• Jemen
  • jemen
  • Jemen
  • Jemen

Beyond the Veil

Voices, features and reports from the Middle East and elsewhere that go beyond the veil of mainstream media, current headlines, gender stereotypes, prejudice and language.

Salt for Sewing

Written by Helene Aecherli on Wednesday, 02 March 2022. Posted in Jemen

Social Enterprise in Yemen



The project “Salt for Sewing” in the Yemeni capital Sana’a offers basic handicraft classes to women to empower them to eventually build small businesses of their own. And – the classes create a counter narrative to war and destruction.

The long wooden table is covered with protective sheets, scissors, and pieces of fabric; on its left end there are two sewing machines, on the other a tray with tiny cups of tea and water. About half a dozen women sit around it and try to keep an eye on their work as well as on their teacher. Their agitated voices echo in the classroom - a former garage, with walls painted in beige and white, the heavy doors covered with light rose curtains. Here, Halima and her colleague Jamila meet their students three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday mornings. From eight to ten Jamila teaches jewelry making, then Halima takes over to give a two-hour-lesson in basic sewing techniques. So far, their students have produced children’s’ clothes, handbags, belts, bracelets necklaces and earrings; the items could easily fill the display of a handicraft shop. And hopefully, one day they will – be it in a big store or in a small one. This is what the project “Salt for Sewing” is aiming at. Its vision is its programme. “One thousand miles start with a first step”, says Shyma’a, the supervisor of the classes. “And the first step for this project was the determination to do something for the Yemeni society – mainly for women.” Because if you empower women, you strengthen the whole community.


 Handicraft classes in a former garage.

“Salt for Sewing” is handicraft project initiated in Switzerland to be materialized Yemen – in the true sense of the word. It trains women who have no access to formal education to achieve basic handicraft skills so that they will be able to build a small enterprise to generate an income for their families as well as for themselves. And, as Shyma’a emphasizes, it supports them to excel in work they love and are talented in.


Yemeni women are highly talented in handicrafts. This beautiful dress has just been finished in the class.

“Salt for Sewing” started in the Yemeni capital Sana’a last summer, but its actual launch goes back to 2015. And I must admit, it came into existence because of a mistake, or better: a misunderstanding.

At that time just shortly after the war broke out my friend Jamil, a businessman from Sana’a whom I had known for years, still had a stall at a Christmas market in Zürich. He sold beautiful Yemeni goods such as lamps, jewelry, shawls – and small handmade baskets filled with fleur de sel. I immediately fell in love with them - and the salt. What added to their beauty was the fact that they were made by Jamil’s sister Boshra and her friends in their village in Ibb, a governorate about 150 kilometers South of Sana’a, and the salt was distributed by a women's cooperative on the Yemeni island Socotra. I asked Jamil to send me 15 pieces as soon as he would be back to his storage facility. The baskets would be perfect gifts for friends and family. A couple of weeks later I received a huge package and when I opened it, I found 50 baskets, neatly wrapped, and about three kilos of salt.

Handmade baskets from Ibb that were sent to Zürich.

First, I was angry. What should I do with 50 baskets and so much salt? Where should I store all this? I was tempted to send the baskets back again, but then I had the idea to make a business out of it: I would sell the baskets with the salt for 15 Swiss francs each to fund a project that could ease the life of people in Yemen at least a little bit. I was thinking of oxygen bottles for hospitals or even of medication. To find out how the money could be invested best I asked Jamil to check with his sister what she thought they needed most in her village. She answered that they desperately needed one or two sewing and embroidery machines, textiles and above all the salary for a teacher. This would help young women to achieve skills to support their families and to increase their chances of getting married.

Actually, I was a little disappointed. Women and sewing – this was the most conventional set up I could think of. However, as the project shouldn’t be about my desires but about something women in a rural area in Yemen really needed, I agreed. And called the project “Salt for Sewing Machines.” 

They desperately needed one or two sewing and embroidery machines, textiles and above all the salary for a teacher. This would help young women to achieve skills to support their families and to increase their chances of getting married.

