Sunday, 26 December 2010

An American woman peeks behind Yemen’s veil


Stereotypes of violence, oppression belie more nuanced reality with shopping malls and university educations for women in Yemen.

SANA’A, Yemen -- To Americans, Yemen is synonymous with Al-Qaida and terrorism. As an American journalist covering the Middle East, I had to responsibly check and double-check with colleagues, reporters, Americans stationed there before deciding to fly to Sana’a to see a country many know little about. I went to learn.

Yemen – bordering wealthy Saudi Arabia and Oman -- is one of the Middle East’s poorest countries, but beautiful and remarkable in an ancient way. Brownish houses framed with white etching and glorious, arched stained-glass windows line paved streets set among mountainous terrain.

Vast discrepancies between the rich and poor; the souk in the old city seen against a backdrop of dusk, created more the feeling of stepping onto a movie set (perhaps Arabian Nights?), filled with costumed men draped in robes, each with his requisite jimbuya – the ever present Yemeni sword worn in the belt.

Women in jelbabs, the full black gowns, all with hijabs, headscarves – some beautifully adorned and some black – and many with the black veil, the niqab, which antagonizes many Westerners.

I was set on de-mystifying the woman in the veil.

So, throughout the several days I spent in Sana’a, the capital, everywhere I went I spoke with women: young, old, poor, rich, married to one man, sister to other wives, even divorced (yes, women can divorce and even initiate a divorce in Yemen).

Covering a coffee conference promoting Arabica Naturals, there were many women – farmers, businesswomen and students – who were present. But it was the young university students, 28 and 29 years old, attending the University of Sana’a, who changed my perception of the veil. Not married at 15, as is the stereotype, these young women may be veiled, but are the rising stars of Yemen.

They want careers, marriage to one man and to improve the status of women in their country. A law raising the marriageable age for Yemeni girl to 18 is awaiting approvals.

Tradition, which has such a deep stronghold on society, has kept these women masked: afraid to push the envelope “too quickly.” It’s a small community, and it was made clear that everyone knows each other.

All I could see were the eyes. All covered in black. I watched the women sitting on benches set against a green-fabric-covered walled fence, each bench adorned with a big, round Pepsi logo, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin Robbins ice cream (Yemen has modern shopping malls, too).

It was simultaneously surreal and real. There were women smoking pipes and working on computers; drinking coffee at the local coffee-house owned by a lovely couple from Wisconsin who had relocated.

The tugging sides of Yemen, the ancient rituals and long tribal histories juxtaposed against modern and Western society today are the daily struggles these women face.

I was invited to a private Qat session, where women come together (as do men, separately) and chew this narcotic-like plant that is Yemen’s biggest cash crop. Unfortunately, this plant is the social-connect of the country. It also causes physical damage to agriculture as it sucks dry the water needed for the coffee plants.

Everywhere, people are seen walking around with a telltale lump protruding from beneath their cheeks, upsetting his or her facial symmetry. Since imbibing liquor is prohibited by Islam, the Qat sessions are the place to “let it all hang out.” Many come -- some chew, some don’t. Let the record show this reporter did not.

I entered the blue door of the home of one of Yemen’s most outspoken and prominent media personalities. Dogs inside and outside the home dispelled another belief about Muslim society. This powerbroker covered her head, but dressed in colorful street clothes, right down to her attractive sandals and polished toe nails.

This woman has publicly taken on the prime minister on issues of corruption, and is known for “breaking the glass ceiling.” Today, her passion is encouraging education and bringing women in media together.

I sat in the salon with low benches around the room, food around the floor and fascinating conversation filling the air. One by one, a woman would enter and disrobe, revealing fashionable, modern Western clothing.

The charming young photographer, who had accompanied me all day, was now dressed in a sleeveless sweater, miniskirt and a head of beautiful black curls that had been hidden from view during the many hours we had spent working together.

The Yemeni model had cleavage exposed and explained that she “had to try modeling to show I can be a Yemeni woman and do it.” Today, she works for an NGO.

The young Czech woman who worked on the Island of Socotra – an impoverished island, often without electricity – was present as well as the daughter of a diplomat close to the prime minister; a journalist whose husband doesn’t want her writing (“too many people will know you, but maybe you can write a book”) and the most interesting of all: a woman in charge of the mosque. She came from a strong, in-bred radical background.

Having fled to Yemen from Kuwait, she re-examined her life, intent on moderation. She, too, removed the naqab, and shared thoughts about women and their status in Yemen. She said she can accomplish more behind the veil.

Yemen’s future for women began in that room.

They turned to me in terms of the media’s role and vented their frustration that the “whole story – the good and the bad of Yemen – the truth” is not being told. I turned to them and said, “You have the collective power to change the next generation. Look how far each of you has gone in the last decade. Together, imagine what you can do in the future.”

There are more women than men in universities in Yemen. And slowly, women are occupying government positions. I interviewed a university professor who owns her own businesses and employs men. “It’s tough, but it’s changing,” she said.

I tried to compare these women to pre-suffrage in America in the early part of the 20th century. It’s difficult to envision it in 2010, but that’s where Americans need to try to place themselves in the shoes of these women and behind the veil.

Americans want to see their version of freedom and democracy be accepted overnight by Middle Eastern nations – an objective seen as unrealistic and unjust by the locals.

Look at the woman photographer who cannot photograph everywhere: she took her veil off and both her husband and father respect her for it. The woman journalist, who makes half the meager wages of her male counterpart, wants to learn and wants Western training in order to teach journalism to other women.

Although in her 40s, she has never married because she “doesn’t want to be subservient to any man.”

And then there’s a remarkable woman who is editor-in-chief of a local newspaper – rare in the Middle East – who I have known for years and whom I truly admire and now, have finally met. She is the sort of bold woman willing to do what it takes to break the glass ceiling.

Felice Friedson is president of The Media Line News Agency ( and can be reached at

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