Women & Gender

A Critical Reading of the Yemeni Feminist Discourse

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

There is no single definition of what counts as a feminist movement. Some see that every movement that demands and struggles for women’s rights is necessarily feminist, even if the movement does not identify with the term. Others see that not every movement that involves women is feminist and that the difference between a “women’s movement” and a feminist movement is that the latter vocally identifies as feminist.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as the “belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim”. Regardless of the diversity of theoretical approaches to feminism and the various waves and realities that have shaped these approaches, it is indisputable that feminism has had a powerful global impact. Feminist activism, informed by feminist thought and theories, has influenced the engineering of various United Nations conventions, as well as national and transnational governmental and nongovernmental politics concerning women. Yemeni women, just like their counterparts worldwide, have been formulating their feminist thought(s) and activism(s) since the 1940s. These efforts have taken different forms, including mobilizing and protesting on the streets, establishing women’s civil society organizations, utilizing governmental institutions and political parties to support women’s rights, producing knowledge and more recently using social media platforms.

Artwork by Hanan Ishaq

Brief glimpses at the history of the Yemeni women’s movement

In 1953, Nour Haidar established the first girls’ school in Aden, South Yemen. Haidar’s father was an Adeni teacher who, unusually for the time, was keen to provide his daughter with the same quality of education he had provided for his sons. Once Haidar graduated from school, she pursued her quest in providing girls and women with a similar education to her own. Consequently, Haidar and the women who joined her succeeded in establishing more girls’ schools in Aden. The first demand Yemeni women had in the South was the right to education, which they saw as fundamental for the country’s overall development and progress. In 1961, a few women in Sana’a led by Atika al-Shami organized the first protest in the North, which emerged from the Nursing Institute, to demand girls’ schooling.[2] Generally speaking, women’s organized activism in the North was quite limited in comparison with the South. In 1956, Radhya Ihsanallah founded the Arab Woman’s Association (AWA) in Aden, which was the seed of what became, in 1974, the General Union of Yemeni Women. The AWA’s women were prominent activists in the anticolonial movement in the South, and some of them were combat fighters in the armed struggle against the imperial British rule of South Yemen. In addition to their anticolonial struggle, the AWA activists struggled in parallel for women’s rights under the leadership of Ihsanallah, who was known for her strong belief in the political role of women in the struggle for independence.[3]

After independence, in 1974, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) passed the Family Law. The PDRY, the South Yemeni socialist state whose constitution stated in Article 47 that the formal state religion is Islam, held that the purpose of the Family Law was to improve the socio-legal status of women. But the Family Law faced a degree of opposition from some communities. This resistance was grounded in some Islamic textual interpretations that considered some of the law’s articles an atheist attempt against Islamic teachings. In a formal step to oversee the implementation of the Family Law, the first women’s conference in Yemen’s history was held in 1974 in Seyun, called ‘The First General Conference for the Yemeni Woman’. With formal support from the state, the conference was organized by the General Union of Yemeni Women whose president, at the time, was Aisha Mohsen.[4] In 1990, upon the unification of the PDRY and the Yemeni Arab Republic, the General Union of Yemeni Women was merged with its northern counterpart, the Association of Yemeni Women. The post-unification organization was named the Yemeni Women’s Union, which was registered as a nongovernmental organization in 2001 and continues to operate to date.

After the 1994 war, feminist academic Professor Raufa Hassan founded the Center of Women and Gender Studies in Sana’a University. The center offered accredited graduate programs that attracted a considerable number of women and men students. Professor Abdulaziz al-Maqaleh, the prominent Yemeni literary writer and scholar who was the President of Sana’a University at the time, taught the course ‘Women in Arab Literature’. In 1997, a widely circulated document titled ‘Report on the Women’s Studies Center’ accused the center of spreading blasphemy, atheism and promiscuity. The report was the beginning of a vicious campaign launched by notable Islamic clergy against the center and Raufa Hassan, who faced death threats at the time.[5] Eventually, the campaign succeeded in closing the center in 1999; however, it reopened in 2003 under the name Gender Development Research and Studies Center.

