“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow!” The sentence every mother dreads. Its Saturday, the last day of the weekend before my nine-year old daughter Lamma returns to school and I to work. I call Sunday the “hard day”—getting back to business after the weekend is never easy, and today has been equal parts exhausting and exciting. But this time, it’s something else. Lamma’s voice—normally so assured— is hesitant, faltering even. I wonder what’s going on with her.

We decided to attend a ballet recital at the Rainbow Theater. My daughter dances ballet on the children‘s national team, so we always get invited to the performances. I love these perks. After the show we are starving, so we have dinner at a restaurant that opened last week. It’s a new international franchise conveniently located in Zone 2, an area previously called Bait Baws Square.

The entire area was revamped and it’s now a real entertainment destination, with everything you could possibly wish for door to door: restaurants, parks, a big cinema, a theater. Major brands stand alongside the creative artisanal shops that I love. Sipping on my Nana lemon as I waited for my sandwich, my glance falls on a large digital billboard across the square. From the porch where we are sitting, I can only make out a part of the screen (the rest is blocked by the large fountain). But I don’t need to see the entire screen to know what’s playing: videos of the Revolution of 2011. It’s the 10th anniversary.
On our walk back to the car, I try to understand what’s going through Lamma‘s mind. Why this girl who is notorious for loving school is trying to get out of attending class.

 

“Lamma,” I venture, trying to keep my voice casual, “why don’t you want to go to school?”
Distracted, she doesn’t answer. She’s too busy taking pictures. Elections for the local authority in Sana’a are fast approaching, and with the new campaign snapchat filters, Lamma can take selfies with all the candidates. It’s ridiculous what they come up with.
“Mom! I took a selfie with Belqes Ahmed, can I share it on Instagram?” She is practically squealing.

Belqes is a mayoral candidate; she’s a lawyer and has some great ideas to support women of all ages through international exchange programs.

I nod. “Sure, Lamma.”

I can’t imagine what’s going on with her.

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Once we reach the parking lot, Lamma asks if we can check out an art gallery in Old Sana’a. But the traffic is unbelievable. Because of construction I have to take the Say’ilah and can’t stop at the gallery. I hope she isn’t more upset now. We have a long way to go before we reach our home in the Third Zone. The traffic in downtown is always dense on the weekends, and to get to the Third Zone you must first cross the mountains. Lamma is sitting quietly in her seat. We are both staring at the city lights as Abu Baker Salem plays on the radio. How I love this road! Whenever I am crossing the zones, I feel proud to have been appointed Minister of Public Works and Highways.

I was nominated after the ministry adapted my idea for the Green Belt— a lush band of vegetation that separates the old areas from the new developments. The chaotic part of downtown is worlds away from the new area, where the air quality is good thanks to all of the trees we planted. It’s crazy—you can’t even tell that we live just a couple of hundred meters away from the industrial zone.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t pass by the gallery habibti, but you know they’re building the new metro. It‘s causing a lot of chaos now, but it will ultimately improve all our lives.” I tell my daughter.

“You’re right, mom! And I can finally meet my friends downtown—all alone!”

I laugh. “It’s true!” I tell her. “You know, it is important that city planners consider everyone’s needs when building a city, so that everyone can equally participate in the community. So that you and your friends can find safe places without traffic to meet and play, even without supervisors.” I want Lamma to understand how government shapes her day-to day-life in subtle ways. That it’s not all taxes and trade deals. I go on, “with the new metro, traffic in the city will be cut in half. I’m so glad we incorporated parks and greenery in our design. And since everyone is already using solar energy, Sana’a might truly be the cleanest city in the world!”

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Silence from Lamma. And then, “I am really not sure about going to school tomorrow,” my daughter says for the second time, staring at the floor. The famously chatty girl is now quiet, clearly holding something back. “It’s just so annoying over there…And all the boys in the class are stupid!” I can’t help but laugh. How many mothers around the world are having this exact same conversation right now? I pull myself together. “Oh Lamma.” I begin what could easily turn into a rant about my childhood during Yemen’s all-too recent history— one of my favorite subjects. “When I was your age, not everyone was able to go to school in this country. Yemen was so mismanaged there just weren’t enough schools, and daddies couldn’t make enough money for their children, and most women were not even allowed to work. So the families simply had other expectations.” I go on.

