Amal Abdullah

Personal Resilience as Key to Urban Women’s Economic Participation

January 2022

Until today, socio-cultural norms, inherent to Yemen’s patriarchal social system, remain the primary barrier to Yemeni women’s empowerment. These norms pre-determine nearly all aspects of women’s lives, including their social, political, and – most important with regards to the country’s recovery – their economic participation. A 2021 report by the United Nations Development Programme on the impact of Yemen’s war argues that an inclusive recovery, one that is built on women’s political, social, and economic participation, will allow Yemen to not only “catch up with – but to surpass – its pre-war SDG [sustainable development goal] trajectory by 2050”. Beyond this, the report states that empowering women will improve “the lives and welfare of the entire population”.1 Women who successfully generate an income and become financially independent provide for themselves, their family, and contribute to the social cohesion within their communities. In addition, many of these women have been influenced by their “role models” and became themselves role models for other women around them as they gain the respect and trust of family and community. Women interviewed for this paper stated that they feel “valued, appreciated, and heard”2 within their communities and families while becoming involved in decision-making, especially financial decisions, within their households.3

When it comes to the economic participation of Yemeni women, it is evident that their presence in the labor market is still marginal compared to that of men. One reason for this is that restrictive socio-cultural norms designate certain incoming-generating activities as appropriate for women, and others as inappropriate. Professions regarded as “feminine”, according to the International Labor Organization, include teaching, nursing, secretarial, or working as clerks.4 Working women in general, but especially women in professions that are deemed socially inappropriate, face different forms of gender-based violence (GBV) while practicing their professions. Because these women transgressed into spaces that are designated male spaces, they face retribution. The goal of this retribution is to intimidate women into remaining within the ‘feminine’ space; the violence intends to sustain male dominance and privileges.

What is often overlooked is that women being prevented from accessing many of their fundamental rights, such as education, leaves them with unaddressed grievances, affecting their relationship with their communities. For example, the GBV that women face has a tremendously negative effect on their psychological wellbeing.5 In contrast, constructive participation in social, political, and economic life, along with personal and professional development, can promote women’s wellbeing and thus improve their relationship with their communities. During the current conflict, Yemeni women have played an essential role in mediating and resolving conflicts, distributing humanitarian aid, creating jobs, and providing services and products to their communities. This makes women’s economic participation a direct contribution to social cohesion. Beyond this, a woman’s financial income allows her to care and protect her children from being recruited into armed groups, or from being forced into early marriage.6

Genuine women’s empowerment, and the ability to fully participate in the country’s recovery and contribute to the population’s wellbeing, requires the elimination of structures of violence that inhibit their effective participation. Without its elimination, women are required, personally and often individually, to stand up to patriarchal structures and face the violence. In this vein, this study explores the hidden pathways of women’s empowerment to identify lessons for other women on this path.7 This Research Debrief posits that working women exhibit resilience which allows them to manage the negative reinforcements they experience from society and at their place of work and to rebound from setbacks. This resilience is understood as “the process of patterned adjustments adopted by a society or an individual in the face of endogenous or exogenous shocks”.8 In fact, resilience has been recognized as a key resource for women working in male-dominated professions.9 One aspect of resilience is that a society or individual must be exposed to risk and respond successfully.10

The resilience of Yemeni women becomes apparent once they are and remain working women, despite all adversities. Based on interviews conducted with 12 working women between July and August 2021 in Taiz and Aden, this paper argues that resilience is a key factor that allows women to become and remain participants in Yemen’s economy and contribute to their own as well as their family’s wellbeing. The resilience working women exhibit builds both on internal characteristics and the external environment, but it is also something that can be developed over time. The women interviewed for this paper are employed in professions or own businesses considered socially ‘inappropriate’ jobs for women, such as driving a bus, engineering, police, media, quarrying, owning a cafe or electronics shop. The age of the participants ranged between 27-50 years old, five are married, two are divorced, and three are single. The majority of the interviewees received a higher education or a diploma. The interviews were followed up with a forum with five previous research participants and one additional participant working at the Yemen Women Union (YWU).  

