A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
On a windy autumn night, 29 November 2020, I came back to my house drained after a long day. I reached for my phone to browse for anything entertaining online to relax and enjoy during the rest of my evening. Instead, the first thing that appeared on my screen was a message sent by a colleague to an activists’ group chat on WhatsApp. The news came as a bolt from the blue: “A husband in Mukalla burned his wife alive in front of their children.” This happened in Mukalla, the city where I was born and raised in Hadhramaut. With utter shock, my eyes skimmed through the lines ignoring the parts that mentioned when and where in Mukalla or whether she was still alive. Perhaps it was an instinctive self-centered reaction, but all I was trying to find out was her name to make sure it was not a relative or a friend of mine.
Two weeks before the incident, I left Hadhramaut where I was to organize TEDx Seiyun Women. The event was cancelled after a campaign launched by extremists that succeeded in pressuring local authorities to impose oppressive conditions for holding the event. As a result, we ended up cancelling the event. TEDx Seiyun Women was meant to highlight inspirational stories of Hadhrami women who were going to share what they have accomplished against all odds. Nonetheless, extremists claimed that the event threatened society’s ‘morality’ and ‘conservative values’. This ‘moral society’ is often infuriated by any mention of women’s rights. This society believes women’s rights are already fulfilled and there is no need for any further demands. When extremists managed to prevent the event happening, I left with the belief that this was the worst thing that could happen. Little did I know.
I believe the victims, I believe women
Let’s go back to that night. I finally found the name, and my greatest fear came true. At first, I refused to believe. I was in denial until an old classmate from high school confirmed who the victim was. The woman who had been set on fire by her husband was Marwa. It was Marwa al-Baiti, a student in the same school I attended. She was one of many students who shared the stress of studying for formal exams, and then the joy of graduating. I remembered that we had a photo taken of us on the last day of exams. In the photo, our cohort appears in the school yard where we organized our backpacks to form the shape of ‘2016’, the year of our graduation. I vividly recall that after the photo was taken, we threw our school backpacks in the air, ready to trade them for the dreams we had for the future.
I kept looking for that photo while trying so hard to remember the colors of her backpack. We were not close back then because there were hundreds of students in our school. At the same time, and no matter how many we were, we memorized each other’s faces. We knew each other’s voices, borrowed each other’s pens and stood together in the morning assembly. I remember our hustle in the cafeteria, and how much we laughed at each other’s jokes while we waited at the bus stop. Marwa al-Baiti was one of those laughters, one of the familiar exhausted faces waiting for the school bus under Mukalla’s hot sun. She was one of us, a young soul that brought so much joy and warmth wherever she went. I was going through tens of photos in an attempt to find the exact details of her face when I was suddenly struck by a very clear memory of a conversation we once had. Only at that point did the news sink in, and I shrank in my chair, doing my best to contain my shock.
My activism has resulted in me having a considerable number of social media followers. This helped me reach out to Marwa’s close friends who were at the hospital. In addition to what Marwa’s family publicly shared, I gathered as much information as possible and put it all in a Facebook post with the hashtag #We_Are_All_Marwa_al-Baiti. The post was quickly shared by many of my followers. Some of the initial comments on my post were doubtful about the news. Other comments, mostly from people who knew me well, were more concerned and asked me to verify the details of what I shared in my post. They feared that I might be legally held accountable in case any of the information was inaccurate. My rage was bigger than any doubt or caution. Even though I currently live abroad, my experiences taught me not to doubt in such cases. I know very well that what happened was real simply because I always trust the information I collect from women. Outraged and grieving women trust each other. I trust us. I trust women.
“Our father burned our mother”
The information that one of my colleagues gathered first hand at Ibn Sina Public Hospital in Mukalla revealed that Marwa was diagnosed with severe third-degree burns and was admitted to the burns unit. Marwa’s husband, Mohammed Hassan al-Jifri, had poured gasoline on his wife’s body before he set her on fire. Marwa, who is in her late twenties, was burning in the house’s yard, right in front of her 10 year old daughter and 6 year old son. The perpetrator left Marwa in agony for about 10 hours before he drove her to the emergency room, having dropped the two children at a neighbor’s house. As soon as their father left, the children broke down screaming to the neighbors in their Hadhrami accent: “Our father burned our mother.” Lying between life and death on her hospital bed, Marwa refused to say what exactly had happened. At everyone’s insistence, she gathered the very little strength she had left and shared what happened with the members of her family and friends who were present. Before the incident, Marwa and her husband had an argument after which he decided to throw her out of the house and send her to her family. When she refused to leave, the husband committed his crime.
