Carving out a place for Yemeni women

Published on 19 January 2012 in Interview
Nadia Al-Sakkaf (author)

Nadia Al-Sakkaf

Halima Gellman

Halima Gellman

Yemeni women still have a chance to make a place for themselves in the world of politics, especially after their significant contribution to the making of the revolution. However, without better preparation, women run the risk of being left out of Yemen’s transitional process.


Halima Gellman, an analyst and researcher in politics and gender, doing her thesis at New York University on “Yemeni women in the revolution: Building a women’s agenda,” has some thoughts on the lessons learned for Yemeni women.


Halima Gellman is a researcher on a mission. After working and living in several countries in the Middle East region she has developed a keen interest in the Arab uprising and more specifically, women’s role in creating change. Her research includes studying the experience of women during revolutions across the years, starting from the Algerian revolution against the French in 1830, the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the 2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.


The core principle driving her research it is that no revolution with the aim of democratic change is a complete revolution if it does not include the political participation of women.


“There is no genuine democracy without gender equality,” said Gellman.


Her findings show that although women throughout the Arab Spring played an integral role, and were a driving force behind the revolutions, they are now largely being sidelined in each country’s transitional process.


“Take Tunisia for example,” explains Gellman. “They have one of the strongest women’s movements in the Arab world yet only two women were appointed to the 19-member provisional government. If it wasn’t for the Tunisian women’s ability to quickly organize and work together across political and ideological divides, women would be in a very different situation than they are now.”


Despite the fact that Islamists have become the dominant political voice in Tunisia, a revolutionary gender parity law was passed. This law required equal numbers of men and women to be listed as candidates in the Constituent Assembly elections. In a sense this law has guaranteed a 50 percent female political participation. This fact is little known to Yemeni women and should be used as an inspiration, just as the Tunisian revolution was.


In Egypt, the situation is not so positive as there were no women in the constitutional review committee and in the current elections women have not yet even been able to secure 10 out of the roughly 500 seats in parliament. This is much less that under Mubarak's government.


“Women have been the biggest losers of the Egyptian elections, which are supposed to be the most fair and free elections in Egypt’s history,” said Gellman.


Even going back in history to older revolutions such as in Iran and Algeria, where women contributed heavily to the overthrow of old regimes, they ended up being excluded in the power and decision making positions.


In Libya, out of the 40-member transitional government, only two are women, and in the new president’s inaugural speech he raised a lot of red flags for women, including declaring sharia to be the law of the new country. The problem for many female Libyan activists is not sharia in itself, but the president’s seemingly narrow and monolithic interpretation of Islamic law.


Lessons learned for Yemeni women


Yemeni women should be working out strategies on how their rights and newfound political space can be preserved in a new Yemen.


“When I talk to young women from Change Square, they say they are not worried about their rights being taken away,” said Gellman. “They say: ‘We worked so hard for the revolution and they [the new leaders] cannot exclude us, because we have affirmed our place in society and in the political sphere and they cannot take it away from us in the new Yemen’. Unfortunately, we can see from history that this has not been the case,” she explained.


“As for the more experienced civil society activists, when I ask about the three female ministers out of 35 in the new government many women said they are happy,” she said.


Women have played a crucial role in protests, pioneering the role of women in the future of Yemeni society and politics.   Photo by Iona Craig

Women have played a crucial role in protests, pioneering the role of women in the future of Yemeni society and politics. Photo by Iona Craig

“I heard them say ‘excellent!’” exclaimed Gellman. “Not all women say that but enough to worry me.”


Her concern is that this attitude exists after a revolution that was supposed to create a more just society. “To hear these women say this is a step forward was really concerning to me,” she said.


Some Yemeni women and men claim that there are no leading political women because there simply are not enough qualified women to fill in the seats.


But Gellman says she has heard this before and does not believe it is a valid argument.


“I have met many amazing Yemeni women who are extremely intelligent and outspoken. You cannot say that there aren’t enough women to choose from,” she said. “Although obviously Yemen needs to continue focusing on building the capacity of both men and women and decreasing the educational gender gap.”


Yemeni reactions  


A late draft of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal had a 20 percent quota in the new cabinet but the final one only included vague supportive wordings of women’s inclusion. Gellman believes it is important to figure out why this quota was taken out, since it could have made a huge difference in the current political landscape. In addition, she highlights how vital it is for Yemeni women to create pressure groups and lobby for the inclusion of women in this transitional phase.


“I am worried about the future political participation of women. All too often women’s rights are used as political bargaining chips,” she said.


Yet Yemeni women themselves are not taking full advantage of the transition period and using it as an opportunity to advance their rights. This is due to a number of reasons, including a lack of cooperation between women’s organizations and activists and a lack of experience in building bridges across political parties and ideologies.


Thus, there is currently no strategy to ensure that women will have a seat at the constitutional review committee or be part of the national dialogue.


As a part of her master’s degree research, Gellman has been studying the efforts that have been made over the last nine months to bring women from different political parties together and build a women’s agenda.


“Every time I ask, I am given a different example,” she said. “Women are so segregated they do not know about each others’ programs.”


She also argued that Yemeni women need more resources to connect women in the Arab Spring, not just the top elites, and to create regional networks to allow women to share stories and advice and support each other.


Yemeni women also need to understand the political position of each party and political stakeholder. For example, when asking Yemeni women if Islah’s position on women had changed since the revolution, Gellman said that few had a clear answer because no one had engaged them on the issue.


She advised Yemeni activists and political women to reach out to other, even if they are from different ideological and political backgrounds, certain they can find enough common ground to create some shared demands.


“Undoubtedly the revolution has created new political space for women. The question is – can we keep it?” she said.


In the end Gellman hopes that just as Yemeni women surprised the world with their powerful role in the revolution, they will seize the opportunity offered by the transitional period and surprise the world with their role in the new Yemen.