Yemen’s Feminist Trailblazer Flees Death Threats for a New Life in the UK

15 October, 2022

 

Nadia Al-Sakkaf served as edi­tor in chief at the Yemen Times from 2005 until 2014, before becom­ing Yemen’s first female Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion. She fled Yemen in 2015 after the coup and is cur­rent­ly an inde­pen­dent researcher in pol­i­tics, media, devel­op­ment and gen­der stud­ies based in the Unit­ed King­dom. In 2011, Al-Sakkaf gave a pop­u­lar TED talk called “See Yemen through my eyes” which had over three mil­lion views.

 

Nadia Al-Sakkaf

 

See­ing my name on the list of trai­tors sen­tenced to death in absen­tia by the Houthi rebels had a strange, almost sur­re­al, effect on me. It was if I were read­ing about a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, not a real per­son, and def­i­nite­ly not about me.

It wasn’t that I cared for the Houthis’ mock­ery of the jus­tice sys­tem, or that I was wor­ried for my life now that I was liv­ing in the UK. It was more sad­ness at how harsh life in Yemen had become.

Houthi WANTED poster, Nadia Al-Sakkaf top mid­dle (cour­tesy Nadia Al-Sakkaf).

First there were the direct threats and intim­i­da­tion while I was in the coun­try because of my role as Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion. When I man­aged to flee with my two chil­dren from the Houthi mili­tia, they raid­ed my home and took every­thing. Then they put up my pho­to among oth­ers in the streets of Sana’a, brand­ing us as trai­tors. They launched a cam­paign against me on social media and in the main­stream media they con­trol. They even cre­at­ed play­ing cards with names of so-called trai­tors, giv­ing me the five of hearts, print­ed along with a curse and defamation.

Being the first in any­thing is not always a good thing and is almost nev­er easy. At the age of 26, I was the first woman to run a nation­al inde­pen­dent media out­let, the Yemen Times. I used my posi­tion to become the first Yemeni woman to give a TED talk, in which I told the world a bit about my coun­try. In 2014, I was the first woman to become Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion in Yemen. Pri­or to that, I was among very few women, if not the only one, serv­ing on sev­er­al high lev­el polit­i­cal com­mit­tees, work­ing towards a nation­al dia­logue and peace in the coun­try, fol­low­ing the 2011 upris­ing. And now, because of my polit­i­cal activism in Yemen, espe­cial­ly in response to the Houthi militia’s actions, I am the first woman whom the Houthis have sen­tenced to death for polit­i­cal reasons.

Since the Houthis’ coup in 2014, the sit­u­a­tion for Yemeni women has become more dan­ger­ous than ever. I dread to think what would have hap­pened to me had I not man­aged to escape. We keep hear­ing news of Yemeni women detained and even tor­tured in Houthi pris­ons, not least the sto­ry of 21-year-old Inti­s­ar Al-Ham­ma­di, who is being held under inhu­mane conditions.

Rein­vent­ing one­self is one of the hard­est chal­lenges a per­son can face. Yet it is an excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty. This has hap­pened to me twice so far in my pro­fes­sion­al career of 25 years. Once by choice, as a young infor­ma­tion sys­tems’ ana­lyst in 2003, and then by force, at the height of my pro­fes­sion­al career in pol­i­tics in 2015.

Grow­ing up as a Yemeni girl, I had choic­es and priv­i­leges that very few of my peers had. Yemen is a very hard coun­try for women. It is even said that it is the worst place in the world to be a woman. But I was shield­ed from this real­i­ty because I was born into a mod­ern-mind­ed fam­i­ly, with my father being a pio­neer, a per­son ahead of his time. Pro­fes­sor Abdu­laz­iz Al-Saqqaf was a self-made man, one who strug­gled to advance in life. He worked three jobs while being a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, a hus­band and a father. His ambi­tion led him to Har­vard, Tufts and the Sor­bonne, where he earned sev­er­al degrees before return­ing to Yemen and lead­ing a risky life as a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at Sana’a Uni­ver­si­ty, and more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, founder and edi­tor of Yemen’s first Eng­lish lan­guage news­pa­per, the Yemen Times, in 1990.

