A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Two months ago, while I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, an event titled ‘TEDx Seiyun Women’ caught my attention. The event was scheduled to take place in the last week of November at Sultan al-Katheeri Palace in Seiyun, Hadhramaut. News of the event was exciting for me as well as many others in Hadhramaut and the rest of Yemen’s governorates. It was heartwarming to see young Yemeni women and men continuing to revive cultural life in Yemen despite the toll of war and instability. Yet, a few weeks later, local authorities in Seiyun imposed several restrictions to prevent the event from taking place. According to online news sources, the local authorities’ position towards the event changed to accommodate some people’s objections to the event. The main argument against the conference was that it was disrespectful of Hadhrami ‘exceptionalism,’which in this context, is associated with a conservative understanding of morality that manifests itself in limiting women’s presence in the public sphere . So what exactly happened, and how can it stimulate constructive future discussions about social change initiatives in Yemen?
Tedx conferences in a global context
TED is an acronym that stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design – and it is the name of a series of international conferences that host speakers who give talks introducing their knowledge and experiences. The main idea behind TED is to make creative ideas and inspiring experiences accessible to as many people as possible. ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ has been TED’s theme and slogan since its first conception in the United States in 1984. With the rise of social media in 2006, TED’s conferences expanded and began to include speakers from around the world to share their knowledge in numerous fields like natural and social sciences as well as art and personal experiences. In 2009, TED began to grant licenses for local initiatives in other countries that would like to hold their own TED conferences. At that point onwards the acronym TED became a reference to global events, while TEDx refers to conferences organized in a particular country with speakers from its local communities. TED and TEDx talks are usually digitally recorded and posted online so that they are available for interested audiences unable to attend in person.
TEDx in Yemen
In 2012, a group of young women and men managed to get the first TEDx license in Yemen. Indeed the first TEDx conference in Yemen, TEDx Sana’a, was held in December 2012 followed by another one in February 2013. The two conferences received significant attention from audiences who attended the talks as well as those who watched them online. Since then, many TEDx conferences have been held in a number of Yemeni governorates and universities. In 2014 alone, TEDx Aden was held in January, followed by TEDx Mukalla in February, and TEDx Taiz in May, as well as TEDx [email protected] in October. In 2015, TEDx Maeen for women as well as TEDx Lebanese International University, Yemen’s branch, were organized in Sana’a. The first TED conference in a public university in Yemen was organized by a group of students and professors in Sana’s University in February 2016 and a year later TEDx [email protected]’a presented inspirational Yemeni children speakers. The most recent TEDx conference in Yemen was the 2019 TED Sana’a Women with the theme ‘Bold and Brilliant’. In general, TEDx conferences in Yemen continue to bring diverse women, men and children’s experiences and knowledge to the limelight. Yemenis from different backgrounds across gender, class, age, professions, abilities and disabilities came forward to share their valuable knowledge in all fields.
TEDx Seiyun women
As an extension of different TED conferences in Yemen since 2012, young women came up with the idea to organize Tedx Seiyun Women, which was to be launched on 26 November 2020. Hadrmiat Around the World, a group of international Hadhrami women students based in various countries and universities around the world, initiated the process of conference preparation. The idea was to create an event that is live streamed on social media from al-Katheeri Palace for the entire world to see; an event with a Hadhrami touch, to introduce Hadhrami women’s success stories to Hadhrami women and women elsewhere. The conference program was meant to bring creative women speakers with ideas worth spreading and that deserve recognition. In addition, the program was to include entertaining activities as well as a market offering local products produced by micro-family projects. As part of the plan, revenue from the market was to contribute to the renovation of a historical palace.
During the initial preparation phase, and as soon as the event was announced on social media, the idea was very well received and encouraged by a lot of social media users, including intellectuals, artists and many young women and men. As the organizers began to share online the participation application forms and posts featuring volunteers as well as examples of successful Hadhrami women around the world, enthusiasm reached substantial momentum in social media interactions.
Cancellation of the conference
After the initial positive feedback on the conference idea, a considerable number of social media users began to attack the conference and the organizers, whom they accused of attempting to Westernize Hadhrami women and their society. Religion was often employed by certain groups to manipulate people and take them along to defamation campaigns that targeted the organizers and denounced them as traitors and Western collaborators.
The issue rapidly escalated and debates moved from virtual spaces to the street. Soon enough, local authorities interfered and hired a formal committee in Wadi Hadhramaut (Hadhramaut Valley), where Seiyun is located, to investigate whether the conference program fit with Hadhrami exceptionalism. The committee came up with a number of conditions to grant permission for the conference. The most important condition stated that speakers’ place of birth and residence must be Wadi Hadhramaut and that any women who were not born or did not reside in Wadi Hadhramaut must be excluded. This interference led the team of organizers to publish a press release that announced the cancellation of the conference due to TED’s withdrawal of the license that had been granted to the organizers. In a formal email sent to the organizers of TEDx Seiyun Women, TED emphasized that the only selection criteria for any TED/TEDx speaker are ideas that are worth spreading, rather than imposed selection criteria from the authorities. TED was disappointed with this interference, the first since Yemeni TEDx conferences began taking place in 2012. Meanwhile, some social media commentators expressed their disappointment with this decision, while others celebrated the news and considered it a victory for ‘Hadhrami exceptionalism’.