At first, Marwa’s family was discreet, especially as the husband arrived at the hospital with burns on both hands. More importantly, the husband’s family offered to pay all of the hospital fees. Living on the breadline, Marwa’s family promptly accepted the offer to save their daughter’s life and to avoid further complications. The family’s financial status was not the only reason why they refused to speak up. After all, the ‘moral society’ we live in often blames victims and survivors for the violence they encounter. Such potential accusations are what Marwa’s family feared the most. This society justifies domestic violence by asserting that the victim must have done something that deserves punishment. By doing so, and instead of supporting and protecting victims and survivors, perpetrators acquire the social capital they need to easily get away with any form of violence they commit against women.
All I was able to do was to share the story over and over again on social media. I told the story to everyone I knew in and outside Yemen and requested that they share it with all the people they knew. I was not alone in this. Countless women and girls knew that what happened could easily happen to them under this violent and unjust patriarchal system. For this reason, they took it upon themselves to share the story with everyone they knew. That night I hoped that Marwa would wake up the next morning and find national and regional support for her cause. This support might have been the first of its kind that she ever got. Even if all we had to offer was our voices and written words, I wanted her to know that she was not alone. Perhaps this would give her some strength to recover and stand on her feet to obtain her rights and sue the perpetrator, then start a new life for her and her children. That night, many women and some young men shared that hope and began to collect donations so that Marwa’s family did not have to compromise their daughter’s rights out of financial constraints. In a few hours, donations reached double the amount that any hospital would charge. We all hoped that she would live to see another day. In the morning, Marwa passed away. She left for good with her pain, and perhaps that her story would be buried with her.
Marwa was killed twice. She was killed when her husband burned her alive, then again by a vicious social media campaign both covering up the murder and justifying the murderer’s crime. This campaign was extended to attack activists who showed their support to Marwa by sharing my post that went viral that night. Those who wrote the violent posts and comments relentlessly defended a man they had never even met, simply because he was a man. Yes, it is enough for someone to get away with any murder of a woman, simply because he is a man.
Marwa was killed four days after the annual International 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign. This was not the first or the last time that a woman was killed by her husband. In the same week, two other cases in Mukalla were revealed. The first was of a husband who killed his pregnant wife by strangling her. In the second, another husband beat his wife to death. In August 2020, Shams al-Mahdi was killed by her husband in Ibb. A month later, Fatima al-Haddad was also killed by her husband in Sana’a. In January 2021, we received the new year with the news of Arwa al-Sanea’, a Yemeni woman, who was shot multiple times by her husband in Qatar where they moved 10 years ago. These crimes are not isolated incidents. Many women are killed by male family members, and they end up buried with their stories in anonymous graves. The only difference this time is that Marwa’s murder went viral on social media. Every woman who heard the story knew very well that she was not safe. The violent reactions were another confirmation that women are not safe. Marwa’s case is a first degree murder, and General Faraj Salmeen al-Bahsni, Hadhramaut’s governor, has ordered the police to proceed and move the case to court. Still, part of society thinks that this is a case like any other, and it could also have happened to a man, so there is no reason to specifically view it as a case of violence against women. Even worse, some people view the incident as a matter of unfortunate fate that should not be framed as a women’s rights cause. When some women in Hadhramaut organized protests demanding justice for Marwa, they were accused by many of promoting foreign organizations’ propaganda that aimed to dismantle social and Islamic values. All of these attacks did not succeed in silencing demands for justice. In fact, Marwa’s family issued a statement condemning the murderer and confirming that they will not compromise pursuing their daughter’s right to justice. To support the family’s demands to prosecute the murderer, Adala Foundation for Legal Development volunteered to represent Marwa’s family in legal proceedings. Indeed the first court hearing of the case took place on 6 January 2021.
Around the world, we keep hearing that women have obtained all their rights, and therefore feminism is no longer needed. Many in our society are enraged by the idea of fighting violence against women. Women’s rights activists are constantly accused of working for foreign interests and receiving suspicious funds. Such accusations put feminists’ lives and their activism in danger. Marwa al-Baiti’s case is evidence that women’s rights activism is not a cover for personal profit. Marwa’s close family and friends have recently come forward and stated that she suffered from her husband’s verbal and physical abuse long before he eventually killed her. When feminist activists and organizations advocate against patriarchy, they are in fact struggling for society as a whole, for women and men. This struggle is for liberation from the patriarchal violence inflicted upon women and, consequently, that which affects society as a whole.
Deemed insignificant by many people, the struggle against psychological, verbal and physical violence is not an unnecessary luxury. Quite the contrary, belittling women and dismissing their personhood and aspirations is systemic violence that robs their souls even when they physically survive. Society does not get to act surprised when women are killed, when it ignores on a daily basis all forms of violence that occur – burning, strangling and shooting. None of this will end, and the entire society will not be spared, if it does not understand that patriarchy kills.