Foreign Policy Blogs

Yemen, Women’s Great Prison

The following story (part 2, the 1st instalment as it were, was published at is that of Amal Hassan, a young Yemeni woman who from the time she drew her first breath has had to fight for what many in the West take for granted: freedom, education, pursuit of happiness.

Raised in a conservative Muslim Yemeni family, Amal came across society’s biased view of what a woman should be, should do and should most importantly NOT want.
A free spirit and a brave soul, Amal fought all her life. Now facing an injustice she can no longer fight alone, she needs your help, our help.
Will you step up or simply let her fire extinguished in Yemen’s Great prison?

Written by Mogib Hassan on behalf and for Amal Hassan, Edited by Catherine Shakdam

“After years of silence and darkness I feel I must speak out the truth and paint to the world the harsh reality of living in Yemen. All over the world women seem to be enjoying freedom and independence…where I come from, where I was raised, Yemen, those words have no meaning. The reality of being a woman in Yemen is pretty bleak. No Freedom, no choice, no independence, only obedience to men-made rules in a men-made system.
For I was born a girl I spent all my waking hours in shackles, a prisoner in my own home, my own heart and my own mind.
Yemen, my country, my home is and always has been my prison.

Most Yemeni men have a very clear vision of what a woman should do and should be: a devoted and submissive object which only purpose in life should be to serve and obey.
If there is one thing that unites men in my country it is that belief that women have to be kept in check and prevented from bringing shame to the family.
I wish men would use this energy and dedication to bring down injustices rather than stand up for a system which is not only unjust but also obsolete.

Strangely enough Islam is the only religion which clearly enounces women’s right, given them a status which on many aspects is far greater than men. Rather than belittle women as many westerners would believe, Islam gives women their rightful place within society, Islam puts women at the centre of it all, since women are after the pillars of any society.

But men in my country chose to turn a blind eye, preferring to assert their own predominance through violence and repression.

The corrupt regime under which my countrymen are living under has managed to turn my nation into a vile and jungle like world where only the powerful and mighty are allowed to oppress and abuse the weak without fear of consequences.
Most of all, women are suffering. But maybe most troubling of all, women are conditioned in such a way that they live in the belief that thing are the way they should be.

For they fear for their “honour” men are locking their wives, daughters and mothers away. In the world I grew up in, women are always responsible, always to blame…we are the root of all evil it seems.
This circle went on for too long. I stand today to say no more repression, no more shackles and no more fear. Today I stand for me and my sisters, I stand for freedom and justice.
Today I reclaim my life, not as a Muslim or a Yemeni and not even as a woman but as me, Amal Hassan.”

It took Amal many years to gather up the courage and the necessary strength she needed to embark on this revolutionary journey. For many her plight might seem benign and foreign, but to so many Middle Eastern women her plight will ring true.

Beyond feminism and a simple stand for rights equality, Amal is defying a millennia old misogynist system where women have no place but behind the walls of their homes.

Beside her brother, her entire family has turned its back on her.

Despite the risks and maybe because of them, Amal decided that she would see her fight through, that she would stand the course of her life no matter the outcome.

She said: “I knew it was going to be an endless war between me and Society. But I also knew that I had to start even though I ventured onto unknown territory. I am doing my utmost not to lose in a society where women are always the losers.”

Though Yemeni law is based on Islamic sharia (inspired from the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Mohamed PBUH) it has been interpreted in such a way that men have gained the advantage, corrupting the very essence of Islam’s position on women.

Even though she knew she stood no chance, Amal decided back in 2010 to end her nightmare of a life with her abusive husband.
She urged her family to stand by her and support her while she was seeking a divorce.
Although she argued her spouse was treated her more like a possession than the woman with whom he had built a home with, constantly beating her and lying to her, she failed to gain her family’s support.

In many families, divorces are seen as shameful, a dent in one’s stature and morality.
Of course no matter the circumstances women are to blame for the split.

In Yemen and to an extent the Arab World, a woman is expected to stay married. The fact that her husband might turn out to be a cold blooded murderer is of very little importance for Society. The words ‘till death do us part take on a whole new meaning in Yemen as in essence only in death can women escape their husbands.
This is not to say that many families do not live in perfect harmony, in respect and understanding of each other. But for those marriages which do fail, there is no hope of escape for women. They are doomed to endure a life of misery for Society frown upon divorce the same way the West did on those who contracted Syphilis.

