Sayida Al-Haylama: “The best times in Yemen’s history were when it was ruled by women.” [Archives:1998/07/Interview]
Ms. Sayida Yahya Al-Haylama is the only female chief editor in Yemen of a publication wholly devoted to women issues – Al-Mar’a (the woman) Newspaper, of which she is also the publisher. Being Assistant General Manager for the state’s general budget at the Central Bank, Al-Haylama, 37, she has a BA in accountancy from Sanaa University, a diploma in international politics, and a diploma in journalism also from Sanaa University. In addition to being a member of several charities and NGOs, she is also an active member of the Yemen Women’s Union and a staunch supporter of the empowerment of Yemeni women. Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor, talked to Ms. Al-Haylama about her conquering this field which has been exclusively controlled by men. (Ms. Al-Haylama categorically refused to have her photograph taken without a veil)
Q: You call for the liberation of women. Doesn’t the veil you wear impede your freedom? A: The veil has never been an obstacle in the way of women freedom. I myself wear it because its part of the Yemeni traditions.
Q: Have you called, through Al-Mar’a, other women to lift their veils, considering that it is not really a Muslim tradition? A: No, because such a call will raise the indignation of the conservative and influential elements in society as well as some members of my family.
Q: What has motivated you to become a journalist and publish a women’s monthly newspaper? A: I entered the world of journalism purely by chance. Some time after my graduation from the College of Commerce, I took part in a course to prepare women to be active in the political arena, which was organized by Al-Mithaq Al-Watani Institute in Sanaa. In other words, I became a student again. At the conclusion of the course, I got a diploma in international politics. One of the lecturers at the course, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mutawakil who lectured us in media and information got me very interested in this subject. With the opening of the Media Faculty at Sanaa University, I immediately enrolled with the encouragement of Dr. Raoofa Hassan. Step by step, I became more involved in journalism. However, since I am an employee at the Central Bank, and have been since my secondary school days, most of my journalistic work had to be conducted in the afternoon.
Q: When did you first get the idea of publishing Al-Mar’a and what developments or improvements have taken place in the newspaper since then? A: When I was a student in the Media Faculty at Sanaa University, a group of students and members of the staff used to publish a bulletin called Minbar Al-I’lam (the media forum), which had Dr. Ahmed Al-Sayyaghi as its chief editor. We hit upon the idea of also publishing a supplement devoted to women’s issue. So Minbar Al-Mar’a was published in 8 pages, and I was chosen as its assistant chief editor. This publication later developed to become the independent Al-Mar’a newspaper. In 1994, I got a license from the Ministry of Information to publish the fully fledged Al-Mar’a monthly newspaper in 16 pages. Since I assumed the full responsibility for this paper, I worked hard along with my other female colleagues to develop this publication. All of our work was wholly voluntary. Al-Mar’a was first published in 24 color pages starting at the tenth issue.
Q: What are the goals of your newspaper? A: There are specific goals and others, more general ones. The first include supporting Yemeni women’s issues, calling for the women’s rights to work and education. It is all part of the democratization process currently underway in Yemen. We also aim, through Al-Mar’a, to raise women’s awareness of their legal rights, present the role and activities of intellectual Yemeni women, presenting the opinions, ambitions, and problems of Yemeni women, and focusing on the activities of women’s organizations in Yemen. As for the general aims, we hope to participate in directing society’s attention towards several important social issues such as caring for the handicapped, looking after mothers and children, etc. We consider our work as an essential part of the overall development process taking place in Yemen.
Q: Is there a particular message or cause you want to convey to society through Al-Mar’a? A: Our main message, which would like to convey to the people as poignantly as possible, is that the role of a woman can never be restricted to being a housewife and a source for human reproduction. A woman is human being with rights as well as duties, and must be treated as such. Women have, throughout the ages, proven themselves worthy of the responsibilities they shoulder, and, if given the chance, they can outdo their men counterparts.