Gender-based violence and socio-cultural norms as barriers for economic participation

Social, cultural, tribal, and religious norms vary across Yemen’s geography and demographics. A woman’s prospects to become a working woman depend on her socio-economic position and geographic location, with significant differences between urban and rural women.11 For instance, most women interviewed from both Aden and Taiz stated that the society in Aden is more “open-minded” than in Taiz. Nevertheless, Yemeni communities to different degrees are affected and governed by a patriarchal system. These patriarchal norms define gender-specific roles, which ensure that the man remains dominant over the woman. This is deeply enshrined into Yemen’s traditions, which associate a man’s honor with his female relatives: daughters, sisters, or wives. This elevates the woman to hold a special place within society. As the ‘weaker’ gender carrying the family’s honor, it is the duty of the men to protect her. This in turn is used to justify discriminatory treatment, reducing women’s chances to attain future financial independence. Under the guise of protection, women are restricted in their movements and their personal, educational, and professional development.

This is normalized within society to the degree that women themselves often do not question these practices, but instead reproduce patriarchal structures within the family. The internalization of these norms is reflected, for instance, in girls’ and women’s worries about not being marriageable and thus avoiding options such as pursuing an education or a career and challenging gender norms. In fact, various forms of GBV ensure that women remain within the role that is ascribed to them. What’s more, women are made responsible for the various forms of violence they are subjected to, being blamed even by other women. Many women in Yemen accept and tolerate the violence against them in case of a transgression. The Yemen National Household Demographic Survey conducted in 201312 showed that almost 50 percent of women justified a husband hitting his wife if she did not meet his expectations.

Socio-economic violence, such as the denial of education or the exclusion from (specific) professions, minimizes girls’ and women’s prospects to participate economically, to have a career, or to become financially independent.13 Families justify restrictions to girls’ education with cultural norms and religious beliefs,14 as well as poor economic conditions.15 In fact, poverty is one of the main factors motivating families to force their daughters into early marriage.16 In most cases, boys are encouraged to study to generate an income for the family, while a girl’s education is viewed as a financial burden, and at the same time, early marriage is seen as an opportunity to gain immediate financial returns. The discrimination between the genders in terms of upbringings extends to all areas of their lives. For example, in contrast to girls, boys enjoy nearly full freedom when it comes to their movement outside of the house. Girls and women, in contrast, are restricted in terms of the places they are allowed to visit, the company they are allowed to have, and the times and duration they are permitted to remain outside of the house.

Accordingly, society holds a rather negative image of working women stemming from the internalized norms of the patriarchal system. Women interviewed for this study agree that “most people within the society looked down on them with disdain”. A media worker from Taiz explained that she “often hear[s] mosque preachers and ordinary people talking about [working women especially in her field] as being dressed up and not being good women”.17 Similarly, according to research on women’s roles in peacebuilding in Yemen by al-Gawfi, Zabara and Philbrick Yadav, participants from Lahij noted that women in this governorate working in professions such as “automobile and cellphone repair, building and construction” experience opposition from society.18 Researchers referred to these professions as “new fields for women” and “identified these emerging roles as creating new sources of social resistance and physical insecurity”. Women working in jobs that are deemed inappropriate represent a transgression of gender roles and are thus often cast out for their behavior. Consequently, working women in various professions are affected to different degrees by forms of violence that have the intention to intimidate them back into their assigned gender role.

There are women who have successfully convinced their families to allow them to work, but then decided against working due to the harassment experienced on the street and at the place of work.19 While many of the women interviewed for this study did not face too much opposition from their families, they shared many stories about the mistreatment and harassment they experienced outside of their families. That working women have to interact with men who are not related to them is viewed as against social norms and as bringing shame to the family.20 This in itself constitutes a behavior that men believe needs to be disciplined.21 The emancipation of women in this sense is widely viewed as something negative. Men with more stringent ideas view financial independence as a threat to the man’s ability to control the woman and spark fears about the woman’s willingness to leave the man. As argued by the Yemeni journalist Khaled Qaid, Yemeni men prefer to marry women who are uneducated and do not work, to ensure they do not bring shame and do not venture outside of the red lines demarcating gender roles.22