My sib­lings and I looked up to him, and to our moth­er who also com­plet­ed a uni­ver­si­ty degree in Eng­lish while rais­ing four lit­tle chil­dren, and who pur­sued a career in edu­ca­tion. Edu­ca­tion was the key word in our fam­i­ly — that and hard work. My dad used to say “hard work nev­er hurts,” before launch­ing us on a new assign­ment. From a young age, I want­ed to write in Ara­bic, com­pet­ing in and even win­ning region­al cre­ative writ­ing con­tests. Lat­er, I turned to Eng­lish for my jour­nal­is­tic and research work, due to the turn of events in my career. I saw the pow­er of media unfold before my eyes through the Yemen Times, and I want­ed to try my hand at it. How­ev­er, my par­ents thought that since I was an A‑level stu­dent, I had bet­ter invest in a “more secure career,” as they put it. Through a schol­ar­ship, I found myself in India, where I stud­ied at one of the most pres­ti­gious engi­neer­ing uni­ver­si­ties, work­ing my way through a degree in com­put­er sci­ence engineering.

On the fate­ful morn­ing of June 2, 1999, I was enjoy­ing a sum­mer vaca­tion in Yemen with my fam­i­ly when the news struck. My father had been assas­si­nat­ed because of his activism in human rights. This tragedy impact­ed not only our fam­i­ly but the entire coun­try, as he was con­sid­ered a nation­al fig­ure. My old­er broth­er took over the news­pa­per, and I returned to India to com­plete my degree, liv­ing with a bro­ken heart.

The fol­low­ing year, a few months after I grad­u­at­ed from uni­ver­si­ty, my moth­er died; she’d had a heart con­di­tion for years, but the doc­tor said the trau­ma of los­ing her hus­band in a bru­tal way had tak­en its toll and she couldn’t sur­vive. I sup­pose I was not yet ready to live in Yemen, so I trav­eled on a Chevening schol­ar­ship to the UK to do my master’s degree in Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems Man­age­ment. I returned to Yemen a year lat­er and worked for a year as a sys­tems ana­lyst, before I real­ized I was in the wrong dis­ci­pline. That’s when I threw every­thing away and start­ed from scratch, work­ing in devel­op­ment with the Oxfam-GB pro­gram in Yemen and embark­ing on a career as a jour­nal­ist with the Yemen Times.

Issue of the Yemen Times (cour­tesy Pavel Vondra/Twitter).

In March 2005, I was appoint­ed by the board to head the news­pa­per. I became the first woman to run a nation­al peri­od­i­cal in Yemen. That first year as edi­tor in chief of a pres­ti­gious peri­od­i­cal, in a male-dom­i­nat­ed indus­try in a con­ser­v­a­tive coun­try, was very hard. Not only had I start­ed a new chal­leng­ing job, but I was also recent­ly mar­ried. The bal­ance between work and home is a myth. If it weren’t for my sup­port­ive hus­band, I would not have suc­ceed­ed in lead­ing the news­pa­per, over­haul­ing it and win­ning two inter­na­tion­al prizes by the end of 2006, the Gibran Tueni Award and the Free Media Pio­neers Award.

In ret­ro­spect, the Gebran Tueni Award was instru­men­tal in boost­ing my morale and giv­ing me strength to car­ry on in those ear­ly years of my edi­tor’s career. When I received the call inform­ing me that I had been award­ed the prize, it was a Decem­ber evening in 2006. I was work­ing on my lap­top when my lit­tle daugh­ter Aya, who was around six months old at the time, crawled up to me and began tug­ging on my leg, ask­ing for atten­tion. That was a heart-wrench­ing moment for me as a moth­er. I looked at her and asked myself, what am I doing? Why am I work­ing at this hour, try­ing to prove myself and improve media in Yemen, while my lit­tle one is ask­ing for my undi­vid­ed attention?

