Yemen’s Women Revolutionaries

Yemen’s Women Revolutionaries

In 2011, Tawakkol Karman helped lead the overthrow of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh—and kickstart a broader struggle for women’s rights. But today, as Houthi rebels threaten to take control, Yemen’s women activists fear their struggle is being sidelined.

Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman at a protest in Sana'a, 2012 (Yusra Ahmad)

Scattered applause broke out as a young woman in a black robe and a floral headscarf stepped onto a crate outside the gates of Sana’a University in Yemen’s capital and called for the attention of the hundred or so students around her. It was mid-February 2011, and Tawakkol Karman, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, was leading one of the first demonstrations against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Earlier that night, she was at home with her husband when news broke that Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, one of the longest-serving autocrats in the Arab world, had stepped down after mass protests. Karman hurried to the university where a crowd had gathered. “The combination of a dictatorship, corruption, poverty, and unemployment has created this revolution. Injustice and corruption are exploding while opportunities for a good life are coming to an end,” said Karman. The students cheered, “Saleh’s days are numbered.” Then Karman did something unexpected. “Sisters,” she turned to a small group of women on the edge of the crowd, “now is the time for women to stand up and become active without asking for permission. Women are no longer victims—they have become leaders. . . . We want to retrieve our nation, we want to become citizens in a new world.”

Even to her supporters, Karman’s call to action must have sounded quixotic. Saleh still had the support of his army, his tribe, of the United States and of Saudi Arabia. He had ruled Yemen for thirty-two years, dodged coups and assassination attempts, and survived a civil war. Nine months after her speech, however, despite massacres, the splitting of the national army, and scores killed, Saleh was gone: the fourth Arab leader ousted by revolt. Karman’s prediction came true.

It was in her second appeal—for the inclusion of Yemeni women in the new order—that Karman identified a challenge greater than that of toppling a dictator. Yemen is one of the worst countries in the world for gender equality, yet women pioneered the revolt. Since Saleh’s fall from power, female activists in the country have faced the hurdle confronting all revolutionary politics: to transform the egalitarian spirit of a brief uprising into a long-lasting revolution, in this case, for women’s equality.

Even though women were on the frontlines of protests across the Arab world in 2011—in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia—little was said about women’s rights in the early days of the uprisings. The goal of these revolts was to topple despotic regimes, not to end patriarchy. But as rulers fell and confidence grew among protesters, the demands of protesters evolved. Cries were heard not only to end old regimes but also to eradicate the practices and values they encouraged: cronyism, corruption, apathy, and patriarchy. In Yemen, women marshaled rallies, slept in protest camps, went on hunger strikes and covered the unrest as bloggers and photographers. They were also among the hundreds of protesters killed during the government’s bloody crackdown. Since the heady days of 2011, however, the voices in Yemen saying that women should “leave politics to men” and “return to normal” have grown more insistent.

Today, three years after Saleh stepped down, Yemen’s politics is unraveling. In September 2014 the Houthis, a powerful Islamist rebel group based in northern Yemen who took part in the movement to depose Saleh, seized parts of the capital and ousted the prime minister. The rebels, who are calling for reform and greater representation, stopped short of overthrowing the government, but by forcing concessions exposed it as both weak and incompetent. The fruit of the 2011 uprising, a transition agreement promising elections and a new constitution where women would be guaranteed 30 percent of all elected offices, is in jeopardy. As the Houthis sweep south with heavy weapons, toppling towns and battling for territory with Al Qaeda militants, female activists such as Karman fear the women’s rights agenda is being sidelined. Men with guns are once again taking control.

Two thousand years ago, one of the world’s most prosperous kingdoms ruled the area east of Sana’a. The kingdom of Saba, called Sheba in the West, and home of the Biblical queen who was Yemen’s first and most famous ruler, was a lush agricultural region irrigated by canals from a vast man-made dam. The Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia.

Today Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Its living standards are comparable to those of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Fifty-seven percent of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished, according to UNICEF—the highest level of malnutrition in the world after Afghanistan. Oil reserves are dwindling. Sana’a, an ancient city surrounded by steep mountains, will likely become the first capital in the world to run out of water. Years of civil war, corruption, and mismanagement have left the country in ruins. While an elite of army generals, oil barons, and hotel owners help themselves to the nation’s remaining resources, the rest go hungry.

Women have few rights in Yemeni society. There is no legal minimum age for marriage, so a quarter of all girls are married before they turn fifteen—some as young as eight or nine—and grow up to bear on average six children. Women inherit half of what men do. Their testimony is worth half a man’s in court. There are no penalties for domestic violence in Yemen. Over two-thirds of Yemeni women are illiterate. Those who do manage to receive an education—the wealthy and the fortunate—still need their brothers’ or fathers’ permission to travel, to enroll in school, or to marry. A Yemeni proverb says, “A girl leaves the house only twice, to her husband and to her grave.”