“It is like living in a jungle where women who report violence are asking for a bullet in their head”

Working women have to navigate patriarchal power dynamics with wit and creativity, in order to be able to continue their work and prevent losing the freedom they worked so hard to gain. For example, some of the women interviewed were able to convince their male guardians to allow them to work by, for instance, reassuring them that they work only with female clients. In fact, there is a near consensus from all women interviewed that it is necessary to be selective with regards to the information shared with the family. For example, incidents of harassment on the street or at the place of work are not reported at home because women are worried that they might be forced to quit their work, that their guardian could get into a physical fight with the harasser, and that she would be blamed for having brought the harassment upon herself. Women also have to balance their work and family carefully, as they are often only permitted by their husbands or fathers to work as long as they still perform their household duties. Working women, particularly married women, often have a double burden, as they have to work as well as do the household chores.23 That women take on this extra burden attests to their strength.

After a woman manages to overcome obstacles posed by her family, she faces harassment directed towards her in public spaces. The public sphere is traditionally dominated by men. Through formal and informal control mechanisms men ensure that women adhere to the socio-cultural norms in the public sphere. Generally, this entails unaccompanied women not being outside of their house unless they have a specific justified reason, and it is daytime. Different forms of harassment have the goal to ensure women feel uncomfortable outside of their houses and remain within their assigned gender roles. The current conflict has both increased the proliferation of weapons and weakened formal social control in the public sphere, such as through the presence of police officers, shop owners, or bus drivers, which has intensified women’s fears of leaving their houses.24 Women experience verbal harassment on their way to work or physical harassment on public transportation. Women interviewed for this study, especially those working in Taiz governorate, indicated that they do not feel safe, especially after sunset, when most of the shops start to close and the streets empty. Because of weakened social controls, women cannot rely on bystanders for protection. An interviewee from Taiz stated that as she was riding a bus at night-time, one of the passengers exposed his genitals towards her. When she asked the bus driver for help, he was prompted to blame her, “It is your fault, no one told you to go outside your home at this time”, the woman recounted. This behavior is a manifestation of the patriarchal ideology in public spaces, which reinforces women’s belief that they require male protection.

For working women to continue practicing their profession, they do not have a choice but to preserve and develop counter strategies to the physical manifestation of patriarchy in public spaces. Women navigate the public space in ways to avoid harassment as much as possible; resilience practices have manifested in women creating their own mental map about which places, routes, and what times are safer for them to be in public spaces. Some women explained that they keep changing their walking routes to work from day-to-day to avoid men loitering in the streets who might notice and begin harassing them. Other women explained that they wait until the streets are filled with people before leaving their house. Other strategies women reported include avoiding entering a bus if it is empty, so that they are not alone on the bus with the driver. Some reported carrying means of protection, such as a knife or a taser. When facing harassment on a bus, women reported that they asked the driver to stop the bus so that they could get off or asked passengers for help. Women also explained that they ignore harassment. On the one hand, women are worried that if they react to the harasser, he would cause more problems. On the other hand, ignoring the harasser constitutes a subversive strategy, as the woman does not give the harasser the reaction he was looking for: intimidation and shame.

The different forms of physical harassment, such as inappropriate touching, and verbal harassment, including sharing inappropriate comments, does not stop at the door of women’s workplaces. Women who participated in this study stated that they have been stalked online by strangers because of their work or that some of their male colleagues harassed them at the workplace. Although some of the respondents stated that they are encouraged by their employer to report any harassment incidents, working women will avoid reporting such incidents because their reputation will be destroyed, and they might end up being blamed for it. Therefore, women must very carefully navigate harassment in the work environment. For instance, when a working woman experiences harassment from her colleagues or manager at work, she must react diplomatically in confronting them to avoid further harassment and at the same time avoid losing her job or ruining her reputation.25

