Kaleidoscope: Solidarity Campaigns with Yemeni Women

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Recording from Deutsche Welle: ‘Rights activist fights for gender equality in Yemen

Amal: This was an excerpt from a news piece broadcast by Deutsche Welle two years ago. Since then the situation of Yemeni women has not changed, overall the situation has worsened. But now, just like it was the case then, women’s rights activists are speaking out about women’s plight on social media.

This is Amal Abdullah, and I would like to welcome all listeners to the fourth episode of the Kaleidoscope podcast.

In today’s episode, we want to critically assess the social media activism focused on women’s rights.

I am here to discuss this with Hadil Al-Ashwal, a consultant for the World Bank, Head of MENA AGE, and a women’s rights activist, as well as Mokhtar Ahmed, a PhD researcher and creator of social and educational content that aims at inspiring change within the Yemeni family and society. I also spoke to Fatima Nabil, the Social Media expert at Yemen Policy Center. Welcome to you all!

Mokhtar, as the only man in this round, could you tell us what your perspective is on women’s rights?

Mokhtar: Women’s rights in the Arab world in general and in Yemen specifically are not only a problem that is of a concern of women only, but rather the problem of society and all family members, including men. What I mean is that the foundation of injustice to women is her presence and residence with a man, whether he is a brother, father, or husband, who is afraid of the patriarchal society around him. This society pressures the man to behave in a certain way, and this man always lives in a state of anxiety because of what goes on in people’s minds about his family. You know, people ask about why does your sister work, why does your wife go out late, why did your mother do this, and many things like that.

Amal: Hadil, I want to ask you about the activism around women’s issues. When it comes to the campaigns that take place online, do they succeed in raising awareness of Yemenis on the difficulties of women? Another question is: Do these campaigns reach men as well?

Hadil: Let’s take the Ashti Haqi campaign as an example. A campaign that I started with other Yemeni women inside and outside Yemen. ‘Ashti haqi’ means ‘I want my rights’. The campaign was launched against the Houthis in particular, at a time when the Houthis were aggressively setting discriminatory policies against women. I can say that this campaign was a huge success. The hashtag #Ishti_Haqqi drew the attention of many news stations, such as DW News and I also did an interview with the BBC and a debate on Al-Araby channel to discuss the campaign. One of the things we highlighted and criticized was the dismissal of women from their jobs in restaurants on the pretext of gender segregation. After the campaign was launched, the Houthis made a video in which they talk to women in restaurants and deny their expulsion. We knew from our sources that they returned them to jobs after the campaign. I don’t really care about their denial. The most important thing to me is that they ended some of these unjust decisions. However, in general, the problem with campaigns is that it is really difficult to follow up and know when the change happens due to the pressure from campaigns, if it will continue or end as soon as the hype about the issue diminishes.

Mokhtar: I would like to add a point to what you said Hadil. The awareness campaigns directed at women have created a new male generation that is more conservative and fearful of all the so-called women’s rights and feminism. Therefore, families see such campaigns as a real danger to their families, so they always try to not allow these voices and ideas to reach their homes and families. This brings us to the point that the man is a great partner in this problem, and there must also be campaigns to educate him about the importance of the role of women in society. And men must understand that women in Yemen suffer a lot. They face war, oppression, harassment and injustice from society. Despite all this, women were able to resist the community and its view and went out searching for jobs or starting businesses just to provide a source of income for her and her family.

Amal: This is super interesting, Mokhtar. So really, the question is how this discourse can be pushed forward without alienating men, especially men allies who could otherwise support women. All this reminds me of an article I read in Al-Madaniya magazine, called ‘A Critical Reading of the Yemeni Feminist Discourse’. It argues that the feminist discourse in Yemen excludes men, which leads to a backlash against women in Yemen. Also, the author argued that some of the issues raised by the activists don’t reflect the reality experienced by many Yemeni women.

Hadil: I agree with many of the things that were discussed in the article. There is a clash between feminist activists and many of the people; we are trying to convey to them the idea of gender equality, women rights, and feminism. In general, you can’t convince someone with an idea when you are putting all the blame on her, nor touch the values she is very much proud of. And the more different you are from the people you are trying to persuade, the harder it is for you to change their minds. This applies to social change. For it to really happen, we need to have more types of feminists, male and female, that represent different types of people in society. People that discuss women’s issues from different points of views, but have the same goal, which is to improve the status of women in Yemen.

Mokhtar: What you said is true, Hadil. And I think that there is a gap occurring between feminists and society, because of the counter-campaigns launched by those who oppose women’s rights, or what we call the ‘anti-feminists’. They represent any man or woman who fights the equality between men and women, and completely opposes their rights. And most of this work is done, as I said, through campaigns against the awareness content presented by many feminists.

Amal: I would like to bring another perspective to the table. Of course not all discussions around women’s issues on social media come in the form of campaigns, but it is simply also a matter of information sharing. For example, research conducted by YPC on the security sector has shown that the prime source of information for local police stations on women’s security issues appears to be social media. This is either because social media is such an effective information sharing tool, or because news stories of women who have been violated, harassed, or experienced violence in some form, often generate outrage coupled with demands for the police to act.

Maybe Fatima can share some examples with us. Fatima, what do you see here as a positive impact? And also, what are possible negative consequences of the police using social media as a source of information on women’s security?