Tawakkol Karman was born into a family of devout Muslims in the central city of Taiz in 1979, the same year Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power through a military coup. Karman’s family was part of Yemen’s small middle class. Her father, Abdel-Salam Karman, a broad-shouldered man with a wispy beard and a law degree, rose to prominence as a moderate Islamist politician in the 1980s.

As a young woman, Karman was pious; she wore a niqab, the black, face-covering veil, to school and kept a copy of the Koran by her bed. On Fridays, when her brother Tariq, an aspiring poet, left for the mosque, Karman would hitch up her robe and run after him to join him for prayers. Though she shared her father’s spirituality, their politics diverged. Karman saw politics as something that took place from the street level up, occurring everywhere, all the time, not only in parliament, courtrooms, or stuffy ministerial offices, but in people’s living rooms, in the courtyards of mosques and on the back seats of buses.

Karman became involved in grassroots activism as a student at university, and, following her graduation, founded Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC), an organization dedicated to protecting writers and photographers and supporting women trying to break into journalism.

With WJWC Karman fought two fights: one against the regime and its clampdown on journalists (in 2006 she roamed the capital with a stepladder plastering a blacklist of Yemeni officials most opposed to a free press—including the minister of information and the director of national security—on the walls of government buildings); another against figures like the prominent Salafi cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, religious conservatives determined to exclude women from public life.

In 2007, Karman took a personal leap. Just as she was getting up to speak at a conference broadcast on national television, she removed her niqab, donned a lilac headscarf, and walked on stage—the first time she had uncovered her face in public. “I thought before I spoke my mind, I should show you my face,” Karman told the audience. “I used to believe that Islam required women to wear the niqab. It doesn’t. The niqab has nothing to do with Islam,” she said. “A woman who wants to play an influential role must not create a barrier between herself and others.” She then started her presentation as if nothing had happened, although the atmosphere in the room was electric.

The following year Karman joined Islah, Yemen’s most prominent Islamist party. One of the first women to be elected to Islah’s higher decision-making council, she frequently clashed with the party’s leaders, especially religious conservatives; she criticized men in the party who opposed legislation that would make marriage of girls under the age of seventeen illegal. When al-Zindani, who has links to Islah, issued a fatwa against the 137 women running in local elections, Karman responded: “Women’s political participation is a right we have by the constitution, by law. A fatwa, any fatwa, cannot affect or change these rights.”

The first time I saw Karman she was in her office in Sana’a, a dark room with a high ceiling and a worn red carpet. Sunlight spilled through a large stain-glass window onto her desk where framed portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela stood among a clutter of letters and broken cameras. An electric fan whirred in the corner.

It was early April 2011 and the uprising was at its height. Since Karman’s speech at the university in January, the protests had spread; sit-ins and vigils had sprung up in squares and boulevards across the country. Saleh’s security forces were cracking down. Two weeks earlier plainclothes snipers on rooftops had opened fire on demonstrators at a prayer ceremony in the capital, killing fifty-three and wounding hundreds more. Ministers, ambassadors, and army generals had defected. The United States and other Western powers condemned the atrocity. Saleh blamed the opposition.

Karman had just come from Sana’a University, where protesters had assembled a shantytown. Centered at a major intersection around an obelisk called the “Wisdom of the Yemeni People,” the tented camp known as Change Square had spread over neighboring streets and grown to include some 100,000 people. This city-within-a-city, big enough for a makeshift hospital, a mosque, a morgue, a dining hall, two art galleries, and a cinema, brought together elements of society that rarely mingled. Tribesmen from northern villages shared tents with grey-haired socialists from the south, young activists in jeans discussed the merits of an armed insurrection with mutinous army officers. Women and men mixed with rare freedom.

A sunburned Canadian from the Globe and Mail in a blue baseball hat was sitting in a chair, pen poised above his notebook, across from Karman. “Women,” he said, flipping over a page in his notebook. “Are they really involved in the revolution? Or is their role just to assist from behind the scenes?” Karman smiled. “Women have a permanent and vital presence in the square,” she said. “She is in the field hospital removing bullets from the wounded, she is in the soup kitchen preparing food and she is on the stage delivering speeches and leading the chants. To answer your question, women are leading the revolution, from the front and from behind the scenes.” The Canadian seemed dissatisfied. “Are you fighting for women’s rights or Yemeni rights?” he asked. “Both,” she said. Before she could explain, her assistant walked in and whispered something to her. Karman apologized and strode out of the room. The police had opened fire on a demonstration.