However, women who run shops have the advantage of being able to create women’s spaces which are safe for them and other women. For instance, women shop owners explained that they put up signs on their doors that say, “Only women are allowed”. Others reported closing the shop’s door to avoid harassment or asked their brother, husband, or son to accompany them to the shop, to help them deal with male clients. However, women also experience an under-appreciation of their skills because they are perceived as ‘weak’. Women reported being excluded from opportunities, such as promotions, training courses, and salary increments, because of their gender. Women are also prevented from doing their work if it could involve insecurity. For instance, women media workers and women police officers reported that they were not allowed to perform their duties if it involved crossing into Houthi territory. Women also developed positive coping mechanisms. The police officer from Taiz, for example, organizes trips for herself: “I always make sure to go out on leisure trips and travel to Aden or any other area away from the work environment. This grants me energy to continue working.”26

The resilience of women who work

The fact that a woman works and generates an income for her family, especially if she does so in a profession that is male dominated, is a testimony to the resilience which helped her to endure and get to where she is. In their study on the resilience of women working in male-dominated professions, Turner et. al argue that role models, networking, social support, and feedback, as well as a learning and sharing culture, are important external resources, while self-confidence, self-reflection, self-efficacy, and a sense of purpose are critical personal assets that can foster resilience within women at the workplace.27 What these women have in common is that they were not discouraged by the obstacles and the intimidation but instead continued to work. In fact, many of the working women emphasized directly and indirectly in the interviews that they were confident in themselves and their work, that they got to where they are because they had the willpower and ability to ignore the negative perceptions held by society about them. They described that it was “persistence” that allowed them to overcome restrictions on their education, work, freedom, and autonomy.28 The women’s self-efficacy is reflected in the manner they overcame obstacles. Some of the women interviewed explained that they sold home made products, for example, ice cream or food, or worked in hairdressing, in sewing, or selling clothes to fund their own education or training. Yet others plucked up the courage and left their husbands, exiting abusive relationships that prevented them from continuing their education and getting a job.29

Many of the women interviewed learned these qualities from their role models, mostly their mothers and successful women who have become public figures. They described their mothers as having “struggled” and “fought” hard, with some mothers having faced difficult circumstances. One of the women, a police director from Taiz, answered that her mother “loved to work and she encouraged me to learn so I learned from her the sheer willpower”.30 The police officer went on to describe how the income from her mother’s work enabled the father to open a workshop, not only demonstrating how working women can support the family financially but also how the mother in a subversive manner challenged gender roles by generating an income and directing the father to invest the income into a new business. Others identified their hard-working fathers as role models, emphasizing how they, too, did not give up in the face of hardship. Several women mentioned public figures as their role models, including Amat Al-Aleem Alsoswa, Raoufa Hassan, and Ramzia Al-Iryani. What inspired the women most was the ability of these public figures to use their education and skills to help others and do good. A business owner from Taiz explained: “I saw [these women] as active women in society, and they are decision-makers. I would like to follow in their footsteps to participate in decision-making and contribute to community service.”

The kind of influence these role models had on women is also reflected in the women’s self-understanding today. These women are aware of the fact that they too have become role models and influence other women to pursue work and a career. In fact, many of the working women interviewed believe that by being a positive role model, they can change the way society treats working women in general. For instance, one of the interviewees stated that she believes a woman can gain society’s acceptance by “dedicating herself to her work by being persistent. She will face struggles and verbal harassment, but she will need to ignore it. Eventually, people will accept her, and she will reach her goals”. Being a role model, and the profession itself, gives women a greater sense of purpose. The police officer from Taiz explained that she is encouraged to continue her work to fulfill a national duty, to realize herself, and to serve women and youth.

While working women have plenty of personal traits that allow them to foster resilience, they at the same time rely on external resources. In the interviews, the women emphasized that support from their family, neighbors, friends, and customers motivates them to face the challenges and continue working. While some of the women started to require occasional financial support, they thrive on moral support. A bus driver stated that, “there were people who encouraged me, sometimes drivers who would pass next to me and give me a thumbs-up”.31 Similarly, police officers and business owners interviewed explained that their friends and siblings support them. One working woman reported that other family members, particularly sisters, support them with their household tasks so that they can continue to work outside of the house. In addition, comparable to other research findings,32 while some of the respondents experienced pressure and rejection from their male family members, other respondents noted that family members like sons, brothers, or husbands have also supported them in their work.

