Out of ashes of war, women in Yemen arise

With a lull in fighting after eight years of conflict, Yemenis now view women differently, especially as leaders in restoring communities.

Girls walk in the old quarter of Sanaa, Yemen,

After eight years of war that took more than 377,000 lives, Yemen has enjoyed eight months of relative peace under a cease-fire brokered in April. Poverty remains high and the economy is in shambles, yet the war has had one salutary consequence. It has led to a shift in the way one of the world’s most male-dominated societies values women.

In August, for example, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), an interim governing coalition set up under the truce, appointed the first woman to the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest court authority. Last week, two Yemeni women were recognized by the United States Institute of Peace in Washington for their success in rights advocacy and peace building.

“Yemeni society’s view of women today is completely different from what it was before,” Ahmed Ghaleb, an education official in the city of Ibb, told The National, a media outlet based in the United Arab Emirates. “It used to be an unforgivable crime for women to work, but now society is more aware.” Participation for women in civic leadership roles, he added, is “one of their legitimate rights and not a favor.” 

Women have, in fact, been a persistent force in Yemen’s pro-democracy and peace movements. They helped secure a 2015 draft constitution that would have required that 30% of all governing bodies be filled by women. Three years later, women helped produce a cease-fire in the port city of Hodeidah.

Even so, women still face harsh restrictions. In areas controlled by the Houthi rebels, they are prohibited from traveling without a male escort. The PLC includes no women.

But even as the war has compounded the dire conditions Yemeni women face, it has also created new necessities for their inclusion. As men have gone to war, women – and a growing network of organizations created by them – have stepped in. They are learning to tap the very cultural traditions that shaped their exclusion.

In the southwest city of Taiz, for example, a local female civil society leader rallied the town’s male elders behind her effort to restore water resources co-opted by the military. “On first reception, [the military] wouldn’t accept me negotiating as a woman,” Ola Al-Aghbari told the United Nations, “but when they saw all the local leaders in the city in the alliance, all religious men and local authorities from the city, they agreed to talk.”

A future for Yemen “built on equal citizenship, democracy, and national reconciliation,” argued Nadia Al-Sakkaf, director of research at the Arabia Brain Trust, in an October interview with Institut Montaigne, “has to emerge from the ground up by empowering the local communities, especially women and youth, giving them something to care about rather than engage in the armed conflict in search of a source of income or empty ideology.” 

From Iran to Sudan in recent years, democracy movements have poured into the streets to challenge the restrictive rule of male-dominated regimes. Those open protests are more visible expressions of the quieter revolutions taking place within Middle Eastern societies – waged, as they are in Yemen, by recognizing women as equal with men in creating just, peaceful societies.

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