The authorities’ abandonment of civil society
Currently considered the most stable governorate compared with other Yemeni governorates, local authorities in Hadhramaut present themselves constantly as supporters of women and youth interests. Officials do not miss a chance to promise tangible support for women and youth. At the Hadhramaut Conference for Women a few months ago, highly ranked officials attended the conference and promised to enable women’s employment and occupation of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors. Furthermore, a presidential decree issued last May appointed a woman physician, Khalil Bamatraf, as Vice Governor for Women’s Affairs, an appointment that was widely celebrated by many Hadhrami women who believed that marked the beginning of more official support for their causes. Ironically, Dr. Bamatraf was a speaker in TEDx Sana’a in 2012. In her talk, ‘Between Pain and Hope’, she proudly narrated her success story as a woman who became a doctor and a decision maker, despite the many obstacles she faced in her life. Her experience with TEDx did not stop there, and she became a program host in TEDx Mukalla in 2014.
Here, one cannot help but question the utility of having women in decision-making positions while, in reality, authorities do not have real political will to support women, Instead, authorities domesticate women’s voices and struggles by absorbing them into a facade of official appointments and promises. I am particularly asking this question in light of the fact that none of the women in governmental decision-making positions or in the National Committee for Women or in the Yemeni Women’s Union commented or advocated for the conference or even commented on its cancellation.
The violence disguised behind ‘Hadhrami exceptionalism’
‘Exceptionalism’ can be often used as a loose term to attribute certain characteristics to people and places and present them as natural, almost biological, traits. But what is Hadhrami exceptionalism and how is it possible to place an entire population in one homogeneous collective frame? How can it be natural to suppress groups or an individual’s various decisions?
Recently, a scanned black and white photograph from 1974 went viral on Yemeni social media. The photograph features women standing before a banner that says ‘The First General Conference for Yemeni Women, taking place in Seiyun 15-17 July 1974 under the theme: Yemeni Women Fight Ignorance’. The women in the photograph are from the General Union of Yemeni Women who organized the conference with support from the state. Personally, I keep looking at the photo and I cannot get over the word ‘Seiyun’ that visibly appears in the banner. This city was chosen to host the first women’s conference in the history of Yemen. How is it that it was quite acceptable for women to exist in a way that is now considered a violation of society’s exceptionalism? This photo shows how ‘exceptionalism’ is a social construct whose interpretations and definitions are historically contingent and conditioned by socio-political powers. For this reason, I would like to present a few questions to open essential future discussions: When exactly did the concept of women’s rights become threatening to what Yemeni society in general, and Hadhrami society in this context, claims to be its ‘exceptionalism’? Also, why is this selective exceptionalism treated as an uncontestable course of nature, rather than socially constructed boundaries for women’s dress codes or their place in the public sphere?
Learned lessons and a constructive discussion for the future of social change
Before writing this article, I asked a number of women and men activists in Hadhramaut for their insights on the violent reactions on social media that led to the cancellation of the conference. Some of the activists I spoke to saw that the organizers and supporters of the event could have avoided social opposition had they introduced the TEDx Seiyun Women online in a manner that did not trigger social fears of foreign interventions that could disrupt the proclaimed social ‘exceptionalism’. This involves selecting speakers from within local communities so that people can relate to them. At the same time, some activists describe the language used by the organizers on social media as “condescending and hierarchical”. In this regard, they refer to the team’s interactions with their critics, whom they accused of ignorance and extremism instead of engaging in a conversation with them. In this sense, respectful dialogue with local communities is key to undermining religious manipulation of people’s thoughts and feelings. Other activists I spoke to said that the team focused its entire effort and dedication on organizing the conference. The selection criteria of speakers was genuinely chosen to seek inspiring and accomplished Hadhrami women regardless of their place of birth or residence. They also added that the team seemed not to have anticipated any negative reactions and, therefore, were not prepared for what happened.
All in all, differences in opinion, if invested in constructive debates, can produce positive social change. Those attempting social change, however, need to be aware of local contexts in order to achieve change with the least harm, for short and long-term possibilities of change. This awareness is essential for creating an alternative to dominant reactionary voices that thrive on speaking the average man and woman’s language and conveying their agendas as a concern for people’s interests. Nevertheless, this does not mean that creating social change is entirely the responsibility of activist individuals and groups. The state should also be accountable and responsible for transforming the commitments they make on paper into action. Only the state has the authority and access to pass policies that support women and youth and to provide protection for activists and civil society from extremist and reactionary powers.
In the end, I ask those who are on the quest for social change to keep on trying, for change is a cumulative process. I remind all of us with the words of our great poet, Hussein Abubaker al-Mehdhar: “I pray that times change and bring us better days.”