An Interview with Ibtisam Al-Hamdi: First Yemeni Woman with Plans to Run for President [Archives:1999/20/Law & Diplomacy]

May 17 1999

Q: Would you please introduce yourself to the readers of Yemen Times?
A: My name is Ibtisam Mohammed Al-Hamdi, a graduate of Cairo University, Faculty of Commerce 1986. I am a wife and a mother to three children.
As for my public life, I have already taken part in a number of public events. I was a member of the National Committee for Elections Monitoring, the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Public Rights and Liberties, Democratic Institute, Arab Homeland Instate for Democracy, as well as in other civil institutions.
Q: Are you affiliated to any political party?
A: I am not a member of any political party, but you can say that I am a sort of a critic of the system. They say I am a trouble-maker, politically speaking.
Q: Do you have a career?
A: I was a teacher by training. My last assignment was the head of the Kindergarten Department in the Ministry of Education. I quit working for the government and now I am running my own private business.
I was compelled to close my business in Yemen, but continue with my interests outside Yemen.
Q: When did you start thinking of running for the presidency?
A: The idea came to me in 1993 and I did apply for the presidential nomination at that time. However my application was turned down because I was underage.
Q: Why is it important that you run for these elections?
A: My desire for this nomination is for two important reasons:
First, as women we are lucky to have a constitution that acknowledges the right of women to hold such posts. So as a woman, I would like to see the gap bridged between what is written and the reality. I would like to establish a tradition for exercising this constitutional right by women.
Second, I will believe that we have democracy in Yemen only when I see a peaceful transfer of power. I am working to see this happen. Frankly, I would like to see power in the hands of civilians. My personal conviction is that when politics is run by the army, things get very messy.
You can see this in every place where unelected military people run the show. Political change cannot take place under the muzzle of a gun. The army should be institutionalized and controlled by the parliament. What’s worse in this country is the fact that the army is at the service of the ruling party. Now we have a golden opportunity to start changing that. More than ever before, the people of this country are in need of the power of the Word not the Sword.
Q: What was your experience back in 1993?
A: The reason I sought the 1993 nomination was that I found some of the more qualified women shy away from exercising this right. I said, ‘Why not do it myself’? At the time, the idea was not fully developed.
Q: What do you think will happen, this time?
A: I am really sure. As the saying goes, there is nothing certain in Yemen. I am playing it by the motto ” Wait and see”.
A lot of people are supportive. I may receive all kind of verbal support, now. But on the real day of election, I may end up with no one around me. Being a female nominee makes it harder. You know that in this country, the dominant male culture makes people’s attitude towards women negative. Yemeni men look at women as subordinate.
Most women are unable to have a say over issues that are so vital to their lives. In most cases it is the men who take decision for us.
Of course, the situation is not the same in all parts of Yemen. For example, women in the southern and central governorates are far better off than they are in the northern and north-eastern governorates. The level of education plays an important role.
Q: You know that you’ll have to pass through the screening process in parliament. There is the issue of “wilayet al-mara’ah” which means there are limitations on certain senior state positions which women cannot occupy. What do you think will happen?
A: I think this is an impediment, but I’ll do my best to get past this barrier. I know that there might be some serious questions raised against my gender as a female in what is known as ” wilayet al-mara’ah”. My situation is further complicated because of my last name – Al-Hamdi. You know that my uncle was a former president of this country.
In any case, however, I am relying on my constitutional rights to pass through any hurdles.
Q: Still “religious scholars” say that it is religiously prohibited for a woman to rule. What do you think of that?
A: Nobody argues with Islam and its teachings. But I want to say that some of our respected religious scholars use Islam and interpret it in ways that are politically expedient. Even worse, they project a distorted understanding of our faith. Religion should not be used as a political tool to deprive people from their equal rights.
History tells us that Yemen was ruled women. We Yemenis cherish those periods because they brought a lot of prosperity.
Q: What will happen if your candidature is turned down?
A: If that happens, I’ll ask for an explanation and proceed accordingly. I may go for a legal battle, and I will show that our system discriminates against women.
Q: What kind of campaign agenda do you have?
A: I think the first thing I should do is to correct the distorted image of Islam. The idea that discriminates between man and woman is not part of true Islam. The main outlines in my election program are as follows:
1- To end the reign of the military and give power back to the civilians.
2- To establish social justice.
3- To fight for law and order.
4- Equality of people in front of the law.
5. Finally and above all, to work for a better standard of living by fighting corruption, nepotism, favoritism, etc.
Q: How will you finance your campaign?
A: I will rely on my own financial resources. Once my nomination is endorsed by parliament, I will attend more closely to the question of financing. But let me add that I don’t count on assistance from the state. I believe there are a lot of decent people who will support my effort.
Q: Do you think independent candidates will have equal access to the official media?
A: The ruling politicians thoroughly control the official media. I don’t think the principle of equal access is applicable in the coming elections. A self-financed campaign is the only alternative for independent candidates.
Q: Is there any coordination between you and opposition political parties to support you?
A: I think the opposition parties will stand by me. It is better for the opposition parties to have one platform and one candidate if they don’t intend to nominate a candidate themselves. I warn opposition parties, however, not to thinly distribute their power base by nominating too many candidates.
Q: Do you plan to approach opposition parties to secure their backing?
A: This is the first step I will take once I go through parliament. Next month, June, parliament will receive applications.
Q: What happens if the opposition parties agree on another candidate?
A: If the majority of opposition parties decides on another candidate, and he/she stands a better chance, I will bow out.
Q: Any last comments?
A: I want to tell Yemenis that our present conditions are the result of the mismanagement of the present rulers. It is time for change.
By: Afra’a Zubair Ahmed
Yemen Times