“I really want to return to Yemen, because, let’s face it, no matter how bad your country is, it is still your country. It’s like your family. They can suck big time but you still love them”, that is what Sarah, a 25-year-old student from Yemen, declared, in a dormitory somewhere in Warsaw.
She and her friend Ghaidaa are two Yemeni girls studying in Poland. They have both earned a scholarship by the Erasmus program, for their bachelor and postgraduate studies. Sarah is a beautiful English student wearing a hijab full of flowers, and Ghaidaa is a charming women’s rights activist who absolutely adores her husband…
When one runs into two Muslim girls in Europe, away from their land that has been tormented by a 33 year old unjust regime and a conservative society, one has lots of questions to ask. Both girls have participated in the demonstrations against Ali Abdullah Saleh. They have tons of experience, and plenty of things to share about the revolution that has been going on for a year now, in Change Square.
During the Revolution
“I felt normal more than ever in these protests. It was a whole new world for me.” Sarah told me looking as if she was living it all over again. “I told my mom that I had to go, or I would be depressed for the rest of my life. A week before, my brother’s friend was killed there. It was very important for me, because he was like my brother. It was a great loss for me.” And she went to be a part of the revolution.
Everything took her by surprise “I always wanted to know what is going on. When I finally went there, I witnessed something new. It was like a small community inside a bigger one. People were cooperating; they were taking care of themselves and each other. They were acting in solidarity. They had a temporary construction that they used as a hospital; they had organized workshops, even courses for little children. It was a well-managed community. Everything we want our country to be. I felt completely free. I didn’t have to worry about people harassing me, I was walking and no one would look at me or offend me in any way. Inside this community men were different than in our everyday lives. They were more understanding, more respectful, and they would listen to us.”
Ghaidaa was also there several times. “It was really crowded at the Change square. But no one would harass you. I thought that things had really changed. However, outside the Change Square, everything stayed the same.” As if the square had a hypnotic effect on the protestors. “The thing is that the regime itself has been hiring people to enter the peaceful protests and harass women. They would create a fuss so that the revolution would be undermined by violent incidents.”
Has the revolution died?
“I cannot say that the revolution is still going on” Ghaidaa says “The only things that are left are the political parties and the clashes. For me, though, the revolution has died in Yemen. And in spite of the women’s participation and the women’s movement we still cannot enjoy our rights freely…”
Women’s role in Yemeni society and the revolution
If we follow the events of the revolution from the beginning, we will notice that women activists and citizens had the leading role. For Ghaidaa it came as a surprise, “They are participating and contributing a lot in this. I didn’t expect that. I was afraid that all the protestors were going to be men. Strangely enough, there were times that women outnumbered men during some marches.”
A woman having such a strong presence in the country’s political and social rise is not a common sight. Yemen is a strictly conservative society, as Ghaidaa describes it. “Women’s rights aren’t protected and fully guaranteed. In the Yemeni law there are a significant number of provisions against Yemeni women. For example, if I want to get my passport, I am not allowed to apply for it by myself. I have to be accompanied by my husband or some other male family member, even if that relative is younger than me. Women are treated as children. It’s as if they aren’t responsible for their behavior. They should be always in search of male guidance and support.”
The regime was getting really scared by women’s rising influence on the revolution so they would do anything to stop it. “In the beginning of the revolution Saleh said in one of his speeches that women are mixing with men at the Change square, living together in tents, and that’s “haram”. It is forbidden by Islam. Obviously, he used religion as a weapon” Ghaidaa claims. Unfortunately, the Islamic party and the conservative society were very keen on believing what he was implying. Therefore, the regime decided to build a barrier in the middle of the square to divide women and men protestors…
Wearing a hijab…
Sarah is wearing her colorful hijab and seems really happy. Ghaidaa, on the other hand says that even though she doesn’t wear it in Warsaw, in Yemen she would have to, “if not there would be some serious reactions. There are some women who don’t wear it. They are almost 20 in Yemen and really brave. However they rarely walk. They prefer cars. I knew one of them, who once stopped at the red light and someone spit on her and threw water on her.”
But are all men like that in Yemen?
“There are three types of men in my country. The ones that consider unacceptable for a woman to not wear a hijab. The ones that don’t accept women that don’t wear hijab, however they acknowledge the fact that it is their right- and only god can punish them. And the ones that are completely against the hijab. Fortunately, there is a significant number of Yemeni men that respect women’s rights.”
As the Islamic parties are getting stronger and stronger, with the elections on the 21st of February closer than ever, women’s status is getting weaker and weaker. “I am afraid we will lose the little we have gained so far” Ghaidaa says.
