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15. June 2010

Nadia Al-Sakkaf © N.Al-Sakkaf

Nadia Al-Sakkaf

Yemen - “Education instead of Beards”

An interview with Nadia Al-Sakkaf

Nadia al Sakkaf, leading journalist in Yemen, publisher/editor in chief of the Yemen Times was invited to a conference in Vienna by Women without Borders and the Austrian Foundation for World Population. Michaela Krimmer from the Austrian magazine Südwind lead an interview with her about women´s rights, Islam, and women in leading positions.

In Yemen, women face many obstacles. Islam is one of those obstacles only when it is exploited by politics, says Nadia al-Sakkaf, one of Yemen’s few female journalists.

Südwind: Is there a public debate about women’s rights in Yemen?

Nadia al-Sakkaf: Definitely. Thousands of girls recently marched to the parliament to protest against child marriage. That really caused a stir. But the entire public debate is led by organizations. “Normal” citizens would not otherwise get involved, they wouldn’t do anything. It goes so far that one frequently has to pick them up from an agreed-upon location, and then bring them back there. People aren’t proactive. This also has to do with the Qat, which is chewed for six hours a day. Qat is increasingly becoming a problem with women, as well. (Editor’s note: Qat is a popular, widespread drug in Yemen. The green leaves are chewed, and its initial stimulating effect causes fatigue when consumed in large amounts.)

S: How widespread is marriage to underage girls?

NaS: The only figures I have come from a 2006 Oxfam report, and they are limited to three areas in Yemen in which child marriage is common. There, 40 percent of girls under the age of 18 were married off; the average age at marriage was 15. We need laws that are followed. Awareness needs to be created in society that getting married to a ten year old girl is not a good thing. But when there is no law, then one cannot fight for it. The parliament will soon deliberate on a law that will establish 17 as the minimum age for marriage. (Editor’s note: This law was not passed.)

S: How many women are there in politics or in other leading positions?

NaS: Not many. There is one woman in the parliament, and she is not very effective. There are two female ministers. But being in a certain position and having power are not the same things. There are also men in good positions who don’t have power.

There are some female journalists in the media, but not in decision-making positions. Unless it’s a women’s magazine. The Yemen Times is a family business. And I could only become the editor because my father wanted it. We publish in English, we do things a little bit differently, and we have more leeway. We can report on certain things that the Arabic-language newspapers can’t write about.

S: What is the status of women’s rights and Islam in Yemen?

NaS: The debate is extremely heated—and it is being led almost exclusively by men. The problem is that most Islamic scholars are men. They see the issue not only from the Islamic standpoint, but also from their male point of view. They find the places in the Koran that they like, that they want to transfer to the Yemeni society.
There are some women who independently study Islam. Some organizations are supporting these women. There is a separate program for Muftias. They are women who study the Koran and who pass on their interpretations of the Koran. It is a difficult path for these few pioneers, because it is tightly controlled and full of obstacles.

S: What prevents women from shaping the public discourse?

NaS: The first hurdle is the lack of education and knowledge. In order to debate, one needs a certain level of education—and women have to prove this. Some men just grow a beard and become a religious authority. But a woman can’t grow a beard. She has to study much more assiduously.

The next hurdle after education is the public sphere. Many religious women are scared to stand up in public. They are completely veiled and have shaky voices. They must be encouraged to raise their voices.

The third obstacle is political: Islam is politically abused. An example: Al-Zindani is one of the Salafi leaders (Editor’s note: conservative branch of Sunni Islam) in Yemen. He was educated in Afghanistan with Bin Laden and is on the US terror list. In Yemen he is very popular, very powerful, and he has his own university, the Imam University. Saudi Arabia frequently pays him to promote Salafi beliefs. Sometimes he is seen in public with Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, even though he is a liberal person. The next day, the President says something completely different than he did earlier with Al-Zindani. Politics is a game of cards. Sometimes they play Islam card, then a different card. Depending on what is needed at the moment.

I do not think that Islamization is taking place in Yemen, that we are becoming more radical, or that there are increasing numbers of beards and veils. Ten years ago, Yemen was far more conservative. I see more openness today. The political leadership determines where Islam is going, and for what causes it is abused.

S: Are there institutions to which women can turn?

NaS: In Yemen you don’t go to the police, because they make everything worse. In case of a car accident, you try and take care of everything yourself as quickly as possible, before the police hear of it. It is even worse for women, because they are rarely out in public. If a woman is attacked and raped and she goes to the police, she will first be ignored. Then she is accused of provoking the attack or wanting it.

A story: A 40-year-old woman from an impoverished area was always treated for her epilepsy in the same clinic. One day the clinic was closed, so she went to a different one. As part of the treatment, she had to lie still for about thirty minutes, hooked up to an IV. A medical student took advantage of the situation and raped her. When she regained consciousness, she went to the police and filed a complaint. She was poor and unkempt, and the policewoman’s first reaction was “Why would anyone want you?” No one believed that a noble medical student would want a poor, dirty woman. But she fought. There are a few good lawyers who are fighting for change in the country, and who took on her case pro bono. She won the case. The Yemeni Women’s Union secured the lawyer for the woman. It is an NGO that works for the rights of women. They connect recent law graduates with law offices. There they gain experience and must simultaneously represent destitute women. There are a number of such initiatives. Step by step, the vital civil society will create change. Yemeni women have been extremely oppressed. Change can only come from the women, and by supporting them.

S: How does the conservative society influence your work? Can you operate as freely as your male colleagues do?

NaS: There are two types of women in Yemen. Those like me, who just go out and do their work. The other type of woman still faces barriers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her. More and more doors are closing. If you break through the barriers, then the whole world is open to you. This also has to do with international support. Whoever comes to Yemen contacts me, interviews me, mentions my name. This continues to strengthen my position.

Yemeni society is dominated by men, but there is also a culture of male courtesy toward women. If you get on a full bus, two men immediately stand up and offer you their seat. One for the seat, and the other, so that the seat next to you remains free.

It is the same at a press conference. The male colleagues have to throw elbows to get a spot. The female colleague will probably stand a little further away, but when she raises her hand to ask a question, she will immediately be called upon. When you call a Minister as a woman, you immediately get an appointment. It is frequently easier for women to get information. Women can enter the male spheres, but conversely, a man will never be allowed to penetrate the female sphere.

The editor then usually creates the big obstacle. A woman writes a great economic analysis, and he will smile and ask her to write a story about children.

S: Do Islamists threaten such women?

NaS: Not as long as they do not step on their toes. But when they start dealing with one of “their” topics, it gets difficult. For example: child marriage. The Islamists want to continue to be allowed to marry 15-year old girls. If a woman speaks out against it, they might not attack her directly, but they will talk about how amoral our society has become, that everything is going down the drain, and that women are becoming shameless—one can meet them on the street, they are showing their bodies. But men cannot simply confront women. For this reason, female Islamists are being brought on board, so that they can attack these women.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf in the only female editor and one of the few female journalists in Yemen. The Austrian Foundation for World Population and International Cooperation invited her to Vienna.


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