People in Switzerland loved the salt baskets and the story behind the project. Boshra and her friends produced loads and loads of baskets – they got paid for their work, if course – later they added fruit bowls and small make-up bags to their range of products. And for years the baskets found their way to Switzerland, even though their postal route got more and more adventurous. One of the last packages was sent in a UN-Plane to Djibouti, then delivered to Paris and finally to Zürich. However, eventually, “Salt for Sewing Machines” faded out. I was told that all women from the village as well as from the surrounding villages, who had wanted to learn the art of sewing, had gone through the classes, many of them had then continued to work on their own, sewed beautiful dresses for the kids in the local orphanage or were hired to repair clothes for friends and neighbors. And some had actually got married.

Last summer the project came to a halt. I was left with 50 baskets, 3 fruit bowls, 10 make-up bags and some salt.

Were they tokens of an end or symbols of a restart?

I discussed the issue with Shyma’a. Shyma’a lives in Sana’a, is a mother of five and a teacher for illiterate women. She and her husband had invited me to stay with them at their house whenever I was in Yemen. The way we met is a beautiful story on its own, beautiful also, because it built the foundation of our friendship. Thus, I was thrilled when Shyma’a suggested to restart the project in Sana’a and offered to be the supervisor. There wouldn’t be better hands to put “Salt for Sewing Machines” into. To make the restart more tangible we changed the name to “Salt 4 Sewing”.

Shyma’a went to work. She set up a budget, roamed through the shops to look for affordable sewing machines, compared prices and qualities, bought textiles, hired two teachers, Halima and Jamila, before being recruited Jamila had been working as a cleaner at a medical center. Then she searched for a suitable classroom, and as she realized that the rent would be too high, she decided to use the garage of her house, had the walls painted and sent me pictures to keep me updated about the process.


 A shop for sewing machines in Sana'a.


Shyma'a and her colleague are checking out sewing machines.

The first class started with twelve students, some where women from her and her teachers’ neighbourhoods, some were students from her literacy class, two were relatives. Since the relaunch in September totally 25 trainees have gathered in the garage to be taught the first steps of sewing and jewelry making. The current class consists of 13 women. The sew everything they learn for themselves or for their children. Both Halima and Jamila are very strict in fulfilling their agenda and in keeping their students committed. Women, who haven’t attended the classes more than three days in a row without presenting a strong reason, are expelled from the training. So far, the dropout rate has been marginal.

Tea during jewellery class.

Sometimes, Shyma’a hears the women laugh while she is in the house doing her daily chores. That makes her happy. “I think they are having a good time”, she says. If the talking and laughing seem to be getting too much, Halima jokingly asks the women to go and help Shyma’a in the house. In the last weeks, since Sana’a is bombarded regularly again by Saudi and UAE fighter jets as retaliation for the Houthi aggression towards Abu Dhabi, the classes have also become something like a safe space; a place that creates a counter narrative to fear and destruction. “The women take good care of each other after the last night’s bombs”, Shyma’a tells me. “Each woman talks about her feelings and gives an account of how she lived through the night, whether she had been wide awake or sleeping.” Shyma’a thanks God every morning that she and her family are still alive and feels sad for the ones, who died.

Since Sana’a has been bombarded regularly again by Saudi and UAE fighter jets as retaliation for the Houthi aggression towards Abu Dhabi, the classes have also become something like a safe space; a place that creates a counter narrative to fear and destruction.

At the time being Shyma’a is looking for handicraft shops that will sell the items produced in the classes and I am checking with my contacts at international organizations whether there are chances to have the products displayed and sold at bazars or the like. Or if I could get some of the products to Switzerland to sell them here to generate new funds for the project. One day, that’s our vision, we will take “Salt 4 Sewing” further, perhaps offer classes in basic computing, reading or even English on top of the handicraft workshops. Some trial classes might be held during the school vacation from June till the end of August - provided, says Shyma’a, that we are ready with computers, curricula, and teachers.


The women make dresses.... 


...and combs.... 

...and a wide selection of jewellery 


There is still a long way to go.
But as Shyma’a concluded: “One thousand miles start with a first step.”
The first steps have been taken.



