Female Agency in the Yemeni Transition

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

This is published in the International Training Programme for Conflict Management (ITPCM) and can be found online here.

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For the first time since unity in 1990, Yemeni women are challenging tradition. Breaking curfews, participating in political activities after nightfall, reciting folkloric poetry and shouting revolutionary slogans became common during and after the Revolution. For women, the Revolution was truly exceptional. They participated in sit-ins and addressed mixed crowds. The decoration of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman underscored the activism of Yemeni women around the world. Yemeni women were featured in numerous magazines, websites and newspapers as champions of civil society. During the uprising, women were equally as influential as men.

In essence, women initiated a revolution within a revolution. The presence of Arab women in the public sphere during the Arab Spring misled many observers to believe that a women’s right movement was underway. Others were skeptical, warning that once political regimes began to collapse, the status quo would be restored. Only a few bothered to ask: what do women want from their Revolution?

Yemeni women cannot uniformly answer this question because their experiences are not monolithic. The political dichotomy of the North and South produced alternate realities for women, especially as the North is more conservative and tribal than the South. After the unity in 1990, these realities continued to change based on the location, affluence and heritage of a woman’s family. Coupled with Yemen’s patriarchal and conservative culture, it was difficult to establish a unanimous movement for women.

The current transitional government has three women Ministers out of 35. The Technical Preparatory Committee (TPC) [1] for the National Dialogue was composed of 19% women. One female out of 301 members is a parliamentarian and two women are members of the Shura Council. These political positions, none of which are decision-making, give the impression that women in Yemen have a greater role in the executive branch. The term “feminism” in itself remains controversial, and gender issues must be handled with care. In a system that is discriminatory in its legislation [2] against women, “feminist” objectives can be sidelined.

Since women’s freedoms were restricted after Saleh’s fall, it became apparent that some of the women who participated in the uprisings were merely pawns for opposition parties. Despite these setbacks, there have been minor improvements to women’s political participation. On March 18, the National Dialogue began, leaving the fate of Yemen’s entire female population in the hands of a few women from various political backgrounds. Their goal is to simultaneously advocate on behalf of their parties and organizations, as well as women more broadly. As of now, existing accommodations made for women are insufficient, making it difficult for the National Dialogue to facilitate gender equality. Women must lobby for their rights outside of politics, and approach the problem from a different perspective to see results.

As Feminists or as Politicians at the National Dialogue?

Current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, made a point of advocating a 30% female quota in the National Dialogue. The conference will separate members into nine working committees [3].  Members have submitted their committee choice to the President [4] of the dialogue and his six deputies, none of which are women. Soon, these committees will begin their deliberations. Even though women’s issues deserve broader representation across the board, the topic will be examined under the eighth committee, “Rights and Freedoms”. Constitutional reform will be discussed in a separate committee, “Good Governance”. The structure of the dialogue does not support wholesale changes to the status of women’s rights, and it is not evident that discussion of women’s issues will make it into questions concerning constitutional reform.

The status of women and their inability to affect change through the Dialogue are exacerbated by two problems. First, some of the women selected to participate are at a crossroads: are they feminists or politicians first? Are they representatives of their party or of women? Yemen’s “democratic” transition has played out as an exclusively political process through which women are incentivized to champion ideas that oppress other women. Unified by gender but divided by politics, women in the National Dialogue will frame gender issues like women’s security, economic poverty and illiteracy as political issues. Based on political divisions, the methodology of dealing with these topics will vary. Religious parties like Islah, Ansar Allah (Zaydi), Al-Haq (Zaydi and Hanafi) and Al-Rashad (Salafi) would approach women’s issues from a Shar’iah perspective, but ideological differences are likely to cause disagreements. Socialist groups, independents and even Ba’thist will advocate non-religious reforms or a mixture of both. A single group of unified women is much more powerful than smaller groups of women that are at odds. These political issues will polarize the women’s agenda and make it susceptible to the principle of divide and rule.

Second, the same tactics used to question the legitimacy of the dialogue can be used to challenge solutions proposed to promote women’s rights. Any “feminist” agenda could be quickly dismissed as part of a Western conspiracy, since the dialogue itself is viewed as a foreign initiative rather than the result of a grassroots national process. Like several Arab Spring nations, Yemen is witnessing a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Four religious parties will participate in the dialogue, and since Islah gained more influence beginning in 1994, female judges were dismissed as “incompetent in Islamic Law” and public schools were gender segregated after the sixth grade [5].  A narrow implementation of Islamic Shari’ah is expected. In Yemen, female equality is argued as a social liberalization process antithetical to religion, which could guarantee its failure. In Yemen’s conservative culture, religion dominates politics. The prevalence of early marriages in Yemen provides a revealing case.

When Islah gained influence in Saleh’s government, the marriage age of 15 was abolished [6]. Since 2007, several governmental and non-governmental campaigns were launched in hopes of mandating a marriage age, but none of them succeeded. Radical interpretations of Islam were used to manipulate and limit the scope of female self-determination. The problem of child marriages still persists. According to Amal Basha, the spokesperson of the TPC, it has been a struggle to add the issue of underage marriage to the agenda of the National Dialogue. Eventually, TPC members “unanimously agreed to give it social priority.” Addressing child marriages, again, as a social issue with the same political actors makes it hard to fathom how social transformation can emerge through the National Dialogue. If previous methods proved futile, Yemeni women need to seek alternatives.

