In October 2018, a 21-year-old woman, a feminist, along with dozens of other university students, was arrested by the Houthi de facto authorities after protesting against Houthi rule and the deteriorating living conditions in Sana’a. Upon release, her face covered in blood, she was warned by her captors about more serious consequences if she attended protests again. Understanding that she would never be safe again, she left home, taking only essential items including a mobile phone to remain connected with a safety network which had offered her an exit plan. With the assistance of a small but dedicated underground group of feminists, she and 14 other Yemeni women were taken to safety after having become victim to threats, violence, and unlawful imprisonment. These women constitute only a small fraction of those in need of assistance who are threatened, detained, and abused in prisons across Yemen.
Since the 2011 nationwide uprising against the Yemeni regime, women have stood at the forefront of social and political change, challenging patriarchal norms and the structural violence which has severely restricted their social, political, and economic participation. At the same time, the ongoing violent conflict has contributed to the failure of traditional protection mechanisms, which have always been weak in protecting women and holding perpetrators accountable. This has left women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and peacebuilders increasingly unsafe and insecure. The targeting of women is part of a systematic crackdown against Yemen’s women’s movement, personified by WHRDs who speak critically about authorities. The crackdown is facilitated by the structural violence inherent within formal (legal and governmental) and informal (societal, tribal, and familial) systems that limit women’s potential to participate in public life.
Despite such adversity and a lack of trust in traditional systems, Yemeni women regularly demonstrate their resilience. One expression of this resilience is an underground protection network created by Yemeni women activists that aims to fill the gaps of failing traditional protection mechanisms. The ‘Shadow Network’ offers an immediate response and support, especially to WHRDs who are facing threats, violence, or imprisonment. This network assists members to maneuver obstacles, such as bureaucratic or financial hurdles, or those created by more explicitly violent patriarchal structures. Members of the shadow network, interviewed for this participatory action research, argue that the security and protection of women from any form of gender-based violence (GBV) is a crucial foundational block towards achieving sustainable peace.
Expert women in the right place, at the right time
Driven by their digital activism to promote peace and inspired by other underground networks working across the Middle East to protect HRDs, Yemeni feminists formed an underground safety network that protects those who engage in activism and those escaping familial, societal, and institutional abuse. Because of the network’s ability to coordinate swiftly and exchange information rapidly – as well as its members empathy for women facing violence – it is able to operate more effectively than many other civil society networks. The network members’ flexibility and expertise means it operates efficiently, manoeuvres flexibly, functions innovatively.
According to a founding member, the network had humble beginnings. The women making up the initial network began by reporting online abuse against women to the different social media platforms using existing reporting tools; providing moral support; and providing education forums with tips and tools to prevent or deal with risks to women who are active in political, humanitarian, and peacebuilding roles. The network emerged out of distrust in traditional protection mechanisms and was successful in fostering trust amongst its members. The shadow system steps in when governments, organizations, communities, or even families fail. What started as a group of 20 women now comprises 300 active global members who provide assistance from their various fields of expertise, including law, journalism, social aid, or health – from inside Yemen and across the Middle East, Europe, and Canada.
Depending on the type of case, the necessary protection services are activated, as explained by one of the network’s members: “Many women and human rights defenders do not know what to do in a difficult situation, and because of our experience and expertise in different fields, we are able to assess the level of help that is needed.” Protection can be extended in the form of legal consultations, mental health support, temporary housing, money, and exit plans. Exit plans rely on legal expertise in immigration, asylum laws, and women’s rights. Most of the network’s work is voluntary; however, some sensitive cases are referred to registered organizations that have specialized funding for the protection of HRDs, for example, cases involving women with disabilities.
Resilience in the shadows of civil society networks
Unlike traditional protection mechanisms, the shadow system provides an immediate response as it skips bureaucracy and institutional corruption, basing assistance on information provided directly by members and individuals seeking protection. However, because it operates in the shadows, women who need help are unaware of its existence. Usually, cases are referred to the network by one of its members. Once the case is filed, a meeting is held with the concerned woman. Once the severity, the woman’s location, and the assistance needed is established, the case is announced to a secure online group.