As the protests grew, President Saleh tried to contain the unrest. Initially he dismissed the demonstrators, claiming they were a “small, unreasonable minority.” Then he offered concessions—tax cuts, jobs for graduates, and a promise to step down when his term ended in 2013—before resorting to force.

Two weeks after I met Karman, Saleh made a public announcement denouncing the “illegal mixing between the sexes” that was taking place in Change Square, citing Sharia law and the Koran. His accusation was tantamount to calling the women faasakaat, or “prostitutes.”

It was a move typical of Saleh who for years wavered between “liberating” women—appointing them to nominal government positions and opening girls’ schools in the capital—and aligning with radical clerics like al-Zindani, whose hardline brand of Islam saw increased pressure on women to conform to traditional mores, such as the veil. By invoking the Koran, Saleh was trying to create a divide within the opposition camp between religious hardliners and the secular centrists who supported the women. Many saw it as a cheap shot—scandal-mongering (from a man known more for his taste in whiskey than his piety) that lacked authority and scriptural basis. Female protesters were outraged, and men whose wives were at the Square were offended.

The morning after Saleh’s speech, I am on a footbridge that runs over Siteen—a busy, five-lane highway ringing the capital. The air is thick with exhaust fumes. The sun, burning overhead, reflects off the tinted windows of the SUVs, cars and microbuses creeping forward on the other side of the road below. A drumbeat rises above the car horns. I hear chants, shrill and wild cries rising from a distance. Squinting through the lens of my camera, I see thousands of women in black veils appear, marching shoulder to shoulder. Some of the women carry altered images of Saleh with flames in his eyes. The women are furious. “Shame on you Saleh. You cannot defame us! Out, out, out, out!”

Newspapers the next day would call it the largest female demonstration in Yemen’s history. A photograph taken from a helicopter and splashed across front pages showed the march from above, wrapping around the city like a huge black river. For many of the women it was the first time they had taken to the streets. It was a first for some of the men participating too. As the women marched, anxious husbands hurried along the route, struggling to keep an eye on their loved ones, at one point linking arms to form a human chain around the women.

One woman in the sea of female protesters caught my eye. A pair of pink Converse sneakers protruding from under her veil, she held a megaphone to her mouth, leading the chants. Her name, I learned later, was Faizah Sulimani. Her father, a silk merchant, didn’t know she was marching.

Two weeks later, we meet in the garden of a coffee shop in the leafy suburb of Hadda. It is nearing sunset. Young men in polo shirts and skinny jeans who have been chatting and surfing the internet on laptops are now starting to pack up and leave. A few of them steal glances at Sulimani as she speaks. Unlike in Saudi Arabia where gender segregation is enforced (women must be accompanied by male guardians), there are no laws in Yemen regulating the mixing of the sexes. Still, mixing is uncommon. Mosques are segregated, as are high schools and most restaurants, and there aren’t many places where a man and a woman can comfortably converse in public. Coffee shops are one exception. Dotted through the city and usually set back from main roads on quiet residential streets, the cafés, which are run by secular businessmen and opposition figures, are havens for socializing. Here, sons and daughters of the middle class mingle, smoke shisha, and plan protests over cappuccinos and cheesecake.

Both outspoken, assertive women in their early thirties, Karman and Sulimani had grown up in, and later stepped out of, the shadow of religiously conservative families. They both discovered politics and protest at university, used social media to denounce Saleh’s regime, and ran into trouble with the authorities. But their views on how to channel their activism differed.

Sulimani’s vision for a new Yemen was secular. She believed in God but also in keeping religion out of politics. Unlike Karman, she never joined the political establishment. Instead, she roamed Change Square, dipping into and lending support to different coalitions and youth movements; Sulimani was part of the independent youth who rejected both the regime and the formal opposition. If Karman played the lead role in the uprising, then Sulimani was more like a behind-the-scenes stagehand; she tended to the square, erecting tents, fixing cameras, handing out leaflets, and compiling detailed reports on the regime’s crackdowns, doing what she could to amplify the impact of the protest movement. Sulimani was working tirelessly for the uprising but, aside from an occasional interview on Al Jazeera, remained relatively unknown. She was more affluent than Karman but less concerned with her image; bold and given to laughing loudly with her head thrown back, Sulimani hardly conformed to the stereotype of the modest, gentle Yemeni woman.

