Halima Gellman was in Yemen for seven months spanning the Arab Spring protests and five months in the aftermath, evaluating the gender issues that Yemeni women encounter and how they’re able to achieve political participation in the transition period. Her research is incorporated into a graduate thesis she wrote for New York University, where she is obtaining her master’s degree in global affairs with a concentration in international relations and the Middle East.
She recently relocated to Cairo, Egypt to work as a consultant for the International Labor Organization, conducting gender gap assessments in 60 companies situated there. Originally from California, she has also lived in Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
An edited transcript of the interview follows:
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What made you choose Yemen for your work?
Halima Gellman: I picked Yemen specifically because [it] has a disaster on every level. There’s a rebel movement in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, 40% unemployment [rate], and oil and water are quickly running out. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people, and more than half of its population lives on less than US$2 a day. Sixty percent of Yemeni women are illiterate, half of the women are married before the age of 15, the fertility rate is among the highest in the world, and [yet] women’s political and economic participation are extremely low. [There is just] one woman in parliament out of 301 members and women make up just 0.6% of local councils. Basically, I chose Yemen because the country and the women in it are facing disproportionately large obstacles to freedom and prosperity.
My focus is on gender and peace building, specifically looking at Muslim women as active peace-building agents. Originally I came to Yemen thinking I was going to write my thesis on Yemeni women as peace-builders in local resource conflicts. When I got here, in the latter part of the revolution and started talking to women, they said to me, "You’re here at a historical moment. You should focus on the revolution." In addition, I was not allowed to leave the capital city because of the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Thus I decided to shift my focus entirely, in an effort to better represent the concerns and priorities or research participants. What I found when I started talking to women in Sana’a, was a genuine desire to know if there were any women’s organizations present during the revolution. Women wanted to know who were representing women’s demands and priorities in the revolution. The fundamental question that arose was: How would women maintain the political and public space that the revolution had offered them?
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve actually spent several months in Yemen during and after the revolution as part of your research. Can you tell me what the role of women in Yemen has been before, during and after the revolution?
Gellman: Yemeni women are the least educated and the poorest women in the Middle East. They have struggled incredibly hard for years and years for political representation, although they have been mostly unsuccessful. Historically they have had limited participation in the economic and political arena. The revolution offered housewives and women with no prior experience in politics access to new political networks and information. In my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of Yemen’s revolution was that it provided women with new political and public space to make their voices heard.
Now, post-revolution, things are still uncertain. The National Dialogue [a reconciliation process outlined in the Gulf Cooperation Council plan] and the Constitutional Review Committee have yet to be formed. We’ll have to see when these transitional bodies are formed if women are adequately represented. But the future is anything but certain. The fundamental question my thesis seeks to address is: Will women be able to keep the new political and public space that they gained during the revolution? During my seven months in Yemen, I researched in detail how women have been working to keep that new space. There have been efforts; the most significant was the National Women’s Conference that was held in March.
I had really high hopes and expectations for it. A lot of money was put into it. USAID’s Responsive Governance Project largely funded it. I think the best part of the conference was the presence of Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa and many other many high-profile political figures. They heard the demands of women and the Prime Minister even expressed his commitment to the full representation of women in all transitional bodies. But we have yet to see if there will be follow-through or if it was merely lip service.
During the Women’s National Conference, emotions ran high and there was much anger, grief, shouting and tears. Within the women’s movement, there is little historical record of women coming together from diverse political parties and ideologies. This is still a very new phenomenon. Women from the ruling party were very upset at the word "revolution" being used because they considered it a crisis and not a revolution. In addition, a lot of people have not had a platform to express their grievances from the past, difficult year. Women seized the opportunity to share their own personal grievances and promote their own political perspectives. This was too bad since activists were hoping that women would be able to put political perspectives aside and look at their common goals as women.
On the other hand, it’s important to put the conference in perspective. In Yemen, there is no grassroots women’s movement. A lot of women activists I talked to about the conference gauged it as a success, mostly because it happened. It was an effort and a step. The message was disseminated and there was a lot of media attention because there were a lot of high-level people there. Women were demanding 30% representation in all of the transitional bodies that are going to be formed and all decision-making positions. That message was very clear.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How is Yemen doing with women’s rights compared to other post-Arab Spring nations?
