Yemen suffers from numerous problems that affect women, but one of the most difficult is the political situation. The dire state of female representation was made crystal clear in December when, for the first time in 20 years, a new government was formed without a single woman. It triggered an instant online backlash. This was a regression by any standard and was all the more disappointing given Yemeni women’s prominent presence during the 2011 uprising. Yet, as social activist and researcher Shaima Bin Othman argues, women in Yemen should focus on fighting for a new system where they can participate as equal citizens, rather than try to be part of a broken system solely based on their gender.
On December 18, 2020, Yemen announced a new government with 24 ministers – all men. It was formed under the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed between President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and Southern Transitional Council over a year ago. When news of the all-male Cabinet leaked, the backlash was immediate, with Yemeni women launching an aggressive social media campaign rejecting the government’s formation and demanding Hadi’s resignation under the hashtag #NoWomenNoGovernment.
The campaign was informed by the 2014 National Dialogue Conference (NDC) outcomes and international law, both of which are clear on a woman’s right to political participation. It called on prominent domestic and international figures, such as UN envoy to Yemen Mr. Martin Griffith, to pressure all parties to nominate women to the new government. Houria Mashhour, former Minister of Human Rights, tweeted: “Any Yemeni government without women’s participation has no legitimacy and is rejected.” The campaign failed, however, and the government was sworn in just over a week later in Riyadh.
In the patriarchal, misogynist system that controls Yemen, women are not seen as competent political players, they are only viewed through the prism of their gender – and even then they are dismissed as unimportant. This is despite the clear change occurring on the ground in terms of female societal roles. With more and more women becoming the sole providers in their families, they have begun working in sectors previously reserved for men and their presence in the public sphere is increasingly widely accepted. Yet still the current political actors refuse to see women as citizens who can represent and serve their country. Obviously, Yemeni women should expect more. But given how broken the system is, gender equality will likely not be achieved by boosting participation, but by redefining our idea of citizenship and creating a properly functioning government.
Given the pledges Yemen’s leaders have made over the years about boosting female representation and the prominent role women played during the 2011 uprising, their presence at the highest levels of decision-making this past decade should have been guaranteed. Yet apart for some ministerial portfolios in the transition government, this has not transpired.
The NDC was a notable – and welcome – exception. The process included women and youth and set out a vision for the country’s political transition. Women represented about 28 percent of the 565 delegates and led three of the nine negotiating groups. For the first time in Yemen’s history, women were promised a 30 percent quota in any future government formation. Yet it turned out to be an empty promise. Later that year, when Yemen’s first technical government was formed in November 2014, just three out of 35 ministers were female – not even 10 percent.
Since the outbreak of the war in late 2014, women in civil society have continuously tried to influence the peace process through the UN-supported Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group and the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security and have put forward a number of qualified candidates. Despite this, only three out of 26 delegates at the 2016 round of peace talks held in Kuwait were women – once again far short of 30 percent. In the last round of UN-backed negotiations in December 2018 in Stockholm, only one woman – Rana Ghanem – attended as a delegate of the Hadi government. In the Saudi-sponsored talks in Riyadh in 2019, not a single woman was present.
So it’s little surprise that gender equality has been sidelined in favour of regional representation in the new government arrangement. In attempting to bring together Hadi’s party and the STC, supposedly representing the North and South respectively, it fails Yemeni women and therefore society at large. Damningly, none of those involved even pushed for women’s inclusion. Not the STC, which purports to represent the somewhat liberal South, nor the Al-Islah party, the Socialist Party, or the Nasserist Party, all of whom have female members.
Female empowerment has become little more than a slogan. The enormous funds spent on women and youth empowerment projects have had little to no impact on the ground over the years. Women’s efforts have so far translated into superficial fame on social networking sites, rather than real influence or decision-making power.
The problem, of course, is much broader than the marginalisation of women. In Yemen, millions of men and women are denied their right to have a dignified life. Their salaries are not paid, and they are left to hunger and disease. As a result, Yemeni citizens have lost trust in President Hadi and his government. He has been the transitional leader of Yemen since 2012, when he assumed power in an election in which he was the only candidate. Almost 10 years later, the country has deteriorated significantly. Yemen is going through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as the UNFPA 2021 appeal shows. Citizen satisfaction in public services, government transparency, and anti-corruption measures is low.
Referred to jokingly as the “Government of Hotels” because its politicians reside in a hotel in Riyadh, Cabinet posts under Hadi have turned into financial opportunities. His government is dispersed, paralyzed and lacks the credibility or power to enforce its own program. Unless our political leaders return to Yemen, receive their salaries in Yemeni rial, have their children go to government schools and are treated in local hospitals, distrust will remain and a political solution will be out of reach.
This gap between the powerful and the people is not entirely new. Indeed, we have not seen a democratic process in our lifetime. But recently the gap between the elites and the average person has widened so much that we have lost our political compass. While the politicians have given us breadcrumbs, relying on us being afraid of them, we have forgotten that we are citizens of a republic. We urgently need to rethink this destructive relationship between the authorities and the people. Rather than #NoWomenNoGovernment, argues Summer Nasser, a public speaker and Yemeni analyst, there should be “no recognition for the government until it performs its duties towards the people.” To serve both women and men in Yemen better, we need a new sense of citizenship.
Today, Yemenis are inheritors of two separate pasts: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Neither provide an ideal blueprint for our future state, however, in terms of conceptualizing Yemenis as citizens, there is a thing or two we can learn from the southern Socialist Party. Rather than basing the quality of citizenship on gender as our current state does, the Democratic Republic based it on active participation in the community. As a result, society viewed women as equal partners in building the nation, as evidenced by the 1974 Family Law, which guaranteed identical rights to women and men in all fields of life.
This should be the foundation for the women’s rights struggle in Yemen. At the moment, we are asking for political participation on the basis of our gender, rather than because we are – or should be – equal citizens of the Yemeni state. Men and women alike must strive for a new kind of citizenship that gives us not just female government ministers, but equal civil, social, and political rights. As Yemeni women, we should ask ourselves whether powerless representation in a failing political process has any real value. In the words of Stacey Yadav Philbrick, associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, does our vote really equal a voice? An authority that does not recognize women’s existence as citizens and partners cannot give women real positions to make a change.
For that, we, as Yemeni citizens, need to shift our own perspectives and begin seeing ourselves through the lens of citizenship and state. Only this kind of movement will call for the comprehensive reforms needed to increase transparency and accountability, stop the conflict and improve general living conditions. Only this type of government deserves our participation.
Author bio: Shaima Bin Othman joined YPC as a Research Assistant in 2019. As a co-founder of Takween Cultural Club and Meemz Art Initiative, she is a social activist and volunteer, focusing on the arts as a method for social change. She has taken classes in journalistic writing and has published numerous articles in al-Madaniya magazine. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle East Studies at the American University Beirut.
Editor: Mareike Transfeld, Kate Nevens
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YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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