Tuesday, March 8, 2011

SAVE Yemen Thoughts on International Women's Day

A member of SAVE Yemen reflects on the unstable situation in the country and remembers the women of Yemen who will not be celebrating International Women's Day this year.

Tomorrow, March 8, women worldwide will celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. These women celebrate women’s successes and all their political, social and economic achievements. This global event is meant to connect all the women around the world and to highlight the inequalities that need redressing.

Yemen is going to celebrate it too and join the global events that will take place on such an occasion. However, this year and particularly at this time, things are different here. Despite all the challenges that it faces, Yemen lives in a historical and critical moment.

The Yemeni people are on alert as the wind of change has swept from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen. Like other Middle Eastern countries, young people are the fuel of these new revolutions. Protests in Yemen (in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden and other Yemeni cities) become semi-daily and protesters’ camps occupy squares in those main cities. Killing and injuring protesters has darkened Yemeni lives but also pushed them to continue protesting.

In such an atmosphere, there is not much to say about March 8 and the desire to celebrate it becomes even less. In Yemen at present, people have stopped talking about pressing issues like illiteracy, poverty, unemployment or terrorism. The people, old and young, talk about change and how to topple Saleh’s regime. I wanted to collect some voices on the occasion of International Women’s Day, but all they wanted to talk about was “revolution” and “ousting the current regime”. One of my male colleagues ridiculously commented "what about having International MAN Day"!

In fact, I do not remember when Yemen started to celebrate International Women’s Day, but I have attended a number of these celebrations over the past few years. I do still remember last year’s celebration. It was a big conference in which women from all walks of life in Yemen came and participated. A number of papers were presented. Most of the papers were gender-based, addressing issues like inequality in political, social and economic life. I met a number of extraordinary and pioneering Yemeni women. On March 8 2010, I met Jennifer from the German embassy to whom I introduced SAVE Yemen and who then introduced SAVE Yemen to Yemen Gender Network and other activities. Jennifer has just left Yemen but on such an occasion I cannot forget such a wonderful woman, who is not a Yemeni, but she has given a lot of her time and effort to lift up the status of Yemeni women. Such women make us, Yemeni women, feel connected with other women globally.

"This International Women's Day, we should go to any village in Yemen and live one day with those hard-working women, honor them and show them some appreciation."

However, despite the advantages of celebrating the March 8, it saddens me that the majority of disadvantaged Yemeni women are left out. It saddens me that in these events, I just see those few educated and elite women. This is not representative of the majority of Yemeni women.

In Yemen the majority of women are illiterate and live in rural areas where they are less connected with media and information sources. Those women won't celebrate the March 8. They have simply never heard about this day, so it is meaningless to them. Actually many Yemeni women would be surprised to know that some countries observe the March 8 as a national holiday.

I feel deeply sad, not because of the meaninglessness of March 8 for most of Yemeni women, but for the hardships they still live in. These women are vulnerable because they are deprived of proper education, of access to health services, of economic independence, and of political and social empowerment.

I was talking to one of my friends who happened to be in Abyan (a Southern Yemeni governorate) where she met local women. Those who follow Yemeni news will know Abyan as a place where a number of terrorist incidents took place. I was really shocked to hear from her how the illiteracy of those women was exploited. The women were providing the terrorists with food and shelters without knowing their bad intentions. The women were simply told that they were guests, and as such they had to give them hospitality (hospitality to the guest is a must and a feature of Yemeni culture. It would be an insult if a guest received no hospitality). Those women live with guilt after knowing they hosted the killers and attackers. "I cannot believe I have indirectly taken part in killing innocent people. I will live with this guilt forever. We are simple illiterate women; we do not know how to differentiate between the terrorist and the innocent. We do not have a clue and nobody has advised us," one of those women explained.

Looking at such a tragic story, it re-enforces the importance of working with mothers. A global initiative that SAVE began last year under the Mothers for Change! campaign calls for counter-terrorism initiatives to work closely with mothers.

Finally, apart from holding conferences, workshops and similar events on International Women’s Day, I wish to celebrate it differently and do something concrete for women who are in need of support and empowerment. For example, if we could just go to any village in Yemen and live one day with those hard-working women, honor them and show them some appreciation.

I just wish on the day of 8th of March that we could connect the Yemeni women with their sisters around the globe - every Yemeni woman would wait for such a day impatiently. Will this day come?

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