusail, a photographer by profession and an advocate for women’s rights by heart, equals cycling to freedom. Since the renewed violence of the past months, petrol prices have risen up to 4 US dollars per litre. For men it’s not such a big problem as they can ride a bike to to get around. For women however, it becomes a big problem, as women are not allowed to ride a bicycle in Yemen. Al-Fusail finds some female friends who all dare to cycle for about an hour. They just want to show the Yemeni people, men in particular, that female cyclists are actually the most normal thing in the world. Reactions from passing men were crazy, but expected: “What are you doing? You have become completely mad!” they yelled at the female cyclists. “Doomsday has come, if this is where we arrived: allowing women to cycle”. When Al-Fusail posts the photos of her bicycle action on Facebook, all the media in Yemen, literally all, reported on this within an hour. One news website did not even believe they were women. “It must be men”, they reported. “It has immeasurable consequences for Yemen, that women are cycling. It embarrasses a lot of families. It’s controversial, it evokes a sectarian war”.


Bushra Al-Fusail during the current war in Yemen said that it is not the right time to strive for women's rights. Fortunately also just like all the female human rights advocates, this doesn’t let Al-Fusail down. “If we want to change society, it needs to be done during war. There is never a good timing for women’s rights. Crisis is the moment to create change!


Feminist Optimism

Despite the negativity many of them receive in response to their progressive actions, Yemeni feminist and human rights advocates are optimistic. They are not naive to think that the situation of women will change overnight, but they do believe that, for example, the outcomes of the NDC will contribute to improved conditions in the long run. Jamila Raja, a well-established women’s rights advocate and member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, believes that “the NDC was only the beginning, Yemeni women are no longer in the shadow, and they enjoy being part of the picture”.

Written by S. Gehrlein and published on 19-July-2015




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