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Yemen's women make their voices heard from revolution to constitution

Amina Semlali's picture
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Side by side we fought with men for a better Yemen. Now we will fight for a Constitution that is inclusive of women and men alike”
- Young woman at the National Dialogue Conference, March 2013, Sana’a, Yemen

Yemeni women are some of the fiercest women I have ever met. Through conflicts and famine, many have had to struggle for the survival of their families. The abject poverty afflicts Yemeni women in particularly harsh ways, yet they carry on and persevere. Still, their pride in their culture and love for their beautiful country always shines through. But in spite all of this I was still surprised when I saw footage of the protests that rocked the capital Sana’a in 2011.

Photo credit: Mohammed HuwaisWomen - side by side with men - in the thick of battle, openly protesting in the central city space that came to be known as “Change Square.” Despite numerous failed attempts to prevent women from joining the demonstrations, they stood firm. In fact, some took on leadership roles during the revolution, while others marched the streets or helped organize a field hospital, treating wounded demonstrators.On one of the many videos that spread through the internet and gave the outside world a window on events, one woman expressed her feelings after marching in the “Friday of Anger” demonstration on February 18, 2011 which saw thousands of Yemenis gather in major cities: “Women are risking everything to get rid of the oppressive regime. We feel that for the first time men and women are coming together – we participate as Yemenis first, with our gender being secondary.

To fully understand the significance of the role of women and the challenges that they had to overcome, it is necessary to understand what it means to be born a woman in Yemen. Female illiteracy runs at 70 percent, double that of men. An average of eight women dies every day because of poor health or lack of services.There is no legal minimum age for marriage and when girls as young as 10 are married away their young bodies can often not handle the birth process too soon thereafter.They perish. Women raise children, cook, clean, tend the land and graze sheep and cattle – yet only 7 percent earn a wage. In a country where almost every step a woman takes is circumscribed by rules and restrictions,the revolution created a unique opportunity to address Yemen’s gender gap—one of the main drivers of the country’s enduring underdevelopment.

The revolution created a unique opportunity to address Yemen’s Gender Gap—one of the main drivers of the country’s enduring underdevelopment.

Since the toppling of the longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has entered a historic transition in whichYemenis are discussing a new constitution through a National Dialogue. The inclusiveness of this dialogue will determine the long-term future success and development of the country.

During the revolution, secularist and Islamist women alike spoke in a determined voice showing that the fight for their rights was not just for the sake of it. Rather, they engaged as citizens for the long-term good of their country as a whole. And there are plenty socio-economic arguments to back up their demands for female civic, political and economic inclusion, one of them being that a country’s productivity can drastically increase as gender equality increases, according to the World Development Report on Gender 2012.

A conference on “Gender and State-Building in the Middle East: Informing Yemeni Constitutional Reform with Global Lessons, Local Contexts” was held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC last week.  Practitioners and policy makers from various regions discussed how countries can best secure long-term reform for women’s rights during periods of political change and economic uncertainty. Among global lessons was the example from Rwanda where, after the genocide in 2004, it was decided early on in the difficult transition process that in order for the country to move forward women would have to fully participate in governance. Panelists also emphasized the time-sensitive window of opportunity prior to the drafting of the constitution during which to raise critical issues.

Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, Member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference said that 161 women representatives are currently participating in the dialogue. For Yemen this is an unusually high number. Jamal Benomar, United Nations Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Yemen, emphasized that in order to make the exchanges meaningful, various factions – political, tribal and regional of both genders – would need to participate. So far the national dialogue has managed to get Yemenis to talk to each other in a rather divided country by bringing the various factions into the same room.

“This process in Yemen is unique,” he said. “It is the only negotiated, transparent and participatory political transition in the Arab world.”

It remains to be seen if women’s access to and participation in political, economic and civic spheres will improve in the long run. As Yemen’s Minister for Human Rights Hooria Mashoor said: “No one can marginalize them (the women) now; they are now moving onwards.”


Submitted by Emily on
An excellent and timely article.

I would like to see the World Bank really put its money where its mouth is on gender, instead of sideline it a box to be ticked, or the after thought in project preparation and implementation. It is high time to understand Gender as it is explained in this piece: The Economic and Development Issue of our time. This is not just about human rights -- although as I woman I find that the most compelling arguments. But given that men still run the world, we have to persuade them to do what is right by showing them how they will gain.

