A woman can be whatever she likes

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‘A woman can be whatever she likes’

Lydia James talks to Yemeni women who are trying to change their society (controlled by men).


‘I know the people in my photos - they speak to my soul,' says photographer Thana Faroq. © Thana Faroq

Amani Yahya, 21, is a rapper from Yemen. Many people are shocked by her clothes. And by the words of her songs. In the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, she changes her clothes – from a long dress and a veil to jeans, a t-shirt and a cap. And she sings in the street.

She lived in Saudi Arabia when she was a child. Then she came back to Yemen in 2010 and started her rap music in 2012. She studies Dentistry at the University of Sana’a and Yahya uses rap to talk about women’s rights and problems, in English. Her latest work, ‘Mary’, is about child marriage, based on a true story.

It is very difficult for her to talk openly. In her society, the government has tried to stop creativity for a long time. ‘People don’t like me being a rapper. They think rap is for people from other countries and I’m copying the West. But art has no nationality,’ says Yahya.

Yemen, in 2014’s Global Gender Gap Report, is the country with the least gender-equality in the world. It is worse than Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan, Yemen is also the poorest country in the Middle East.

Half of the 25-million population is younger than 15. It has a high birth rate so the population will double by 2033. About 13 million people do not have safe water or sanitation. There will be no water left in the cities in 15 years. Food supplies are not safe (they are six from bottom in food insecurity in the world). And 334,000 people have no homes because of drought and fighting.

Since 2002, US air and drone strikes have destroyed some areas. So more people support Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular (AQAP). In 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh (who was president then) tried to keep his power, and many other parties started. The Houthis got control of the capital last September, and now politics is not very stable.

So there is a lot of inequality for Yemeni girls and women. The UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) say that 32 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before their 18th birthday. A quarter of women aged between 15-49 have suffered Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and it is common for men to be violent to their women partners.

‘We cannot say what we think.’

‘Yemen’s government decided on two new laws (a few days before the Houthi rebels took control of the government on 22 January),’ says Yemeni social researcher Rasha Jarhum. ‘The first was there needs to be 30-per-cent women in politics; the second was a minimum age of marriage.’ Feminist groups fought for this. It would have been a great victory for Yemeni women.

‘But after the Houthis took control, life has got a lot worse for women,’ says Jarhum, who now lives in Beirut. ‘There are new rules like no going out after 7pm and no music.

And some women have been kidnapped - Yemeni Shirin Makawi and her French colleague Isabelle Prime. This is bad for human rights nationally and internationally.’

Amal Al Yarisi is a journalist for the Yemen Times. ‘We cannot say what we think, especially about politics. Most Yemenis believe that women shouldn’t be in politics and make decisions.’

‘Also, many women and girls cannot read and write, especially outside the cities,’ says Al Yarisi.

‘More than 80 per cent of women work in agriculture. Rural women have no social protection,’ explains Jurham. ‘They work long hours and have no rights.’

After the revolution

Yemen’s Arab Spring in 2011 gave women a chance to get into politics. ‘The revolution was not just political,’ says blogger Afrah Nasser on Skype. ‘My friends had a rebellion in their homes: the tradition says women should not speak up. Women walked on the street and shouted. Then they said to their parents, “I’m going to be part of the rebellion”. This was a revolution. But there were problems. Women got divorced because they did not obey their husbands.’

And now? ‘There still are political powers that use women just as decoration,’ Nasser believes. ‘The problem is that sometimes even women don’t think that it’s a problem. Men control society in Yemen. This is one of the reasons why I work in media – if I leave, another man will come in and talk as he knows best about women’s issues.

Thana Faroq is a photographer in Yemen. She studied in the US and when she went back to Yemen, she was very interested in street photography. ‘There are a lot of stories we need to tell.’ One of Faroq’s projects is child marriage, another project shows women making a difference through leadership, courage or passion.

‘Taking photos in Yemen has never been easy – there are problems with culture and security. But I try to show everyday life in Yemen.’

Make it happen

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Make it happen: encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women’. 'Women around the world can help with this', says Amal Al Yarisi. ‘They can help Yemeni women with conferences and workshops about gender problems. They can help Yemeni women talk and be part of politics and decision-making.’

Amani Yahya is already doing this. She has her future career as dentist and rapper. ‘I hope Yemeni society can accept that a woman can be something and that she can change something, she can be whatever she likes.’

Find out more: Melody Of Our Alienation by #SupportYemen media collective. supportyemen.org

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/03/06/yemen-women/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).[Category: veil]]