“Boys and girls were always separated at school, you know. Boys went in the mornings so that they could return to help their fathers run the shops in the afternoon. And the girls went in the afternoons so that they could help with housework in the mornings.” Lamma stares at me, unbelieving. “You would never believe that this actually happened, but there was a girl in my class—her name was Fatima. She had to leave school because her parents expected her to get married…at nine years old!” Lamma is speechless, her face pale with shock.

 

“Get married?! At 9?!” She is understandably horrified. I sigh.

“Yes Lamma. And Fatima had perfect marks. She always dreamed of becoming a teacher. Once she got married, she moved to a village and gathered with some other women for classes under a tree. Just to learn some basics. It was more than many others had who were in her situation.”

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Lamma is silent. Our country has a difficult past. It is not always easy to think about that past, and the harm done to generations of women. Now, we reach a highway exit to the third zone. If we continue straight, we will reach the industrial zone. This is the zone that flipped Yemen’s destiny. It’s where so many local products are produced—enough to feed our country—and other products too, like domestic items and construction materials. While we currently import about 30 percent of the population’s needs, we have begun exporting our valuable products on a larger scale. Our ancient bounty enters the globalized world: coffee and almonds, carpets and fabrics, perfumes and incense.
We pull into the driveway. Before we enter the house, I give Lamma a last word, which I hope will encourage her. “I was lucky to have a family that understood the importance of education and the need to treat girls and boys equally. But so many others were not. Today, the girls of this country are guaranteed an education by law. It’s no longer just down to luck. You have the right to an education.”

I make myself a cup of shay Adeni, cut some slices of the Bint as-Sahn my mom dropped off the other day, and spoon out some honey I brought back from Amran. It’s all so good. Lamma is already in the Mafraj, surrounded by her schoolbooks. Just staring at them. Lamma has always been very committed to school. Competitive even. She clearly inherited this from her grandma, who took care of her when I was in the early stages of my career. So ambitious, my daughter—she was recently elected president of the student union. I come into the room and walk softly across the wood floors to sit next to her. I present the bint-as-sahn. “Have a bite, habibti.”

She ignores the pastry. “I love school, mom. But Ahmed is turning everyone there against me!”

I pause. I realize we’re finally about to get to the heart of what’s been bothering her. “Why would he do that?” I ask slowly.

She sighs. “Because I voted in the last board meeting against after school activities influencing students’ marks. It was the only reasonable decision, but Ahmed is making everyone believe it was the wrong one because I didn’t bring it up at the student union meeting.”

I finally understand. Lamma is being punished for something our former president learned at the end of more than three decades in power. “Being the head of the student union doesn’t mean that we can decide based on our own opinions.” I begin. “When you’re in a leadership position, you have to make decisions that are based on inclusive discussions. You have to involve the other members of the union before you vote on their behalf.” Lamma looked at me with big eyes, unsure if I am betraying her or if she’s about to learn something useful.

“Inclusive decision-making, Lamma. It’s really a simple concept, but sometimes not so easy in practice. Some in the history of this country had to learn it the hard way. We had to fight hard to be included in decision-making. This is what our Revolution was all about. And that is also what student unions are all about.” I remember the scenes from the billboard at dinner. Magnified on the screen as they are in my memory. “All the pictures, feelings, sensations, dreams—everything I saw and felt and heard—is as present with me today as it was during those first days. The solidarity of the square, everything we lived through together.” My emotions are getting ahead of me, as they always do when I talk about the Revolution. I need to start at the beginning. “It started in Tunisia. That was where the people first went to the streets and demanded justice, equality and citizens’ rights. What we saw there helped us all believe that even after so many decades, change in the Arab world was still possible. We saw their solidarity and endurance and we immediately understood that we had to keep going until we got what we wanted. I remember it like it was yesterday, the video of the street vendor who set himself on fire, it spread across social media like a fire itself. How desperate do you think you must have to be, to set yourself on fire? The entire region caught fire soon after. And we all stood up for our dignity, fanning the flames. And it just continued, like dominoes, to Egypt, Libya, Syria—the people everywhere wanted to be included in the government.