Gender Strategies Outside the Social Realm

To improve women’s conditions, women need to frame their arguments outside of politics. A strategy that separates women’s issues from traditional values could prove successful in Yemen. Currently, 54% of Yemeni women are married before they reach the age of 18 [7].  By tackling the “side effects” of child marriages, Yemenis can limit its social prominence without causing an overwhelming social backlash. About 58% of Yemeni women are illiterate [8]. Educational policies put in place by the government can assure that more girls are going to school. In Yemen, marriage means being a full-time homemaker, and if more girls are going to school, then they are less likely to marry or having children at a young age. Other strategies can tackle the same problem. Innovative health policies can produce substantial changes in reducing the high maternal and infant mortality rates [9]. Poverty alleviation programs are another method through which women can lobby for reform. Since 44% of the Yemeni population is acutely malnourished [10], financial incentives can promote the use of contraceptives [11] to control population growth and address food scarcity.

It is unlikely that women’s issues will receive special attention, since Hadi’s administration has been preoccupied with more pressing issues like security and military reforms. With soaring inflation and an unemployment rate at 42.5% [12], the nation is facing several challenges. Therefore, women need to address their needs by mobilizing collectively. Between Sa’dah’s six wars and Al-Qaeda’s occupation of Abyan, 50% of Yemen’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are between 5-17 years old [13]. Only a quarter of IDPs from all age groups return to their homes [14]. These challenges impose damage on the female body. Displacement can also lead to rape, gender violence, human trafficking, and prostitution. Women as a group need to realize that protecting their gender is feasible through security programs.

Another collective concern is the deteriorating economy. In March, Friends of Yemen pledged around 7.5 billion dollars [15] in assistance to Yemen. While the majority of the money is allocated to development programs, the government must assign a portion of it to specifically empower female entrepreneurship. Without change, the nation will continue to be the lowest ranked country in the world in gender equality. Increasing female participation in the labour market can decrease harmful social traditions. Using women as agents of economic reform can result in the creation of a new workforce that facilitates the self-determination of women.


The National Dialogue promoted the inclusion of women in the transitional process, but this inclusion does not guarantee a transformation of reality in Yemen. Previous tactics, like addressing women’s issues as social concerns, could lead to political manipulation. Also, these measures have been proven ineffective. The dialogue is still in its infancy. Until a clearer picture of the Dialogue’s trajectory emerges, women will not be able to formulate a viable strategy.

The National Dialogue is attempting to address numerous concerns at once, while struggling to maintain unity and reform a corrupt political system. For the time being, women need to advocate through each of the nine working committees. The female members of the dialogue are responsible for tackling women’s issues strategically from every possible front, because the obstacles facing them are not independent of each other, but are closely related and must be treated as such.

To restrict the harmful consequences of tradition, non-social solutions should be considered. For instance, increasing female participation in educational programs, health programs and in workforce can alleviate problems such as child marriage. If more girls are going to schools then less of them are available for marriage. Affordable and accessible health care can reduce early deaths amongst young mothers and infants. Economic opportunities for women can provide families with additional income. While it is challenging to demand equality in a conservative culture, it is reasonable to demand equal access to health, education and economic opportunities.

For the full emancipation of women, Yemen’s constitution must clearly delineate women’s rights, otherwise laws will continue to sanction the oppression of women. Women in the dialogue need new methods and must remain cautious of political ploys. Gender equality is difficult to achieve, but it will only become possible once we are aware of alternative options.


[1] A 31-member Committee commissioned by President Hadi to decide on the size of participants, the rules for eligibility and for the mechanisms used during the dialogue.

[2] Laws do not dictate but rather permit discrimination. For example, the Personal Status Law on wife’s obedience sanctions marital rape and restricts women’s freedom of movement.

[3] Committees are divided based on Issues: Southern Issue, Sa’dah Issue, National Issues, State-building, Good Governance, Military & Security building, Independent Agencies, Rights & Freedoms, and Comprehensive Development.

[4] President of the Dialogue is President Hadi.

[5] Molyneux, Maxine, “Women’s Rights and Political Contingency: The Case of Yemen, 1990-1994.” Middle East Journal 49.3 (1995): 418-31.

[6] Khalife, Nadya, How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?: Child Marriages in Yemen. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2011.

[7] “Yemen: A Wake Up Call to Early Marriage.” Oxfam International Blogs. Oxfam, 30 August 2012, retrieved on-line 15 March 2013.

[8] According to World Bank Indicators, 2010.

[9] “Yemen: A Wake Up Call to Early Marriage.” Oxfam International Blogs. Oxfam, 30 August 2012, retrieved on-line 15 March 2013.

[10] Burki, Talha, “Yemen’s Hunger Crisis.” The Lancet 380.9842 (2012): 637-38.

[11] Only 9.3% of Yemen’s population uses a modern form of contraception. USAID Country Health Statistical Report, Rep. Washington DC: Bureau of Global Health, 2009.

[12] The Second National Millennium Development Goals Report. Sana’a: United Nations Development Fund and the Republic of Yemen, 2010.

[13] The Republic of Yemen. Operational Unit for IDPs Camps. Information Center.Summary Showing the Number of Households by the Orginal District and Governorates. Sana’a: ROY, 2013.

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Andersen, Inger. “Friends of Yemen: World Bank Vice President Inger Andersen Urges Support for Yemen’s Transition.” Friends of Yemen: World Bank Vice President Inger Andersen Urges Support for Yemen’s Transition, The World Bank, 7 March 2013 retrieved on-line 14 March 2013.