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How women in Yemen adopted the art of protest

A gasoline shortage sparked the most recent mass protest by Yemeni women. Since the country's unrest began, women have taken an active role in expressing discontent.

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    Women attend a protest against the Saudi-led coalition outside the offices of the United Nations in Yemen's capital Sanaa August 11, 2015. An impromptu protest took place Friday at a gas station when an attendant told women the station was out of fuel.
    Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
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Women in Yemen took over a gas station that had run out of fuel on Friday to protest the national gasoline shortage.

The 500-woman-strong demonstration was an unusual expression of resistance against the Houthi rebels that took over the capital Sanaa in September, The Associated Press reported. Women face strict regulation in Yemen, but have revealed a bold streak in recent years by uniting in a number of mass demonstrations.

At the gas station protest, women burned tires and accused the rebels of withholding subsidized gasoline, the AP reported. Protester Onisya Mahfouz said one woman slapped the official who told her the women-only gas station was out of fuel, causing a fight to break out, leading to the arrest of five women.

The anti-rebel demonstration should not be interpreted as support for the official government, though. Both the official government and the Shiite Houthi rebels have taken strict stances in favor of curtailing women’s freedoms. But in 2011, when Tawakkol Karman’s nonviolent demonstrations for human rights made her the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, other Yemeni women were inspired to raise their own voices.

In response to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations, women took to the streets en masse and burned their veils and scarves, while holding signs that said “Saleh the butcher is killing women and is proud of it" and "Women have no value in the eyes in Ali Saleh," CNN reported. The protest took place during the same month that Ms. Karman received her prize.

"We will not stay quiet and will defend ourselves if our men can't defend us," protester Ruqaiah Nasser told CNN at the time. "Tribes must understand they will not be respected by Yemeni women if they stay quiet while their women are being attacked by the Saleh regime. Tribes who ignore our calls are cowards and have no dignity."

Earlier that year, almost 5,000 women gathered in Sanaa and about as many in the city of Taiz to fight back against Mr. Saleh’s claim that it was “un-Islamic” for women to participate in demonstrations, Al Jazeera reported.

"It seems that President Saleh failed in all his efforts to employ tribes and security to strike at those seeking his exit,” Samia al-Aghbari, one of the protest’s leaders, told Al Jazeera, “and so he resorted to using religion, especially after he saw that thousands of women were taking part in protests.” Saleh would leave office in 2012 as part of a mediated agreement between the Yemeni government and opposition groups.

Violence in Yemen has boiled over as Houthi rebels have imposed increasing pressure and control on the country. The country's current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has fled to Saudi Arabia, the BBC reports.

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