One of the most beautiful dresses.
All pictures by Shyma'a



Brief an... Nasrin Sotoudeh

on Sunday, 08 September 2019.

Nasrin Sotoudeh


Bild: Helene Aecherli

Liebe Nasrin Sotoudeh,

Sollten Sie diese Zeilen jemals lesen, werden Sie sich vielleicht darüber wundern, dass ich Ihnen hier ein Kompliment mache. 

Brief an...Stephanie Siegrist

on Sunday, 08 September 2019. Posted in General

Stephanie Siegrist




Bild: Julia Hegemann

Liebe Stephanie Siegrist,

Ich muss gestehen: Ich habe mich beim Versuch, Ihr Engagement griffig zu beschreiben, eben ziemlich verheddert. Erst wollte ich das Bild von David und Goliath heraufbeschwören, doch das schien mir irgendwie zu aufgeblasen und vor allem, zu abgedroschen.

Brief an... Rana Ahmad

on Sunday, 08 September 2019.

Rana Ahmad


Bild: Christian Faustus

Liebe Rana Ahmad

als wir vor kurzem miteinander telefonierten, Sie in Köln, ich auf der Redaktion in Zürich, sagten Sie etwas, das mich zutiefst bewegte und das ich wohl nie aufhören werde zu zitieren.

"Yemen should be a just, civic and democratic state for all"

Written by Helene Aecherli on Friday, 21 December 2018. Posted in Jemen

Civil society in Yemen

The first round of peace negotiations in Stockholm offer a big chance for war-torn Yemen to finally enter into a sustainable peace process. But there is one central aspect missing: Yemeni women still aren't included in the negotiations. Antelak Almutawakal, one of the strongest voices of Yemeni civil society, asks the international community to relentlessly push for peace in Yemen, to stopp the arms trade to forces involved in the war and above all: to get women from all conflict parties to the negotiation table. “It’s not only a matter of rights”, she says. “It’s a matter of needs.”


View of the rooftops of the Yemeni capital Sana'a. The photo has been taken before the war.
But Sana'a is still one of the most beautiful capitals of the world.
Photo: Helene Aecherli 


From The Edge of Hope

Written by Helene Aecherli, Abdo K. Ramadan on Friday, 26 October 2018. Posted in Jemen

A spotlight on Yemen

Far beyond international attention the war in Yemen is entering its fourth year. It's a multi-layered war in which national as well as regional actors are hopelessly entangled, the Saudi military coalition being one of the driving forces. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed and a famine of epic dimensions is lingering. The famine is not only due to the lack of food but also of the lack of means to buy food as government employees haven't received any salaries for over two years. That's the layer of economic warfare. So far there is no political will to push for peace negotiations. 
And in the midst of this all there are civilians fighting for survival, hope and dignity. One of them is Abdo Ramadan, father of five, manager of a big company in Sana'a. He goes to work every day, even if there is hardly any work to be done. He and his wife struggle desperately to send their kids to school and to uphold the routines of everyday life. To ease his despair Abdo Ramadan seeks refuge in poetry, its rhythms and rhymes. He wrote two poems to publish here and frames them with pictures of his youngest daughters as for him and his wife they are symbols of hope - and of the future of their country.

Aseel (7) is getting ready to face the day. Photo: Abdo Ramadan

«With the hijab Islamists are marking their territory»

Written by Helene Aecherli on Friday, 03 August 2018. Posted in General

«Wherever Islamists become active, they start by targeting women», says renowned Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea. In her new book, she asks societies and policy makers to remain focused and address the challenges of non-violent Islamism. We discussed the dangers of non-violent Islamism, the burqa ban, the failings of Western feminists and how Sweden was infiltrated by Islamist ideology.

