Manal Omar to Yemen Times “The key for Yemeni Women to Play a Role in Development is Integration” [Archives:2000/16/Culture]

April 17 2000

Manal Omar, Director of Development at the American Muslim Council which is an organization that was founded in 1990 to deal with the issues of Muslims women in America from a political and social perspective. She has been recently invited by the American Embassy in Yemen to Yemen to come close to women’ NGOs’ activities in Yemen. Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi, Managing Editor of the Yemen Times, met her and filed the following interview:
Q: Could you please tell us something about the purpose of your visit?
A: The main purpose of my visit was to come and give a few workshops on Muslim women in America, as well as the role of NGO’s for women development in the Middle East. The primary objective is for me to get the Yemeni women’s points of view. It is more of a dialogue and exchange of different views to understand the role of NGOs within the Yemen society, to share some of my experiences of the role of NGOs in development, as well as the Muslim women experience in America.
Q: You have met some women NGO’s in Yemen. How did you find them, their work schedule and activities? How can the quality of their work be improved further?
A: I think that women NGO’s in the region as a whole is a very new concept. In terms of the Yemeni women’s NGO’s, I think they are very much at caring edge of most of the new projects. The NGO’s are small enough group that needs to have strong links between each other. It is just a very positive aspect within the women NGO’s internet, something that tends to be lacking. One of the ways I can see an improvement is to emphasize that communication, and to make sure that they coordinate together. Each NGO should focus on specific issue. The more focused the NGOs are the more productive they will be.
Q: How can the Yemeni women be integrated in the main stream so that they can play a vital role in development?
A: I think it is a really good question because the key for them to play a role in development is integration. It is very important that the women and NGOs are assimilated to the main stream, that they are not just left on one side. Through these workshops, awareness campaigns, I think women can be involved in social as well as economic process. So, they can, in the long run, be integrated into the larger community.
I think already the Yemeni women are playing an important role within society. I think it is more informal than formal, but you can clearly see that they do have definite programs and policies. That is kind of just beginning to impact the society. With the process of time it is going to become clearer.
Q: Is this visit going to be followed be other ones, so that you can continually monitor people working in the women’s NGOs?
A: I do not think so. But what I hope to do is to stay in touch via internet, e-mail to pass on new information to the women that I have met. I got to see some of their ideas and projects. Now I have a clear idea of what they might need. I can send them information either by fax or e-mail. It’s just a kind of exchange of ideas via cyberbase. I am very interested to send information over that might be relevant to them.
Q: How are Muslim women doing in America?
A: Muslims as a whole have a very long history in America but the actual institutions have just come out in the last decade. Muslim women’s religious institutions just came up 5 years ago.
From the beginning, there was a kind of force between two streams. Either we were completely defensive and we defend Islam or we were apologetic. Now Muslim women are finding the metal ground. We are proud of our identity, we are proud of our religion and we feel empowered by our religion. But there are still some problems.
We are integrating within the women’s movements as a whole, within society as a whole. More Muslim women are taking part in school boards and in local elections. Hillary Clinton is a special assistant to Muslim women.
In the more private sphere of jobs, we have come a long way with the Hijab issue. It is now completely recognized. Employers can not take it up. They cannot even really question it. A lot of major organizations have made fashions about Muslims, Muslim women and about the dress code.
From both the civil and political viewpoints, Muslim women are really asserting themselves in getting the rights guaranteed to them.
Q: Does this mean that you do not find any disturbance regarding the Hijab?
A: Of course we do. It is natural to find that. In different areas you find it more so than others. However, It is not too much nowadays. The whole beauty of the constitution is that you can hold someone accountable if you know the system. So, now Muslim women are learning there about their legal rights.
Q: How do Muslim women discuss the issue of gender in America?
A: I go back again to the idea of defensive and apologetic. One of the things that happened is that the Muslim women were forced to choose between either completely going within a strict Islamic framework or to be liberated and fully integrated. What is happening now is that the Muslim women are looking at gender issues from an Islamic perspective and are very careful not to associate themselves with things that do not pertain to them.
One of the criticisms of the feminist movement is that it tends to go with things that may offend the Muslim community. What we are trying to do is to define our own agenda. So we do not adopt other terms like the labor feminism or even gender. We try to create our own terms and define our own terms in our context.
Q: Don’t you feel isolated from the community in this way?
A: You see, the movement as a whole within women’s movement is moving towards exactly the same thing. In the beginning feminists isolated themselves from the community and moved to gender studies.
I think that Muslim women are becoming a big part of American women’s movements and I think that one of the things that American women realize is that the women’s movement originally came out of the middle class white suburban movement. That alienated not just the Muslims but the west of America. A lot of Spanish women, African-American women and other different groups of women really protested this and said that they were not speaking for them.
I have worked within women’s centers in America. They are very inclusive. As far as they are concerned, Hijab and being a woman activist do not go together.
Q: How do you perceive the future of Muslim women in America?
A: I do not know. I think what Muslim women are trying to do is a kind of taking one step at a time. While we were working with the outside community, we had a lot of work within our community which is within the Muslim community as a whole. There are a lot of different groups within the Muslim community in America that have different views about women. Our primary objective is to deal with our own community and then we will start going outwards.