“How many bodies did you see? No, I asked you exactly how many did you see in the mosque? Were there any children?” Sulimani speaks flatly into her telephone, a tone of impatience in her voice. Unfazed by the inquiring looks of the men in the café around her, she glances at me, her eyes narrowing in concentration. She hangs up. “We’re sending this to the U.S. embassy,” she said, putting her phone in her bag and handing me a letter. It is a list of names—protesters who were gunned down by Yemeni security forces the day before. At the bottom of the letter is a photograph of a young man with blood on his hands and face, holding up a tear gas canister with the words MADE IN THE USA written along the side. Although the Obama administration offered tepid words of support to Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, it was not ready to wash its hands of Saleh, a useful if erratic partner in its fight against Al Qaeda. Saleh allowed the United States to launch drone strikes against suspected Al Qaeda militants in the hinterlands; in return he received billions of dollars of military aid that he used to train elite army units headed by his sons and nephews. Sulimani said Obama had abandoned the promise he made to Arabs in his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo in 2009. “Saleh is using the weapons America gave him on us and Obama doesn’t say a word,” she said. “The U.S. cares more about the deaths of terrorists than the lives of revolutionaries.”

The café garden is almost empty now. The call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. Sulimani takes a date from a bowl on the table. Carefully sliding one hand under the flap of the veil, she lifts it forward and puts the date in her mouth. Sulimani had worn the niqab since she was fifteen. Almost all Yemeni women do. It wasn’t something she thought about often. In September 2011, female protesters set fire to veils in Sana’a and videos of their action were broadcast internationally. To the Western press, the images were redolent of the bra-burning feminists of the sixties. These women, too, said commentators on Fox News and elsewhere, were casting off a symbol of their oppression.

However, the spectacle was both more and less than met the eye. What went unnoticed was the fact that the women burning the veils were themselves wearing traditional veils, many covered in black from head to toe. The fires were an act of protest, but not specifically against oppressive gender roles. Women in traditional Bedouin culture burn their clothing as a symbolic appeal for help, and in this case, the women were pleading for tribesmen to intervene to stop the government’s attacks on protesters.

Sulimani is the first to admit that the veil is politically divisive. Some of her friends were forced, either by their husbands or family members, to cover their faces. But, like any item of clothing, she tells me, the reasons for wearing it are complex. “The veil symbolizes decency and piety, and of course it makes my life easier,” she said. “If I were unveiled, men would stare at me.” Some of Sulimani’s friends had encouraged her to take it off, too. Her father had said it was up to her.

Ultimately, she thinks, the question of the veil can obscure what she believes are more pressing women’s issues, such as early marriage, illiteracy and the lack of meaningful work. Before they can deal with the veil, she says, Yemenis must first address these other matters.

Soon after Saleh was forced from power, a six-month process of reconciliation and a national dialogue conference began. The conference took place in the meeting rooms and dining halls of the Mövenpick Hotel on a hill above Sana’a, and brought together tribespeople, politicians, and Islamists, along with representatives of civil society and the revolutionary youth. Chaperoned by a Moroccan diplomat from the UN, it was an opportunity for disparate and marginalized groups—women, akhdam (a caste of hereditary serfs), southern socialists, and Houthi rebels from the north—all of whom had helped topple Saleh, to settle their differences and to plan for what Yemen, without a dictator, might look like. In this international vision, the country would have “a national conversation” to forge a new social contract, draft a constitution, and prepare for free and fair elections in 2014. Women were present at the conference, holding a little less than a quarter of the total 565 seats. They chaired two of the nine working groups. And, once a week for six months, some of the most outspoken, prominent women in Yemen—including Karman and Sulimani—made the trip to the top of the hill to make their case.

On a muggy summer’s day in 2013, above the marbled foyer of the hotel, a portrait of Saleh shaking hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was still hanging. I stand in the shade of a wall outside the gates of the Mövenpick hotel, waiting for Karman to emerge from a national dialogue session. The streets of Sana’a, usually gridlocked with traffic, screeching brakes and car horns, lie quiet. Ramadan is almost over. I watch the guards in blue uniforms searching the cars as they arrive at the hotel entrance. The routine is the same. One leads a dog on a leash around the car as another follows closely behind him, sliding a mirror under the chassis to check for explosives. When they give the OK, another guard pulls a lever and the gates swing open. Karman emerges from the hotel clutching a black briefcase to her chest. She has dark marks under her eyes. She looks weary.

This was the first time I had seen Karman since she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, along with two Liberian women, for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights.” She was in her tent in Change Square the morning she heard the news. As the phone calls flooded in, cheers erupted in the square. Her father called her to tell her she was the first Arab woman and, at thirty-two, the youngest person to be named a Nobel Laureate. Within hours she had become an international star. French broadsheets called her “The Marianne of the Arab Spring.” Time magazine deemed her one of “16 of History’s Most Rebellious Women.” She left Yemen and toured the world for two months, meeting foreign ministers, Hollywood actors, and heads of state. When the media storm died down, Karman returned to Yemen to continue leading protests and to take part in the national dialogue.