A large number of women have died during clashes. “When women were dying, the Yemeni media wouldn’t mention their names, as opposed to men’s names and deeds that were praised. After a while women’s names started popping up.” Like the one of Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni activist that received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leyman Gbowee, both from Liberia. She has generated worldwide attention to Yemen’s authoritarian regime. “ That woman was into politics even before the revolution, she was one of the ones that started it all. I’m not really supporting her because she is with the Al Islah party (Islah means reform) but it is quite radical” Sarah confesses. This popular sentiment could have put Tawakul Karman at odds with demonstrators. While she’s been a leader of the youth movement since the start of the revolution, Karman is also a leading member in the Islah party, the country’s main Islamist opposition party.
The political maneuverings
“Even elections, were a way for the regime to manipulate us” both Sarah and Ghaidaa agree on that. The elections are a condition of a power transfer deal that Saleh signed in November, and Yemeni officials have called them a critical milestone in progress toward ending the crisis. However the ruling party and the opposition agreed to nominate only one candidate, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is currently the vice president. Some independent candidates are also expected to run. Hadi assumed some executive duties after the signing of the power-transfer deal in November, but Saleh retains most of his powers, officials say. According to Ghaidaa, the situation in Yemen is very unique. “We are surrounded by Gulf countries, who share common interests with the Americans. Therefore, both are trying to intervene in the Yemeni situation. You can see in the map that Yemen is the only Republican country and it is circled by monarchies. It suits everyone perfectly for the regime to remain the same. If the Yemeni people succeed in gaining their rights, then the people in the other Gulf countries will imitate it, they will be inspired by it.”
Saleh recently agreed to step down as president in exchange for immunity. Demonstrators argue that’s not enough, because Saleh’ s officials – including his son and other family members – remain in power.
What are you fighting for?
Sarah looks at me firmly and says “We are starting from scratch. We want food. The regime is depriving us of our basic necessities, like food, gas and electricity in order to put pressure on us. There were times when streets in Sana were empty, because all cars were waiting in line at the gas stations. My brother was sleeping, eating inside the car. We were waiting for days to get gas. Food prices have risen 100%. We have electricity for a couple of hours each day.”
“I went away because I was trying to get a better education. We don’t have high leveled education in Yemen. Actually we have no education in Yemen.” Sarah tells me with a bitter smile. “Our universities are good but not as good as here. Teachers don’t get paid well, so they don’t really do their best. We have no facilities, no equipment.”
What is the reaction of Poles towards you?
“Oh look there’s an Arab terrorist! It is clearly all about stereotypes. Actually sometimes it feels good. People are scared of you and you feel you are powerful. Just joking!” laughed Sarah. “I really like Polish people. They are constantly trying to learn. In some ways they are like Yemeni people, because they are now beginning to open up to this whole European idea. When I’m with the hijab they will be staring. Then I would look at them, and they would turn around, feeling embarrassed- especially older people. Younger people are more tolerant, and older people are just so curious. They stare because I am different, that does not necessarily mean that they are judging me.”
When referring to her studies in Warsaw, Ghaidaa has one thing to add, “I am studying political sciences, and most of the times, during classes, I find myself constantly trying to defend Middle Eastern countries”
Their future in Yemen
“I really want to be useful to Yemen” Sarah says, “For now, though, everything is uncertain. Even if everything continues to function as always -my friends studying at the university, having exams- everybody knows that the regime is just trying to show that everything is normal, like nothing has happened. You can’t just go to the University with the fear of the regime bombing you anytime, which they will do. Last time I visited my university before I came here to Warsaw, it was a mess. You would find a tank inside the University.
Ghaidaa also believes that going back wouldn’t be easy, “I really want to go back to Yemen. All my dreams, everything I want to do is in Yemen. But the situation is really difficult. We have no electricity and gas. You can never know what is going to happen next. You cannot make plans for the future. You wake up one morning and there are clashes at the streets. But, let’s imagine I finally return… If so, I would like to create an organization about empowering women. It has already started as an initiative. This project is about empowering women and New Media. Through this program we have trained 200 women in New Media technology. My husband helps tremendously and he has been really supportive. I am really lucky to have such a man. He is a Yemeni and he has really modern views. Currently, we are running another campaign about sexual harassment on the streets of Yemen. Because of my husband’s and my team’s support, I am running the campaign from Poland. We both feel satisfied, because this campaign has generated talks to this serious issue.”
“33 years of corruption cannot be solved in one year. It takes time. We just have to have patience because things are already changing .Warsaw was reborn from its ashes, and that also took time.” Sarah concludes with a smile full of promise for a better future for Yemen.
Links to Ghaidaa’s campaigning
By Maria Sidiropoulou