Gender Issues in the New Yemen

[The following commentary by Samira Ali BinDaair was first published on Tabsir on April 15 and reposted in the Yemen Times on April 22.]

When it comes to women and gender in Yemen, I see the discussions inevitably alternating between what is happening in politics and then back again to the same old arguments about women’s rights. I think the problem is that we always look at women’s issues from a very narrow angle lens even though we profess to uphold women’s rights, whatever those are and by whosoever’s definition. After working for the past 20 years in development programmes that spanned different agendas and a variety of target groups and where gender analysis always featured largely, I can safely say that this whole concept of gender mainstreaming was introduced to Yemen without being communicated through more cultural-sensitive strategies. The result has been considerable confusion. Because it was introduced by Western agencies, it was sometimes greatly misunderstood, misimplemented and misused by people with vested interests, just as some men with vested interests have misinterpreted the role of women in Islam.

Gender, therefore, has taken on a demonic face when implemented in this way and came to be seen by some as advocating for the Western style of women’s lib from the 60s and being outside local religio-cultural norms. This ended up marginalizing women even more when the male members of society rejected it out of hand. Gender mainstreaming should be a rigorous process of examining the impact of policies on females, males and children and simultaneously defining the special needs of each category. The gender advocates simply go on repeating the same platitudes about women’s rights hinging on a two pronged concept of public life and employment. For example, in Yemen rural women constitute 70% of the labour force in agriculture so the question is not whether to work or not to work for them but how to relieve them of the many burdens that they face within an underprovided rural environment.

There are many other issues like legal rights and the absence of a just judiciary apparatus, so how can we ensure the rights of women or for that matter the whole society? This is the main point I want to make….that we are always harping on women’s rights as if these are separate from what goes on in the rest of society. Women or children or youth will not have their rights unless the whole society/country takes up an upward spiral into social justice and equal citizenry, in a corruption free environment, where socio-economic mobility becomes based on merit and competence rather than favouritism and nepotism. This is why I think it is futile to simply keep on addressing women’s rights in isolation from all the other issues the country is facing. It should be seen as part of the whole human rights issue. The danger in this is that we create unnecessary battles at a time when we jointly need to elucidate what needs to happen in order to create a new Yemen that too at a very critical juncture in our modern history. The communication strategies should be right for Yemen rather than adopting without adaptation the generic culture-bound gender terminology of the West. We need strategies that are not counterproductive and incite aggressive reactions from different male quarters, but those that can be understood within the religio-cultural context of Yemen.

The Quota system, proposed in the recent National Dialogue Conference, may ensure the participation of women, but then most of the women who participate in decision making (or for that matter who participated in the NDC) are either from political parties or are promoted by those in power through personal relations. The Quota system should not necessarily define who needs to be included automatically through favouritism and posts should be open to competition. This trend of selection a priori needless to say does not always ensure that selection is based on merit and may exclude more capable independent women who can offer much more than some of the power-seeking and self serving females. This may set a precedent and become a self-perpetuating phenomenon and encourage exclusivity where the same people circulate ad infinitum. Also their being in the cabinet or parliament may not always ensure the promotion of the real issues facing women, especially rural women, or for that matter even for urban women by limiting women’s issues to public office and employment as an end in itself as opposed to being a means to many other ends. No doubt self realization is one of the aims of employment or maybe financial needs for women, but being in public office should also include more noble ends of serving society.

Female employment is often a two edged sword when women are burdened with wearing many hats in the absence of facilities that will alleviate their burdens even in the urban areas. They may in the end pay a high price in many other areas of their lives. Therefore we need to look at the issue of employment more holistically. We need to bring the male members of our society on board these issues as matters which concern us jointly and not as enemies who are preventing us from obtaining our rights.We need to change the victim versus oppressor mentality that many women seem to have in their gender pursuits.