Fatima: Yes, Amal, social media indeed had a positive impact on many cases. Which if it weren’t for social media and societal pressure on the police, they wouldn’t have gotten their justice. There are many cases of violations of women’s rights and crimes of violence or murder that the sharing of information about them on social media led to the police’s action. But this remains rare and not guaranteed, and in fact, in some cases, sharing this information about women may have a negative impact on their condition rather than help them, increasing the risks they face. In addition to that, social media, as we know, has the potential to spread false information, which may lead cases to go in another direction. For example, these women’s virtue may be questioned and false stories may be written about them. It also may be negative when feminist activists are targeted and their information and content on social media is used as evidence of their advocacy of values that some people think goes against the traditions of society. So I think the risk of jeopardizing women’s privacy can be avoided by adopting principles that puts their safety as a priority when presenting their cases and advocating for their rights. And it’s good to share information they need on how to deal with their problems. And for serious cases, addresses of safe spaces and support centers for women that they can turn to, and then reach the police or obtain legal advice. This, in my opinion, is the best way to use social media to support the security of the majority of oppressed women.

Amal: What is also interesting from this research is that police officers kept on repeating that they do not treat women differently from men. They would emphasize in their responses that women and men are equal. And this shows their lack of understanding for women’s unique security concerns, because women do have different needs than men, even if they should be treated equally by the law.

Hadil: That is why I find it important that feminists, both men and women, take into consideration the diverse circumstances and environment that Yemeni women experience from one area to another. And as I said before, this will also help in the presence of feminists from different groups and points of view in our society. This way, we can reach people from different backgrounds and make that social change.

Amal: Yes, so the goal needs to be to reach as many people as possible and inspire a different approach to women in all regards. So in terms of local peace-building, we can say that social media campaigns have the potential to promote women’s rights and to raise awareness and change attitudes, but at the same time, they hold the potential to aggravate tension around women’s rights.

So, here it is so important to pick a type of language that does not alienate people. For example, Fatima, who has worked the social media aspect in various projects, including Manasati30, developed strategies to create spaces in which women and men can interact and exchange, while at the same time, feeling safe. Fatima, can you share those with us?

Fatima: I think that one of the most important differences between online campaigns that succeed and those that have limited impact lies not only in the message and language, but in the type of interaction adopted in the campaign. Many neglect the importance of interacting with the public, and they spread awareness messages in one-sided communication. In fact, one of the biggest challenges when dealing with local social media is gaining the trust of Yemeni women. The problems that women face in reality follow them to the internet: harassment, blackmail, belittling their ideas and problems. Therefore, women often hesitate to interact in public pages and online campaigns. Also, people sometimes doubt the goals of these campaigns. That’s why I found that Yemeni women take comfort where there are no men. In private groups, where problems range from the simple, such as makeup tips, to serious problems or obtaining legal advice. It is a special space that women resort to for solidarity. So the issue is not that the messages don’t reach women online or that they avoid interacting with it. But it’s the opposite, the internet is actually the main source of information for most of them. So how to get a meaningful interaction that achieves results? This is what I set as a priority when creating online spaces, so people could feel safe and that their voice is heard and their opinion contributes to change, and that’s when they’re involved in the discussion. One of the examples that comes to my mind now is the engagement with a topic about abuse during childbirth. It was an article, and there was a potential for it to ignite a good conversation on social media. Therefore, by sharing stories about women’s experiences with this issue, that encouraged many women to talk about their own experiences and even about what their bodies suffer from because of this issue, although it’s known that it’s difficult for women in public pages to speak freely when it comes to sensitive topics. But through several strategies for publishing and interacting with them, a safe space was created for women and men also to interact. Some men commented and said “I did not know about this”, or “My wife is pregnant and now I will make sure that this doesn’t happen to her”. Then you can let the wheel spin. Users have been exchanging advice and persuading each other, women and men interacting in a serious and respectful manner. A group of women told us that they created a Facebook page where they campaigned to address abuse during childbirth in Yemen. So for the audience you targeted to raise awareness to turn into real-life advocates and makers of awareness campaigns, this is undoubtedly a positive result.

Hadil: In my opinion, in order for us to be able to build a kind of solidarity between the women themselves and also among the society as a whole, we first need to understand the negative customs and traditions in a deep-rooted way. Meaning, the reasons why some adhere to them, and their fears of abandoning them. In addition to that we need the presence of supporters and solidarity from different affiliations and fields, like political leaders, Muslim leaders, and activists in different fields, to deliver effective messages. That is why I see that Mokhtar’s work is very important, because his work is not focused only on women’s rights but also on other aspects that can contribute to making a positive social change.

Mokhtar: I totally agree with Hadil, because I believe that men have a big role in solving the problems facing women and obtaining their rights. That is why the content that I create is directed to the father, the brother, and the husband. I always try to make them conscious about women’s rights, because they are responsible for the next generations. I talked to the man who harassed, the man who abuses the women of his home, I talked to the father who never understands his daughters’ wants and needs, and I talk to the mean brother, so that men would be aware of women’s suffering, and at the same time the importance of their role in all aspects of the society.

Amal: Thank you, Hadil, Mokhtar, and Fatima. I would also like to thank all the Yemeni activists who, despite the many challenges they face, have not given up defending the issues that affect Yemeni women and raising awareness about their rights, and at the same time supporting the various issues that happen in society. I am confident that with your work and the solidarity of all individuals, we will achieve justice and equality in our Yemeni society.

*This is a non-verbatim transcript.

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