Foreign Policy Blogs

A Window into Women’s World In Yemen

Warning: the following is as an account of one woman’s experience; although it does highlight some major issues in Yemen in regards to Family Laws and Gender Equality it is not a reflection of the Yemeni society as a whole but rather the failure of a system to protect the most vulnerable.
Amal Hassan’ story was edited for editorial purposes.

I never would have dream of writing my own life story, let alone let the World know about it. My main worry was that by putting to paper my trials and tribulations I would be forced to be critical of my culture and in some way my religion, especially since Yemen’s family laws are based on Islan, or rather the interpretation that some have of Islam sets of guidance.
Although I did write for myself a lot in order to exorcize my fears and anger, I never really master the courage of facing my peers, too afraid of how people would react. My brother, Mogib was always a great source of comfort to me as he encouraged me to go public, telling me that my voice was worthy to be heard.
My mother first called me Fourkan, but at the age of 4 I decided I wanted to be called Amal, which means “hope” in Arabic. I suppose the name fits pretty well now!

In Yemen I am now known as Om Alaa, after my first-born’s son. According to Yemeni tradition a woman cannot be called by her first name as it would sully the family’s honor…. I don’t even know where we got that one from? It is as if the society was trying to deny my own existence by negating my name.

As a girl raised in a conservative family in Yemen, I was raised to not question my elders, always trusting that what they were teaching me were fair and true. However, even as a child I quickly realized that the system was seriously flawed, filled with social injustice, unfair limitations for girls and gender discrimination. Whenever I questioned my parents over the fact that I was treated differently from my brothers they used to say: “Because they are boys and you are just a girl.” “Just a girl” in Yemen means to accept everything without questioning, it means to become invisible and never cause a stir.
So for 33 years, I kept the revolution in me in check. I suppressed my feelings as President Saleh suppressed us, too scared to speak up, too scared to be my own person, too scared of disappointed my beloved parents, who raised me the only way they knew how.

But if I was keeping my rage within, I was on the look-out for an opportunity, any opportunity, anything that could open up a window onto my life.

Unlike many girls in my social class, my parents allowed me to go to school. My successes were however unnoticed as my parents preferred to concentrate on my brothers, believing that since I was bound to get married, there was no real need for me to push my education passed high-school.
Mogib, became my rock…He was keen to know and support me in every new endeavor, always cheering me on.
My brother was unlike other brothers, he was kind, thoughtful, mindful of my own needs and respectful of my opinions. Because of him I found the strength to push on the boundaries imposed by my family.
Many still believed in Yemen that a girl’s place is in the kitchen, cooking for her husband and her family. Although there is nothing degrading in doing so, one should be allowed to choose whether it is the life one truly wants or whether one aspire for more.
I drew courage in the fact that I was allowed to better my education, opening up my eyes to the World….but my hopes were dashed when I came to face the biggest injustice of all.

It all began with my elder brother being unable to successfully complete his High School diploma for 4 years in a row. Despite the private tuitions and many encouragements, he still could not reach the grades required. My parents had already made plans for him to go study in the UK or in the USA.
As for me, I graduated ahead of my brother despite being the youngest, with an 88% final grade. Although I had surpassed all my brothers no congratulations were waiting for me at home as some of my family viewed my success as an insult to my elder brother.
Mogib who was in India at the time was the only one to congratulate me, already planning my future as he said I needed to push forward with my studies.
Sadly, my success became a source of conflict within my family, and still is 15 years later….

In Yemen when any student complete his or hers study with a score of 88% he or she is guarantee a job as a teacher. Although I knew my options were limited my brother Mogib said he would use his network to get me some help in dealing with my job application.
At the time my mother was supportive of me as she knew I was applying for a position within an Islamic all-girl school which guaranteed my “protection”.
Even if we all knew that we would have to face my father, since it was he who could decide of my future, I felt I had to try.
Strangely my first hurdle came from my own brother, the one who was having difficulty passing his exam.
He and his wife started fueling my father by telling him that letting me work as a schoolteacher will bring shame to the family, arguing that people would talk.
My house was turned into a battle-field, with me and my mother on one side and the rest of my family on the other.
As a result of the “hate campaign” ran against me, me and my mother were barred from receiving or making phone calls, cutting us out completely from Mogib who was still in India at the time. We were as well forbidden to get out of the house or to have any visitors.
For months we were under total lockdown, continuously under threat and abuse.
In a bout of anger my father even threatened to kill me and to pay a man, any man to marry me and get me off his hands.
Me and my mother were truly and utterly alone in our misery….my sisters were either too young or too scared to do anything and Mogib was away, unaware of our nightmare.
This is when I started writing to my brother. I found it therapeutic and empowering at the same time as I regained some control over my life. I smuggled the letters out via my little brother who were told to hand them to one of my brother’s friends.
In my first letter I told Mogib I wished I belonged to another culture.

