Tahani was a 40 year old woman living in rural Yemen with a learning disability and no formal education. Her father and brother tended the family farm, life was simple, harsh but bearable. That was until her father died, forcing her brother to move to the city for work. With no experience or a helping hand, Tahani worked day and night ploughing crops and collecting milk, to feed her children and herself with barely any profit. But she had other things to worry about as a single woman working the fields alone in rural Yemen.
Tahani was raped many times while tending to the farm, with no one batting an eye. Her only form of protection was the local women who kept it a secret, especially her family. As discreet as they were, nothing could have hidden Tahini’s pregnancy months later. This is when her family started plotting her death.
In Yemen a woman’s reputation is of vital importance. Losing it, even against one’s will, is not just a personal humiliation but one that extends to the entire family. Unfortunately, no blame was placed on the rapists and Tahani would be punished for bearing the visible signs of rape.
A female cousin who lived in the capital, Sana’a, heard about the incident and rushed to save Tahani from death by sneaking her out by car late at night. Tahani’s cousin drove hundreds of miles back to Sana’a and welcomed her into her home. Tahani was found soon after, leaving her cousin with only one option — the UNFPA-supported (United Nations Population Fund) shelter by the Yemeni Women’s Union. “It was our last resort to save Tahani from death,” the cousin said when they arrived at the shelter. “I heard about the shelter and its protection services for women from radio programs. I called the hotline of the shelter and they were supportive, welcoming Tahani.”
Tahani’s pregnancy was not easy as most hospitals would not accept her. In Yemen, women must have the consent of a male figure to access spaces like hospitals. “We found it difficult, with the hospital, to admit Tahani’s case because of the absence of her father, her guardian,” said Jamala Al-Shairi, the head of the shelter. This being impossible in Tahani’s situation they had to involve the police to seek the needed permissions. “We have a good relationship with the criminal investigation department, which knows our work well,” Ms. Al-Shairi explained.
She was finally accepted and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. As it was unlikely she could care for her new child, the shelter helped put the baby up for adoption and he was taken in by a family soon after.
Yemen, unfortunately, has been officially dubbed the worst place for a woman to live. In 2018, Yemen ranked 149th out of 149 countries in the United Nation’s Global Gender Gap Report and has consistently maintained this ranking since 2007. Out of the 24 million of Yemen’s population, approximately half of them are women in need of some form of aid in all categories with 3 million of them at risk of gender based violence.
Women’s rights have always been an issue in Yemen. There are prominent female historical figures Queen Sheba and Queen Arwa to name a few, but as indicated by an infamous Yemeni proverb “even though her hand might hold the reigning scepter, she remains a woman’.
The first real change in women’s position happened when the National Liberation Front (NLF), a progressive Marxist revolutionary group, replaced the British Empire’s control in Southern Yemen for the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). NLF leadership saw gender discrimination as an obstacle in their plans to form an egalitarian state, thus they guaranteed the “widest participation of Yemeni women in economic, social and political life” and a “basis of parity with men” in its constitution in 1970. Unfortunately, it was often unregulated on the ground with no further improvement except in extending women’s rights in the private sphere especially in marriage.
When the country was united again in 1990, new changes in the constitution undermined the progressive policies of the NLF including not being able to marry without permission of a male guardian and the lack of an appropriate minimum legal age for marriage.
Noora Al Shami recalls her early days of marriage, as an 11 year old marrying a man in his late 30s. At the time, she was excited by the dresses, jewelry and presents she was given in the three-day wedding. It was only after that she began to realise her true situation. “My husband provided a dowry of around $150, which was a huge amount. But it was at the end of the wedding that the fear and horror set in. I was taken away from my parents and left with a man who meant nothing to me. He drove me to the house he shared with his widowed father in Al Hodeida. It was a nice home but I immediately started to quiver, and to cry.”
From the very start, Noora’s husband demanded sex. Noora tried avoiding his intentions for the next 10 days but was criticized by her husband’s sisters for “bringing shame on our brother by rejecting him”. She eventually accepted his advances one night and then went into a state of shock. “I was rushed to hospital — I was a child being treated as a sex object, but the abuse did not stop. Nobody was interested in my complaints, as I was legally a wife.”
She had two miscarriages at first, then eventually gave birth to three children. Her husband grew violent, hitting her even during pregnancy, as well as his own children.
The next ten years were the same. Rape, violence and constant fear circled Noora’s life with no end in sight — until she joined a project run by Oxfam and the Yemeni Women’s union, assisting victims of domestic violence. Through their help, Noora successfully filed for divorce, and went back to school to become a certified teacher. Now she fights to end child marriage in Yemen permanently. “We need to change the lives of our children, and not just by paper laws,” she says. “We need a complete change in culture.”
Progress on women’s rights is slow in Yemen. The last movement to have more female participation in Yemen’s government was in 2008 when a 15% quota was requested and failed, leaving only one woman in parliament and three in the ministry. The Arab Spring helped instigate a new surge of women’s rights activists in protests and though the protests died down, there were results in Yemen’s political sphere where a quarter of participants in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) were women. They reached many agreements within the NDC on vital policies to promote women’s rights, particularly a 30% quota for women’s political participation in parliament.
Their victory was short-lived due to the outbreak of the civil war. All talks and discussions on women’s rights ended up at the bottom of the political pile. Now in its ninth year with no end in sight, women only suffer more under harsher conditions as they become heads of their households. With more men either dying, leaving for work or joining the war effort, women have been forced to run their households from a much younger age. This sudden change in gender norms and jobs traditionally taken by men, has led to a rise in gender-based violence, child marriages mixed with a lack of protection and money for food and shelter.
Yet there is still hope. With more women running households and working jobs previously dominated by men, a change in gender norms is beginning. Once the war ends and the men return to their daily lives, life won’t return to what it was. Women will parade the streets with shouts and signs to say yes, they are equal to men and yes, there must be change.