WASHINGTON — In a region filled with countries where women are prohibited from driving, checking into hotels, showing off their legs or arms, or going out with a male friend in public - never mind voting or running for elected office - Yemen's Amat al-Aleem Alsoswa has always stood out.
A small woman with long, dark, uncovered hair, scant makeup, and active eyes, Mrs. Alsoswa was her country's first superstar female TV announcer, first female permanent undersecretary, and first female ambassador. And now, Alsoswa, has just scored another - double - first.
Three months ago she was appointed Yemen's first Minister of Human Rights, joining a tiny coterie of Arab women who serve in ministerial positions in their countries - and becoming the first-ever head of a human rights ministry in any Arab country.
"I have to give a lot of credit to my mother," she remarks, sitting down for an interview, and smoothing her dark blue skirt.
Alsoswa's mother was illiterate - as were most women in Yemen before 1962, when they were finally told they could, and should, attend school. (Even today, only about 40 percent of Yemeni adult females are literate, as compared with about 76 percent of men.) Although illiterate, the elderly Mrs. Alsoswa was a major believer in education.
Making ends meet on her late husband's pension, the minister's mother insisted all her children, boys and girls alike, spend their long days in school - not working or marrying young. So supported, Alsoswa received her high school diploma in her hometown in Yemen, and continued onward, first to Cairo University in Egypt, and later to Washington, D.C., where she received a master's degree in international communications from American University.
She then returned home, became a journalist and an activist on women's issues, a civil servant, and finally a politician. "My elderly mother was the key to my success if I achieved any," says Alsoswa. "She was the main gate which allowed us all into this new world."
This week, Alsoswa was back in her old haunts in Washington, exemplifying the changes taking hold with respect to women in some of the Arab world. And she was busy talking about another change - what it means to set up a ministry of human rights in a part of the world not always know for its adherence to them.
Yemen, a fertile land at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the oldest inhabited regions on earth, is unique in the region, says Alsoswa. "We have multiparty elections and more freedoms - of participation, of organization, of speech - than most. So the opening up Yemen has undergone since 1990 has made it logical for us to create this ministry. The whole country is becoming more progressive."
The ministry, which has 37 employees and is steadily growing, is intended to be an address for Yemeni citizens to turn to when they feel their human rights have been abused. Journalists can complain about information ministers, Bedouins can complain about land authorities, students can complain about college deans.
The ministry, assisted by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), promises to look into all cases and follow up with the relevant agencies - even if the agency is another government body or ministry. "We anticipate some reluctance," says Alsoswa, "but we have the backing of the constitution and the law."
According to both local Yemeni NGOs and international human rights groups, there is still a gap between the Yemeni government's commitments to human rights and the realities on the ground. There are still incidences of arbitrary detention, still discrimination against women, and still complaints of torture, they say.
The difference now, says Amal Basha, chairwoman of the Sisters Arab Forum, a human rights advocacy group in Yemen, is a political commitment to change. "There is ignorance on the ground about the law, but now the government is much more serious about educating people and then enforcing that law," she says. "These abuses are not being hidden."
Alsoswa does not deny that Yemen has a way to go in terms of its record. But "it's getting better," promises the woman who, in the early days of her public career, found most of her letters addressed to 'Mr. Alsoswa,' because no one could believe a woman could hold such high posts.
"The initiative to correct what is wrong comes from within - not from pressure from outside," she says. "These abuses recorded by Amnesty [International] and others does not mean we have systemic abuses. It just means we have something to work on."