Beyond personal connections, civil society organization (CSOs), such as the YWU, and many other international/national non-governmental organizations, serve as solidarity networks. In addition to the employment initiatives to hire female employees,33 these organizations implement empowerment programs that have encouraged and kickstarted, in particular, women entrepreneurs through training on entrepreneurship and funding provisions.34 Most importantly, organizations such as the YWU have helped many women overcome psychological and social crises and encouraged them to have an active role in society. For example, a journalist from Taiz stated that the head of the YWU in Taiz helped her by taking her under her wings: “I worked with her in the Yemeni Women’s Union. I was about 16 years old. I taught literacy, and then I became the head of the Yemeni Women’s Union in one of the districts.”35

Building resilience as a foundation for women’s economic empowerment

Since the declaration of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, ‘women’s empowerment’ has moved to the center of development programs. Professor Andrea Cornwall of The School of Oriental and African Studies argues that mainstream development organizations treat empowerment “as a destination reached through development’s equivalent of motorways: programmes rolled out over any terrain”.36 She argues that the approach taken by these organizations, including provisions of loans, business opportunities, and the means to generate an income, may enable women to manage their poverty, but it would not allow a transformation. Traditional empowerment projects aiming at building women’s skills and providing opportunities are important and have had a positive impact on women’s economic participation. This paper argues that a more holistic approach is required to achieve women’s empowerment to the degree that it can contribute significantly to post-conflict recovery. Empowerment must be understood as a nonlinear path that is trodden individually, and that there is more to empowerment than the absence or presence of opportunities or funding.

Revisiting feminist literature from the 1980s and 1990s, Cornwall argues firstly that empowerment is nothing that can be done to or for others but must rather begin with the dynamics of oppression and internalized oppression, enabling a process that produces a shift in consciousness. Only this would allow women to overturn limiting normative beliefs and expectations that keep them “locked into situations of subordination and dependency”. Secondly, taking the transformation beyond the individual, the aim needs to be to engage with socio-cultural norms which dictate what a woman or a man should be or do. In the context of the war, this could mean an increase in social acceptance for working women and women with professions that are deemed inappropriate. There are even incidents when community members encourage women to work.37 However, it is being questioned38 whether or not this increase of acceptance is temporary and coupled to the war years, or whether it will create lasting social change.39 At the same time, the level of acceptance still varies greatly, with tribal and conservative communities rejecting changes to gender roles.

Engaging critically with Yemen’s socio-cultural norms is extremely sensitive and Yemen’s feminist movement has struggled with this for decades.40 Alma Hashem, a Yemeni development worker, once demonstrated in an article for al-Madaniya Magazine that international organizations preach women’s empowerment, but in some ways subordinate themselves within the patriarchal system of Yemen.41 Understandably, these organizations do not want to anger the brothers, fathers, and husbands of the women they plan to work with, and in many situations have to respect the cultural norms. But a transformative approach to women’s empowerment will require an engagement with these norms. In order to avoid the marginalization of men on the path of women’s empowerment, any approach must be culturally sensitive and be adjusted to the knowledge level and language of target groups. Empowerment projects must include young men with the goal of raising awareness on how patriarchal norms restrict genders and how they impact both men and women. Mokhtar Ahmed, for example, argued in a Kaleidoscope podcast on women’s presence in online spaces42 that the discussion on women’s empowerment must address the bullying brother, the restricting father, and the harasser.

As long as the structural violence that is inherent to these socio-cultural norms is not eliminated, women will need to foster their resilience in order to become and remain working women. Rather than being a fixed trait, resilience is an ability that can be developed and practiced over time.43 Self-reflection and knowledge sharing play a key role in fostering both a critical consciousness and resilience. This requires safe spaces for women of different ages and experience levels to network, to reflect, and to share their contemplations with one another. These spaces can offer companionship, solidarity, and support, but are also spaces where strategies, behaviors, and reactions, as well as negative experiences, can be discussed, reflected on, and – if necessary – reframed as learning experiences.

