Radical European politician stands up in defence of Yemeni women”Mr. President, give Yemeni women a chance!” [Archives:2003/634/Community]

May 5 2003

By Walid Al-Saqqaf
Yemen Times Staff

Yemen Times had the privilege of interviewing many well-respected prominent European personalities throughout the last 12 years. But none of them was so much dedicated to defending rights of Yemeni women in the way Emma Bonino did.
Being one of Europe's most active and controversial figures, Emma Bonino* admits that she speaks her mind very openly even in the most unlikely situations. During her last visit to Yemen as a guest monitor of the parliamentary elections held on April 27, Emma openly gave a sober note of criticism to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in one of the most interesting incidents of its kind.
“Your preparations for elections were fine, lists of candidates, voters, and other preliminary issues were excellent, but I have a sober note that I want to mention.” she provoked President Saleh during a brief reception held by the President to foreign monitors and journalists a day before the elections. “I felt that the number of women nominated in Yemen for the parliamentary elections is extremely low Mr. President, I am disappointed to see that the participation of women as candidates in Yemen's parliamentary elections has been reduced since 1993 Women are your mothers, wives, daughters, and you should not exclude half of the nation from participating as candidates in such an important elections.” she slammed the shocked president in front of all guests.
Hoping to receive a “Yes” from Emma, President Saleh appealed, “Do I have the right to respond?” in a sequence of events that the least could be said about it is “rare” in such a gathering with a president of state!
I along with many others admired the way she openly and strongly presented such a case in the most unlikely circumstances. When asked why she gave such a strong comment in the meeting she said, “Well, I didn't plan to give a statement from the start, but when they offered me the chance to do so, I spoke my mind openly and clearly. That is the way I am, and they should have known about this.”
I insisted to interview her to know more about her ideas for Yemen and the world. “This is a radical woman” one of the guests told me. Yes indeed!

Not convinced with President's answer on women's candidacy
I asked Emma about whether she was convinced with the President's answer to her inquiry about the low level of participation of women as candidates in Yemen's latest elections -only 11 female candidates and one won a seat in the parliament-, Emma responded, “I was not totally convinced with President Saleh's answer in which he said that participation of women needs time. I believe that the answer is similar to that given by many other decision makers around the world.
I was quite disappointed, as I mentioned in the meeting, of the absence of women's participation in the elections as candidates and not only voters. I was not convinced with the answer because first of all, women's presence is declining, and that contradicts with the president reference to the society's need for time? The point is that the presence of women is declining and this means the society was more open in 93 than in 97, and is more open in 1997 than now? The second point is that women are part of the society, so societies are not something that theoretically men only belongs to. Women that I have been meeting in Yemen recently were as competent and self-confident as men, just like anywhere else in the world. They were lawyers, doctors, gynecologists, etc. that are quite successful in their businesses and lives. They are also part of the society so what kind of society was the president referring to?
In my experience worldwide, I have come to conclude that it is not so much the society but it is the obstacles and the procedures in the political parties that hinder women's role in reaching decision-making posts.”
But when I reminded Emma of what Dr. Abdulkareem Al-Iryani said in a press conference on April 28 concerning the claim that social figures in control of the different districts were the ones that decided to exclude women from being candidates, Emma responded furiously, “The explanation in the press conference that women didn't participate in this because it was the society that decided this is not accurate because 48% of the women in those areas were registered and that shows that there is interest in participation. Doesn't this prove that women are part of the society and hence cannot act against themselves? Can you define society? But then, to be candidates, the obstacles are inside the political parties. And today I had a meeting with a number of senior Yemeni officials and hope that my message went through. I had a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and talked extensively about this issue.
I am glad that the minister came forward on his own and said: maybe we can make changes in the parties' constitutions of the committee selecting the candidates, but also to be more provocative as usual, there is a good opportunity now in the cabinet nomination to repay more attention to this issue. The government has now a good opportunity to nominate women ministers which is a reformation.
Your establishments should recognize that there is a problem and they have an opportunity to do something about it. Their good intentions can be resembled in the steps they will take when forming the new government. To make up for this drawback, they can appoint women ministers in the cabinet, even if there were few or no female members of the parliament.”

April 27 elections: Good overall
With the exception of the low participation of women as candidates, Emma believes that the process went well overall. “My assessment is that from the technical point of view, which means transparency and a lot of other things, I must frankly say that I am impressed. I don't want to exaggerate, but I think according to my experience on elections worldwide; especially in fragile countries -with emerging democracies- but also in developed countries, your elections went reasonably well.
I can give several examples that prove my point. I was in a poll station during voting day, and two people couldn't vote because their numbers did not fit, and I was impressed because somebody called the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum and in twenty minutes a person showed up and found the solution of the problem and we discovered that the mistake was in writing the numbers of the identity cards of the two voters. Also during the counting sessions, while monitors from our group were in the countryside, I mostly stayed in Sana'a and got good impressions.
This is all from the technical aspects with no politics involved. Politics is a political debate among parties. But I think that in terms of transparency, organization, registration, etc. a lot of effort has been done.”

