Testimonies over time:When women are violated for saying “Here we are!” [Archives:2007/1039/Reportage]

April 5 2007

By: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Yemeni women's activists have reached a strong point of empowerment, even if they still are far behind compared to the developed world. Not only are they armed with their beliefs and dedication to their own causes, but the continuous violence to which they are subjected makes them even stronger. Sisters Arab Forum invited several Yemeni women activists who've been harassed for what they think and believe to tell their stories – their testimonies over time.

Arwa Othman: Losing my religion

Arwa Othman is a free-spirited young writer who paved the way for women writers after her. She has a philosophical mind, but this meant trouble because she would question and that didn't please the ones who didn't want to be questioned.

Her liberal attitude and rebellion against wearing the hijab since her college days subjected her to insults from a dreaded triangle: fundamentalists, community men and government security. Her writings criticizing the government only made things worse for Othman as she found herself the subject of philosophical analysis of her character and mockery in official newspapers.

Stereotyping of women writers, which limits their input to social and family issues, was the main obstacle to her writing career. However, she crossed gender lines and began writing about politics, causing a backlash. She was even said to have lost herself to the devil.

Othman's daily struggle with those who don't approve of her displaying her hair in the open isn't only with so-called grownups. “Neighborhood children run after me, telling me to repent. Even a madman with dirty clothes once pushed me to the ground, shouting at me to cover my hair. And, I keep getting emails from people gently asking me to rethink my choices and others that are very hurtful.”

However, what helps her get by are her strong beliefs, reading and writing. Othman believes that with more reading and awareness, the world can change and become a better place.

Huda Al-Attas: Dancing with angels

Coming from such a conservative area as the Hadramout, Huda Al-Attas was bound for the same fate as many of her peers; however, her mother rescued her from being married at age 12.

“My father was adamant on getting me married, but my mother would have nothing of it and encouraged me to continue my education. She even bought me a bicycle and when the woman next door disapproved, saying that I would lose my virginity due to riding it, my mother bought me a bigger, prettier one! It was then that I knew I was different and would have to challenge my way to freedom,” Al-Attas fondly remembered regarding her mother.

Al-Attas began her writing career at an early age, which was when her attacks also began. She heard her name many times during preaching at Friday prayer as an instigator of sin. The attacks became aggressive after she wrote an article saying that women's faces are the titles of their souls and should unveil their spirits. In the same article, she described little children dancing with angels.

Although the religious preacher condemned the subject of angels in her story, she was sure what really angered him was the call for women to unveil their faces. Al-Attas was called an infidel, criticized that her romantic writings were blasphemy and eventually put on the death list by extreme fundamentalists.

“So many nights, I stayed up thinking that tomorrow I could be killed. I know my phone calls are being taped and even when I talk to my husband, I become curt and dry, knowing there's a third ear listening to our most private conversations,” she says.

Samia Al-Aghbari: White flesh

It all started when, as a free journalist, Samia Al-Aghbari criticized President Ali Abdullah Saleh for changing his mind and running for office in the 2006 presidential election. In her article published in an opposition newspaper, she denounced claims that without Saleh, Yemen would have no future and said there would be a future with his opponent, Faisal Bin Shamlan.

As a consequence, the government-affiliated tabloid Al-Destour attacked her dignity, alleging that she enjoys white flesh via immoral relations with Egyptian and Syrian men. Such attacks are a clear breach of the Yemeni Constitution and laws, so Al-Aghbari was courageous enough to take the issue to court.

Al-Destour Editor-in-Chief told the interrogator that when he wrote “white Egyptian and Syrian flesh,” he meant chicken, which he knew Al-Aghbari liked. “Little did he know that I was a vegetarian and have never been outside Yemen in my life!” she commented on his lame excuse.

He then accused her of plotting against Yemeni unity and the principles of the Yemeni revolutions. The case is being held for sentencing.

Explaining how it's been since then, she says, “Security came to my house several times and threatened that since my father didn't know how to discipline me, they would. My extended family has turned against my father for supporting me and allowing me liberty to write. Although my parents are a little apprehensive now, they still support me and I'll continue what I do, no matter what it takes.”

Hanan Al-Wadie:

Abducted innocence

On March 17, Hanan Al-Wadie left her office at Rada Barnen – Save the Children Sweden and got into her car to drive home. She begins her story: “It was around four in the afternoon and when I got into my car, several men wearing casual clothing surrounded my car and demanded I get out and go with them in their car, which was parked next to mine.”

Terrified at the situation, she refused to do so and locked herself in her car. The men began shouting at her to get out and people started gathering to watch the scene. A police patrol car stopped nearby, so Al-Wadie felt some relief and decided to beckon them to help her.

“I lowered my window a little so they could hear me and shouted for the police to help me because the men wanted to take me with them, but I didn't know who they were. One of the men told me they were from political security and slid his arm through the opening, unlocked my car and opened the door. In no time, I was heaved from my car by the four men while screaming and kicking,” she recounted, nearly in tears at the memory.

The bystanders didn't lift a finger and she was astonished to see the police allowing the political security men get away with their crime. Once in their car, they took her purse where she had her mobile phone and drove to a destination unknown to her. She heard one of the men talking on his mobile phone, saying that they had the girl and were on their way to the central prison.

“When I heard the word prison, my heart sank because of the frightening stories I'd heard. I asked them what my crime was and they said they didn't know anything, they were just following orders,” Al-Wadie said.

When they reached the prison, while waiting for an officer to show up, Al-Wadie summoned her courage and slowly withdrew her mobile from her purse, which had been dropped near her carelessly. Since they didn't allow her to call anyone, she had to pretend she was talking to them once she dialed her family's number.