Gellman: Tunisia has obviously done the best. In 2011, they passed the gender parity law that in essence ensures 50% female political participation. The law required that women make up half of each party’s list in the historic October 23, 2011 election. Unfortunately, the law got little media attention. Although almost all Yemenis knew the details of the Tunisian revolution, almost no one knew about the gender parity law.
Tunisian women have encountered some difficulties post-revolution but they have a strong women’s movement and effective institutions and organizations that have been working for women’s rights for a long time. Thus they are in a much better position to confront issues head on as they arise than other Arab Spring countries.
Egypt has been a disaster, which is very concerning. If you compared Yemen and Egypt, Egypt has a much more vibrant, diverse history of women’s rights activism than Yemen. But post-revolution, Egyptian women have suffered from lack of political representation and there have been many incidents of sexual violence against women protestors. They’re much fewer women in parliament than under Mubarak.
In Yemen, there is not one organization that has the ability to unite women and bring them together to have one voice. I think that’s one major concern in both Yemen and Egypt. There are a lot of opportunities embedded in this transition period for Yemeni women. The country is in flux and new people are coming to power. Yemeni women have the opportunity to claim new public and political space as the country works to redefine itself.
The revolution itself was very complicated and there are a lot of details that the international community was largely unaware of. For example, Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, took control of Sana’a’s Change Square just a couple months after the revolution began. They controlled the stages and the microphones. Hard-liners from the Islah party were responsible for many acts of violence against women and independent youth. There were many reports of musical instruments being smashed and aggressive attempts to separate men and women who were sitting together in the Square. There were also physical acts of violence against women who were speaking out against Islah.
There were a lot of positive elements of the revolution as well. Housewives and other women who had not ever participated in a public forum came out and joined a new network that gave them access to new information. What was really special about the revolution in Yemen was that in Change Square, especially in the early days, there were literacy courses, art classes and people going around giving lectures on topics such as democracy and human rights. Courses in the Yemeni constitution were also provided. The Square was one big learning center. For many women, it was the first time they had literacy classes, and for most of them, it was their first opportunity to learn about the constitution and different political systems.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So maybe that itself is a positive step in the women’s rights in Yemen?
Gellman: Yes, but there is a caveat to that. A lot of the women were Islahi women. And Islahi women have a reputation that they are completely controlled by their party. So a lot of women activists say, ‘It’s great that these women came out of their house and participated in the revolution but they are still controlled by their party. So if the party decides to tell them to go back to their house or stop working, then they will.’ Of course, a lot of Islahi women I interviewed said this is not true. They said, ‘We’re not going to stop working.’ Islah has also gained much more power and become much more influential in Yemen post-revolution. They also have the largest number of women members out of any other political party.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Out of the 35 new government ministers in Yemen, only 3 are women. What was it like in the previous regime?
Gellman: Before there were two women ministers… A lot of the older women activists were very pleased with this [addition]. They said, "This was great, this is excellent." A lot of the younger activists said, "No, we just had a revolution. We were supposed to create democracy and the rule of democracy is the representation of all citizens, including women. One more? This is nothing." So there is a big generational gap in the responses when I asked people how they felt about having one more female minister than there was before.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What were some of your observations about the degree of women’s rights in various countries?
Gellman: Yemen is very traditional and conservative, definitely the most conservative country I have ever been to. Men and women are largely allocated their own separate spaces. There’s not a lot of mixing of men and women in Yemen. Even in Change Square, there was a wall built to separate men and women.
Actually, one significant incident was when the former president came out during the revolution in April 2011 and made a speech, saying mixing between men and women during the revolution was haraam, [a sin]. The international media did a great job showing the massive protests that came out the next day responding to this statement. Yet the international media did not mention that these demonstrations were completely segregated. Men were marching, then a big space, then women marching behind. When liberal women activists refused to walk behind the men and tried to walk with the men, they were attacked.
Back to your question — Yemen has one of the highest numbers of child marriages in the world. Oxfam found that, in 2007, that 50% of women were married before the age of 15. Domestic violence is still not illegal and many women have their freedom of movement severely restricted. The legal system grants men the right to decide on marriage, divorce, and if their wives can work. I believe Yemeni women face larger and more severe obstacles in gaining rights than most of their Arab sisters.
