A woman leading change in Yemen

Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2011

After two dethroned presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and now possibly a third in Libya, the recent protests in Yemen are catching the world’s attention. Have opposition and activist-led protests turned into a more spontaneous youth uprising? The escalating violence is worrying, but will it lead to the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh? Or will change take much longer in Yemen?

Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: This February, the international face of the Yemeni pro-change movement was a woman.

Journalist and human rights activist Tawakkul Karman is a positive image of Yemeni women. Long before she was photographed leading February’s protests against the government, she was called a brave defender of freedom of expression and human rights in Yemen.

In a January 2010 interview with Al-Jazeera, she spoke of detained journalists, a sheikh’s tyranny against villagers in Ibb, a governorate south of the capital, the lack of justice for the family of a murdered doctor, and — long before January’s WikiLeaks revelations — even went as far as accusing the government of being “in alliance” with al-Qaida. Today, she continues to protest, demanding peaceful change.

Finally! A refreshing image away from the “over-sized post box” and other objectifying descriptions of the full Islamic garb worn by most Yemeni women. A more positive image than the photos of child bride Nujood Ali that have fuelled Yemen’s early marriage debate since April 2008.

Of course, all is not rosy for Yemen’s women. Yemeni parliamentarians (one out of 301 is a woman) still have not agreed on a law to set a minimum age for marriage to prevent girls like Nujood, nine years old at the time of her divorce, from being married before they finish school. Illiteracy among women is still a whopping 67 percent, women are typically the first victims of food shortage (one in three Yemenis suffers from severe malnutrition, according to the United Nations), and many have difficult and limited access to health care. Women’s participation in politics is still minimal and, despite two female ministers, Yemen has consistently ranked bottom in the Global Gender Gap Index since it was first included in the ranking in 2006.

But there is hope.

Karman and fellow female human rights activists, such as journalist Samia al-Aghbari, have taken to the frontline of protests in the Yemeni capital. They may not be representative of Yemeni women in general, but they are indeed inspiring. In fact, one Yemeni man was so impressed by al-Aghbari’s courage during the protests of Feb. 13 when she was knocked onto the pavement by a member of security, that he wrote her a poem, “Revolution of the Green Hijab ... To Samia al-Aghbari and all the other revolutionaries,” which was published the following day on the Nashwa News website.

Although not all out on the streets, there are a number of inspiring women in Yemen in addition to Karman and al-Aghbari — human rights activists, journalists, doctors, educators, members of civil society, academics, wives of political detainees, photographers and even Tweeters.

There are dozens of brave women who have run against all odds and lost in local council and parliamentary elections.

Then there are the women who quietly start their own little revolutions. In May 2010, a literacy eradication course saw women in rural Dhamar, a governorate south of Sana’a, go home and ask their husbands and brothers for their rights to education, inheritance and political participation.

When Karman was detained by security for organizing protests on Jan. 22, she made the most of a bad situation by chatting to her fellow female detainees about their rights. But perhaps the most inspiring thing about Karman is that she is not speaking up only for Yemeni women, but for Yemeni society as a whole, addressing national grievances such as unemployment and corruption.

Perhaps it is too early for a female president in Yemen, but Karman adds a new, welcome dimension to the media coverage of a country usually associated in the Western mind with al-Qaida, poverty and oppressed women.

• Hackman is a writer for the Common Ground News Service. Readers may write to the author at cgnews@sfcg.org.

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