Volunteers assist with emergency accommodation, mental health support, legal consultation, or an exit plan. To avoid any mishandling, all steps taken in each case are documented and archived. The network holds a database on each case including information on the type and amount of abuse, its current status, and other relevant information. The database remains private, only accessible to the few members of the network.
The shadow network uses the holacratic system, allowing it to engage in cases flexibly, with various members and differing expertise depending on the case. It functions because of members’ sense of responsibility and commitment to human rights, women’s rights, and feminist principles, with members holding each other accountable. The most important pillars are communication, confidentiality, and plan execution. As one member states: “Most cases are sensitive and need smart exit plans, this applies for both parties, the providers of protection and those in need of protection…or else all our lives would be in jeopardy.” These parameters constitute the network’s central pillars and ensure not only that the shadow network operates cohesively despite differing personal political views but also that its members adhere to gender-sensitive and conflict-sensitive approaches.
Limits to the potential of shadow networks
The members of the network are driven by the empathy they feel towards the women seeking protection, as many have also experienced violence. As one interlocutor explained: “We fathom the dangers of activism… we know the background story of these human rights defenders…we were once in the same position…and we are more than anyone connected to their cause and feel their trauma.” Therefore, even if the network is unable to provide concrete support, it still extends moral support to women facing violence. This peer support reinforces the resilience and determination of women who are active in the field.
Despite the achievements of the shadow system, the network suffers from similar problems to civil society networks. Occasionally, solidarity is not always present or unconditional. As one member explained, this is evident in members’ slacktivism and voluntarism responses to particular cases: “Members are usually empathetic towards the cases we receive, but not all members will take part in providing assistance, some out of incapacity of their time or effort and others are probably not as motivated”. The personal involvement and feelings of ownership over individual projects or aspects of cases leads to overly protective behavior, shutting down potential assistance from those regarded as competitors or outsiders for fear of losing a privileged position. Competition within civil society over funding or attention also spills into informal networks, creating sensitivities amongst members.
A more serious concern is the network’s potential to evolve into a clandestine network if accessed by hostile individuals. Despite thorough background checks, there are no guarantees that the shadow network could unknowingly host radical cells, that is, religious extremists, traffickers, and terrorists, that can dismantle and threaten the network, or even turn it into a movement that hinders the progress of providing protection.
During the current conflict, women through their activism, care taking, and leadership roles contributed to maintaining the communities’ social fabric, mending relationships, and bridging networks. This engagement makes WHRDs and peacebuilders vulnerable to different forms of patriarchal structural violence. Due to the normalization of GBV within social and legal norms, traditional pathways towards safety and security remain nonexistent. Hence, women’s protection as a foundational building block towards peace remains missing.
The shadow system, through its protection work, has succeeded where other systems have failed: in establishing a functioning network that overcomes institutional barriers and provides security for WHRDs to continue making a direct contribution to peacebuilding. The dilemma for these resilient networks include limited access to those in need and the dangers of hosting hostile members. Furthermore, although the network remains unregistered to ensure confidentiality and the success of the protection process, the lack of legality may jeopardize and undermine the credibility of the network and members, meaning those who require assistance may decline the possibility of protection.
Azal Al-Salafi joined the Yemen Policy Center as a Research Fellow in 2021. She has a background working in law, human rights, entrepreneurship, and socioeconomic development. In 2018, she founded a hybrid social start-up to support migrant women, fostering wellbeing and promoting their economic potential. Azal leads dialogues on the Yemen Discussion Board, a solution-oriented platform bringing together young Yemeni experts to tackle topics on Yemen. For this research, Azal has been involved in the shadow network in a personal capacity.
German Federal Foreign Office
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)