As we leave the hotel in a taxi and begin to descend a steep and dusty road, Karman’s shoulders loosen and she breathes a sigh. She seems to relax. “It’s the same politicians up there, the same men in suits,” she said. “They talk about change and the martyrs of the revolution as if they were part of it, and the youth get frustrated. I can feel their frustration,” she said. “Before, it was all about how to destroy the regime. Now, it’s how to finish off the rest of the regime and build the country. I know our revolution has phases. We had one goal, now we have dozens: combating corruption, disarming militias, restructuring the army, and extending the influence of the state.”

It starts to rain. In order to save gas, the driver turns off the engine and for a while we roll down the hill in silence, listening to the raindrops on the windows and gazing at the city before us. I ask Karman whether she thinks the dialogue could change the country’s political scene. “I’m not interested in politics,” she said. “I think if I can be in the street with the people, with the youth, I can achieve more than if I am the president—or in that hotel.” We have descended into the working-class neighborhood of Nuqum—moving into a different world. At the top of the hill there are soldiers, armored vehicles, men in black suits in Humvees; at the bottom, battered motorbikes and oily puddles, qat sellers, women hawking Kleenex, boys selling cactus fruit, and squeaky wheelbarrows. “Sometimes it feels like a prison up there,” she says.

A year later, in January 2014, the dialogue concluded, four months late. Its final act was the publication of a report with about 1,400 recommendations, among them a minimum legal age of eighteen for marriage and the proposed law for 30 percent female representation. The government championed the dialogue. Human Rights Watch applauded it. The Moroccan diplomat from the UN described it as “the most successful transitional process in the Arab World.” But many Yemenis, especially in rural areas (for the central government all but disappears once you leave the large cities), were unaware of the dialogue having taken place. Yemenis I spoke to in the capital seemed relieved that opposing factions—powerful tribal and political figures—were talking to one another but aware that, away from the hotel, the old Yemen still existed, where land grabs, corruption, sectarian clashes, and dodgy deals continued to pull the country apart.

On September 21, a group of Houthi fighters broke into Karman’s house in the capital, posting a Facebook picture of themselves on her bed, smirking, rifles on their laps. At the time, Karman was attending a human rights conference in Washington, D.C. She called on the Houthis to disarm and join the political process. They ignored her. In a television interview the following week, she seemed to lose her patience. “The peaceful revolution has been betrayed, stabbed in the back by the Houthis,” she said. Following her party’s belief about what was now happening in Yemen, she argued that the Houthis were supported by Iran and that Saleh was trying to make a comeback: “This is a counter-revolution.” However it has not always been easy for Karman to play the role in which Islah has cast her. Her fame has estranged her from some in the party, while for many of the Change Square protesters; her participation in the national dialogue compromised her role as a rebel leader. She remains a symbol of the 2011 uprising but today appears increasingly politically isolated and ineffective.

I last spoke to Sulimani in September, shortly after the Houthis seized the capital. She sounded exhausted. Her father, she said, had been just a few hundred meters from a suicide bomb that exploded and killed fifty people at a Houthi rally in the capital a few weeks before.

While Karman has moved from the center to the edge, Sulimani, by contrast, has come in from the periphery to join the mainstream, taking part in the national dialogue and, more recently, joining the Social Fund for Development, a human rights organisation, in Sana’a. Perhaps as a result of this, she is more optimistic about the possibilities for change. The national dialogue, she thinks, is a “golden chance.” Her optimism may be warranted: the new cabinet now contains four female ministers and political parties like Islah are taking steps to include women leaders in their leadership.

The position that Karman and Sulimani find themselves in reflects what many political activists experience across the region—they’re aware of the compromises demanded by organized politics but equally conscious of the difficulty of sustaining the improvised dynamic of revolutionary uprising. “We have to build a very strong civil society, NGOs, and unions,” says Sulimani. “That is why a revolution is so fragile. It’s like a wave, huge and powerful, but nothing holds it together except momentum. And once it breaks, then what? The regime is damaged but not broken, so it starts to reassemble. The same applies to women and the forces against us: the only way to resist those forces is to organize.”

Tom Finn is a journalist based in London where he writes for Middle East Eye. He lived in Sana’a, Yemen, from 2010–12 where he worked as an editor at the Yemen Times and later as a freelance journalist covering the 2011 uprising for the Guardian, Reuters, and Time magazine.