However Yemeni women have found success in some areas. A major accomplishment that women activists stated was the amendment of the citizenship law in 2009. The original law specified that children of Yemeni men were to receive their father’s nationality, regardless of their mother’s nationality. Yemeni women married to foreigners, however, were unable to pass their citizenship to their children. In 2003, an article was added to the law that allowed women to give their citizenship to their children if they were divorced, widowed, or abandoned. The law was amended again in 2008, adding that if the father was unknown or had no nationality children could receive the mother’s Yemeni nationality. Finally in 2009, this passage was amended again, stating that children born to a Yemeni parent and foreign parent were automatically granted Yemeni citizenship.
There has also been much activism around the issue of early marriage. Before the revolution, women activists came together to try and raise the minimum age of marriage to 17. Most members of parliament were supportive of the proposed amendment but the Committee of Enforcing Islamic Shariah in the Parliament rejected the minimum age of marriage. In addition, Islahi women staged their own demonstrations in front of parliament, holding Qurans over their head and signs that read: "Yes to the shariah rights of Muslim women." Though the majority of parliamentarians were in favor of passing the law, in February 2009 the Shariah Committee vetoed it. Several sheikhs have also issued fatwas against setting a minimum age for marriage.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What will make President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi a better leader?
Gellman: Hadi has his work cut out for him but he has impressed many with his initial actions. [Former president] Ali Abdullah Saleh is still head of GPC [Yemen’s ruling party] and his family [members are] still in critical positions. Many believe that if his family members are not removed from these positions, he will still be controlling Yemen from behind the scenes. People thought Hadi was going to be a puppet and he was still going to be controlled by Saleh. But he’s impressed everybody by slowly attempting to remove Saleh’s family members from their posts.
Saleh’s half-brother, who was head of the air force, was dismissed and refused to step down. People hope that Hadi will continue to take [Saleh’s] family from the critical posts in order to restructure the military.
Honestly, he has a huge task. There’s the southern secession movement, Al-Qaeda’s occupation of towns throughout the country, the war in the north between the Houthis and the Salafis, lack of basic services, etc.
One of the major disappointments of the revolution, besides women being excluded, is that youths who initiated the protests have no bargaining power and are not being represented adequately. Hopefully, the National Dialogue will work to address that.
Hadi has a very big task ahead of him. Most Yemeni want their country free from corruption. There are real things he can do to ensure that. Removing Saleh’s family members [from key posts] would be a good start as follow through from the revolution.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So what can women do to exhibit real leadership qualities in this era after the Arab Spring?
Gellman: One of the positive things the revolution did was offer housewives and conservative women their first opportunity to participate in the political sphere. But according to many women activists, the real prize of the revolution was the many young women leaders who emerged. At the start of the revolution, the women’s movement in Yemen consisted of a small group of women who had been working in the field for decades. The revolution revealed new faces of a younger generation of women who were articulate, motivated, and dedicated to building a new country that respected human rights. These women gave speeches, used social media, gave interviews to international and local media, organized their peers and negotiated with coalitions. The revolution made these young highly capable women leaders visible to the public.
What can women do as a whole? The National Women’s Conference was a first step in bringing women from different political parties together. This is really new. There is immense loyalty to political parties which tends to override loyalty to gender issues. I believe women must begin to join forces more often, working together to find common ground on issues relating to women.
In Yemen, international organizations have taken the lead on women’s issues. This is problematic for a number of reasons. There is not a lot done in Yemen that doesn’t have an international organization or donor behind it.
The NGO-ization of women’s issues has created a huge gap between the educated, urban women who are working within the international NGO community and the masses that are the target for the majority of the programs. [They tend to be] conservative, rural and poor. Figuring out how to bridge the gap is imperative to the formation of a grassroots women’s movement. And without local ownership gains in women’s rights are not sustainable.
I believe what needs to happen in the immediate future is that women need to make sure they are represented in the National Dialogue and the Constitutional Review committee. They need to continue to come together from across political lines and lobby to the government and within their respective political parties. In Egypt, there were no women on the Constitutional Review Committee and that has shown to be disastrous.