Soon after that my father became suspicious and he followed my little brother, discovering what I was doing.
My father was so blinded by anger that he lashed out at me, beating me up in front of my entire family. None said a word as I was brutally assaulted…
Subsequently none of my younger sisters was allowed to go to school. My elder brother continued to be my father’s spoiled child while I counted for nothing.
I felt so depressed that the idea of ending my life kept occupying my thoughts… I kept telling myself that my suffering in this life was better than the Hell endured by the suicides in the next.
I decided to seek comfort in religion, hoping that God would bring me peace.

All I was asking was to be allowed to breath, to be my own person. I many times wondered why men were so bent on preventing girls from getting an education. How can the bettering of oneself be sinful?

At that point in my life, men came to ask for my hand in marriage, through my father of course, as tradition requires it.
At the time I thought marriage was my ticket out. I figured any man who would agree to let me go University was good enough for me; love did not come into the equation. I refused many proposals….
To give credit to my father, he did not directly force me to accept any of those men as a husband; yet the continual pressure was on me to get married!
Then, a divorced man, 20 years my elder with 3 children came to visit my father.

I asked Mogib who was by then back in Yemen to do some digging on my potential future husband as I wanted to know what kind of a person he was. My brother was told that the man was devout yet open-minded, well behaved, kind and most importantly willing to let me continue my study.
Many Yemeni girls would tell you that although their suitors appear to be generous, well-mannered and all around perfect while they are courting them, all that changes once they get a ring on your finger.
The girl becomes a property and she has to comply with her husband’s will, whatever it might be.
In Yemen, a woman has to be the perfect wife, always ready to serve her husband always pleasing.

The fact that I was allowed to go to University did not exempt me of course from my duties at home, as my husband expected me to be a “responsible wife”.
Although my husband said he was willing to let me pursue my studies he told me that the financial burden would fall on me.
It is highly unusual in Yemen since it is the husband’s duty to provide for his wife.
Nevertheless I was only too happy to have been given permission so I told myself it did not matter. My brother Mogib once again came to my rescue, helping me out with the tuition fee and everything else. I also sold some of my jewelry to meet the University expenses.
Interestingly, the Yemeni culture allows men to get away from their responsibilities but pounces on women if they ever slack. Why is that? Only god knows…

Soon after getting married, I noticed that my husband was behaving strangely, always on the phone flirting with some girl or another.
Although he said he was religious his actions did not matched his words.
In spite of my many problems, I managed to finish University.
I was not however allowed to continue any further, forced back into the “kitchen” by a husband who did not care for my dreams and aspirations.
My “amal”, hope, died within me. I thought that was it, that my life would be a long succession of disappointments and crushed dreams, little by little I died inside.
As I did not want to become my mother I aborted many of my pregnancy, too scared to bring into the world a child who I feared would only suffer.
My husband prevented me from visiting my family and friends as he wanted to keep me in isolation.

After having sworn on the holly Quran he wasn’t seeing any other woman beside me, I found out that he was indeed married to another, and that it had been the case for several years.
I decided that it was the last straw…I wanted out.

I went to a lawyer as divorces are hard to obtain for women. Men only have to say a few words as we, women have to go through much hurdles to state our case before a judge.
I knew I was jeopardizing my rights and that of my children but I decided I owed it to myself to try.
My husband argued that it was his God given right to have 4 women and that it could not be used as grounds for divorce. He then asked to be repaid all the money he had spent on me for the past 14 years.
Even if money was no object to him since he was rich, he wanted to make me pay…

Abandoned by all, Mogib was the only one on my side… as always.

In Yemen, divorced women are social outcast as the blame automatically falls on them. They often are shunned by their family.

My experience taught me that I needed to stand up for women in Yemen and fight to bring about much needed changes. Yemeni society needs to move away from the darkness, recognizing that women are persons and not properties.
Islam guarantees our rights and we should fight for men to respect and uphold them!

I am only starting to get my life back together.
I have so much to catch up with… I am now learning English. I have applied for a driving license and I am about to enroll for a Master’s degree.
Although I know things will be difficult I am determined to stand tall and to become a success for my children and my peers to follow and emulate.
I am Yemeni, I am a single mother, I am my own person!

Amal Hassan

 

Author

Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam

Although French by birth, my studies and my professional life led me to live for many years in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
Armed with a Master in Finance, a Bachelor degree in Psychology and 5 languages under my belt I managed to make my way through the maze of the Trading World of Wall Street, as an equity consultant. However, my interest for Politics and the Middle East gave me the necessary push to launch me as a "writer". Since then, I have voiced my opinions via my Blog and various publications such as the Middle East Post, the Guardian UK, and now Foreign Policy Association. I currently live in London.

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