Shaima Bin Othman

INGOs Must Navigate Feminism and Women’s Empowerment with Cultural Sensitivity to Avoid a Backlash

April 2024

Yemen’s war has brought complex consequences for women. While opportunities in civil society have expanded, there has also been a rise in discrimination and hate speech fueled by extremists, especially targeting women in international/nongovernmental organizations (I/NGOs). As Shaima Bin Othman argues, the increased focus on women’s rights by INGOs has been controversial, as some perceive it as neglecting broader humanitarian needs. The term ‘feminism’ itself, variably understood among Yemenis, is frequently looked at with suspicion. I/NGOs face the challenge of promoting women’s empowerment while addressing the prejudices intensified by the conflict.

INGOs strive to empower women through interventions such as education and training programs, economic empowerment initiatives, or healthcare services. They have played a crucial role in advancing women’s status in Yemen. However, they face significant resistance, including social media campaigns against their projects, rejection by religious leaders, demonization of their missions, and smear campaigns targeting women involved in these organizations. There are many multifaceted reasons for this resistance: the various cultural and institutional practices being mutually misunderstood by INGOs and Yemenis; concerns about too much or too little women’s visibility; and diverging understandings of terms like ‘feminism’, which many Yemenis view as suspicious, but which INGOs use to inform their interventions.

Like women worldwide, Yemeni women have been actively engaged in feminist thought and activism since the 1940s. Strategies have included street protests, working through civil society organizations, engaging with governmental institutions and political parties, knowledge production, and, more recently, social media platforms. However, the strategies of some INGOs and those Yemeni activists influenced by Western perspectives do not always resonate with the gender paradigms in Yemen, which are shaped by religion, culture, and social norms, as well as the Yemeni women who have been active since 1940s. At times, INGOs and activists adopt a narrative that centers rescuing women from their patriarchal societal structures – and traditions and customs that may seem misogynistic to Westerners. But this narrative risks an oversimplified understanding of Yemeni women’s lives.

This narrative reduces complex issues faced by women to a simplistic portrayal of victimhood or dependency, potentially overlooking the multifaceted nature of their experiences and the underlying structural inequalities that contribute to their marginalization. Framing women solely as passive recipients of aid or rescue efforts fails to acknowledge their agency, resilience, and diverse needs. This oversimplification can hinder a comprehensive understanding of the challenges women face and may lead to ineffective or patronizing interventions that do not address the root causes of gender inequality. To effectively address the unintended consequences, INGOs must bridge the gap between a Western understanding of feminism and local realities. This requires adopting a holistic, nuanced approach that considers the intricacies of local cultural and social dynamics. By doing so, initiatives promoting women’s empowerment can be practical and culturally coherent, fostering a more positive perception of women’s involvement in the non-profit sector and advancing the broader goal of gender equality.

Acknowledging Diversity

Each Yemeni region’s cultural identity is influenced by its geographical setting. This in turn shapes societal norms, including expectations for women and the varied challenges they face. For example, in Aden, a city known for its openness, it is common for women to engage in mixed-gender activities. In contrast, communities in Hadhramaut tend to separate women and men during events and activities. Understanding empowerment from Yemeni women’s context-specific perspective is crucial. Rural women, particularly those working in agriculture and shepherding, may view empowerment through the lens of improved facilities and support for their work. In some areas, women perceive the traditional patriarchal structure as empowering, valuing the security of a male guardian’s presence. Hence, addressing women’s needs contextually is vital; basic services like health, education, and infrastructure often take precedence. Implementing projects focused on political participation or civil rights may not resonate in areas where these fundamental needs are unmet.

These normative differences are reflected in the way local projects are received by communities. A TEDx Seiyun Women event, organized by Hadrami activists, was intended to celebrate the achievements of Hadrami women, particularly those living abroad. However, it faced criticism for women not adhering to Seiyun’s dress code and for featuring unveiled women on social media, which conflicted with the area’s conservative values. The ensuing community backlash included condemnation from mosques and resulted in social and verbal violence towards the organizers, underscoring the disconnect between local women activists and the community’s cultural expectations.