Gender equality discourse was relatively new to Yemeni society, especially in the North. Additionally, the conflicts and political upheavals in Yemen contributed to a great extent to undermining the creation of a united clear line of feminist thought and activism in Yemen. However, despite the divisions and varieties of beliefs and activism(s), Yemeni women’s movements succeeded in achieving essential gains, including political participation, a noticeable increase in women voters and electoral candidates, an increase in employment rates and the appointment to prestigious positions in state institutions. In 2009, the Women’s National Committee presented an important appeal to parliament to amend the Personal Status Law that allowed child marriage. Yet parliament dismissed the appeal under pressure from conservative members of parliament.[6] However, the 2001 Civil Society Bill legalized nongovernmental organizations, which allowed a considerable number of women’s rights organizations to form and hold events and conferences that granted a continuity to feminist activism. In this regard, it is crucial to note that often such activism tended to avoid any possible confrontation with mainstream Islamic teachings and instead introduce gender issues through an Islamic lens. However, this approach to advocacy ceased to be as dominant with the emergence of social media, which allowed different Yemeni feminist voices to vocalize their ideas and gain a wide base of followers, regardless of their opinions of such ideas.

Artwork by Hanan Ishaq

Yemeni women’s reality

“The status of women is the clearest indicator of injustice with all its agony and dynamics in a reactionary society.”[7] Categorized as one of the worst countries for women to live in, not to mention occupying the lowest rank in the Gender Gap Index for 13 consecutive years, Yemen is a place where women suffer immensely.

In 2010, Yemen had the lowest numbers of girls in basic education in the Middle East and North Africa region. According to the National Family Census of 2005, 40 per cent of girls between 6-15 years old never went to school, and of those who did only 1 per cent managed to pursue higher education. In rural areas, only 25 per cent of girls received basic education while others were not able to due to a number of factors, including that the decision to allow girls to go to school is almost exclusively in the hands of male family members. In addition, dire economic conditions and the long distance between schools and girls’ places of residence, especially  in rural areas, are also factors that hinder girls’ access to basic education.[8] Another related issue is child marriage, given that 14 per cent of girls are married before turning 15, according to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF in 2006, while 25 per cent of married girls below the age of 18 are married.[9] During the current war, however, these numbers have increased and the percentage of married girls reached approximately 66 per cent within a year of the war breaking out.[10]

In terms of domestic violence, there are no available statistics that document the number of Yemeni women who experience domestic violence, most probably because of social constraints that put the lives of women at risk if they report the aggression of a male family member. Even with statistical limitations, we have a broad understanding of the situation from the findings of a 2003 World Bank survey. The numbers showed that 5 per cent of the study sample’s 13,000 women stated that they experienced physical violence, 21 per cent of whom said they did not know why they were beaten, while 10 per cent said that they were beaten for defying the orders of their abusers. To add to all of this, women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis, with no legal protection given that this form of violence is still not criminalized in Yemeni law.[11]

Yemeni legislation rules for half the amount of blood money in cases of murdered women in comparison with what is ruled for men. A husband is sentenced to a maximum of six months in prison if he murders his wife under the claim of adultery, while a woman faces the death sentence in case she commits the same crime. A woman has no right to housing or alimony if she is the one to ask for divorce, which is a form of punishment for a woman who dares to go against her husband’s disapproval of her choices.[12] Under the use of religion and traditions as justifications, Yemeni women remain treated as minors in the eyes of the law.

The war has added to the suffering of Yemeni women, who are part of the 24.1 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, with 14.3 million of them in acute need of immediate assistance. Yemeni women’s burdens on all fronts are increasing as the war does not appear likely to end anytime soon. The United Nations estimates that the number of internally displaced women has reached 3.3 million; that 6 million Yemeni women and girls of reproductive age do not have access to health care; that 1 million pregnant women suffer from malnutrition; and that 120,000 women and girls are at the risk of gender-based violence.