Most young women in Yemen do not even have the luxury of meeting their future husband as men and women should not mix. Some do not even have the luxury to choose whom they will be linked to for the rest of their life.

“In Yemen, marriages are business transactions where a father trades his daughter to the highest bidder and where the groom tries to bank a discount bride. The then sold bride has to honourably stay by her husband’ sides forever holding her tongue.
If the man however feels unsatisfied he can always send back his possession back to her family where she will bury her shame.
And if in Islam men and most importantly husbands are meant to protect, cherish and provide for their other half, Yemeni laws have translated those duties into something much sinister, allowing men to physically punish their wives if they feel they failed to obey them. Battery is a man’s right, his prerogative where I was born.
Luckily some men prefer not to exercise that right!
I gradually realised that there was something illogical in that way of thinking.
After years of suffering I took up the challenge. My protector was my abuser, and I was going to fight to pry myself from him.”

Amal filed for a divorce after 14 years of abuse.

For more than a decade she lived his prisoner, forced to stay at home while he was away on holiday with other women, forced to live from the scraps he was given her and her children for he cared little for their wellbeing while he was living large elsewhere.

“He was feeding me and the children the way he wanted, allowing us out when he wanted and not showing the slightest respect to me as a person with a mind, interests, rights and feelings which is in a way typical of the average marriage in Yemen. No one would seriously consider women’s feelings or rather winnings.”

Amal appealed to several NGOs in the hope that they would help her get her freedom as she knew that without proper legal representation she did not stand a chance of appearing to Court.
Sadly she never heard back from any of them.

“Despite being an Academic my husband refused to understand my thirst for knowledge preventing me from exploring my interests. I felt trap, condemned to live in misery for my own parents refused to see my unhappiness.”

After years of struggle Amal claimed her freedom. For that she had to outcast herself from her family, becoming a pariah within her own people.

“The price paid was accepting the fact that I was no longer part of my own family but at the same time no longer under threat from my brothers who were supposed to be the decision makers in my life.”

After obtaining her divorce and paying a rather high sum of money to her husband in exchange for her release she was finally able to take flight, free to do what she wanted.
While planning her future she moved in with her brother, Mogib Hassan the one man who had constantly supported her and encouraged to be her own person no matter what anyone else said.

In a matter of months Amal learnt how to drive and enrolled herself at University to complete her Master degree, hoping to then be able to provide for her 3 children.

At the time Amal did not know that Yemen’s justice system gave men a 3 month timeframe within which they could unilaterally revoke the divorce, without even informing or consulting their wives.
To do this the man needs only to go to a notary and write a letter claiming his wife back unconditionally. Unfortunately it is what Abdul Malek Almamary (Amal’s ex-husband) did.

From that moment on Amal was legally obliged to return to her husband.

“This confirms my great regret of being a woman in such an abusive culture. No matter the risk I will never go back to him. I am a free human being, and if I am ever forced to go back I would kill myself.”

Amal then turned to human rights organizations, hoping that they would intervene on her behalf and free her forever from her master. Time and time again she appealed; time and time again she was let down.

Although Amal’s husband had failed for years to provide for her and their children preferring to pursue other pleasures, he was never held accountable for his actions. Yemen justice system had declared him the winner from the” get go”, for Amal had no means to pressure anyone into defending her interests and her rights.

Things got even more complicated when the Revolution broke out.
Her brother, Mogib who was so far financially supporting her lost his job as a journalist and was threatened by the regime for speaking out against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Soon enough Mogib and Amal realized that they had to flee in order to remain safe.

Their apartment became one of the regime’s target and they both feared that Homeland Security would come one day and imprison them all.

Problem is, in Yemen a woman cannot travel out of the country without a written authorization from her guardian, in which case her husband.
After many trials and tribulations, Mogib managed to bribe enough government officials for his sister to be let through at the airport.

Amal, Mogib and the 3 children left for Cairo, Egypt.

Her husband has now taken several steps towards “recovering” Amal as he now knows that she is in hiding in Egypt.
Potentially Amal could be deported back to Yemen against her consent since she is still legally bound to her husband and given he has the final say.

Her only hope now lies in being granted a refugee status by the UN or having Yemeni officials stand up for her rights and pronounces an irrevocable divorce for which there are legal grounds.

On Monday Januray 10th, Amal is meeting with UN officers in relation to her case (UN reg NO: 28031).



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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