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
Antelak Almutawakal, you live and work in the war-torn Yemeni capital Sana’a. How is the situation on the ground?
Antelak Almutawakal: It’s dire: On each meter you see families begging in the streets, men, women, children, or digging in the garbage looking for food. Many of them are sick. Medication is difficult to get, and if we get some it’s either expired and without effect or it’s fake or has been exposed to heat during the transport, as it has been sent illegally, and thus become dangerous to use. Because of the blockade of the main port in the city of Hodeidah, the principal lifeline for two-thirds of the country, and the battles around it, food prices are soaring. People just can’t afford to buy food any longer.
Could you give us an example of how expensive food has become?
Sure. Some months ago a chicken cost 800 Yemeni Rial, about 1.5 US Dollar. Then the price went up to 1800 Yemeni Rial, a couple of weeks ago it was 2500, about 4.5 US Dollar. When I saw that I asked the sales man: “Is this the price for a sheep or a chicken?”
You say that people are made to be hungry. What do you mean with that?
That this dire situation hasn’t been caused by a natural disaster, but it’s a man made catastrophe: Lots of factories and small shops have been destroyed, the ports of Yemen are blocked and Sana’a airport is still closed. Moreover we have to pay taxes to Ansar Allah (i.e. the Houthi rebels who control Sana’a and the surrounding areas) as well as to the internationally recognized government. Moving around in the cities you have to pass checkpoints, sometimes you even have to bribe to pass. And since the transfer of the National Bank from Sana’a to Aden two years ago no full salaries or no salaries at all have been payed to government employees. So people, who depend on their salaries, like care takers, doctors or teachers don’t have any money to support their families. In the span of the last two years I have received three times half my salary.
"You see, humanitarian aid could even have a negative effect as there is a risk that people will get used to it. We need investments in livelihood as well."
You teach English literature as well as gender and development at the University of Sana’a. So you are basically teaching for free.
Yes. I survive because I am lucky enough to have some savings. But even if I had a regular income I would be stuck as there is no cash flow. You can only get out around 180 US Dollar from the bank per week - which isn’t enough to cover your costs of living.
The first round of the peace negotiations in Stockholm offer some hope though: The warring parties have agreed on a ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah, that is supposed to have been implemented this week, a humanitarian corridor to the war torn city of Taiz as well as on the release of prisoners.
Yes, these are good signs. It just hope these agreements will be taken seriously and implemented fast. People in Yemen can’t wait any longer. What happens in Yemen is a shame and disaster for humanity. The members of the international community have to uphold the pressure on the conflict parties to reach a peace resolution, but at the same they also have to stop selling arms to exactly these conflict parties. Act the talk!
When in contact with friends in Yemen I am amazed how they manage to uphold a kind of everyday life. Also your students still come to class.
Oh yes. You can’t imagine how eager they are to study. But the students face immense difficulties: There are hardly any books to buy, they often don’t have access to the internet, and there is no money for transportation which is a huge problem for those who live far away. Yemeni education has never been strong, but now it’s getting worse. Due to the war millions of children haven’t had access to basic eductation so we will lose a whole generation. And for those who still can go to school, it’s risky. Everyday I am afraid that the school of my grandson will be bombed or something will happen to him on his way to school. We never know if he comes back home or not.
How much does humanitarian aid help?
It helps to ease emergency situations, but it can’t help forever. You see, humanitarian aid could even have a negative effect as there is a risk that people will get used to it. We need investments in livelihood as well, we need programs and projects that help people to find jobs or to build their own small businesses. That would be sustainable.
One of the gardens of Sana'a. Sometimes you could even sense the smell of cardamon that is used in tea and coffee. Photo: Helene Aecherli
Yemen was the poorest country of the Arab world even before the war which is mainly due to mismanagement and corruption. A big part of the problem is also the consumption of qat. The growth of qat has reduced agricultural variety and its consumption wastes millions of work hours per year. The production of qat, however, is still intact, regardless of the war. What is your take on that?
Yes, qat is among the big problems we Yemenis have to deal with. In order to rebuild and develop the country we need to get rid of qat. Now, however, lots of people consider it as an antidepressant to ease the pains of war.
