Yemeni Women’s Fight for Gender Equality

by Anna Blanch on December 2, 2011

The second guest post for today is from Kristina Edwards. Kristina speaks as someone who has lived in Yemen. She also speaks as someone passionate about human rights and economic development. I’m glad to have her voice among the 16 Days of Action posts.

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(Please note that the scenarios I describe here are not in any way intended to depict an entire country’s or culture’s practices with regard to gender relations. They are a reflection of my experiences and research.)

Violence against women takes many forms, from physical abuse to the forcible control of their lives exerted through other, more subtle means. When Anna asked me to write on violence against women, my mind immediately flew to Yemen, where I lived for several years growing up. Women in that country, as one might imagine, are generally not considered first-class citizens. In the small, rural Yemeni village where I lived, women were dominated by male family members beginning in childhood, even at birth. Most families I knew had many children; while boys were seen as a blessing from God, girls were not. (A Yemeni coworker of my father’s, when congratulated on the birth of a child, spat in disgust and expressed frustration that his wife had borne him “yet another girl.”) Girls’ worth was derived from their potential for incurring financial benefit to their families, which in turn depended upon their marriage.

For the Yemeni women I knew, marriage therefore came far too early. This is no surprise; among the poorest one-fifth of girls in Yemen, more than half are married by age 18. (My mother was asked several times by concerned Yemeni friends why her three daughters, all of us below the age of 12, weren’t married yet. They warned her that my father had better hurry up and get us married, as no one was going to want us if we got “too old.”) Marriage in the village where I lived essentially meant enslavement to a man for life; a woman was treated as her husband’s possession. This included sex and childbearing even for girls far too young, although Islam forbids this practice. Many young mothers did not survive childbirth, suffering long-term health problems if they did. Obstetric fistula, a result of obstructed labor, was common in the village where I lived. Women with this condition were perceived as ritually impure and were sometimes ostracized from society by the very men who contributed to the problem—their own husbands.

While I’ve painted a pretty hopeless picture, I am proud to say that Yemeni women and girls like those I knew are fighting back. Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old girl, brought international attention to child marriage in Yemen when she demanded a divorce from a man thrice her age (to whom she had been married without her consent) in 2008. Pressure is still being put on conservative Yemeni parliamentarians to sign a bill setting the legal minimum marriage age at 17 into law. In October, Yemeni journalist Tawakul Karman was declared one of three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. The first Arab woman ever awarded this honor, Karman represents thousands of Yemeni women who joined this year’s protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, refusing to be excluded from political life by their husbands and fathers.

Although almost half its population lives below the poverty line, the maltreatment of women I witnessed in Yemen ten years ago was a product not just of poverty, but of endemic societal norms that can powerfully impact gender relations even in more progressive societies. In parts of the world where child marriage and beating or raping one’s wife are socially unacceptable, violence against women is nonetheless manifested in domestic abuse, manipulation, and rape within marriage far more often than we generally care to admit. These maladies are proof that positive change is a slow process, and that it takes a long time to bear fruit. Women’s fight for gender equality in places like Yemen should inspire us to support them in their struggle, but we are doing them a disservice if we cease to pay attention to our own ways of thinking and take for granted the level of gender equality we have been afforded.

Kristina Edwards is pursuing a Master of International Studies degree at North Carolina State University. Her research interests include the Middle East, human rights, and economic development.

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This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women. A full list of all the posts in the series can be found here.

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