Dilemmas that face the formulation of the Yemeni feminist discourse

Some Arab feminists, who follow Western feminist thought without any critical deconstruction of its successes and failures, entirely reject all aspects of Arab and Islamic cultures. Thus, they face numerous obstacles in the process of introducing feminist causes to Arab and Muslim societies. Even when they approach their societies with the Islamicization of certain feminist ideas through the reinterpretation of Islamic texts, their attempts remain insufficient. The problem at the very core is that white Western feminism dismisses religiously, culturally and racially contextual diversities, which results in a dismissal of women’s distinct priorities and causes. The white Western understanding of women as a universal entity with one monolithic experience with the patriarchy fails to see that women’s struggles and analyses of oppressions cannot be reduced to one model.

In a country like Yemen with a majority Muslim population, and given that Islam is perceived, by many Yemenis, not only as a spiritual faith but also as a system that manages in detail every aspect of the lives of Muslims, introducing any idea that contradicts religion is an extremely difficult task. All ideas in this context need to pass religious screening, which leaves us with two options. The first option is to introduce fragmented feminist thought, tailored to fit the particularities of society, as in the case ‘Islamic feminism’, which emerged in many Muslim societies including Yemen. The second option is to simply introduce feminism in its pure Western thought, the way some Yemeni feminists do on social media, an option that is often met with societal opposition. It is indeed a real dilemma that poses an essential question: Can Arab feminists formulate emancipatory thought for Arab women in a way that is comprehensive of the cultural contexts of their societies outside the legacy of Western feminism? We cannot ignore the fact that Western feminism is predominantly designed for Anglo-American, white, middle class women. Western feminist thought stems from a particular historical context, and therefore cannot be universally applied in all social contexts.

Aspects of modern life in Yemen are not necessarily a reflection of modern thought on all levels. Yemeni society is still governed by a traditional regime of power that is not always in tune with the values of social justice. For this reason, any thought that positions itself outside the territory of this regime of power will often face rejection. It is impractical to copy one society’s experience and apply it as it is in other societies without any regard for social and historical processes that shaped acceptance, rejection and reformulation of ideas. As discussed above, the majority of Yemeni women face endless violations and they are in need of a persistent and powerful  feminist discourse that does not normalize with the patriarchy, but grounds its activism in pro-women aspects within Yemeni cultural and religious heritage. With time, other causes can be introduced gradually and in a language that does not provoke societal rage. In other words, feminist activism should aim at changing the status of women in materiality and in a very practical sense. With the emergence of social media platforms, some Yemeni feminists have created their own spaces to speak on behalf of all Yemeni women. They have also introduced their own version of feminist thought as well as a discourse that keeps causing controversies, day after day. For this reason, it has become necessary to provide a critical reading of this emerging discourse.

Artwork by Hanan Ishaq

The language and content of Yemeni feminist discourse on social media

On many occasions, Yemeni feminist discourse on social media platforms tends to fall into the trap of language. I am not referring to the literal linguistic formulation of speech; rather, the connotations of the presented thoughts within this discourse. While it is a fact that we live under a patriarchal and unjust misogynist system, certain forms of feminist language tend to exclude men entirely, positioning feminism as an opponent to the essence of men instead of systemic patriarchal practices. Presenting a discourse that excludes an existing component in society in order to favor one gender over the other is blindly extremist and damaging. The very concepts of justice and equality aim to dismantle the hierarchical relationship between genders instead of reproducing that hierarchy in a different form. Once again, there is no doubt that a wide majority of men inflict extreme injustice on women. However, the discourse of exclusion leads to a direct confrontation with Yemeni man’s social construction, which in many cases can result in further patriarchal hostility towards oppressed women who have no hand in what takes place on social media and have no way out of the harm that such a discourse may cause them.

