Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Women leaders in Yemen demand equality, participation, and representation, despite President's comments. Leading activist Amal al Basha talks to Edit Schlaffer

Amal Basha, Chairperson of the Sisters Arab Forum in Sana’a
Amal al Basha, Chairperson of the Sisters Arab Forum in Sana’a, Yemen, and one of the leading progressive women’s voices in the country, was on her way to a meeting with the Women’s Coalition to discuss the issue of violence conducted against women during the demonstrations when she answered her phone. I could tell that she was very agitated, and she immediately said that she wanted to tell me about the abuses against women at the hands of religious extremists in Change Square.

Just over one week ago, President Saleh condemned women’s participation in the opposition rallies, saying that by mixing with men on the street who were not direct relatives, they were violating traditional Yemeni cultural norms. His comments provoked significant backlash from both women and tribal leaders alike—an unlikely alliance has formed around the issue of women’s capacity to lead in Yemen.

In response to Saleh’s remarks, thousands more women took to the streets, demanding their rights to be heard, side by side with the men. The women called for a mixed demonstration, but religious extremists locked arms to prevent the women from leaving their bloc and joining the men. Those women who managed to break through the cordon—about twenty, all very prominent in intellectual Yemeni society—were pushed back and beaten.

The female protesters in Sana’a reached out to the military leaders after the brutal attack. They apologized and said that they did not give the order to attack the women; the women responded by demanding this exact same apology from the political leadership as well.

Amal is confident that such use of brute force will not be effective for much longer in the current revolutionary phase. Yesterday, a group of 53 women leaders gathered at a seminar to pen a document demanding equality, participation, and representation, which they hope will be discussed in the protesters’ official tents in the coming days.

Amal explained that the current revolutionary phase will end when President Saleh steps down. He currently exerts political leadership over little more than one single district in Sana’a, but he nonetheless retains control over the security forces. “We should not push him into a corner; he is like a man in a cave. Rather, we should make sure he is safe so that he can surrender.” Once the revolutionary phase has been completed, the country will enter a transitional phase, during which Amal believes that Saleh should be tried according to the rule of law.

In response to enquiries about the mood in Change Square, Amal says that the scene is encouraging; 25,000 protesters sleep in the square every night. “Of course, however, it takes only one man to create problems and a deep-rooted sense of uneasiness among the women.”

Throughout the tumult of this revolutionary phase in Yemen, Amal and her female colleagues are very strategically and reasonably planning their next moves and refuse to give in to panic and the excitement of the moment. The women are confident that a new brand of Yemeni woman—brilliant, educated, and well-informed young women—will shape the future of the country.

The foundation does have some cracks in it, however—women belonging to the Islah Party, Yemen’s religious party, have a very different agenda. They are cleverly employing the momentum of the revolution for their own cause, establishing a Salafi state.

Amal herself has received a number of anonymous threats to kidnap her children if she does not keep quiet; even her 70-year mother has received harassing phone calls in Taiz.

In a dramatic appeal, Amal says, “We need the world to help the revolution to succeed. Saleh has used the terrorist agenda to threaten the West, collect money, and stay in power. We need our friends to stand by us now.”

Interview conducted by Edit Schlaffer, Executive Director of Women without Borders / SAVE-Sisters Against Violent Extremsim

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