Fear of freedom [Archives:2004/753/Community]

July 8 2004

By Marguerite Abadjian
and Peter Willems

Sixteen-year-old “Hurriya” has only been in prison for six weeks. She has been accused of pre-marital sex and is awaiting trial. But neither prison nor the trial scares her as much as facing her family when she is released.
Although Hurriya claims innocence and says she fought off rape, she says she's sure her family will judge her harshly. She hasn't even told them she's in prison.
“I don't want them to know,” she says in a barely audible voice. “If they knew they might hurt me or kill me.”
Hurriya's sentiments are shared by many of Yemen's several hundred female prisoners who dread facing their families more than they fear being in prison.
In Yemen, and other traditional cultures, going to prison can be a source of pride for a man. But for a woman, it's nothing to boast about.
“There is a common saying that a man can reach manhood if he is in prison… [But a woman] is shamed for life,” says Yemen's Minister of Human Rights Amat Al-Aleem Al-Soswa. “Most of the women who are in prison do not want to leave the prison because they feel it is a safer place.”
When a woman prisoner is released, often her family rejects her. The shame she causes her family is particularly severe if she has allegedly committed an honor crime or a crime related to illicit relations with men. But even lesser crimes, such as thievery, cause abandonment by the family.
Sometimes families fabricate stories about female prisoners, saying they have traveled to distant places. Worse yet, sometimes families deny the very existence of women found guilty of crimes.
One former prisoner's father refused to accept his daughter. As far as he was concerned, she was dead, says Ramziya Al-Iryani, chairwoman of the Yemeni Women's Union, a non- governmental organization.
“This is the biggest problem we face with female prisoners. Their families and communities will not accept them after they leave prison,” Al-Iryani says.
Another problem for female prisoners is that their cases take a long time to resolve. The problem is not lack of legal representation, Al-Iryani says. The difficulty is that often no one from the women's families or communities pursues the cases and fights for a quick and fair trial. Men accused of crimes receive much more support and attention from their families, and often a male murderer is released from prison much earlier than a female prisoner accused of a lesser crime.
“The woman is always unjustly treated because often she has no one on her side,” Al-Iryani says.
Often in the case where a woman is raped or is a victim of an attempted rape, her family does not believe her and assumes that she was somehow at fault.
“Always they think that the girl is the one who has made the mistake, not the boy,” said Rashida Ali Al-Hamdani, chairwoman of the Women's National Committee in Yemen.
Fear of rejection by her family often causes a woman leaving prison to change her identity or travel to a distant location. Because she is cut off from moral and financial support, and especially if she lacks job skills, she might turn to thievery or prostitution to support herself. This sometimes lands her right back in prison.
On the contrary, men who leave prison are often forgiven by their communities much more easily than their female counterparts.
“A man will leave prison, go to a mosque and pray and he will be forgiven by his community. For a woman, forgiveness does not come as easily,” said Brigadier General Saleh Al-Mane'e, deputy head of prison administration in Yemen.
A major reason that women are treated unequally, according to Dr. Fuad Abd Al-Jalil Al-Salahi, associate professor of sociology at Sana'a University, is that tribal tradition and deep-rooted cultural beliefs dictate a status for women inferior to that of men. In fact, Al-Salahi believes that those who treat women unfairly are misinterpreting the Quran, which elevates the status of women. They are also misinterpreting Islamic law which calls for equal treatment for sins of men and women, says Al-Salahi, who is also a national consultant on gender, human rights and development.
The problem, the professor says, lies in embedded cultural beliefs that women lack identities as individuals. A woman's identity is created when she becomes a wife or a mother. Otherwise she has no identity.
“The status of a woman in Yemeni society is low. And prison sinks her even lower,” says Al-Salahi.
When a woman in prison is rejected, she is not the only one who is abandoned. If she has children, they too are cast aside, says Dhya' Fadhl, a psychologist with the Ministry of Health who works to reunite female prisoners and their families.
“Often the families tell [the prisoner]: We don't want you or your children,” Fadhl says.
So the children end up with the women in prison. There are 16 young children with their mothers in the Central Prison in Sanaa.
Up until now little has been done to help women deal with the hazards they face upon release from prison. Efforts by the prisons themselves to ease the transition back into society need to be more aggressive, critics say. And whilst there have been government and NGO efforts to establish a shelter for women leaving prison, so far nothing has emerged.
Two years ago, The Social Fund for Development (SFD) was involved in an effort to open a shelter in cooperation with an NGO, but the project never materialized. SFD is now discussing the project with another NGO. In addition, the Yemeni Women's Union is studying the matter and seeking funding for a shelter. Also, the matter is on the agenda of the Ministry of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, one local NGO is pushing ahead to open perhaps the first shelter of its kind in Yemen. Sameera Ali Haider, president of the Kamal Cultural Institute, says the shelter will open in six months and house about 80 former female prisoners and their children. The project funded by the institute, the European Union and an Italian NGO, will offer educational and skills training programs. It will also help reunite the women with their families.
One of the ways to change the attitudes towards women prisoners is through education and awareness programs, and some are already under way. For instance, the Yemeni Women's Union has an awareness campaign in Tai'iz that aims to convince people to forgive a woman prisoner and treat her humanely, says Al-Iryani. The NGO also coordinates with certain Imams, or mosque leaders, who offer prayer speeches about the benefits of accepting the women back into society.
But Al-Iryani acknowledges that such training will take years to create real change.
“We have deep rooted traditions. We have a closed society,” she says.
Many believe that there should not be too much concern about women in prison because there are less than 300 women in prison in Yemen. But it is well known that most cases of women being accused of a crime, particularly honor crimes, are handled by their families.
“In the case of an honor crime, it doesn't concern the law, the community or anything else. It's a family affair,” Al-Hamdani says. “[The family] might beat her, they might kill her, they might do anything to her, frankly.” All this is to regain family honor.
Afrah Al-Ahmadi, head of SFD's Health and Social Protection Unit, says there is honor killing in Yemen but that no research has been done on the subject. “It is a very sensitive issue,” she says.
As for Hurriya, who awaits trial in prison, if the new shelter opens, there might be a place for her after she is released. Asked where she would go upon release she says:
“I don't know where I'll go. But, I won't go to my family. It's impossible.”
Hurriya believes they have already judged her.
“When a woman enters prison, it's a huge disgrace for the family. My family won't have any sympathy. Whether I did anything or not, I'm guilty.”