Women and Islamic Activism in Yemen Part 1 [Archives:1997/44/Reportage]

November 3 1997

By: Janine A. Clark, University of New Hampshire (This article published in Yemen Update No. 39, 1997)
In the recent 1997 elections in Yemen, Hizb al-Islah, the country’s largest Islamic party, was once again able to more effectively mobilize female voters than any other party. While Hizb al-Islah did not field female candidates, there is no doubt that women played an important role in the party’s success. Women’s activism within and on behalf of Hizb al-Islah is, furthermore, another indication of the apparent paradox Western social scientists confront when studying Islamic political parties and organizations. Islamist women’s adherence to the Islamist ideology seems to signify their affiliation with conservative ethical and social habits, and their support for male dominance. Yet, Islamist women are visible in the streets, getting educations and jobs. Formed in September 1990, the Islah Party is a coalition of several diverse streams including Muslims Brothers, tribal leaders, and intellectuals. Under the leadership of Shaykh ‘Abd Allah Ibn Al-Ahmar, the party formed a junior coalition partner with the government’s Congress Party until the most recent elections. Wtih thee April 1997 elections, Hizb al-Islah lost 15 seats. As a result, the Congress Party won the majority it needed to form a government without building a coalition. However, the Congress Party did not get the required vote needed for legislative action. It remained to be seen whether the ruling Congress Party would in fact try to bring Hizb al-Islah into a coalition again, preferring a junior coalition partner to a vocal opposition.
In the 1993 and 1997 elections, Hizb al-Islah was the only party not to have any female candidates. Yet to a large degree, it was women’s votes that brought Islah to power in both elections. Male leaders openly acknowledge the crucial role women played, and continue to play, n recruiting and mobilizing other women to join and/or vote for Islah. Within the Party, women are organized in the form of a Women’s Sector which reports directly to the Secretariat General. The women’s Sector in Hizb al-Islah is technically independent of the rest of the Party, (the ‘male’ part), and operates as a parallel organization. The executive departments under the authority of the ‘male’ Secretariat General are also theoretically present within the Women’s Sector. The Women’s Sector receives the same party goals, program and objectives as the rest of the party. Hizb al-Islah does not concern itself with a program for women per se. Women are seen as part and parcel of society and therefore included in one unified program for society as a whole. The women operationalize the policies, and then provide and perform various additional activities – usually social – of concern to women and children only. In other words, women do not make policy. The highest positions presently attained by women in Hizb al-Islah are the heads of the Women’s Sectors. No woman is on the Majlis al-Shura or Consultative Council of the party. However, approximately 200 women, including the heads of the Women’s Sectors of the various Local Units throughout the country, attended the Party’s most recent General Convention. Amongst other responsibilities, the General convention votes for the president and vice-president of the High Committee, the members of the Majlis al-Shura, and the president of the Judicial Department. The women therefore have a voice in the selection of the decision-makers.
Women in Hizb al-Islah are quite young – in their late teens ad early twenties. On the whole, they are younger than women in other political parties. This is partially because it is the age group which is about to start their independent lives in terms of higher education, jobs and marriages and is looking for answers, directions and hope. Hizb al-Islah is also a new party and has attracted those who did not feel comfortable with politics or the Congress Party prior to unification and democratization.
The relative youth of Islahi women is also due to the fact that the party targets younger women. These are the women who are going to be mothers and influence the next generation. The women’s page of the party’s newspaper, al-Sahwa, for example, is written by and primarily for an audience of younger women. Most importantly, the women in Hizb al-Islah are deeply religious. Working for the party is seen as a religious duty. This partially explains why women are so successful in their various activities. At the same time, these activities give women a degree of freedom and independence they cannot find elsewhere. As long as it is for a religious cause, their families do not object to their numerous activities outside of the home. One can find women of all socio-economic backgrounds in Islah; however, women with some form of official position and/or who are highly active in the party are generally from the middle class. The majority also have university ambitions or undergraduate degrees. The women see no contradiction in having an education and career, as long as the woman’s primary job as a mother does not suffer. This, of course, is made possible by the fact that they are in a position to be able to leave their children with another family member while they are at school or work. The majority of women in Hizb al-Islah appear to have a strong sense of their role within the party. They express no dissatisfaction with the organizational structure or ideological position of the party, and are not undertaking any strategies to gain greater influence within the party as a whole. When asked, for example, if they wanted a woman on the Majlis al-Shura to better express their needs, most women were supportive of the idea but in the meantime felt that the male members of the Party (often their fathers, brothers, and husbands) expressed their interests adequately and accurately. Heads of the Women’s Sectors are extremely loyal to the party and most would not grant me an interview until a male of higher authority had given them permission to do so. There is, however, a very small but growing group of women who are more politically minded and who are able to articulate and critique the patriarchical structures within the party. These Women are well acquainted with books by Islamist men who take liberal views on women’s roles n society and by Islamists women, such as Heba Rauf, in Egypt. They were frustrated by the lack of female candidates in the 1993 and 1997 elections and quietly raised their interest in being candidates to a variety of sympathetic, liberal male members.
They are furthermore hampered by the highly centralized structure of the party. Approval for projects is long and tedious, especially for sectors outside of the capitol. Women also feel impeded by a lack of funds. This is also particularly true of regions outside of Sana’a. As one of the consequences, women in the local units do not have their own sector but are integrated with the men. They, therefore, have even less decision-making control over their projects. These women are frustrated by the party which labels those who criticize it as dissenters ad secessionists. In the meantime, they quietly complain of traditions and customs, particularly tribal customs, that prevent women from being able to assert their Islamic rights and raise their status. They do not know how they can combat the non-liberal and tribal elements in their party; especially when the unity of the party depends on various confrontational issues – such as personal laws effecting women – being avoided.
As other women in Yemeni politics, Islahi women generally target three issue areas as of primary concern to women: poverty, illiteracy and health. They place primary concern on women’s education in terms of here Islamic rights. However, little emphasis, if any, is placed in enforcing the implementation of those right. Islahi women assume, as the men do, that society’s ‘backwardness’ will bee eliminated with education and time. As a reflection of their practical concerns, women’s activities with Islah focus primarily on social activities. Women’s centers have been established throughout the country and, amongst other social activities, offer literacy an Quranic classes. Many also publish a newsletter for women on a semi-regular basis. In addition, at election time, these centers take on the role of political recruitment and education. Women are instructed in their electoral rights, and assisted in the registration and voting process. During election times, Islahi women actively canvassed other women for votes. This includes university elections where the women are extremely vocal and involved in campaigning.
This is the end of part 1. Part 2 will be published in the next issue of Yemen Times on Moday 10th of November.