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Yemen: A Women's Revolution Inside The Revolution

Since the beginning of protests in Yemen, women there have not only been taking off their veils, they’ve been giving speeches and confronting Islamists.

(Medill DC)
(Medill DC)

SANA'A - Nearly every day, Kawkab al Thaibani puts a bright scarf around her head, kisses her one-year-old son goodbye, and takes two buses to the other end of Sana'a, to University Square. Protesters have come together here since February, peacefully calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

She comes here to visit her husband, a lawyer and human rights activist, Khaled al Anesi. Since the protests broke out five months ago, he's been living in a tent on the square. And he says he's not leaving until the demonstrators get what they've been asking for. But Al Anesi is also afraid to leave the square, convinced that it offers him protection, after receiving several death threats. Indeed, Kawkab al Thaibani had to move back in with her mother after men came looking for her husband at their home.

As an aid worker, human rights activist and freelance journalist, al Thaibani spends most of her day documenting what happens in "Freedom Square." When asked if she sees herself as more of a demonstrator or a journalist, she replies that she can't make out the difference anymore. "We are Yemenis, and we can't get away from that. I saw the massacre, and it was the turning point in our lives."

Many Yemenis hope that the uprising won't only be the turning point in their lives, but also that of their country. Demonstrators created a mini version of the Yemen they would like to see: tents provide shelter to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Islamists and seculars, men and women from tribes all over the country. They've developed their own code of behavior, criticize the state media, and reaffirm the advantages of democracy.

There are 17 other similar tent cities like it in Taiz, Aden, Ibb, Hodeida, Hadramaut and other provinces.

"When you come to the square, you're looking at the new face of Yemen" says Raja al Thaibani, a photojournalist who has been documenting the revolution since April. She was surprised when she found out that many women on the square do not cover their face with the traditional niqab and that they give speeches about human rights and freedom of the press. And that men listen to them.

Everywhere, the big question is whether or not President Saleh will be returning to Yemen. He was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical care in June, after he was severely injured in a rocket attack.

Either way, the opposition already has pushed for wide-reaching changes. "This revolution has altered the Yemeni mentality," says al Anesi. "It's given Yemini people the belief that there can be peaceful change. That's what we're committed to: people continuing to fight peacefully without weapons or violence."

One of the particularities of the opposition movement in Yemen is that, for the first time, women are part of public life. "One woman, who could neither read nor write, told me she felt as if she being educated -- just from having been exposed to life in the square," says al Thaibani.

In fact, one of the first leaders of the movement was a woman: Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist and co-founder of the organization "Women Journalists Without Chains." She regularly leads demonstrations and rallies. While Karman lives on the square in a tent, her three children have moved in with their grandmother. She misses them, but she says "what I'm doing here is for my children, it's for all future generations of Yemeni children. It's the price to pay for our freedom."

Feminist Wamid Schakir came to the University Square twice to encourage women to take part in the political process. She wants to draft a charter that would guarantee women a place in the country's new power structures, but worries that the Islamist wing of the Islah Party -- the most powerful party in the opposition coalition – will try to keep women out, thus undoing any progress that has been made so far.

Physically blocked

Yemen still has a long way to go, warns Nadia Abdullasis al Sakaf, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, one of the few independent magazines in the country. "It's difficult for us to change our country and our culture overnight," she says.

Dschamila Radschaa, a former adviser to the Foreign Minister says some women have had problems because they mixed with men. Radschaa resigned in the wake of the March 18 massacre. She was among a group of demonstrators that was attacked by Islahis party members. The attackers didn't want women marching alongside men. "They physically barred the way so we couldn't continue marching, and fired shots into the air to scare us," she says.

Despite everything, she hasn't stopped protesting and is delighted about the growing political consciousness of Yemenis. "No matter what happens, no president will ever again be in office for 30 years, not after this revolution," she says. "They've turned everything upside down, and all the precious things hidden inside have come tumbling out."

But a lot of things are going to have to change for the ideals of the revolution to become reality. Some people want Saleh to sign the agreement drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would bring about his resignation. Others say that the GCC agreement won't serve anything and would only change the president, not the whole system.

Mohammed Abu Lahum, a former member of the government party, believes that the GCC Agreement offers the best prospects for a peaceful solution. After the March 18 massacre, Lahum left the government party and founded the Justice and Construction Bloc. He hopes that it will be a centrist party that will draw members from the entire political spectrum.

Regardless of ideas or ideology, the common breakthrough is that people are learning to think for themselves, and to view propaganda with a critical eye. They also realize that they actually have some power of their own. That's why Kawkab al Thaibani is no longer afraid, and why she is prepared to sacrifice time spent with her husband and son. "Yemen went through a difficult phase, but now I'm getting a sense of our national unity," she says. "I'm proud to be Yemeni."

Read the original article in German

Photo - Medill DC

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