How to Help Yemen’s Women [Archives:1998/03/Viewpoint]

January 19 1998

I was involved in a long conversation regarding the practical ways and means to help improve the lot of women in Yemen. The over-riding concern was that much of the effort – local and international – is driven to help the few dozen elite women rather than the millions of ordinary women. There was agreement on that point. Yet, I asked for specific examples of what can be done to help make Yemeni women have more control over their lives. I was given telling examples, as follows:
1. Passports and Other Documents: Did you know that it is impossible for an adult woman to get a passport issued for her without the written consent of a male ‘guardian’. Sometimes it is the father, at other times it is a husband, or it can be a brother or even a son. In all cases, the woman is neither free nor able to get a passport or any other legal document. I went personally to the passport department to find out about this, and found it to be true. I asked for the reason and was more shocked by it. “You see, sometimes a woman would want to travel. We want to make sure this is done with her guardian’s consent,” said the officer in charge. It is as if the woman is a prisoner who can only move with a male’s consent. This is not in the law, but it is the practice. This is ridiculous. Adult Yemeni woman should be given their documents as the law prescribes. The decision to travel or otherwise should be up to them.
2. Withdrawal from Schools: One of the recurrent problems in schools is action by relatives of female students to force the girls to quit schooling. This is specially true for secondary-level students. A female student’s father, brother, husband, cousin, or any other male relative can go to a school and demand to withdraw the girl’s file. With the withdrawal of the file, the student has legally quit and she cannot take exams. The end-result of this practice has been for many girls to quit their education. This is ridiculous. No student, especially at such high levels as high school, should be forced to quit without his/her consent. In other words, the Ministry of Education must give instructions to all schools that they should not readily give away a student’s file, and that the relevant student should be consulted.
3. Resigning from Work: In many an instance, a male can tender the resignation on behalf of his female relative, possibly without her knowledge, let alone consent. Using honor as an excuse, the male relative completes arrangements with the employing company, ministry, or organizes the termination of a female relative’s work, sometimes even as she protests the whole affair. Of course, this is mostly done at middle and junior level employment, but that is where most of the working women are. As a corollary to this problem, it is common practice for a male relative to go and collect the salary or pension payment that should legally go to the woman.
Those examples are of issues which affect the lives of many women. It is more productive to attend to such issues rather than to ask how many women are in the cabinet or parliament. Of course, it is nice to have a higher level of representation for women in high visibility positions, but it does less to help reduce the discrimination and suffering of women at large.
By: Pro. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf Editor-in-Chief and Publisher