In contrast, the TEDx events series for women in Aden succeeded because of the city’s more open and accepting atmosphere. Women’s visibility, including wearing colorful abayas and veils, is accepted and active involvement in public life has been accepted by the community. One event, ‘TEDx Noor Haidar School Women’, acknowledged the school founded in 1941 by Nour Haidar, Aden’s first female teacher. The school marked a significant advance in female education, reflecting the city’s historically progressive values, influenced by Haidar’s father, who defied traditional norms to prioritize his daughter’s education.

Cultural Sensitivity Can Produce Sustainable Results

Respecting and integrating the complex cultural nuances of women’s experiences into empowerment programs is crucial. Successful project interventions require input from community members of diverse backgrounds, ensuring that their voices and preferences shape project objectives and strategies. There are many ways in which INGOs can approach this. Communication strategies can use culturally appropriate language and symbols in outreach materials and ensure that communication channels are accessible and acceptable in the context. For example, in areas where internet access is limited or used primarily by men, traditional methods of communication like community meetings or radio broadcasts might be more effective.

Developing culturally sensitive interventions in Yemen requires I/NGOs to engage with local communities in order to integrate their narratives and experiences and to address their unique challenges. There must be a thorough understanding and mutual respect between locals, which includes local leaders, women’s groups, and community members, and INGOs, facilitated by those with deep insights into the socio-cultural dynamics.

Activity design should respect local norms and values and empower people. Where there is gender segregation, for example, organizing separate sessions for men and women or scheduling activities at different times can ensure everyone’s comfort and participation. Educational programs should be sensitive to content and teaching methods, incorporating local examples and case studies. Capacity-building activities that empower local leaders and activists to take ownership of initiatives can help ensure their sustainability. Training in project management, advocacy, and leadership skills can enable local stakeholders to lead future interventions, creating a lasting impact on the community.

Cultivating Pragmatic Nuanced Interventions

The mahram concept (male guardian for women) must be understood from a local viewpoint, where it is rooted in care and responsibility, rather than in questioning women’s morals or hatred. While a mahram may not be strictly necessary in some families or regions, he represents a significant cultural and religious norm in others. The use of mahrams in certain regions can enhance women’s safety and comfort during travel and facilitate access to opportunities with cultural sensitivity. However, it’s crucial to differentiate between voluntary cultural practices and forced obligations, particularly in situations like those under Houthi control, where they severely restrict women’s independence and freedom of movement. In such contexts, efforts should focus on advocating for women’s rights and challenging oppressive practices, while ensuring that support and resources are provided to help women navigate these constraints as safely as possible.

Meanwhile, respecting socially accepted dress norms in Yemen’s diverse contexts is also essential for workers in international organizations, both locals and foreigners, as well as for project participants. As Yemen adheres to Islamic principles, conforming to local standards of clothing plays a critical role in building trust within the community. This is particularly relevant as societal concerns often focus on preserving modesty. For women, the practices of wearing the hijab, choosing colored abayas, and covering the face vary widely in acceptance across different Yemeni regions. Men, too, should uphold standards of modesty in their clothing. Therefore, understanding and adhering to these local preferences is crucial for fostering successful and respectful engagement.

The examples given on how to be effective in the context may seem restrictive, but they often represent the safest and most practical approach to assist women and provide them with opportunities for empowerment. Striking a delicate balance between intervention when necessary and embracing pragmatism and compatibility with the local context is crucial to achieving tangible and sustainable results. It requires understanding cultural norms, early effective communication with community leaders and members, and a commitment to fostering trust and collaboration. Addressing Yemen’s complex socio-cultural dynamics requires a holistic approach to women’s empowerment; prioritizing cultural sensitivity to avoid backlash that could hinder progress can help local activists and INGOs in achieving progress.

Shaima Bin Othman is a Yemen Policy Center Associate Fellow. As a co-founder of Madarat Cultural Organization, she is a social activist and volunteer, focusing on the arts as a method for social change. She is also a freelance writer, with many articles published in al-Madaniya magazine. Her research includes a focus on women and youth. In addition, she is a MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar and has recently completed a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

German Federal Foreign Office
Mareike Transfeld
Jatinder Padda
Enas El-Torky
Socotra, Yemen, May 2014
Photo: Amira Al Sharif, Le Pictorium / Alamy Stock Photo
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Yemen Policy Newsletter