Combining Ideas – New Angles – Imagining Beyond Borders
The Yemeni peace process has so far not brought the political solution that so many Yemenis over the last seven years have been longing for in the hope of restoring security and enabling the return to a dignified and self-empowered life. Experts have pointed for years to the weaknesses of the process’ formal framework, and for much longer, academics have criticized the underlying logic of peace processes such as the one led by the United Nations in Yemen. Peacebuilding and peace-making are complex exercises that cannot be reduced to a linear process with a specifically defined end goal. Rather, building peace is messy, requiring flexible approaches and, most of all, creativity.
With the Kaleidoscope project, we want to have conversations about peace beyond the formal peace process. But the truth is, any conversation about peace in Yemen today is bound to be difficult. Narratives on ‘peace’ propagated by Western diplomatic initiatives and the activism of European and US anti-war movements – all informed by different agendas, projects, and interests – intersect with a Yemeni re-negotiation process over the meaning of state and nation. The term ‘peace’ is being filled by various participants in the conversation with different, often conflicting meanings.
The Yemen Policy Center together with its cultural magazine Al-Madaniya created a space in which different angles and perspectives could be creatively discussed: the Kaleidoscope. Within the Kaleidoscope space, we looked for inspiration for a discussion on peace beyond these narratives. In contrast to conventional approaches, the Kaleidoscope created a space for a variety of formats, allowing ideas to flourish unrestricted by the at times restricting norms of academia and journalism. This mixture of formats not only allowed for diverse voices to participate in the Kaleidoscope but also allowed for the imagination to shape some of its contents. While the material produced in the Kaleidoscope is rooted in the everyday realities of the war, as the Kaleidoscope rotates, stories become fictionalized, and ‘reality’ is no longer the only measure. Many contributions to the Kaleidoscope – as described below – show how Yemenis approach trauma and healing, resilience and empowerment.
Contributors to the Kaleidoscope project critiqued the concept of ‘peace’ that underlies discussions about the war in Yemen. This not only highlights the need for a discussion about peace and the future of the country but also opens up new perspectives for such a debate. The main takeaway from the contributions is that a more nuanced understanding of ‘peace’ is required. With regards to ‘national peace’ between the conflicting parties, participants noted that notions of peace remain vague, and so discussions about how peace might be achieved in Yemen have so far been unrealistic and are divorced from reality, leaving the concrete conditions for peace not fully recognized.
The Kaleidoscope showed that the understanding of ‘peace’, as the term is used primarily but not only by non-Yemeni actors, is based on a false, often simplified perception of the Yemeni conflict. The argument is that certain perceptions of the war in Yemen are repeated mantra-like in the media, although they do not correspond to the facts on the ground. These narratives not only lead to misperceptions about Yemeni conflict parties but also negate the ability of Yemeni society to act. At the same time, conversations with communities across the country reveal that there is a lack of imagination with regards to what a political solution could look like that is inclusive and corresponds to the needs of the people but at the same time takes into account power dynamics in Yemen.
To shift our perspective, discussions on peace in Yemen should, on the one hand, acknowledge the conditions on the ground. On the other hand, discussions on how to achieve peace in Yemen must not begin and end with the parties to the conflict. Instead, they must start with the realities of life for the Yemeni people. Within Yemeni communities ‘peace’ was described as a situation in which the communities could be free from the fear of physical harm and able to pursue their work in exchange for a salary and care for their family. This includes the freedom of residents to move around unrestricted by military roadblocks and go to work without fear. The respondents described loss of their income, losing the jobs they had trained their whole lives for, and war trauma as the main consequences of the war for communities.*
One contribution argued that Yemen could not achieve sustainable peace if the reconstruction of infrastructure was not prioritized. Other approaches included a call for rural development, as a significant number of the conflict parties’ fighters are recruited in underdeveloped rural areas. The reconstruction of the country’s agriculture sector was highlighted as a necessity if past mistakes, which have caused Yemen’s dependence on food imports, are not to be repeated
The narrative of war and peace is also shaped by Western media coverage of Yemen. During a panel event, Yemeni experts argued that the international press focused primarily on Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict, creating the perception that the war could end if only Saudi Arabia withdrew. This, however, misunderstands the role of the Houthis in the conflict. This media coverage and the anti-war campaigns, which are primarily directed against the sale of European and North American weapons to Saudi Arabia, influence each other and reinforce the focus on the Saudi role in the war alone. Women and activists who are losing their freedom of expression and experiencing human rights violations in public spaces by the Houthis are – in contrast to Saudi violations – hardly mentioned in the discourse.
