Yemen: Empower Women to Counter Extremism, Say Activists

Women Without Borders

Although women are the most vulnerable to extremists in Yemen, their voices are the least likely to be heard and their role in fighting terrorism is restricted by social and legal status, say human rights activists. On Thursday, Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE Yemen) brought together a group of women representing human rights groups, academic institutions, the press, and university students to discuss how Yemeni women can be involved in the fight against extremism and terrorism.

“The whole world is focusing on Yemen and terrorism right now, but the true Yemenis have no voice. People are talking about Yemen, but no one knows what Yemenis think or how they feel,” said Fahmia Al-Fotih, SAVE Yemen coordinator.

“With the increasing media coverage that portrays Yemen as a training ground for terrorist activities, a hub for extremism, and a state about collapse, many Yemeni women have expressed their concerns regarding the worst. Mothers have started warning their kids not to play on the streets, fearing the terrorists activities,” said Bilqis Hanash, a journalist.

“Fear and concern are natural,” said Asma, a university student. “As women shoulder more responsibilities in their families, they become the main victims of what is going on. Women as mothers and sisters suffer when a member of the family loses his path and goes towards extremism. Extremists often impose their extremist beliefs on the female members in their families, preventing them from receiving an education and working,” said Yassera Al-Shahari, a member of SAVE Yemen.

Moreover, many women in Yemen are illiterate and unable to understand the reasons behind the ongoing conflict in Sa’ada with the Houthis, the unrest in the southern governorates, and the emergence of Al-Qaeda.
This lack of knowledge and awareness makes women “the victims of fears and worse expectations from the unknown,” said Nadia, a university student.

Samia Al-Aghbari, a university lecturer, pointed out that violent extremism in Yemen is not just religious. It is independent of religion, nationality, political or social affiliation, and many women are often victims of such extremism as they stand powerless within the family and the state to stop the phenomenon.

Participants revealed their concerns over the ongoing security and economic breakdowns, which can aggravate the human rights condition in general and women rights in particular, saying that women should be empowered to be able to face extremism.

Many international reports indicate, however, that women in Yemen are facing systemic discrimination and endemic violence with devastating consequences for their lives.

According to a November 2009 Amnesty International report, the rights of Yemeni women are routinely violated because Yemeni laws as well as tribal and customary practices treat them as second class citizens.

“Instead of recognizing women as equal citizens to men with equal rights, Yemen’s Constitution in Article 31 describes women as ‘sisters of men,’ an expression with cultural and traditional connotations that support the supremacy of male family members over females. This phrasing falls far short from acknowledging women’s equality, which is their right under the international human rights law,” said the report.

“Discrimination against women in Yemeni legislation is also reflected in family law, the exercise of male authority, and the lack of respect for women’s personal integrity. In some instances, discrimination amounts to gender-based violence, such as extreme restrictions on woman’s freedom of movement, and forced marriage of girls and women by their male guardian,” said the report, which elaborated on the Yemeni law saying that it eliminates the role of women and creates social and cultural attitudes that discriminate against women.

Besides amending the laws which eliminate the role of women in society, the participants called for “an immediate needed changes in the education system in Yemen.”

“Curricula and attitudes of some teachers towards women’s rights should be addressed. Yemeni women still suffer from the misconceptions related their rights to education, work, and even their personal appearance. In university classes, for example, you find that some professors continue to promote the stereotypical roles and certain dress codes for women. Such attitudes nurture extremist thoughts and diminish women’s initiatives to change the society,” said a participant.

The participants shared stories of women targeted by their extremist relatives and also of women who lost a family member to violent extremism.

The participants recommended legal and psychological support for such families that usually feel stigmatized and tend to isolate themselves. They also emphasized that schools, mosques, media, and non-government organizations should not talk about extremism as a phenomenon without addressing its roots and helping individuals to face it.

“Empowering women comes first. Once empowered, women will then be able to combat extremist activities and terrorism within their families and communities,” concluded one of the participants.

25. January 2010