Monday, May 12, 2008

From the Guardian (UK):
In Yemen, the situation is more serious even than it is among its neighbours. In terms of freedom, it is probably Saudi Arabian women who have the hardest time of all. But even there, females have access to education and healthcare. In Yemen, an absence of citizenship rights for women horribly combines with crushing poverty to create a society in which women are not only the property of men, unable to leave the house without the permission of a male relative and vulnerable to arbitrary arrest on the street even once they have it, but are also likely to be illiterate, to be married before they reach puberty, and to die in childbirth. 'Our family law is the worst in the Middle East for women,' says Suha Bashren, a Yemeni who works as a campaign officer for Oxfam. 'It is medieval.' Does the fact that the law permits Yemeni women to drive - something that is illegal in Saudi Arabia - make up for any of this? You'll forgive Suha for thinking that it does not.

Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world, with a Human Development Index of 149 (out of 177 countries), and a poverty level of over 40 per cent. Only 35.9 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water. For women, though, life is especially tough. A woman has only a one-in-three chance of being able to read and write (some 71 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate, as opposed to 31 per cent of men; in most other Middle Eastern countries, the average female illiteracy rate stands at 35 per cent). If a Yemeni woman has a baby, she has only a one-in-five chance of being attended by a midwife, and she has a one-in-39 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth over her lifetime. As for rights, she has none - or very few. The law does not state what age a woman must be before she marries, which means that many females find themselves with a husband when they are as young as 12, something that has a serious impact on maternal mortality rates, and which can also result in other serious health problems, such as incontinence.

Male power is total, and not only in politics (one woman MP out of 301 members, 35 women represented in local councils out of 6,000). A woman cannot, for instance, marry without the permission of a male relative; if she has no father, she must ask her brother, or a cousin and so on until, if she has no male relatives at all, she must turn to a judge. Women are regularly the victims of arbitrary arrests, picked up for 'immoral acts' such as adultery, smoking or eating in a restaurant with a 'boyfriend'. It is not only the police who can make such arrests; power is invested in all kinds of men from the minister of the interior to local neighbourhood chiefs, even coastguards.

'Any uniform will do,' says Suha. The country's prisons are full of women who should not be there - their 'crimes' are so vague, even they are uncertain as to what they have done wrong - and many of whom have never faced a trial. Compared to all this, the way that women are expected to dress is unimportant, a cosmetic trifle. But they are highly covered up, and while this may be voluntary - this is a deeply religious society - to an outsider, even one who has travelled widely in the Middle East, it is bewitching and unnerving in equal measure. In Hadramout, a rural province in the south, I see women working in the fields whose every body part is covered in black fabric: even their hands, even their eyes. So, your vision adjusts. You stop expecting to see women's faces. You look at your own in the mirror of a hotel bathroom, and feel vaguely amazed.

...The concept of haram (shame) is so embedded in the culture that people do not always say what they mean, even - or perhaps especially - when asked a direct question. You need a translator not only of Arabic, but of the subtle language of avoidance and denial.

Say'un is a town of 30,000 people in the biggest wadi or watercourse, Wadi Hadhramawt, in the Arabian peninsula. Hadhramawt is extremely inaccessible. ...In Say'un, Oxfam is trying to improve reproductive healthcare, chiefly by funding the training of midwives and traditional birth attendants (TBAs). This is more important work than you may realise. In this part of Yemen - rural, religious, isolated - women are often unwilling to be treated by doctors, for the reason that they are men; it would be shameful for a woman to show her body to a man, even if the alternative meant that she might bleed to death. Getting more women into the healthcare system is therefore vital. 'Our midwives work in the hospital in Say'un,' says Basima Omer, a doctor involved in the programme. 'They save lives. But they also go back to their communities with new information about hygiene, high blood pressure ...' She sips her coffee - in the country that gave the world coffee, everyone drinks Nescafé with condensed milk - behind her veil. So how on earth did she become a doctor? She laughs, quietly. 'Oh, I went on hunger strike for three days until my father agreed.'

