Women Irate at Remarks by President of Yemen
By Laura Kasinof
The New York Times
April 16, 2011
SANA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s suggestion that antigovernment protesters in the capital were in violation of Islamic law because women were allowed to mix with men stirred a women’s rights march in the capital on Saturday, as thousands of women in this staunchly conservative country made Mr. Saleh an object of public derision.
Mr. Saleh’s comments on Friday, in which he called on the antigovernment protesters at Sana University “to prevent the mixing on University Avenue, which is not approved by Islam,” seemed only to further embolden female protesters in Yemen, where virtually all women are covered in black head to toe, including a niqab, or face veil.
“The reason why people are upset is that you cannot talk about women’s honor here,” said Atiaf Alwazir, a Yemeni woman raised in the United States who is now a youth organizer. “That is really a big shame. It’s a black shame. It shames the tribe, the husband, the brother, the whole family.”
“You tell us mixing is haram,” she added, using the Arabic word for sin. “Killing is haram.”
The women surrounding Ms. Alwazir chanted, “Oh Ali, you’re a lowlife, the honor of women is not cheap,” and, “Oh Bilqis, oh Bilqis, tell your father we don’t want crazy talk,” in reference to both one of Mr. Saleh’s daughters and an ancient queen who ruled Yemen thousands of years ago.
The government did not release an official response in the wake of the president’s comments. The state-run Saba news agency said that a march in support of Mr. Saleh was also held in the capital on Saturday, although that rally could not be independently confirmed. The news agency reported that women at that march demanded that “young protestors return to the right path and the rule of reason and logic, and not be a tool of destruction and sabotage in hands of the opposition parties.”
The antigovernment protesters, meanwhile, said that the remarks from Mr. Saleh, whom Yemenis do not consider particularly devout, had backfired.
“My father wouldn’t let me go to protest, he said it’s prohibited,” said Safa Gorush, a 23-year-old student standing within the cordoned off area of the protest for women. “But after what the president said yesterday, he said ‘Go, prove him wrong.’ ”
“The president always warned us that the opposition,” which is dominated by Islamists, “don’t want women to leave the house and don’t want women to work, so that’s why we should support the president,” Ms. Gorush added. “But I saw that it is the exact opposite.”
Many female protesters said they faced resistance from their families over their political activism. In traditional tribal culture, which is dominant outside cities, it is taboo to ask a man for his wife’s name, women never eat with men and many girls are married off at a young age, uneducated.
Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women, however, are not legislated as they are in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to drive. Women hold prominent roles in Yemeni society, and many of those participating in the antigovernment protests are outspoken, including the influential youth protest leader Tuwakil Karman.
As the women’s march flowed into the main sit-in area on Rabat Street on Saturday, qat-chewing men lined the route, arms linked, to protect the women. Photographers and cameramen stood atop cars so they could film the women, but not get too close.
In a sea of black abayas, the women pumped their fists in the air and called the president a coward — in a single, high-pitched shout.
“I’ve lost my voice from screaming so much,” Ghaida Abu-Hatim, a university student, said from behind her niqab.