A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Yemen has been enduring war for more than two and a half years now. Its social fabric is undergoing massive changes and disease and death plague the country in every corner. Men have been engaged in political disputes and armed confrontations that have left the country in disarray and a never-ending political gridlock. Since the war started women’s involvement in the political arena has decreased substantially. This is especially depressing following the recent brief moment when inclusiveness was at the forefront of Yemeni social issues. However, Yemeni women continue to be a beacon of hope for our disintegrating society. Many Yemeni women have excelled in their professions, attracting well-deserved international and national recognition for their roles as iconic, modern Yemeni figures, perpetuating a positive image about the country abroad.
Despite much hype to the contrary, Yemen historically has been somewhat liberal towards gender roles. Many Yemenis are proud of their country being the birth place of great female leaders, such as Queen Sheba who famously ruled Yemen and Ethiopia and married King Solomon, a story mentioned in almost all the Abrahamic religions. During the medieval period, great female Yemeni leaders included Queen Asma Bint Shihab and Queen Arwa, the latter reigning for more than 70 years and uniting a large part of the peninsula. Queen Arwa obtained the title ‘Haja’, which was only attributed to men at the time.
Modern Yemeni women have initiated debates and tackled negative societal norms through their work, endangering their lives in the process – but also leaving a great mark on Yemen’s social, cultural and political developments. In recent years, Yemeni women have been on the receiving end of many prestigious international awards. The first Middle Eastern woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize was Yemeni, Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, and The Most Excellent Order of The British Empire was given to Nouria Naji, a Yemeni activist who founded a charitable organization that offers education to more than 550 street beggars.
Khadija al-Salami is also one of these modern Yemeni women whose work as a film director, documentary maker, and author was recognized internationally. At the age of 11, al-Salami was forced into marriage by her relatives; she managed to get a divorce only for her family to disown her. At 16 years old, al-Salami managed to become independent, an almost impossible feat for a young woman, going to school on mornings and working at a TV station at night. She succeeded in finding a film scholarship in the United States and later moved to France. Her movie Amina (2006) tells the story of a child bride who was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband, with virtually no evidence; the movie reveals a rare glimpse of life in women’s prisons in Yemen. Her movie I Am Nojoom, 10 and Divorced (2015) is inspired by the true story of Njoud, a 10 year old who walked to a courthouse in Yemen and asked for a divorce. Al-Salami sought to portray the struggles of many child marriage victims, including herself, and the movie became the first Yemeni feature film to be considered for the Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars. The previous year, she had won the top prize at the Dubai International Film Festival, earning her plenty of praise from both spectators and critics. In 2017, al-Salami became a Lautarite of the Prince Claus Fund, an award set up by the Prince of the Netherlands to honor those whose cultural work is progressive and contemporary, focusing on Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. The late Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish was also a previous Lautarite of the Prince Claus Fund.
Hind al-Eryani is another Yemeni activist who recently received an Arab Women of The Year award for public awareness. Her advocacy campaigns target many ongoing issues, the most famous of which focused on qat, a mild narcotic drug which requires high levels of watering in order to grow – a serious issue in a country currently facing severe water shortages. The issue of qat is a controversial one as farmers replace ordinary crops with qat, because it does not need a long time to grow and the economic returns are extraordinary. However, the plant has a very negative affect on society, causing addiction and contributing to poverty. Al-Eryani’s campaign called for people to boycott the plant for its disastrous effects on society. Her other campaign focused on peace in Yemen during the latest round of peace talks in Kuwait.
Afrah Nasser is a Yemeni activist and blogger living in Sweden, and was recently the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists Press Freedom Award. This prestigious international award is in recognition of her work as a human rights activist and an advocate for gender equality. Nasser fled Yemen in 2011 after she received death threats because of her work.
All through the onslaught and grim situations, Yemeni women have proved that they are the most competent members of the country. Although Yemeni norms limit women from fulfilling their full capacity, they have shown great leadership and demonstrated that if true equality is granted and women are able to contribute in all aspects of society, we would witness a great shift towards a more peaceful future, and boundless economic opportunities will arise, especially given that women make up 51 per cent of Yemen’s population according to the last census conducted in 2006. These achievements encourage other Yemeni women to outachieve their male counterparts. In some sectors such as agriculture, women account for more than half of the workforce. If societal shackles are lifted, Yemen would reap the fruits of a more equal society, granting all individuals and citizens equal rights in the face of the law. Gender equality is still a worldwide issue, but women like those mentioned above have been able to break do