In a side room in the hospital, I meet some of these newly qualified midwives - and find proof of something I was told before I came here: that in Yemen there are women who, having taken the veil when they reach puberty, show their faces to no one - not even their own mothers - until they marry. For this reason, though we are in a private room, I am able to see the face of only one of the midwives (she lifts her veil because she is a divorcee).

...Wameedh and Suha take me to Hudaydah prison and, after a long wait on the governor's Seventies leather sofa beneath a creaking ceiling fan, I'm taken to meet women on whose cases Oxfam's volunteer lawyers work in their free time (the prison governor is unaware that I am journalist). The women's prison is a squat concrete building, its communal cells built around a yard in which washing can be hung in the sun. The place is clean and tidy, the cells, open to the yard, freshly scrubbed by the 52 inmates who inhabit them. But it's shocking how many of the women have babies, and how terribly young some of the prisoners are; when a warder gathers them to ask for volunteers to meet me, it's as though I've walked into a classroom rather than a prison. S (for their own safety, I am unable to identify the women) is 21, A is 22 and M just 14. Their stories are patchy and dreamlike, a quality that perhaps catches the sophistry that led to their arrest.

'I was visiting a friend,' says M. 'We were in a friend's house. We were chewing qat. Suddenly, I was arrested for prostitution. I've been here 11 months.' M, who has been in prison for two months, recounts that she was watching TV in a neighbour's house when she was arrested on suspicion of having committed an immoral act.

A tells me that a man offered to pay her for sex; when she refused, he took her to an interrogation centre where she was beaten until she admitted 'to everything I had done in the past'. She has been in prison for three months. None of the women has so far faced a trial.

Between them, Wameedh and Aminah unpick their stories for me. The friend whom S was visiting in her friend's house was probably a boyfriend. In the case of M, Wameedh believes that she is probably too ashamed to admit to me that she was having sex with a boy as well as watching television with him, though she later passed a virginity test. A has fallen victim to a local self-appointed religious vigilante, who is making it his business to arrest women on the streets. S begins to cry. 'My family are poor,' she says. 'They cannot do anything.' (Some prisoners are released if their families can pay up - irrespective of the so-called legal process.) The truth drawn out, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I am lost for words.

... Most of the women gathered here, all of them married as teenagers, insist that they have been happy in their marriages. Then one, Shueiyah, who suddenly found herself with a husband at 12, before she'd even had her first period, tells me how horrible it was.

'At first, I was happy. There was singing, I had new shoes. Then I was alone with him in my room. I was afraid. I started to cry. He called his mother. She had to explain: "This is your husband. Don't be afraid. You're grown-up now. Act like a woman." I couldn't say no to my parents, but I didn't know what marriage involved.'

She didn't mind the cooking and cleaning. The only thing she didn't like was the night time. She used to try and find excuses to stay away from him. 'We argued a lot. But I couldn't explain why to his family. I couldn't tell them that it was because of sex. He wanted to have sex every night. No one told me anything about sex.'

She gave birth to a son, but four years later she and her husband divorced. We seize the moment. Was she too young? Would she put a daughter of hers through such a marriage? She laughs. 'I would be happy for my daughter to marry early.' When Suha starts to argue with her, Shueiyah becomes annoyed. It isn't long before she brings up Aisha.

On the journey back to our hotel, Suha lets off steam. She wonders aloud how she can prove to people that refusing to marry off children is not haram. Then she invites me to join her and Wameedh at the house of one of the Oxfam lawyers to chew qat. I do join them, though I don't chew qat; I don't have the taste for it. Our hostess has prepared delicious food, and she lights a water pipe for us. She dabs at our ears with exotic scents as if we were in a harem. No one is veiled; there are no men in the house. We could go on all night. Abdullah, our driver, is happy to wait for us: he is lying with the guard on a divan outside, chewing qat, in the cool of the night. It's a happy evening, our last before we go back to Sana'a. I admire these women more than I can say. So I get out my camera. I'm going to take a picture. But, no. Our hostess - a lawyer who gives up hours of her time fighting the cases of abused and forgotten women - gives me a big smile. 'I'm sorry but you can't take a photograph of me,' she says. 'Not like this.' She points to her unveiled face. 'I must ask my husband's permission, and he is out with his friends.' Like I said, nothing is straightforward here. Suha chews on her qat furiously.


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