Elham Manea
Photo: Courtesy of Elham Manea

"When the sun rises, my thoughts rise, too"

Written by Helene Aecherli on Wednesday, 14 February 2018. Posted in Oman

Poetry from Oman

Poetry has become a rare literary art. But sometimes you discover strings of pearls - words and phrases that touch your heart. Omani writer Lubna Al Balushi is passionate about creating gem after gem. She composes her poems in Arabic, English, Balochi - and in German. That bouquet of languages, her fine sense of rhythm and the fearlessness with which she expresses her emotions make her one of the most exceptional Omani artists of her time.

Photo: Helene Aecherli 

"Airstrike just hit, house and myself shaking..."

Written by Helene Aecherli on Tuesday, 05 December 2017. Posted in Jemen

Stop the War in Yemen

«Wir werden es euch nicht erlauben, unsere Töchter zu vergewaltigen»

Written by Helene Aecherli on Friday, 22 September 2017.

Frauenrechte im Irak

Die Irakerin Yanar Mohammed arbeitete in Toronto als Architektin. Dann kehrte sie nach Bagdad zurück, um Schutzräume für Frauen zu errichten. Denn nicht nur der IS, sondern auch die wieder erstarkten Stammesstrukturen im Land haben eine verheerende Auswirkung auf das Leben von Frauen. Ehrenmorde, Zwangsverheiratungen und Frauenhandel sind an der Tagesordnung. Doch der Widerstand gegen die Stammescodes wächst  - gerade auch unter Männern.


Yanar Mohammed bei ihrem Besuch in Genf. 
Foto: Mauve Serra

Frauen im Iran wollen keine weiteren Revolutionen, sondern Reformen

Written by Helene Aecherli on Saturday, 09 September 2017.

Frauenrechte im Iran

Entgegen der Versprechen des wieder gewählten Präsidenten Hassan Rohani, bleibt die iranische Regierung fest in Männerhand. Der Kampf der Iranerinnen um Gleichstellung und politische Mitsprache geht aber unvermindert weiter. Jetzt erst recht. Doch ist dieser Kampf eine Gratwanderung. "Denn durch die Kontrolle der Frauen mithilfe Scharia-basierter Gesetze wird das Gebilde der islamischen Nation aufrechterhalten", erklärt Leila Alikarami, eine der führenden iranischen Menschenrechtsanwältinnen. "Mit anderen Worten: Frauen sind die einzigen sichtbaren Wesensmerkmale dieser islamischen Regierung. Deshalb gelten Gleichstellungsfragen schnell als Bedrohung der nationalen Sicherheit."



Leila Alikarami 


"We are the Power of Change"

Written by Helene Aecherli on Friday, 04 August 2017. Posted in Afghanistan

New Masculinities

Ali has a job, that could put his life in danger: He helps young women entering the work force in private sector business in Firoz Koh, the capital of the province Ghor in Northwestern Afghanistan. That friends and colleagues laugh at him because he supports women, doesn't impress him. But what really worries him, is what will happen when religious extremists find out what he is doing. So far, he keeps a low profile and just goes on. Society, he says, can’t move on if half of its population is literally kept in the dark.


"Wir sehen uns lieber als ewige Opfer, als dass wir uns kritisch hinterfragen"

Written by Helene Aecherli on Thursday, 03 August 2017. Posted in General

Ex-Femen Aktivistin und Islamkritikerin Zana Ramadani

Sie war Femen-Aktivistin und ist heute eine der polarisierendsten Islamkritikerinnen Deutschlands. In ihrem Buch «Die verschleierte Gefahr» beschreibt Zana Ramadani, wie Toleranz und politische Korrektheit Islamisten wie Rechtspopulisten in die Hände spielen. Dabei geht sie gerade mit Feministinnen hart ins Gericht. 


Jörg Schulz /Chuck Knox Photography

Women as Symbols of Hope

on Monday, 17 April 2017. Posted in Jemen

Paintings by Yemeni artist Mazher Nizar

"Motherland Yemen" by Mazher Nizar

That art catches my attention and stirs emotions I cannot really grasp, happens rarely to me. It is like falling in love: You cannot explain it, but you know when it is there. And then it makes you dizzy, it moves you and doesn’t get off your mind.
Such were my reactions when I discovered the paintings of India-born Yemeni artist Mazher Nizar - will say, his paintings of women.