Women’s Movement in Yemen [Archives:2006/914/Reportage]

January 23 2006

By: Nisha
Last few years in Sana'a have seen emergence of several organizations headed by women. These organizations are expanding rapidly, involving women, especially young women, across the capital city in the search for something they may or may not be sure of. At this point I feel it important to raise the issue of the direction, perspectives and ways of working of these organizations. Since most of these organizations claim to be working for women, their understanding of women's situation in Yemen and their ability to unite in order to find ways to improve women's lives and build a base of empowerment of women are critical factors that would determine effectiveness of their work for women.

At present, those involved in these women's organizations are predominantly urban, middle-class and college educated. Their activities tend to be concentrated on holding workshops or seminars on wide ranging issues under the broad umbrellas of poverty and human rights. Their style of organization has tended to be formal with several positions, bylaws and so on. Most of these organizations started as top down structures lacking in a mass base. Some have over a period developed presence in their communities but most have not yet done so.

For these organizations to become a women's movement and to continue to expand in the interest of women, they must develop the ability to overcome differences and develop consensus about what and how they would search together. This coming together is the prerequisite for challenging existing power relations that prevent Yemeni women from articulating their issues publicly and from having a share in the public and private decision-making. This is an attainable task if the women's organizations can bridge the gaps created by different socio-political affiliations, professional and organizational rivalries, and personal aspirations.

Every now and then, through our work and discourses organized by some of these organizations, we come to know variety of ways in which women are oppressed in Yemen. But these organizations are just beginning to toy with the idea of collaborating to act on women's issues. Collaboration is indeed a good very good idea to work with and also one which would hopefully make a few from these organizations stand up and point out the deficit in their credibility to represent all women from bottom up. Most of these organizations have been engaged at the tertiary and policy levels, discussing international instruments and conventions to protect women's human rights, away from the daily struggles of ordinary women in the villages, small towns and of those who stay within the boundaries of their homes. No doubt these instruments are essential for alleviating women's condition in general and acknowledging the fact that these instruments provide the tools to nail down the government on the issue of its obligations but unless the women's organizations demonstrate their ability to reach to ordinary women they can not be regarded as representative voices.

It is important, therefore, that these organizations act on the need to relate to all women's needs, beyond demanding gender mainstreaming in policies. Understanding ways in which they could work with the communities at the local levels to raise awareness as well as consciousness about women's rights, and finding immediate solutions for women's day-to-day problems would go a long way in which these organizations can gain representative power.

Collaborating and gaining representational strength means that women's organizations must create those structures that will enable them to move forward in developing their abilities and skills to collaborate and to bring about change on ground. It also means pooling together individual strengths of organizations and working together on their individual weaknesses. This calls for willingness to be open, to accept that individual identities may get submerged into a collective identity and that certain benefits and recognition would come to the women's movement and its campaigns at large but may not come as direct benefits to individual organizations.

Organizing to be a movement also means that women's organizations must have a clear conception for the kinds of change they would struggle for. Women in Yemeni society may be better off than women in many other Arab countries but this does not take away the fact that women here have a very little share in both public and private decision-making power. Women's organizations can gain support of ordinary women by making small changes that could pave the way for alteration of power relations at home and in public. This means, as a movement, women's organizations should organize around issues that could be addressed quickly and make demands that can be won in the short term. This strategy does not mean ignoring or bypassing long term change needs. It only means dividing time and energy in a way that would make the idea of a women's movement a reality. Short terms gains won together would give the women's organizations the ability to move further and motivate them to take greater challenge as a movement. I feel that absence of visible successes which have been achieved together is a barrier to developing a faith that women's organizations stand a better chance if they are together and women stand a better chance if they have a movement instead of fragmented efforts of several organizations.

The key question apart from the need to come together is determining with women at ground what issues are in the interest of ordinary women and then determining what kinds of reforms are possible. Initiatives to bring the women's organizations and their women members together in a situation of structured interaction and collaborative action, however, must come from the within. Without the need being recognized and acted upon by the women's organizations as matter of their own initiative, a movement is not possible.