Monday, April 18, 2011

A turning point for Yemeni women

Thousands of angry women went on the March in Sana’a to condemn Saleh’s statement that women and men should not mix at protests. Yemen Times Photo by Adnan Al-Rajehi
Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor in chief of The Yemen Times since 2005 and a member of SAVE Yemen. She has been a very active figure in Yemen and has won awards internationally for her role as a change agent in Yemen’s press and freedom struggle. Nadia tells us why Saleh's disparaging comments about women's participation in the protests were misplaced, and describes how men and women are working together to push for change in Yemen.

In the remote country of Yemen at the end of the Arabian Peninsula there is nothing but trouble. There is poverty, conflict, terrorism, a deteriorating economy and discrimination.

Yet there is another side to the story.

In the remote country of Yemen where beyond there is nothing but sea, hope is everywhere. It radiates from the soaring hearts of young men and women demanding change, in the eyes of women who bake colorful cakes to feed the protestors, in the chants of young kids who are learning for the first time the words of freedom, democracy and human rights.

The problem is that for hope to survive and make a difference it needs a chance. The change makers of Yemen, especially the women, need to be empowered in order to translate hope into progress.

Against all odds Yemeni women have broken all stereotypes and achieved the impossible. In a society ridden with traditional constraints against women, it appears that this revolution is one born and supported by men and women alike.

Not only are women leading the protests and attending to the wounded, women are also active politically in the discussion spheres online and on the ground.

In fact, in Change Square, the launching point of Yemen’s revolution there are families that camped with women and children who are determined not to return home until president Saleh leaves his. It has become personal. And the last thing you want to do is get on the bad side of a Yemeni woman.

At the beginning of the protests, women used to stay in isolated quarters and usually kept to themselves. More than once when I was visiting in the early days, as soon as I appeared at the entrance to the camp two or three men with badges found me and escorted me smoothly across the crowds shouting, “Woman coming…make way!” I found myself weaving my way, out of breath, following my guides feeling protected yet confused… where are they taking me?

In less than seven minutes I found myself approaching a cloth barrier and the men gestured to me to walk the remaining few meters on my own as I was entering a men-free zone.

They were bewildered when I refused to be tucked under the cloth barrier. I thanked them for their protection but explained that I wanted to take a walk around the protest grounds and get a feeling of how things are, not only in the women’s corner which I had already visited recently.

“I am a journalist.” I said and it made all the difference. Suddenly I was given all the freedom to walk and talk to whoever I wanted within those sacred grounds of Change Square, including the women’s corner.

Today, women in Change Square are everywhere. They are no longer confined to that section and they often take the stage to announce or comment on something. Women are there serving food, educating others on their rights or legal issues, or just being there.

It was amazing how there seemed to be a sense of liberation and purpose. It took the tens of thousands living in Change Square less than three months to change their ways and build on each other’s strengths, whether men or women.

Indeed the women’s corner is still there, much larger now that there are more women, but it is not intended to isolate them anymore.

On Friday April 15, President Saleh made a nasty comment on those women. He viciously asked what they were doing there, sleeping in the streets between all these men. His comments angered thousands of women who marched the following day for hours warning him that he is out of line and that they will not leave until he does.

There is great potential in the women of Yemen as peace makers and as human power for rebuilding the country. This is an opportunity to help Yemeni women break the chains that have held them back for many decades.

The time is now, and the women of Yemen are ready.

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