While CSOs can create such physical spaces, with the YWU being the best example, digital spaces also lend themselves to such networking. The events of the 2011 popular uprisings have shown how women presented themselves on social media and used the digital space to connect with one another and inspire other women to do the same.44 These spaces could be moderated by psychologists/therapists, who could support the women in developing strategies adjusted to the particular challenges they face. This may pertain to situations of physical or verbal harassment, but it could also be to support the development of strategies and self-care in the face of negative emotions and work stress. At the same time, online spaces bear the risk of attracting harassment. Online stalking and bullying have become a regular phenomenon to intimidate and blackmail women.45 As a result, women can become reluctant to participate in online public spaces. However, in the same Kaleidoscope podcast mentioned earlier,46 Fatima Nabil, a social media expert at Yemen Policy Center, noted that women perceive private groups as safe and consider them a space “for solidarity, and their voices and opinions are being heard and contributing to change”.

Given the harassment women experience in various locations, as well as the proliferation of arms in public space, empowerment projects could also pay more attention to the everyday violence working women experience. On the one hand, women’s empowerment projects could include support groups and training on how women can deal with different forms of harassment they experience on their way to work and at the workplace. On the other hand, more public attention could be drawn to the harassment women experience with the goal to shift the narratives on who the victims and perpetrators are.

In that sense, Yemen is waiting for its #MeToo moment; however, in the past, such campaigns have already proven to be successful in raising some awareness. For example, in 2012, Ghaida al-Absi launched a public campaign to bring attention to street harassment and also encouraged women to report any harassment incidents, which helped in gathering statistical data. In addition, the ‘I want my rights’ campaign focused on women who were forced out of their jobs by the Houthi de facto authority in Sana’a. Moreover, with the attempt to combat GBV against women, Jihad Mohamed launched the #DontBeSilent campaign to spread awareness of the tremendous negative impacts of GBV.47 These campaigns do have an impact, and what is needed is a broader discussion involving both men and women. This list of recommendations is far from being exhaustive. More research needs to be done to understand how limiting socio-economic norms vary from one geographic region and one socio-economic class to the next. Specifically, survey research on opinions held by all members of society – men and women – would allow the development of a more nuanced, holistic, and culturally sensitive approach to women’s empowerment. Qualitative research on how women freed themselves from the internalized oppression, as well as research with a larger sample of women on resilience strategies they developed, will go a long way to support women. Based on more extensive research – and with the expertise of civil society (such as members of the YWU), therapists or psychologists, working women, experts on Yemen’s socio-cultural norms, and men representatives – a culturally sensitive guideline for a holistic approach to fostering women’s resilience and pathways to an engagement with the norms could be developed.

Amal Abdullah is a Research Fellow at the Yemen Policy Center. She has published analyses on YPC’s Majlis blog and served as a translator for YPC projects and several other organizations, including the UN Human Rights Training and the Documentation Centre for South West Asia and the Arab Region. She has written reports on various subjects, including the effect of women’s education on fertility rates in Yemen, and her interests lie in development, family economics, and women’s issues.

German Federal Foreign Office
Mareike Transfeld
Copy editors:
Jatinder Padda
Musa Modaffari (Arabic)
Albaraa Mansoor
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  42. Yemen Policy Center (YPC), “Kaleidoscope: Solidarity Campaigns With Yemeni Women,” YPC, November 11, 2021. []
  43. Philippe Bourbeau, “Resilience and international politics: Premises, debates, agenda,” International studies review 17, no. 3 (2015): 374-395. []
  44. Mareike Transfeld, “A Youth Non-Movement in Sanaʿa: Changing Normative Geographies through Fashion, Art and Music,” In Yemen and the Search for Stability: Power, Politics and Society after the Arab Spring, edited by Marie-Christine Heinze, 231–257. London•New York: I.B. Tauris, 2019. []
  45. Azal al-Salafi, “Shadow Networks and Yemeni Women’s Pathway towards Protection,” Yemen Policy center, January 2022.[]
  46. Yemen Policy Center (YPC), “Kaleidoscope: Solidarity Campaigns with Yemeni Women,” YPC, November 11, 2021. []
  47. Zahra AlQadasi, “Users of Social Media Platforms in Yemen redeem the right of those who have been let down by the Law”, Open Democracy, April 12, 2021. []
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Yemen Policy Newsletter