Women face immense burdens during conflict and war. According to an UN report sexualized violence in Yemen has risen by 70 percent since the beginning of the war. Can you confirm that?
Yes, and we have even heard that there are cases that military groups have started using women as a tool for revenge. So far this has been a taboo in our society. If that turns out to be true it’s a catastrophe. We also see an increase in child marriages. Families fear that their daughters might be exposed to sexual harassment so they marry them off to protect them. Or families marry off their daughters - and send their boys to join the fighting - to get an income and to continue surviving.
Talking about child marriage, human rights activists have fought for years to get a law that prohibits this harmful practice. But so far they haven’t succeeded.
Unfortunately, no. The prevention of child marriage has been a controversial issue in the parliament between the nationalist General People’s Congress party, the GPC, and the Islamist Islah party. They used religion to justify child marriage - with the result that up till now no law against child marriage has been issued.
Do women still move around freely in the public sphere?
We move. But it gets more and more difficult to travel alone and it’s risky everywhere. If you travel by bus you are asked at checkpoints: “Where is your mahram, your male chaperone?” This is something new in Yemen.
Most Yemenis have always been traditional and conservative, also concerning religion. Now however, new forms of extremist Sunni and Shia branches seem to be on the rise. What happened?
Religion has become a tool of war. Its mechanism works as such: How do you make people fight each other unless they have a reason to do so? And for this you need to plant a seed in people’s heads. In this case it’s the seed of religion. To speed up this process the warring parties bring Islamic radicals to fight, as happens in the city of Taiz, and then they just leave them. The strategy behind this is that the radicals will create chaos and eventually start fighting each other street by street. That is deeply worrying.
"Families fear that their daughters might be exposed to sexual harassment so they marry them off to protect them."
In how far do these new forms of sectarianism create a schism within society?
This process has already begun but it hasn’t reached the core yet. I live in a district where Shia, Sunni, Zaidi (i.e. the Yemeni Shia sect to which the Houthis belong) and Wahhabi still coexist peacefully. But the conflict parties are working hard to tear the social fabric apart.
How does this affect women?
In so far as each group has different interpretations of Islam and of course also different interpretations of Islamic rules concerning women. Women’s issues are very sensitive per se. That’s why it’s easy to use women’s issues to trigger fightings.
Could you be more specific on how different interpretations of Islamic rules affect women?
Sure, let me give you some examples: During the uprising in 2011, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh criticized his opposers by accusing them of being against Islam as they allowed women and men to take part side by side in strikes and demonstrations on the University Square. As a consequence men and women were segregated, and those activists who ignored it, were attacked and harassed. Now religion is used against female activists; many of them are accused on social media of being polytheist or their private lives are attacked. And the crucial thing here is, that there are conservative as well as progressive forces behind that.
I think it’s a sign of the increasing discrimination against women. As former envoy Jamal ben Omar has said several times: “Yemeni leaders disagree on almost everything - except on women’s issues.” Maybe it’s also a strategy to keep women away from the peace negotiation table. Some of the leaders had even warned previous special envoy to Yemen, Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed, from getting women to the table as this would undermine the negotiations. However, it’s a good step that the new envoy, British mediator Martin Griffith, has established a women’s committee of eight or nine women. But this is not enough. We want that least 30 percent of participants in the peace process are female.
One of the most famous buildings in Yemen: Rock Palace, Dar al Hajar, North of Sana'a. Photo: Helene Aecherli
The misrepresentation of women in peace negotiations is a global phenomenon - even though it’s well known that the chances are higher that a peace agreement is reached at all and the agreement itself is more sustainable if women are included in the peace negotiations.
Of course. The main reasons for the exclusion of women are the lack of political will, competition of power and a deeply engrained patriarchal attitude in the leaders. Leaders fear that their female colleagues compete with them and might take their seats. And thus, they think it’s better to exclude her even if she is better qualified than them. But more so, the leaders think that the views and visions of women aren’t important. At the same time they call for democracy. That’s absurd: You cannot call for democracy and exclude women - 51 percent of the population. Each conflict party has their own women, and these women are working hard. Why not bring them? The leaders at the table are dividing power and money - whereas women can make a difference. They put other issues on the table. Women, even if they are from the conflict parties, are less aggressive, they might bring Yemeni men together.