Furthermore, Kaleidoscope participants criticize how Yemeni society is mainly portrayed as a victim, while the rich history and culture, as well as political, economic, and social activities within Yemeni society, are ignored. This ‘victim’ perspective is also reflected in materials used by humanitarian organizations to raise funds for their campaigns. The portrayal of poor Yemeni people and starving children violates Yemeni people’s dignity.
To shift our perspective, contributions to the Kaleidoscope highlight issues that are central to understanding Yemeni society, but are often left out by international observers. This concerns, for example, the social class order or caste system that continues to shape Yemeni society today. This order serves as the basis for the Houthis’ claim to power and is thus an essential social dimension of the conflict. In an article for Al-Madaniya, this order was illustrated through a discussion of a Yemeni novel. The author argues that the novel’s narratives reveal that the class order persists to this day, despite past social upheavals that aimed to abolish these social classifications. This order was also addressed in an episode of the Kaleidoscope podcast. In the episode, a cultural worker talks about how he recognizes this common thread in Yemeni history in his work in the digitization of cultural heritage. A more nuanced discussion of the war and how to end it will require a better understanding of Yemen’s society.
Contributions to the Kaleidoscope also considered the role of Yemeni media. Critical voices point to limited freedom of expression and the way Yemeni media have become a tool of the conflict parties. One article deals with media narratives in Houthi areas and shows how successful the media are in influencing public opinion. A contribution to Al-Madaniya shows how popular incitement in the media serves the conflict parties and how it drives the people in Yemen apart.
Even traditional forms of expression, such as the zamil, a performative poetry part of Yemeni tribal culture, has become appropriated by conflict parties and contributes to the beating of war drums. Free expression in media, music, and art is suppressed across the country, as was the case with the country’s nascent rap scene, which all but disappeared once the war began.
To change our perspective, we should not discard Yemeni media as a whole. Al-Madaniya itself has developed to become a media space that proves the conciliatory potential of media in Yemen. The Kaleidoscope contributions show a side to Yemen that Yemenis of different origins identified with, stories of ancient Yemeni history, past greatness, and the common roots of Yemeni society. These contributions indicate Yemenis’ sense of pride in their own history and culture.
The role of local radio stations was highlighted in a particularly positive light, both through a study on the development of local radio in Yemen and a podcast episode in which female radio presenters discussed their experiences of being on air. This shows how local radio can reach people directly, and thereby also create a shared space for a positive exchange and experience. This was illustrated, for example, by the story of a radio presenter from Hadhramaut who uses her program to support women in asserting their interests vis-à-vis the state.
In a similar way, another example from the project shows how Yemenis process the cruel everyday life of war in a way that not only contributes to overcoming trauma but also brings communities together, through humor and Youtube videos. Inspired by the viral song ‘Baby Shark’, a song was created that made fun of the lack of propane gas and the way it affects everyday life, bringing people together across political, sectarian, and regional divides. Contributions to the Kaleidoscope also show how in the context of war, people are positively impacting their mental health by learning and mastering musical instruments and modern media.
The Kaleidoscope itself shows how stories told through the novel or modern media create space through which readers can both experience and at the same time escape their own brutal and traumatizing reality. Stories told within the Kaleidoscope show how this imaginary world of fiction can give impulses for social change.
