This is an OPINION page. [Archives:1997/39/Focus]

September 29 1997

Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! Women’s Lib in Southern Yemen: A History

By: Noor Ba-Abbad*
Introduction The history of the Yemeni women’s movement has never been written before. This is a modest attempt to shed some light on this important issue. The names of several pioneering women are mentioned so that they would not be known by the new generations. Women in Yemen started taking up careers and getting involved in the labor mark in the 40s. It is true that women have always been working in agriculture and handicrafts, but not for wages. It was considered part of their lives and duties towards their families. These were certainly not careers or even jobs.
Aden, with its special political and economic status, was the first place in Yemen where women went out to work. There were pioneering female teachers who were taught by religious scholars in their families. They opened the door for other women to follow suit. Career women have become a reality that is respected, valued and encouraged by society. Women are now widely involved in teaching and administrative jobs – professions that are generally regarded by Yemeni society as more fitting for the female nature. Since the early 70s, Yemeni women started to have a presence in as varied professions as university professors, doctors, engineers, lawyers, social workers, accountants, and many other fields.
Women’s Movement in Aden As a British colony, a free port, and a vital geographical location, Aden represented the crucible of the national struggle against colonialism. It became a focal point for the hopes and aspirations of all Yemenis, both men and women. Yemeni women had a reasonable share of participation in the patriotic movement. The political, economic, and cultural climates were quite conducive for women to get educated, go to work, and participate in the national struggle. All the roles played by women during that era need to be fully documented and studied. Research centers, universities, and political parties and organizations must cooperate in order to present the full role played by women during the struggle for freedom.
Freedom Fighters The national struggle for liberation was a very crucial task conquered by women, whether they were partisans or just independent supporters. With the outbreak of 26th September, 1962, and 14th October, 1963, revolutions and the presence of several political parties and organizations, women became active participants and agitators in demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins. Such patriotic women included Leila Jabali, Safeenaz Khaleefa, Radhiya Ihsanallah, Ayida Yafi’y, Fawziya Jaafar, Aneesa Sayigh, Najeeba Mohammed Abdullah, Ni’ma Sallam, Najwa Makkawi, and Ayida and Siham Alawi. Some women, like Najwa Makkawi and Shu’la, had actually taken part in the armed struggle. Many women received military training and were involved in carrying and transporting arms for the freedom fighters. They were also involved in printing and distributing inflammatory pamphlets and communiqus. Yemeni women faced great dangers during the struggle for liberation.
The Pioneers During the 40s and 50s, women started to be educated, get jobs and participate in public life in general. Women started to work as teachers in girls’ schools. Pioneering women in this field include Noor Hayder, Loola Ba-Hameesh, Haleema Khaleel, Shafeeqa Khaleel, Najeeba Hatem, Zaynab Ali Qassem, Najeeba Ali, and many others. Some women were sent to study in Sudan. Later on in the 60s, the Girls’ College and Female Teachers’ Institute were opened, creating many well-qualified women.
Positive Influences The presence of Arab female teachers – Egyptian, Palestinian and Sudanese – had a positive influence in encouraging the education and employment of Yemeni women and acquisition of social skills and expertise. Aden’s general cosmopolitan atmosphere presented an incentive and a national challenge for Yemeni women to play a bigger role in public life. The status of Yemeni women became more prominent, reflecting characteristic Arab and Islamic features. The emergence of women as a patriotic force within a sensitive political climate had gathered spiritual, national, and religious aspects – not only in Aden, but also in the other eastern and western protectorates. It was also a source of inspiration for Yemenis coming from the north, escaping the oppression of the Imam.
Associations Yemeni women made an early start in the charitable and social work by forming the Adeni Woman’s Society, led by Umm Salah, and the Arab Women Society, led by Radhiya Ihsanallah. Many women participated within such societies in encouraging girls’ education and supporting poor families. Some women were sent by the government to be trained for social work such as Zaynab Deiriya, Najat Jarjara, Nadira Hussein, and several others.
In the Media Women also started to conquer new fields in the media. Several women became news casters, sound engineers journalists, radio actresses, TV presenters, etc. We’ll always remember women like Fawziya Ghanem, Adeela Bayyoomi, Fawziya Omar, Adeela Ibraheem, Safiyya Loqman, Najat and Fwazia Omeiran, Nabeeha Othman, Najeeba Haddad, Fawziya Ba Sudan, Zaynab Abdulrahman, Asmahan Beihani, Asmahan Barakat, and Hikmat Shadhili. In journalism, the first woman editor-in-chef in the Arabian Peninsula was Mahiyya Najeeb who published the “Fatat Shamsan” magazine. Others, who became well-known journalists include Nabeeha Abdulhameed who used a pseudonym, Fawziya Abdulrazzaq, Radhiya Abdulkareem, and Shafeeqa Zawqari in writing novels and short stories.
Nursing In the field of nursing several Yemeni women had excelled. The Institute of Nursing prepared many females to work in public hospitals. They include Umm Hani Alawi, Qolthoom Saleh, Fawziya Hassan, and others Artists Art also had its fair share of pioneer actresses and singers who contributed to the preservation of the Yemeni old folklore and culture. Female singers presented songs from Aden, Sana’a, Lahaj, and Hadhramaut. They included Nabeeha Azeem, Fathiya Al-Sagheera, Rajaa Ba-Sudan, Umm Al-Kheir Ajami, Sabah Monasser, Fayza Abdullah, and Nawal Hassan.
Other Southern Governorates Women’s conditions in the southern governorates have special characteristics. The numbers of professional women increased substantially during the 70s, and 80s. The constitution and labor law gave good opportunities for women to work. The mass organizations and trade unions did a lot to encourage and support women to start their own careers. The economic necessity also had a role to play in getting women out to work. Jobs involving secretarial and archive-keeping duties were shunned by men only to be taken up by women. However, the process has its share of problems. A married career woman would usually face difficulties in taking care of home and family as well as advancing her job prospects. A new formula for cooperation had to be created within the family. The husband’s role inside the family had to be gradually changed to accommodate the wife’s new role outside it.
Encouraging Factors There are several factors that encouraged women to get involved in public life in the southern and eastern governorates: 1- specific development plans targeting women; 2- the general call for the women’s liberation and equality as guaranteed by the constitution; 3- the early presence of women in the political and legislative authorities; 4- the active existence of the General Union of Yemeni Women on all levels of society; 5- the campign to eradicate illiteracy; 6- the positive role played by the media; and 7- the expansion of compulsory female education. All these factors and several others played a major role in giving women a new and a more positive status in society. Women were able to acquire the right spirit and enthusiasm to proceed forth to even more advances.
Conclusion Writing history, even most the most recent, is quite difficult for many reasons. Is it to be written by one person or by group? Is it to be written by a specialist or a person who lived the events? I believe that both sides should be involved. An overall view of the events can then be created, and fact can be separated form fiction. I, therefore, call on historians to write from an academic point of view. Those who were involved can write their autobiographies. Political parties women’s organizations should also document the women’s struggle within their ranks during that period. —————————————- * Ms. Noor Ba-Abbad is one of the leaders of the former Union of Yemeni Women in southern Yemen. She now works as an advisor at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Sana’a.