You are part of the Women’s Coalition of Peace and Security, which is sponsored by UNWomen in Sana’a. What experiences have you made in that job?
Just immediately after the start of the war, we presented a different agenda to the negotiation parties in Geneva and Kuwait. We requested for example that to build trust between the warring parties releasing detainees should be a priority to be discussed. We asked for humanitarian aid and support as well as for the prevention of basic services to the conflict parties. But that vision wasn’t taken seriously; they negotiators haven’t even read it. Intrestingly enough these demands were put on the agenda in this round of negotiation in Sweden. So if they had started with that agenda rather than just arming and dividing the warring parties, we wouldn’t have gotten to that man made catastrophe we see today.
How are gender specific issues dealt with?
Well, so far political issues related to men are still the priority. The UN Security Council-Resolution 2216 from the year 2015 even mentioned the names of men, who needed to be released, whereas women weren’t mentioned at all. There is not a single word about how to protect women in conflict and war. Harassment, sexualized violence and early marriage weren’t even considered. That is totally gender blind. Now there is a British proposal of a new resolution, but the draft still neglects women’s participation and protection. When we protest against that, we are told, now is not the time to talk about women’s issues. I believe if there is enough pressure form the international community, women from all parties can be seated at the negotiation table. It’s not a matter of rights. It’s a matter of needs.
"Accepting the partnership of women in ruling the country would be a strong indicator that the political powers have learnt their lesson."
How could international actors exert pressure on the conflict parties to include more women?
They could do it this way: They could put a chair for each woman at the table and say: “Either you bring a woman or you leave that chair empty.” And then blame them for all the empty chairs. This method was used during the National Dialogue in Yemen and succeeded.
I hear that the overall suspicion among people is rising. How is it possible to work in such an environment?
It becomes difficult. People say: “You are from this family so you must be connected with that part...” That happens even among friends. I try to resist, I want to meet my friends without having to label them. And I am still optimistic: I still have friends and family from all groups and parts. And I still see the strength of the civil society, but it needs support. Yemenis need to deal with the conflict themselves.
How should that work?
We have no other way than to share our geographic space. No one can exclude the other. It’s a country for everybody. So we wish that we were brought together. We want to build a state. If Yemenis were given a space for themselves they could find a solution.
What kind of solution? There are voices say that even if the external actors withdrew, Yemenis would still continue to fight each other.
In former times, Yemenis used to stop fighting as soon as the external forces withdrew. The reasons for the continuation of the internal conflicts today are the complete absence of state authority, power sharing and the institutional framework for a democratic civic state. So - the political leaders have to realize that the only solution of the conflicts is mutual acceptance, power sharing and the sharing of natural resources. Accepting the partnership of women in ruling the country would be a strong indicator that the political powers have learnt their lesson. Yemen should be a just, civic and democratic state for all.
Antelak Almutawakal (58) is one the strongest independent voices of Yemeni civil society. She is a professor of English literature and the cultural dynamics of gender and development at the University of Sana’a. 20 years ago, Antelak Almutawakal and her sister founded the NGO Youth Leadership Development foundation (YLDF). They work with local organisations in all 24 governorates of the country. Their vision is to train young Yemenis, so that they can play an effective role in the development in their communities and the whole world. Women led organisations such as the YLDF are the only parties that work towards social cohesion and humanitarian aid.
Antelak Almutawakal is the daughter of Mohammed Almutawakal a widely respected and highly popular liberal thinker, who strongly defended democratic values, human rights and gender equality, and was celebrated as the humanist face of Yemen. He was killed four years ago in the streets of Sana’a.
Antelak Almutawakal visited Switzerland last November to participate in the UN Women's Conference on «Women’s Meaningful Participation in Peace Processes» and at the Symposium on «Gender Perspectives in Arab Countries and Beyond» in Zürich. The interview was facilitated by the Swiss section of Amnesty International. Antelak and I had met a couple of years before in Sana'a, so we had a lot to exchange far beyond the issues we discussed in the interview. To come to Switzerland and talk about the current events in Yemen was risky for her. She has approved of this interview to be published in German and English. The German version was first published on annabelle.ch.