I stopped my work and picked her up. That is when my phone rang. It was the Gebran Tueni Award com­mit­tee, say­ing that I had won the first Tueni award ever. I hadn’t been aware that I was nom­i­nat­ed. They said that a pres­ti­gious com­mit­tee of well-known jour­nal­ists and edi­tors were aware of my work and decid­ed to bestow the award on me. That was when I found the answer to my ques­tion. I was doing all this because it mat­ters, because I was mak­ing a difference.

This mes­sage came to me again and again, espe­cial­ly in times of despair. The 2013 Oslo Busi­ness for Peace Award, and the 2015 World Eco­nom­ic Forum’s Young Glob­al Lead­ers Award also came when I was struggling.

Need­less to say, the con­stant ele­ment in my life is my hus­band and my broth­ers and sis­ter, who have always had my back and made life eas­i­er for me. And now I also find hope in my chil­dren: my daugh­ter Aya, to whom I ded­i­cat­ed an arti­cle in 2011; and my son Omar, who has nev­er known Yemen, as he had to flee when he was bare­ly two years old.

As a woman media leader in Yemen, I had to fight mul­ti­ple bat­tles, one in the media insti­tu­tion (even though I was the edi­tor, I was con­tin­u­ous­ly chal­lenged and some­times ridiculed), anoth­er in the wider indus­try, and yet anoth­er with the author­i­tar­i­an regime, which men and women work­ing in civ­il soci­ety were begin­ning to con­front. In my first weeks as the chief edi­tor of the Yemen Times, the edi­to­r­i­al depart­ment was com­prised of only male mid-to-late-career jour­nal­ists. Acts of defi­ance start­ed man­i­fest­ing them­selves, espe­cial­ly when I required them to use com­put­ers instead of writ­ing their sto­ries by hand, and demand­ed that they adhere to a pro­fes­sion­al stan­dard of work, includ­ing cit­ing sources and fact-check­ing. Because I didn’t have a jour­nal­ism degree, I had to study hard and take cours­es to under­stand the fun­da­men­tals of jour­nal­ism. It came easy to me because of my love for words. Also, my engi­neer­ing back­ground came in handy because it helped me for­mu­late log­i­cal argu­ments, espe­cial­ly in sta­tis­ti­cal and numer­i­cal infor­ma­tion. In the first year, I had to fire half of the staff and over­haul the news­room. I hired young ambi­tious women and men and cre­at­ed a young, tech­ni­cal­ly enabled and gen­der-bal­anced news­room. It wasn’t an easy task, but a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

Cho­sen out of nom­i­nees from more than 50 coun­tries, Al-sakkaf receives the Busi­ness for Peace Award in 2013 as edi­tor of the Yemen Times (cour­tesy IMS).

Most Yemeni women lead­ers, of whom there are unfor­tu­nate­ly very few, also have a per­son­al bat­tle at home with their own fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly when the lat­ter dis­ap­prove of their pub­lic engage­ment. I found inspi­ra­tion in the sto­ries of women such as Hoo­ria Mash­hour, who was a role mod­el for me. One by one, I fought and tri­umphed in each of my bat­tles, leav­ing my mark on the media scene in the country.

The upris­ing of 2011 espe­cial­ly was a tri­al by fire. We were inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, and our youth want­ed to change the regime of Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh, which had ruled for three decades. The Yemen Times played a major role in inform­ing the world about what was going in Yemen, par­tic­u­lar­ly the events of 2011, dur­ing which we cre­at­ed a record of Yemen’s Arab Spring. When Saleh sur­ren­dered pow­er to his deputy Abdrab­buh Mansur Hadi in a his­toric moment through the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil Ini­tia­tive, we rejoiced, think­ing that Yemen was saved from the civ­il war that would become the fate of Syr­ia and Libya. Lit­tle did we know that we had just delayed the inevitable for a few years.