Yes, women face a lot of problems in Yemen like everywhere else ….women sometimes are thrown on the street or even in jail without a court case and many other injustices are committed upon them. This is true whether in Yemen or in New York or Timbuctoo. While I was in England, I was amazed at watching documentaries on wife battering and other forms of female harassment there, both physical and psychological. Some of my female friends complained about having to take up part time work or even give up their careers as they were responsible for all the household chores and child nurturing while the husband comes from work to go to the pub or stretches on the easy chair reading the paper. This trend is quite common but there is the brighter side of the picture too there and in the West in general as it is in Yemen. The positive side of male chivalry and protection unfortunately tends to be interpreted by some women who blindly emulate the West as patronizing. I was once flying to Aden for a project monitoring visit accompanied by people from the head office including a young Palestinian lady. We were not allowed to sit at the emergency exit being female. She made a great fuss over not being allowed to sit at the emergency exit almost screaming at the poor steward that she was being patronised as a woman. I silently watched thinking to myself I would save my energy for the more important battles awaiting us and quite pleased when the steward carried my laptop and bag to the next row of seats!

Women in the rural areas have enjoyed more mobility as compared to their urban sisters because of the lifestyle in the rural areas. Sometimes they tend to be more vocal and powerful than urban women. Yet when I asked a friend as to why rural women were not included in these discussions the answer was patronizing and unconvincing. These discussions are sophisticated and there are people who will represent them. Is it difficult to have rural women speak about the issues that concern them in their lives in whatever style they choose to communicate? Could such women, who are often quite articulate, be included and their views transferred then to whatever format is required? Even going to the rural areas to talk to people has its limitations and does not give them a sense of ownership because for so long they have seen people doing this and promising the moon. Such an exercise holds no credibility anymore. Paulo Freire in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” gives us interesting examples of how the illiterate were empowered through revolutionary literacy courses that had politically and socially charged meanings. Also in Latin America illiterate but experienced craftsmen were called to community colleges to teach their crafts so this national legacy would not be lost and it acted as a neutralizing agent for the extremely theoretical technical training in academia. We in the Arab world tend to underestimate our rich cultural heritage and the expertise of old and skilled hands in various fields. People in the squares during the “Arab Spring” did a lot of awareness creation for the illiterate. This helped them to understand many legal issues and other matters, hitherto believed to be the prerogative of the educated elites who unfortunately and unwittingly join the ranks of the oppressors from the standpoint of their elitism in ivory towers.

Oppression comes in many forms and is not exclusive to women. If I ask these people to define the way in which women are oppressed, they might not touch on the core issues because they accept the kind of stereotyping that has been going on for so many centuries about what constitutes progress and development seen solely through Western eyes. I was so sad to read what an otherwise educated young Yemeni lady said about her achievements in gender mainstreaming which included persuading women to remove the niqab. Is that a priority? Even if I don’t wear a niqab, I think it’s a matter of personal freedom for whoever believes in wearing it. That’s exactly what I mean by inviting hostility towards gender issues. Therefore I think the development agencies and the international arena could play a more effective role in promoting gender issues in Yemen by listening to the people who do not necessarily echo their own perceptions, rather than selecting people who accept their agendas wholesale.

Women in Yemen are powerful participants in society and have shared in public life for decades and still do even if they do that behind their hijabs. I mean real participation in social movements, not simply as paper tigers in parliament etc. Hijab has never prevented a woman from doing what she wants to do in terms of career or public office or whatever. Most Westerners who come to Yemen start off with these preconceptions about women being oppressed due to being covered, but those who care to dig deeper often go away with totally different impressions about Yemeni women. It’s a pity then that some Yemeni women who work in gender echo concepts that are outdated even in the West. That is not to say that females should not have a right to education or employment if they choose to work. When I worked on the issue of child labour, I could see the real reasons for children working – whether boys or girls due to economic difficulties, hidden costs of education with little hope for employment or socio-economic mobility as well as poor educational facilities and classroom dynamics and a host of other reasons causing a high drop out rate from school for both males and females. We can go on training people on the articles of the UN Convention on the rights of children and specifically young girls till doomsday or ratify documents on non-discrimination, but nothing will change if these issues are not addressed at the macro level. I have thus come to believe that both women and men should work side by side to demand their inalienable rights as citizens of this country because both have suffered a long history of oppression and still do. In doing so we should look at the issue of the Yemeni family especially the underprivileged ones which form the majority at the present time. It has become the fashion these days for everyone to call themselves “activists” ad nauseum to the point that the concept has become meaningless. If it means rejecting the status quo of oppression that has prevailed in Yemen for decades, then I guess the whole society must indeed be activists even if some are actively taking action to change things and some are sitting in the back seats saying what they have to say. My main worry is that by being gender activists we may paradoxically end up doing harm to the very people who are most in need of our “active” assistance in the right direction, for the right issues and for the right reasons.