The World Bank has done a great job communicating the notion that "Gender Equality is Smart Economics"; however we have yet to translate that into action. Women's economic empowerment needs to be a forefront of every single project, the defining factor for career advancement in the institution, the central constract of every government dialogue and CAS.
I dare the World Bank to walk the walk.

Submitted by Fati on
I was also impressed by Yemen's women- and all over the Middle East. They all showed, as you said, that they care deeply about their countries and want to be part of making their countries better. I like the way you said that we fought not for women's rights only because we are women - but because we have to make our conutries better -together- men and women. But the women in Yemen had many greater challenges, the poverty they all go through makes it harder. I wish the whole Yemen all the best

Submitted by Lotta on
Dear Amina, Again you have written a very interesting and enlightening piece. It's encouraging to know that women in Yemen are asserting their place in change and politics. Look forward to your next contribution! Lotta

Submitted by Zahra F on
Interesting article, I had no idea that Yemen was making so much process after the revolution. We do not hear much about Yemen in the news unfortunately. I hope this will be an opportunity for other Arab countries to learn from Yemen's progress on how to bring so many factions together. If a country wants to move forward that is the way: to have all tribes all political parties all religions all genders contribute to the formation of a new constitution. Not an easy thing to do but a must. Zahra

Submitted by Kristina on
Great article! I truly hope that the National Dialogue Conference will be successful and that the participation and true representation of women will endure through out the entire process. It would, besides of course be the most beneficial development for the country, also serve as an inspiring and empowering example of a positive democratic process, not just for the region and but also for the rest of the international community. In these days, we truly need that. And the fierce women, of all ages, of Yemen have earned their rights to sit at the table and be an active force in shaping a new future for their country. That is the only way forward towards a democratic and economical prosperous Yemen.

Submitted by Amina on
Dear Emily,

Many thanks for your comment. I am glad you liked the article – I agree that gender is the economic and development issue of our time.

Your comment is thought provoking and I do believe that governments as well as large (and small) institutions will have to continue their struggle to ensure that gender is on top of the agendas and translated into concrete action.

Thank you
Dear Fati,

Thank you very much for your comment.

Yes, the achievements of women in Yemen and across the region are impressive. The National Dialogue in Yemen is truly a unique process and I am very glad that the women are also taking a seat at the table.

Thank you for your feed-back and hope you will continue following the MENA blogs.

Amina Semlali

Submitted by Summer Alhabeil on
"Yemeni women are some of the fiercest women I have ever met." They are indeed. Yemeni women have been marginalized for decades if not centuries, always left out of any political or social decision making, but after the 2011 revolution that toppled Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemeni women showed how resilient and powerful they are and that from now on they're the catalysts for change and a major force to be reckoned with.

Thanks so much for highlighting the efforts Yemeni women are putting forth in order to move Yemen forward politically, socially and economically. Thanks again you did a wonderful job.

Submitted by Lailani on
Thank you for mentioning child marriage. It is an issue that is facing also my native country Afghanistan. It undermines all of society when children are forced to marry... we need not only blame the men but also look at the women that help keep such disturbing "traditions" alive. and yes i know much is based in poverty and they try to protect their girls -- but its not protection, it is a punishment. It is unnatural. My own father stood up against it and I am grateful for that, but then again we had the economic means.. Thank you.

Submitted by Khaled on
I am glad that a new picture is being showed of the changes that are taking place. It is along road but we are on our way.

In fact our Prophet (PBUH) said that "Paradise is at a mothers feet" showing the incredibly important role of women within Islam and that she should always be valued and treated well. Whenever I get a chance to go home and see my mother I kiss her hands.

It is unfortunate that women in Yemen and have not had the chance yet to be full citizens the way they deserve. But change seems to be on its way.

I hope that we are a new generation of men --around the world in fact, of all faiths, ethincities and socio-economic backgrounds -- that are mature and self-confident enough to realize that women are the backbone of our societies.

-- A Muslim husband and proud father of two little girls that I hope one day will be inspired by women such as the ones in this article.

Thank you.

Submitted by Nahla B on
Your most fervent blog follower is back :)thanks for another fascinating piece. I agree with most of what has already been said in the comments - but in particular Khaled's comment. Men like him make me proud - and the new generation is mostly like this.

It is not an easy thing to achieve gender equality and looking at the article from World development report you included there are so many factors that need to be addressed to reach a more inclusive society. But it is possible and the Yemeni women are taking steps in the right direction.


Submitted by Carl on
Made me actually look up Yemen on a map (sort of true). Learnt something new (usually it's just talks of drones and horror related to Yemen news wise). Glad to see a different side of the country.

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