A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
‘Ana Insan Madani’ can best be translated as ‘I am a citizen’. In this regular feature, we meet prominent Yemenis from various background and fields and hear their thoughts on matters related to Yemen, being a citizen and what ‘madaniya’ means to them.
Rasha Jarhum is a senior development policy advisor and expert on women, peace and security. Rasha has been working in the humanitarian and development fields and advocating for human rights, including women and refugee rights, for over 15 years. She is also a civil society activist and development campaigner.
Rash is currently the Middle East and North Africa Regional Gender and Advocacy Manager for the Regional Gender Justice Program at Oxfam. She has worked with various international organizations, including United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund, Japan International Cooperation Agency, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia and the University of Beirut. She is a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership and a member of the GSX Working Group on Preventing Violent Extremism by educating for rights, peace and pluralism. She is also a member of the Economic and Social Research Council–Net–International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. She has produced research on social protection, gender in fragility and civic engagement.
Rasha has a Master’s degree in International Business Management from the University of Nottingham and is an Aspen New Voices Fellow for 2016, with the Aspen Institute, USA. She also founded the With Aden Initiative and co-founded the House of Ideas, a Yemeni local NGO.
photo courtesy of the Aspen Institute and Rachael Strecher
1. What does the word madaniya / مدنية mean to you?
Madaniya to me means a civil state that is secular and respects the diversity and differences of individuals, whether based on gender, ethnicity, geography/region, religion, etc. It’s also about separating religion from the state, and limiting religion to a relationship between the individual and his/her God.
2. What does homeland mean to you?
Homeland to me is swimming in the sea, along Aden’s beaches; eating zurbian cooked by Essam Ghureiri; buying a necklace of lahji fol (Arabic Jasmin) when stopping for a traffic light; eating the most delicious pomegranate from Saada and watermelon from Abyan; going uphill to Aser to have a view of Sana’a; listening to hadhrami music, mostly Abou Bakr Salim; and having the best chutney with Taizi cheese! Homeland to me is also about my family and friends… It is also a specific time in the 1980s, in South Yemen…
3. What does it mean to be a citizen to you?
Citizenship is all about equal rights and responsibilities. It is about enjoying basic rights and the state’s obligation to provide social services and universal health care and education to all, amongst other services. We just relocated to Geneva, and my 7 year old was so excited about being able to drink tap water. This and more is what the Yemeni children are deprived of, basic human rights.
Citizenship is also about participating in decision making in everything related to the welfare of the people. It is about freedom of expression and the ability to live with dignity in your homeland.
4. How would you describe the advantages and disadvantages of the rule of law?
Rule of law is very important, but those laws have to be in line with international human rights conventions. There are many discriminatory laws in Yemen against women: for starters, blood money for a woman is half of that for a man; inheritance is based on false interpretations of the Quran, which is again not fair for women; guardianship for marriage, work, mobility for women exists, etc. What is the advantage of rule of law if the law discriminates against you as a human being? As a woman? And treats you as a second class citizen. Luckily, many of these issues have been addressed as part of the National Dialogue (NDC), and I consider the NDC package for rights and freedoms was a historic one for Yemen. Once this war is over, those should be reflected in the constitution and respective laws.
5. When you hear the word equality, what comes to your mind?
Equality to me… I always reflect on it from gender perspective, so equality between women and men, and it is also linked to equity and justice. Being a women’s rights advocate and a feminist ‘in process’, I catch myself being judgmental at times, and so I reflect on my own thoughts and try to correct them. It is a continuous process of self-reflection.
For example, in the last two years, I have worked on capturing the gender role reversal that happens during fragility and conflict. I heard Syrian women refugees talk about how gender roles changed, how they are now seeking work and ignoring the societal norms. I’ve observed similarly that Yemeni women assume different roles that do not necessarily agree with social norms, etc.
I experienced that in my own home, when the nature of my job changed and became more demanding and required lots of travel. I had to rely on my husband for a lot of issues related to our kids. I’m happy to say he learned how to bake a cake, and even when I’m back from travel, by habit he wakes up before me to make the kids sandwiches for school when I am still suffering from jet lag. At times I felt guilty, that it is my duty to wake up and make those sandwiches; this is how we grew up. My mother used to wake up at dawn to cook breakfast and lunch before she went to work. But then I discussed it with him, and he told me he’s enjoying doing that! And I thought about it and I realized we are both parents to these kids, so some shared responsibility is alright.
6. Have you voted before?
Unfortunately, yes, and both times for the wrong person! Hahaha! I have to also admit that in the last one-man candidacy show in 2012, I contributed to making Yemenis go vote as I was part of the elections team at UNDP and designed the voter education and awareness campaign. If you remember the Sawa Nebnyha song? That was the core campaign activity. The campaign also for the first time displayed photos of voters, including women and youth. Many of the billboards with women’s photos were sabotaged. Also, the Supreme Committee for Elections and Referendum made a ballot paper that included Yemen’s map colored in rainbow colors to display a beautiful future. When I saw it, I didn’t tell them what the rainbow color signifies internationally. Many of my friends and colleagues objected to that election as they thought it was not real and that there was no real choice. But I explained to them that voting is important and that if they go and draw a smiley face on the ballot paper, that will count as invalid, which will also signify a dis-satisfaction with the process.
7. If you had the power to make one change in Yemen, what would it be and when?
Make Yemeni women rule. Impose a minimum of 60 per cent quota for participation for women. Men have done enough damage. Now it is our turn!
8. What should the world know about Yemen today?
I have seen many wars in my country, but this is one of the most devastating. I hope it ends soon, and I’m trying to work from my end to contribute to that. Any solution that the UN sponsors has to be reviewed by the people of Yemen and not limited to the elites’ opinions. The world has to listen to the calls for self-determination of the Southerner people, who have been calling for it since 2007.
We all know the reasons for conflict in Yemen were always the same, more or less. If we review all peace agreements, in 1994, 2011, 2014 etc., they all spoke about a decentralization system, power sharing and social protection. Every time, those agreements are signed; but the next day, a war is waged. If we don’t address the root causes, we are only delaying another war.