“I left the line open and kept repeating: 'Why was I brought to the central prison? Why won't you let me call my family? What's my crime? Let me go home.' They soon discovered my trick and took away my phone, but by then, I hoped my family knew what was going on,” she narrated.

The whole ordeal lasted a little less than two hours and eventually, the officer told her to just go home with no explanation and no apologies. “After two hours of emotional torture, they told me I could go home. I even said thank you,” she concluded.

Afra Hariri: Alleged spy

Afra Hariri is a lawyer from Aden. Her work in the public sector began early through her active role in the south's Yemeni Women's Union. She established a shelter for women ex-prisoners who were rejected by their community and didn't have anywhere to go.

Through her work in defending human rights, she was a constant threat to those who didn't respect human value. Her enemies, mostly those in decision-making positions, didn't spare any method to make life hard for her, even alleging her to be a Jew and a spy for enemy organizations. More than once, she was summoned for interrogation and pressured by those at the governorate level to “play by the rules.”

One of the most difficult times for Hariri was during the women's union's elections, wherein she was subjected to a massive defamation campaign in order to be removed from the union. Although such campaign succeeded, she continues working for Yemeni women as both a lawyer and manager of the women's shelter in Aden.

Amal Al-Basha: Naked truth

“I was a troublemaker since I was a college student in Cairo in 1985, although all I really did at that time was create an alliance with students from South Yemen and join their union. Since then, I've been on the blacklist until today,” explains Amal Al-Basha, director of the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights and a well-known Yemeni activist.

Al-Basha was threatened that once she returned home after completing her education in Egypt, she would be thrown in prison. “One female Yemeni student came to me and said: I have a message for you. If you don't stop what you're doing, they'll shave your head and put you in jail.”

Luckily for her, political security simply interrogated Al-Basha once she stepped onto Yemeni soil, thus saving her hair, which she happily displays today. However, despite her strong credentials, she was discriminated against when applying for government positions, as per security reasons.

Despite not wearing hijab, she has managed to create bonds with numerous citizens across the country. “Even the most conservative men and women are able to see beyond the fact that I don't cover up like most Yemeni women. They realize that I have a mission and I'm working on their side in order to assist this country's development.”

Actually, Al-Basha didn't make tabloid headlines until she advocated Yemen's joining the International Criminal Court by holding a seminar on the issue in 2006. Since then, she's become a regular feature in newspapers such as Akhbar Al-Youm, which termed her as a “naked woman” working with the CIA, among other claims.

Al Basha's share of defamation increased after she and other activists campaigned against an influential man who raped an 8-year-old child named Sawsan.

Commenting on the religious attacks against her, she says: “I'm always under attack by those who claim themselves as the imposers of God's rule on earth. One thing I need to tell such people is that Islam isn't only theirs so that they can say who is a good Muslim or not. Islam is a religion for all. It's time they backed off and let people live and think for themselves!”

Radhiya Shamsheer: Midnight call

Radhiya Shamsheer can be considered as one of the pioneers in the Yemeni women's movement way back to the '60s and '70s. She created a popular committee to evaluate society's requirements in order to direct governorate funding for citizens' best interests.

More than once, she ran in parliamentary and local council elections, but failed due to lack of support from both the government and political parties.

One of the most hurtful memories Shamsheer has is when security demanded she prove her Yemeni nationality. This hurt her deeply because her family was well known and members of her family fought in the independence war and lost their lives for this nation that now wanted to deprive her of her nationality.

Shamsheer is well educated and brave, a combination that has helped her many times during her rights struggle. At one point, security banged on her door at midnight, demanding she accompany them for interrogation. Knowing well her rights, she told them it was against the law to summon anyone for interrogation after 6 p.m. and thus, illegal. Shamsheer told them to get lost and shut the door!

Rahma Hujaira:

Up against the president

Rahma Hujaira's case is one of the well-known attacks against women journalists in Yemen simply because she started a trend of women journalists speaking against the president and consequently, was defamed by a low-level newspaper called Al-Bilad in 2005. The newspaper alleged her to be indulging in red nights with drunken men, further describing her husband as naive and without pride to allow his wife to participate in such immoral practices.

However, such defamation became a reason for the world to respect Hujaira even more as her story was reported in both national and international human rights reports. The media community came together in her support and because of the ill-meaning articles, Hujaira became an international heroine.

She took up the issue in court, however until this day, the Yemeni judiciary hasn't ruled in her case.

Tawakul Karman:

The daring journalist

“All of the people in my country are violated. In fact, what we receive as women journalists is only a fraction of that to which male journalists are subjected. That's why I don't consider myself violated because I'm simply part of a completely wounded nation.”

Tawakul Karman is a daring journalist and founder of Female Journalists Without Chains, a media organization promoting freedoms and human rights. However, Karman has received her fair share of attacks through the same medium she uses to promote freedom – newspapers. It all started when she criticized the ruling system and the nation's poor management. She was defamed severely in the government-affiliated yellow journalism outlets.

“They said I brought shame to my family and dishonored my father. They accused me of having suspicious relations with the Americans and that I only pretended to be a Muslim while I kept throwing myself into men's arms,” she explained.

Karman is one of very few Yemeni women who removed her face veil publicly to prove that Islam doesn't impose the face veil on women, so she used herself as an example. However, because of her strong opposition to the corrupt government, she was hindered in a new way.

“After half a year of establishing my organization, which I originally called Women Journalists Without Borders, I was deprived of a license, which was given to another pro-government group. So, I changed the name of the organization and started all over again. The government wasted more than six months of my efforts, but this only made me stronger,” Karman recalled.