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I take a breath and go on. “Then the Revolution came here. To us. And we all participated—me, your grandma, grandfather. We protested in front of the university. At the time there was a statue there, at the intersection in front of the main gate. It read: ‘Yemen believes and wisdom is Yemeni.’ This is where the protests started. The atmosphere was so special. It was safe, the people were smiling, everyone was busy with something. The people cleaned the square, there were lectures, reading circles, drawing, music, dialogues. This was the first time I truly learned about Yemen’s politics and history, about civil society and elites and the importance of being an active citizen. And it motivated me to learn more. To never stop learning. That’s what it was like there. It was like there was something in the air, a spirit telling you: ‘here you have freedoms and rights, enjoy them!’ What I felt in the square is what I want to feel everywhere in this country. That became the goal.

I gather myself, trying to convey what it was like to someone who wasn’t there. “You cannot imagine, Lamma, we moved from one era to another. From being silenced to speaking freely. Before the Revolution, only a select few in Yemen were involved in political decision-making, and barely any women! All of us—rich or poor, male or female, young or old-—we were all victims of the corrupt policies of a government run by a few families. It was that system we took on. Hardened by decades of power and corruption. It was audacious. But we were motivated. We looked always to the future. We knew that if we didn’t keep protesting, people wouldn’t be as aware as they are now. They wouldn’t understand. There wouldn’t be the current Yemen. It might seem unbelievable now, but we were never afraid then. We didn’t have time to be afraid. Remember, fear only creates failure.

I circle back to my main point. “Before all of this, we didn’t have the life and the dignity we have today. We didn’t have laws and rules that ensured everyone could equally participate in society. We are a nation built by our own hands. We wrote the constitution. We achieved this by standing up for our rights and rejecting anything that did not meet our demands and principles. We were on the street for ten months, then came a change of power. The leadership finally saw that it had to listen to the people. It stopped playing power games. When we had our first elections, a woman won. A woman was our first real democratically elected president!”

I laugh. “Everyone was shocked, even though a majority voted for her. But the people quickly understood that real change was happening and everyone could benefit. All the men followed our new president, even the old sheikhs. By then we had a new constitution, which guaranteed equality to all citizens, regardless of their social, religious, or economic background. When you were born, only one year had passed since women were understood to have the same value as men, the same voice.”

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I return to the present tense. “Now we trust our government. Because there is transparency and free election and the people are involved in the decision-making. Now we feel like we are the ones who are building the future of this country. Because we are participating.”
I am so caught up in the telling of my story that I don’t even realize Lamma is asleep on her math book. I remove her “pillow” and cover her with a blanket. I too have some work to do before the week starts. I spend the day’s last hours in my office.

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7:05 am. The alarm clock has been ringing for five minutes. The sunlight is breaking through the gamariyya, throwing a colorful shadow on my bedroom floor. According to the school app, which provides all sorts of school events updates and even tracks the bus that picks her up each morning, Lamma has 20 minutes before she has to be outside—an eternity for a nine-year-old.

But there she is. Already dressed, holding a flip chart, and ready to walk out the door. She is smiling, and I can feel the energy coming off her in waves. “What is the flip chart for?” I ask.
“I wrote notes down for when I speak with Ahmed. You’re right. I need to discuss everything with him and with everyone in the student union. The student union belongs to all students—not just me.”

It seems like she paid attention to my revolutionary speech after all. I am so proud of her, and I tell her so. But then I can’t help myself. “Believe it or not Lamma, but when I was your age, we didn’t even have a school bus! I had to walk to school. And to get back home, I had to nearly run, so that I would arrive before sunset, and…” Lamma rolls her eyes “Ok, mom I got it!” And then she’s out the door and on her way.