I am not underestimating or overlooking the importance of all women’s causes, but what I am trying to convey is that priorities do exist for many women, especially when they are represented by a discourse that they have no ownership of. For instance, many women in our society are in extreme need, in terms of their experiences of all forms of violence, including the denial of their basic rights to education, health services, economic empowerment and legal protection. Yemeni women are in need of a discourse that considers their agency and priorities, rather than remote voices that alienate them from their realities and use incomprehensible entitled superstructures while claiming to represent all Yemeni women. When one takes a look at some Yemeni feminists’ content on social media platforms, one can see that much of this content mainly revolves around dress codes and sexual freedom. In their comments below these posts, men divert from the presented causes and end up employing all their efforts in violently attacking the individual women behind this content in the most personal ways. At the same time, these men commit further violence against women and girls in their families out of the insecurities these posts provoke in them, creating a fear that their female family members may, one day, turn into these women on social media. While such men have formed a distorted image of feminism, many women also see that this discourse dismisses their agency and their spiritual and cultural choices that are constantly described, by some social media feminists, as backwards. Either way, many women find this discourse unrelatable and privilege-blind, or simply a scathing attack against their agency.

The superficial identification with Western feminism with its entire focus on placing veiling and unveiling in a binary understanding of emancipation is very problematic. Violent indiscriminate attacks on the veil, that many women choose to wear as part of their spiritual and cultural identity, is not any different from the violence committed by extremist theocratic movements that force women into involuntarily practices. Both are models of denying women their right to choice. I cannot emphasize enough that we need to continue our fight against patriarchy. Nonetheless, I am inviting Yemeni feminists to wisely formulate the language and paradigms through which they present women’s causes, for Yemeni women feel abandoned and alienated when they cannot find a responsible and realistic voice of advocacy and solidarity. Yemeni feminists on social media need to thoroughly and responsibly reflect on their speech instead of prioritizing egoistic provocative virtual controversies that harm the majority of women who live in the material world. Feminists who are privileged enough to freely and safely speak should employ their privileges to advocate for women’s central struggles: the denial of their rights to work, education and legal as well as practical protection from child marriage, sexual harassment, rape and honor crimes, among other issues that threaten women’s lives on a daily basis. This is our responsibility, all of us, women and men.

[1] Offen, Karen. ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no. 1 (1988): 119–57. https://doi.org/10.1086/494494.

[2] Arenfeldt, Pernille, Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, and Amel Nejib Al-Ashtal. “A Long, Quiet, and Steady Struggle: The Women’s Movement in Yemen.” In Mapping Arab Women’s Movements: a Century of Transformations from Within, 197–252. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012.

[3]  أسمهان العلس. 2005. أوضاع المرأة اليمنية في ظل الإدارة البريطانية لعدن 1937-1960. عدن: دار جامعة عدن للطباعة والنشر.

[4] Molyneux, Maxine, Aida Yafai, Aisha Mohsen, and Noor Baabad. “Women and Revolution in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.” Feminist Review, no. 1 (1979): 4. https://doi.org/10.2307/1394747.

[5] Willemsen, Tineke M., and Alkeline Van Lenning. ‘Women’s Studies Project in Yemen: Experiences from the Counterpart’s Viewpoint.’ Women’s Studies International Forum 25, no. 5 (2002): 515–27. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-5395(02)00319-9.

[6]  المرصد اليمني لحقوق الانسان، آثار الحرب والصراعات على المرأة اليومية ودورها في إحلال الصراع، 2015-2017 م، ص 14-26

[7] مصطفى حجازي، التخلف الاجتماعي، بيروت، المركز الثقافي العربي، الطبعة التاسعة، 2005م، ص 199

[8]  تقرير للبنك الدولي، وضع المرأة اليمنية من الطموح الى تحقيق الفرص، مايو 2014م، ص9-36

[9]  المسح الوطني للأسرة 2006م

[10]  مسح سن الزواج المبكر، مؤسسة تنمية القيادات الشابة ومنظمة اليونيسيف، 2016م ص 16

[11]  تقرير للبنك الدولي، مرجع سابق

[12] ibid

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