Q: What major difficulties do you face in your work as a journalist and publisher? A: Any type of work is bound to be impeded by certain hindrances, major or otherwise. Journalism in particular is notorious as being the profession of problems. With help and encouragement from many people and organizations, including Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf and Yemen Times, we have been able to surmount many of our difficulties. Journalism puts a heavy responsibility on the individual journalist towards his or her society.
Q: What does your family think of your work as a journalist? A: My parents, four brothers, and my sister Amatulateef – Al-Mar’a managing editor – have all taken positive stances towards me. In fact, I would not have been able to continue my work and achieve what I have been able to do in my professional life without their constant encouragement and support. My late father, in particular, had been very supportive of all his offspring, without any discrimination between the sons and the daughters. Although my father was conservative tribal sheikh, he treated us quite democratically. Throughout his life, my father respected women and treated them human beings worthy of acquiring education and having their individual and independent entities, separate from men. I consider myself very lucky in this respect, having a very understanding and appreciative family.
Q: To what extent has Al-Mar’a been successful in representing Yemeni women issues? A: Al-Mar’a newspaper is now read by women and men alike. We consider this publication as a message directed towards all society, men and women. Al-Mar’a is the mouthpiece of all Yemeni women. We bear in mind in each issue that we are not just providing a momentary service, but also a message for the future. The written word has a transcendental influence. That is why it is a heavy responsibility to shoulder and why the work should be presented at a good level to gain the respect of the reader. You can refer to Al-Mar’a back issues to see examples on what I have said. During the last elections, for instance, Al-Mar’a published special editions in support of various female candidates, irrespective of their partisan affiliations.
Q: There are some women’s organizations and associations which publish their own newspapers or bulletins. How do these publications fair, as compared with Al-Mar’a? A: Al-Mar’a is an independent newspaper dedicated to the women’s social, economic, and political issues. Its journalists and reporters write freely without any ‘instruction’ from outsiders. Al-Mar’a was established solely through individual efforts to support and encourage women. On the other hand, the activities of the women’s organizations you mentioned are wholly governed by their internal charters and other rules and regulations. Al-Mar’a is the only independent publication specializing in women’s issues.
Q: Are you sometimes faced with any restrictions in freely expressing your opinion? Have you ever faced a law suit for something you published? A: Never. We had never encountered any such restrictions. It is actually quite the opposite of that. Al-Mar’a often receives letters and other communications praising our work and providing a lot of constructive criticism, which has helped improve the paper. I agree that journalism is a double-edged sword, and a journalist must be up to what he or she publishes. Many people consider female journalism as requiring extraordinary efforts that strongly merit its makers a lot of appreciation and commendations. Our aim is to provide our readers – men and women, ordinary and government official – with balanced reporting.
Q: As a journalist, how do you evaluate the role of women in the Yemeni cultural life? A: I am afraid that the cultural role of women in Yemen is still somewhat limited. The number of Yemeni women involved in journalism, art, literature, and other fields of artistic endeavor is rather small. The reason lies in the numerous difficulties that women still face in their professional life. Many old customs and traditions are still effective in keeping many women from taking their rightful place in society. Yemeni women still, to a certain degree, find it difficult to get the education they need and even far more difficult to go to work. For women to have an appreciable role in the country’s cultural life, they must be prepared for that by their families early in their childhood. Society in general must also be educated to consider women as active partners of men.
Q: Would you like to send a message through Yemen Times? A: The President of the Republic has already done a lot to support Yemeni women. We ask for more. There should be more women at decision-making levels. Why can’t Yemen has its female ministers in the government? There many highly qualified women who are quite capable, just like their men counterparts if not better, of occupying top positions in the government and other official organs. I’d like to say to the President that it is just not enough to have two women MPs in our parliament. Love of one’s country and the desire to serve is not a male prerogative. Women can also do it just as good, if not better. If we refer back to the Yemeni history, we can find many good examples of women who confidently reached the top and remained there. We will also find that the best times in Yemen’s history were when it was ruled by women such as Queen Bilquis and Queen Arwa who reigned in Yemen for half a century. Their rules were characterized by justice, prosperity, enlightenment, awareness, etc.