I was quite active on the polit­i­cal scene by then, tak­ing part in sev­er­al high-lev­el com­mit­tees as part of a UN-led plan to fos­ter a nation­al dia­logue and even­tu­al­ly pro­pel Yemen into a new demo­c­ra­t­ic and inclu­sive era. I was quite vocal about Yemen and the future it deserved. At the time, I was opti­mistic — opti­mism infused my 2011 TED talk, as I invit­ed the world to see Yemen through my eyes. In 2012, I launched the first com­mu­ni­ty radio in Yemen, Radio Yemen Times in Sana’a, and fol­lowed that in 2014 with Radio Lana in Aden. Also in 2014, I was appoint­ed as the first woman Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion in my country.

Again, I faced the patri­ar­chal envi­ron­ment, only this time on a larg­er scale. Pre­vi­ous­ly, I had hoped that the high­er a woman ris­es, the eas­i­er it would be for her to assert her author­i­ty. I was wrong. In fact, the high­er we climb on the lad­der of pow­er, the more resis­tance we face, because we are per­ceived as a major threat to the patriarchy.

As if my hav­ing to face this chal­lenge was not enough, the coun­try at the time was on the verge of a full-fledged armed con­flict. Saleh had been work­ing behind the scenes, aligned him­self with the Houthis, a politi­co-reli­gious minor­i­ty, and foment­ed a coup d’état against the state, includ­ing the gov­ern­ment of which I was a member.

The Infor­ma­tion Min­istry and var­i­ous state media insti­tu­tions were raid­ed, and I found men with Kalash­nikovs in my office. Along with oth­er gov­ern­ment offi­cials, I became a tar­get. In 2014 and 2015, I bore wit­ness to the crum­bling of the state and used every tool at my dis­pos­al to inform Yeme­nis and the world about what was going on.

The Houthis used a good cop/bad cop strat­e­gy with me, as they hoped to win me over, but when I would not yield they start­ed tar­get­ing me. At one point, I found myself con­fined to my home, using my per­son­al Twit­ter account to tell the sto­ry of Yemen. Even­tu­al­ly, I had to flee the coun­try in dis­guise with my two lit­tle chil­dren in ear­ly April 2015, leav­ing every­thing behind.

It’s been sev­en years since I had to rein­vent myself for the sec­ond time. I came to the UK on a schol­ar­ship to do my PhD in Polit­i­cal Sci­ence. These days, not many peo­ple know my his­to­ry, and if they dis­cov­er that I was once a min­is­ter, they are sur­prised. Now I work as a researcher and con­sul­tant, and have expand­ed my areas of exper­tise beyond media, gen­der and pol­i­tics. I explore eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, cli­mate change and even dig­i­tal safe­ty. But while I am safe with my fam­i­ly, my coun­try con­tin­ues to burn, and like many oth­er mem­bers of the dias­po­ra, I suf­fer from survivor’s guilt. My goal now is to con­tin­ue inform­ing the world about Yemen, but also to sup­port knowl­edge-shar­ing and empow­er­ment of cit­i­zens any­where under the sun.

 

Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf is a renowned independent Yemeni researcher with expertise in media, gender, democratic transitions, climate change and development. She was the first woman appointed as Minister of Information and before that was chief editor of the country’s first English language newspaper, the Yemen Times. She is co-founder of the Connecting Yemen initiative to advocate for accessible and affordable internet in Yemen. Al-Sakkaf is a recipient of many international and local awards, and was recognized by the BBC as one of 100 Women who changed the world, and well as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in 2015. She has published extensively in the fields of politics, media, and development with many policy, research papers, and book chapters, and has authored two books on Yemeni women’s empowerment. She also published a book collection on the experiences of Yemeni women as electoral candidates available in Arabic and English. She is presently the Director of Research at Arabia Brain Trust. She tweets @nadiasakkaf.

Arab newspaperscensorshipdeath threatsHouthisjournalismSana'aYemen

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Hassan AlAnsi
Hassan AlAnsi
1 month ago

What a brave and inspi­ra­tional saga!
I hope and pray for heal­ing and recov­ery of our beloved country.

Last edited 1 month ago by Hassan AlAnsi