Living as a woman in the Yemeni conflict

في تقريرها الصريح عن اليمن توّضح الصحفية الإيطالية لورا سيلڤيا بطاليا عمق الرؤيا عن حياة النساء في اليمن المستعرة بنار الحرب والمتمزقة من جرّائها. تحت ظلّ هذه الظروف تتغير الأحوال وتنهمل بعض العادات والتقاليد؛ فبينما بعض النسوة والفتيات اليافعات يحاولن التغيير محو الأفضل وتحقيق نتائج إيجابية فيها فزواج القاصرات لا يزال قائماً للأسف.

Report and photo by Laura Silvia Battaglia

Translated from Italian by Valentina Viene

In Yemeni culture, when it comes to women, you avert your gaze and do not touch, even during tribal conflicts, revolutions, wars and at checkpoints. The implicit rule has always been respected, more so in the last three years of war. Women have never been inspected at the checkpoints patrolled by the militia. They have never been touched or grabbed. If a woman is considered a danger, which rarely happens,  she is executed forthwith by means of firearms or similar weapons.

This happened a year ago, on 25th December 2016, to activist Amal al-Aleem Ashbahi, shot dead by a commando on motorcycles in Taiz. She was accused of supporting the cause of women’s education: she backed her choice with a more complex operation of monitoring and collecting testimonies of human rights violations perpetrated by all the factions at war. She was also accused of working on this project with a mixed-gender group of activists in their thirties. She incurred a fatwa (an authoritative ruling on a point of Islamic law) from Sheikh Abdullah al-Odaini, who charged her with promoting promiscuity. In doing so, he made her a target for anyone who wanted to take justice into their own hands. For a long time, Amal al-Aleem Ashbahi and her group had denounced the violations committed by Salafi militias (Groups of People’s Resistance) where the sheikh was one of the leaders and arms dealers and the Emirati government one of its financiers. Getting rid of her meant no small warning from the warlords to those who wanted to denounce her achievements and undo the good effects.  

The atmosphere in Sanaa is tense after the death of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The residents increasingly report situations of insecurity and difficulty. More sources, coming from Eastwest.eu and other media, report growing fear and worry: movement by car or on foot has to be minimized because of continuous Coalition airstrikes on the rebels. The rebels’ initiative provokes house-to-house searches for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s closest partners and sympathizers of his party, al-Mutammar. In this changed climate of sibling rivalry and internecine vendettas among ex-sodali (members of the party Ansara Allah of the Houthi family and members of al-Mutammar) the first exception to the tribal rule, so far respected during the war, has been made: women are not to be touched, unless they are sodali of ex-President Saleh. The episode, confirmed on 6th December2017 by local sources and re-launched with video tweets online, shows that during protests carried out by Saleh’s supporters, Houthi security forces arrested the protesters and forcibly dispersed the women who were asking for the body of the ex-president so it could be buried in front of the mosque named after him. Out of 20, a dozen was injured. In this video, widely shared on social media, a woman declares, screaming, that the Houthi security men shot with firearms at demonstrating women. She also said that they infiltrated the crowds with clubs and tasers with which they hit women. Many women were injured and taken to hospital to receive treatment. After this episode, social media were blocked and communication among Sanaa residents was only possible for those in possession of a VPN (virtual private network) account.

If we put this event in the context of the post-Saleh scenario, and the organised search feared by civil society whether its members sided with Ali Abdullah Saleh or not, it is clear that women are being perceived as active perpetrators of war. Photo-reporter Amira al-Sharif is famous for reporting from the island of Socotra, an offshore territory of Yemen; she is one of the few local photographers providing freelance services to media outlets and international humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross, Unicef and MSF. At the beginning of January, she was stopped at a checkpoint held by the Houthi rebels at Bajel, between Sanaa and Hodeida, where she was headed for a Red Cross assignment to help the ill and injured. Al-Sharif was the first local female journalist to be inspected from the beginning of the conflict: her equipment, phone, car and memory cards were confiscated. For 24 hours she had no contact with anyone and she was kept in detention until a female local lawyer intervened to prevent the worst from happening: al-Sharif could have been kept in for a longer period and she could have been accused of being a Saudi spy or of working for the American enemy. This is what happened to many other local journalists who never came out of the rebels’ prisons. The same was feared for Hisham al-Omeysi, a respected young local reporter who, for three years, had been denouncing on his Twitter profile all sorts of human rights violations committed by all the parties involved in the conflict. Following the pressure of local and international activists, he was released after spending five months in a cell.

As usually happens, and Yemen is no exception, war has made women more proactive if they are adults, and weaker and more susceptible to blackmail, if young. On one hand there has been a rise in the number of child marriages because there is no law to prevent them. Such law had been put forward in the draft of the new constitution which was never approved. Fathers have to choose between sending their girls to school or accepting a dowry of 1000-2000 dollars which would allow the whole family to survive during the war. On the other hand, many educated women have taken the lead in decisive situations in the conflict. Examples are the nurses, doctors and surgeons who crowd the hospitals in all wards, not just gynaecological, maternity and paediatric wards. Lawyer Hiba Ali Zain Aidaroos, who founded an NGO, (Equal). In Aden, Sawasya provides food for the poor, denounces human rights violations in war, and distributes small solar energy systems to those who can’t afford electric generators. Yemeni activist Sumayya Ahmed al-Hussam is probably the most illustrious example: she managed to put an end to a long-lasting feud between the tribes of Bani Badr and Beit al-Qaidi, both stationed in the Hajjah province, north Yemen. The feud lasted 11 years and caused 60 deaths and 130 wounded, including women and children. Only a woman could stop it.

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