Many contributions to the Kaleidoscope tell in direct and indirect ways women’s experiences of the patriarchy in Yemen. They show how women are affected by society’s violent structures. Many Yemeni women are eager to contribute economically and politically, but they are restricted by social norms and gender-based violence. Women have shared stories in the space of the Kaleidoscope about how they had to go to great lengths to be able to take up work, including divorce from unsupportive husbands. One woman told us that she had trained tens of women in entrepreneurship, but many of the women closed their businesses because of the different forms of violence they experienced. This is best exemplified in the inspiring story of the ‘Bus of Hope‘, in which a woman who dares to transgress these norms inspires another woman to pursue her dreams.
Traditional empowerment projects, however, often lack a holistic approach, and forget that women need first to empower themselves and free their consciousness from society’s shackles. In this light, some argue, the international community’s rhetoric regarding women’s rights and the inclusion of women in politics lacks credibility. This is because the international community does not integrate the conditions for a modern and democratic order into its approach to peace-making in Yemen. Instead, the authors argued, the international community is afraid to adequately condemn the Houthis’ coup and their anti-women policies and human rights crimes.
To change our perspective, we need to recognize that genuine women’s empowerment is key to peace in Yemen. Not necessarily because women are the better peace-makers, but because the elimination of structural gender-based violence is indicative of the absence of other forms of violence. The war itself has shaken some of the foundations of Yemen’s social norms. A story on Al-Madaniya creatively highlights conflicts between needs driven by poverty among women and the country’s conservative norms. In doing so, the author aims to show how norms are being eroded by the humanitarian crisis.
Al-Madaniya seeks to break patriarchal structures in Yemeni literature by creating a space for literature by and about women as a space for self-empowerment. The project contributions show Yemeni women from a new perspective. For example, the everyday challenges of women in the countryside, as well as thoughts and feelings in relation to romance, are highlighted – topics that are neglected by formal media platforms in Yemen and the Western discourse about the country. The contributions allow us to see women as the shapers of society that they already are.
Yemeni activists shared within the Kaleidoscope that the format of the fictionalized and visualized story is ideal for communicating the stories of violence against women to the public. This is because they have experienced that newspapers rarely report real stories of violence against women and that civil society organizations respond to real stories with little empathy. In particular, the story of ‘Najiya’, who has permanent injuries due to an exploded mine, is a reminder of the daily challenges women face, such as having to walk to the garbage dump or to the well across minefields. At the local level, women are at the forefront of de-escalation and mediation efforts to improve the community’s daily lives. One contribution explored a feminist network that works to protect socially active women, thus filling an important gap because neither the state nor traditional protection mechanisms are effective.
The content within the Kaleidoscope shows how little trust Yemenis have in formal institutions, especially in Yemeni state institutions. This lack of trust has various causes. One reason is that state institutions are often weak and cannot always assert themselves in the country’s armed society. For example, an author on Al-Madaniya describes how women who have been granted custody of their children by the courts cannot assume that the decision will be implemented. The article tells the stories of women whose children were kidnapped by their fathers after the court decision. The weakness of the institutions is also shown in the research contribution and the podcast episode on the resilience of police at the local level; often police cannot assert themselves against armed groups. Likewise, contributors criticize widespread corruption: while state employees build villas for themselves, the population sits in the dark without food, medicine, or water.
To change our perspective, let us remember that Yemenis want functioning state institutions and hope for more security and stability. This desire is expressed through community and private sector contributions to keep local institutions functioning. Research on police resilience at the local level and opinion pieces on corruption in the country have also shown the need for a nuanced discussion on corruption. This is because there needs to be a clearer distinction between constructive and destructive forms of corruption, and for this reason, above all, transparency needs to be strengthened. Informal networks that are now taking over state functions show which services Yemenis would like to see in a state and/or where there are still gaps, such as in the protection of women.