In Yemen, Women are the Heroes

7 March, 2021
Reading Time :10 minutes

Yemen has too often been in the news since 2014, for all the wrong reasons. A beautiful country with one of the world’s oldest civilizations, many Yemenis are on the verge of starvation since the Saudi-led coalition launched its war against the Houthis. Human Rights Watch continues to monitor Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, even as women and children are those suffering the most. International aid worker and writer Farah Abdessamad has been traveling to Yemen for work since 2014. This is the first time she has written about her experiences there publicly. The names of her women friends have been changed to protect their identities. Abdessamad’s column is dedicated to International Women’s Day.

 

Farah Abdessamad

 

 

I had just visited the hotel where Arthur Rimbaud had been a guest nearly 140 years earlier, climbing over stacks of rugs and using my cellphone torchlight to guide me through the upper floor of the old building turned carpet shop. Luckily, someone had understood me when I asked for directions (“Ah Rambo? Straight ahead”). It was a light and breezy first stay in Aden on Yemen’s southwestern coast, filled with endless cans of Diet Pepsi and fresh grilled fish. Lingering behind the walls of the women’s section of a local beach, I heard that the sit-ins in Sana’a were likely to escalate.

A family who had kept me company floated happily on the warm sea, and I stared at the enigmatic sight of the elephant-trunk-shaped rock framing the gentle Gold Mohur Bay. At noon, I went back to my hotel room. When I tried calling friends and colleagues in anticipation of my flight back to Sana’a the next day, I realized that all the communication lines had been cut off.

Less than 24 hours later, I drove from the Sana’a airport to my house, passing the imposing Al Saleh mosque in an eerily deserted capital city. There was none of the usual bustle and I reached home in an impressive 20-minute ride. The following day, military planes circled over head. They initially reminded me of the Bastille Day military parades and airshows in France, except this wasn’t a drill and Ansar Allah, the Houthi movement, swiftly seized power. I had started not long ago a three-month assignment to advise an international organization on job creation programs for young people in Yemen. Alone at home, waiting for a strange outcome, I remembered a scene from a week prior. Earlier that month, I had attended a volleyball game on the grounds of a western country’s embassy, where white diplomats had recommended I watch I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced, which recently came out—as if I needed to watch a movie to understand the sexualization and societal pressure on girls in North Africa and the Middle East. I smiled instead to mask my discomfort, and reached for a slice of watermelon, leaving expats to grunt punching a ball over a net. Ever since I’d been Nojoom’s age, some of my relatives would point to “cousins” who “come from a good family” during my summer visits to Tunisia. For the diplomats with sweaty gin and tonics, Nojoom’s story was exotic; it was part of a peculiar Orient.

Very soon, the white diplomats left together with the volleyball games. News came that President Hadi fled his house arrest in Sana’a overnight to reach his native Aden, allegedly sneaking out and avoiding detection disguised in a niqab, the female garment derived from a rigorist interpretation of Islam. Then came March 2015, a time of changing seasons which suddenly carried a new name: Operation Decisive Storm. The first air strikes from the Saudi-led coalition rained over Sana’a and its four million people.

From March 2020 onward, citizens in western countries have experienced intense isolation and a deterioration of their mental health as they cope with Covid-19 confinement and pandemic-related measures. Staying at home isn’t that easy, it turns out, and people long for freedom, to get “their life back.”

People in Yemen have been stuck at home for the last six years, with unreliable electricity, no Netflix, and half of the country’s health facilities no longer functioning. Suffocation starts with the mundane, or what appears this way at first, like the day a militia man arrested my friend Iman because she drove without a male guardian to buy groceries.

Shams (photo courtesy Thana Faroq).

On a trip to Yemen’s northwest, in Abs district of Hajjah governorate I met a 13-year-old girl named Shams. Perhaps it was her innocence, amid the relentless airstrikes I could hear in the distance, that drew me to her. The conflict in nearby Sa’ada governorate had forced Shams and her family to flee their home. I could see the toll the long and difficult journey had taken on her.

“I miss my old home, this is not home,” Shams told me. “Home is where I left my hair accessories.” The war in Yemen has done more than steal a year of her childhood. It has robbed her of her education and a future she gets to decide for herself. The most heartbreaking part of Shams’ story is that she is about to be married off. Her father can no longer afford the family’s needs and he wants to ease the pressure off of himself.

Barely a teenager, Shams hardly understands what marriage is. Yet she is about to be forced into adulthood with a man twice her age. I could not help but think about how many of the countries invested in preventing child marriage in Yemen are the same actors playing such a crucial role in causing the phenomenon to flourish.

The summer when all media attention focused on Syrian asylum seekers arriving en masse to Europe by sea and land, I hugged Najla who miscarried in Sana’a. We thought it happened because of stress and prolonged lack of sleep, due to the frequent air strikes at night. When she eventually became pregnant again, she confided her fear. I don’t want my baby to be born here, Farah, she said; the hospital has nothing, we don’t have electricity, what life is this? I said it would be okay. I lied.

Another friend, Amal, chose to move back to her family village during the early days of war. She shared photos of beautiful cows on our female-only WhatsApp group, running polls for the most elongated bovine eyelashes while sending us cheerful selfies adorning a traditional straw hat. It was an untouched corner of the country, she said, for now inshallah, she added. Amal missed her city life though.