No development without freedom
When the initial results came out the first day after elections, the second party (Islah) was found to have unexpectedly defeated many competitors from the ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC) in Sanaa City. The initial results of elections made many Yemenis optimistic that there is now greater awareness of democracy. And democracy could bring change, and change could bring greater and rapid development and better living conditions for Yemenis.
About this Emma said, “Various parties are gaining ground and having more weight to say this is a democracy compared to other countries in the region or in similar circumstances (not to mention KSA and GCC countries because they are sitting on oil). And this democracy would eventually lead to development because the two are interdependent. Could you tell me of any dictatorship that is well off economically, of course assuming that it lacks natural resources?
Take the examples of Japan, South Korea, and Italy. They don't have much material resources but they have people, freedom and commitment and hence they are developed. So it is humans who make a difference and if they are free, a difference could be made.”

Pushing for a full-fledged EC office in Yemen
As for the role Emma will play to support Yemen's democratization process, she said, “Yemen should be appreciated for the steps it has taken and continues to take to consolidate democracy. However, little international coverage or attention was paid to Yemen's recent elections. I regret that I am the only European here because the European Commission (EC) cancelled the European delegation for so-called security reasons.
Once I am back in Europe, I will write a report on all of the things I have witnessed. This is my own sole effort, but it constitutes an important step in pushing to fulfill the promise of the head of the EC to open the way for a senior European delegation to visit Yemen.
There is currently a technical office in Amman covering Yemen, but I think it is worthwhile to have a full-fledged office in Yemen and this was a promise by the head of the EC himself. And that would make up for the technical absence, politically speaking, even if we were quite present financially.
The elections were supported by the UNDP and members of the EC, but what is needed is not only financial support, but political presence. So if we can manage to arrange for a senior European delegation to visit Yemen, it will be the first step that shows that we do really care. Just like the Italian embassy has been very active in Yemen, we will also push in that line in coordination with member states, and I'll make sure the report about Yemen circulates in the European capitals.”

Democracy spreading in the Middle East
As for the post-Saddam era and Yemen's future Emma said, “Yemen is now competing in the post-Saddam era in different circumstances. But nevertheless, it is doing something about it… I think that the fall of Baghdad is something like the fall of the Berlin wall in Europe. With all the difference, but I think in this region which has been totally paralyzed in the past two or three years, there is a new wind of change. Of course everybody hoped that the new wind would have come from the inside. But what can do? It has now come from the outside through a broken window.
You in Yemen are voting in a much better situation than in 2001, Jordan is having elections now for the first time. In KSA, 104 have filed a petition for democracy and women rights, and not only were they not put to jail -as feared- but they were received by King Faisal himself. Egypt will hopefully follow suit and we'll wait and see. A good signal in Egypt was the release of Saadeddin Ibrahim, which was a fantastic motivation. Another signal is that the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights got the news that they are finally legalized.
In fact considering the circumstances in the region, Yemen can be in a leading position because Yemen has chosen democracy since 1990. There is no other country in the Arab Peninsula which has so much electoral experience. Despite everything, it is good that Palestinian friends visiting Yemen right now are here to learn how to run their elections. Isn't that something spectacular?”

I'll be back
About her next visit to Yemen, Emma said, “I'll absolutely be here in the coming elections. But before that, I along with my family will be coming to spend the Christmas vacation here. This is a country that I admired since I arrived for the first time some time ago. Honestly speaking, I felt an attachment to your country, which has its own unique and beautiful nature. As you may already know, I am now learning Arabic in Cairo, and will hopefully come more often to Yemen and communicate directly with the people. I believe that this is a time for change in the whole Arab world and in particular in the Arabian Peninsula and I do believe that Yemen will take its deserved place in the international community. I do hope that the next time I come to Yemen, it would be taking its place as a leading country in the area with a higher level of female participation in politics. I also did tell the Yemeni foreign minister that I'll be back, and a promise is a promise.”

Last message: Must empower Yemeni women
As a final message to be conveyed to the Yemeni people Emma concluded by saying, “The message I want to deliver to all Yemenis is that this country has lots of problems, one of which is really the population explosion, because you have an annual 3.5% population growth rate and an economic growth of 3.5% which is unsustainable and cannot cover the growing demands of the people. But the only way in which you can think of solving the problem is not by imposing birth control by law -like in China- but the only way is empowering women through education and having them not only as voters but also as candidates and decision makers. The structure within parties is in itself an obstacle hindering this. Parties should include women in leading positions within the parties, committees and subcommittees. They should be involved in local councils and other decentralized authorities. Only then will women find a better opportunity to participate as candidates in future elections. If you select committees at the local level to be composed of men only, how can you expect a change?
I know Yemen has a promising future, and I wish the best for it.”

rn* rn*Emma Bonino
rnA radical visionary with glorious achievements
rnBorn in northeast Italy in 1948, Emma had started campaigned for legalisation of abortion in Italy when she was 24. In 1976, she was elected to Italian Parliament, member of the Radical Party. Her efforts made abortion legal in Italy in 1978. The following year she became a member of European Parliament. In 1995, she became the European Commissioner for Italy – responsible for Humanitarian Aid and for Fisheries.
rnShe was the first woman to stand as candidate for President of Italy in 1999, when she was re-elected as Member of European Parliament.