And Lamis asked next in the chat what had happened with the 2011 uprising, an Arab Spring of hope tossed aside by a Spring of war. Lamis had joined the movement calling for dignity, she had mobilized others, and participated in the historical demonstrations across Sana’a. Was it all for nothing, she wrote to an audience of empathetic emojis.

I received a phone call early one morning, one that still sends shivers down my spine years later. It showed the name of my Adeni friend Salma, with whom I’d quickly connected after we’d first met, and whom I looked after like a younger sibling. Upon hearing her voice, I immediately sensed that something was wrong.

Katyusha rockets, she whispered in a broken voice. By then, after a few weeks of war, we had become experts at distinguishing artillery sounds, suicide bombings and air strikes. I heard her sobbing and shrieking when rockets landed nearer to her building. We stayed on the phone silent for a while until she said, I think it stopped now. At that time, the Saudi-led coalition waged a street-by-street battle to retake control Aden from the Houthis and my friend’s home was right in the middle.

As soon as Aden’s airport reopened, I boarded the first humanitarian flight to visit Salma and Aden again. The city had changed and exposed visible scars—military sandbags, bullet impacts on the walls, carbonated cars. Our office had been flattened by an accidental air strike. Salma and I went to the beach for a quick stroll and goofy selfies, and we grabbed a tasty Adeni ice cream. It would be nice to be all together again, I said. Salma paused. It’s complicated now, she said, no longer smiling. The war in Yemen widened the Northern-Southern rift, with “Northerners” and “Southerners” feeling more estranged from each other as the years passed. The Houthis controlled the North, the internationally-recognized government the South. Historically, women in the former socialist regime of South Yemen had enjoyed more freedom than their Northern counterparts as they benefited from greater access to education and political participation. Overall though and since the unification of the country, Yemen regularly sits at the bottom of the Gender Inequality Index, an imperfect measure which looks at reproductive health, empowerment and employment—it’s a tough place to be born a woman.

My suitcase didn’t make the connecting flight to Aden so after stopping for an ice cream we also went for a shopping run to Crater, the historical city center which sits inside a dormant volcano. The next day we drove to a neighborhood where internally displaced people had settled. Salma and I were part of a larger group of aid workers visiting displaced families to assess their situation and needs. We followed the group until we saw a woman looking at us, the only two other women among the aid workers. We approached and took her aside as the men spoke at length with a community representative furiously filling their notepads. Are the girls ok here? we asked her.

She grabbed both of our arms and we walked together behind one of the makeshift shelters. There was a girl recently, she started. She told us privately about two child rapes and regular bouts of domestic violence in the community. A month before in Sana’a, I had seen an acquaintance concealing her darkened eye behind a niqab she didn’t usually wear. We had exchanged a glance and left it at that when she signaled it was best not to ask. It had happened during a tiresome week of heavy air strikes. One night, it was relentless. Past midnight, my bed shook after each hit. Where did it land, on whom did it land? It didn’t stop. A Lebanese friend staying a few rooms away texted me: are you sleeping? No. Are you scared, too? Yes.

The living conditions in the displaced settlement near Aden were abject at best. On the way out, we passed two girls carrying gigantic jugs of water—too big for their tiny frames—from the nearby pump which had formed a large puddle. No one stopped to give them a hand. The frontlines shifted and our mutual friend Amal started sending us different photos from the usual cows, of skinny girls carrying meager twigs to feed a cooking fire. It wasn’t clear what they would eat. Hunger had increased in pockets where fighting raged most and overall in the North. The coalition-imposed blockade placed a further strain on vital food imports (Yemen is a net food importer), compounded with decades of under-development, operational challenges in humanitarian food delivery and some actors seeing food as a weapon of war.

The WhatsApp chats swelled and shrank, following the commotions of the war, and mirrored different realities in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden, Turkey, Europe, Egypt and the US as some of us relocated. An unlikely and partial reunion took place in Sana’a in 2017. From our group chat, two Yemenis had by then left the country with their families and joined a growing diaspora. One had a newborn baby, one was engaged (Salma!), another struggled to climb upstairs while pregnant and tripped often over her long abaya.

 

Skyline over the Old City of Sana'a (Photo courtesy Farah Abdessamad)
The Sana’a skyline (photographer unknown).

We met at the famous Burj al Salam hotel in the Old City of Sana’a. During its heyday, the busy and lively place—an institution—offered drinks, food, and an unprecedented view over the UNESCO World Heritage site. Less frequented now, it was still a public space, so we didn’t wear elaborate make-up and hairdos, put music on and pass along tender qat leaves to chew as we sometimes had in more private venues. It was a goodbye gathering, though it pained me to admit I would shortly pack my bags and leave the country, too (three months had turned into three years). I reminisced over weddings, parties, moments of absolute shock and horror and it seemed that briefly, on the higher floors of the hotel’s mafraj, our tales could stop time. Outside, dark clouds formed over the city announcing the start of the rainy season. Sana’a is one of the driest cities in the world, with a water table level near depletion.

Amal, who had lost some weight, made plans to visit coffee shops in the city—she would stay for a week. So many had closed and not many businesses had fuel these days to run a generator. We had to tell her things weren’t quite the same as before. I want to drink coffee or tea and read a book, she said, the weather is perfect. Is it really that impossible? she asked.

 

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