Social & Community

Armed Yemeni Women: Fashionable Defence

• Girl: My father encouraged me to carry it and he trained me how to use it.

• Female employees: our work environment circumstances require us to keep small pistols.

• Girls purchase weapons in instalments, and for fashion

By / Najla’a Al-Shaibani

It is common in Yemeni cities to have arms stores, which are seen by the majority as a necessity in life, next to grocery stores. It is also common to find firearms in each and every Yemeni house, as they are considered as an integral part of one’s honour, as a ‘rite of passage’ in Yemeni tribes and as a means of self-defence for them and their relatives.

However, it is unusual to see city women and girls carrying light or the so-called ‘white weapons’ inside their handbags. This is a novel and unfamiliar trend in the Yemeni society.

Indeed, this phenomenon completely contradicts the feminine characteristics of women, especially those that live in a conservative society that cherishes and provides them with protection, safety and stability.

So what pushes a woman to carry a weapon? And how does the society consider armed women? And if the prospect of armed women is not received well, how can we eradicate this phenomenon in Yemen? Ruaa traced the case all these threads back to their source in an attempt to figure out answers for this unaccustomed phenomenon.

Carrying arms for a Yemeni woman has become a source of pride, a prestige and, sometimes, a means of protection. “My father,” Sua’ad, a young woman, said “maintains a high social status. He is worried about me and my siblings’ safety, so he bought us guns; mine is small and light. ‘‘My father taught me how to shoot in case someone should attack me. It is a means of protection and self-defence. At the beginning, I was uncomfortable with the matter, but then, when I talked to my friends, I discovered that most of them carry various guns in their bags and now I find it normal”.

However, another young woman, Ms. Muna Ghalib, stresses her possession of a weapon is both “a kind of pride and a feeling of protection at the same time. It has become a fashion recently and gives others the idea that I belong to a rich family, even though I come from a poor family. I got the gun from my brother’s friend, and I am still paying it off in instalments from my salary.

Laila is an employee in a private company where she works late nights. Her work conditions forced her to buy a small gun that she “never leaves behind”. Ekhlas and Huda are sisters living in the city of Sana’a and working in a village 50 km away. Therefore, they cross a long, uninhabited way to reach their work. “The road is too long and deserted” said one of the two sisters, “and we are alone, and it is for this that we asked our uncle to buy us two guns to protect ourselves. Since then, psychologically, we feel safe and settled; guns are the best way for selfdefence”.

Inside college

Faten is a college student. What motivated her to carry a weapon is the fact that the college security personnel were so strict when searching male students and leaving the females unsearched” she said. “I cannot leave my gun at home because I do not feel safe unless it is in my bag”. Ms. Afrah used to carry a poisoned knife or dagger, but that required so much strength and physical fitness which characteristically girls do not possess. So today she has a gun, which, in her opinion, is the best kind of weapon for self-defence.

Another story is that of Manal. Her car was stolen in front of a hospital when she was paying a visit to a relative. After a long search, the police found the car in a street stripped of its most important parts. So Manal decided to carry a gun in her bag in case of any emergency. However she does not prefer to carry a gun inside the city because, as she describes, she thought she was living in a peaceful and safe society, even though this incident made her change her mind and taken the gun as a companion for good.

Resentment and concerns

Not all Yemeni girls want to carry weapons and nor would they all feel safe with one in their possession.

Amal was forced by her father and her elder brothers to carry a gun, and this annoys her greatly. She feels that the gun hinders her movements and prevents her from attending conferences and entering parks because when she is searched she doesn’t know what to do or where to hide the gun, and is therefore obliged to go home.

Lina’s family heard about an incident of a girl that had been kidnapped, so her father decided to buy her a weapon. Since then, Lina has been worried and uncomfortable. Her distress is easily seen by others. She believes that there is no need for her to carry a weapon since she is in a city, however, she should abide with Yemeni societal norms.

Omm Ayman disagrees with the notion of girls carry weapons in public around cities, regardless of their reasons, describing this behavious as “inappropriate…. [because] conservative girls will not be subject to any harassment” thus, Omm Ayman vehemently rejects the idea that it is necessary for girls to carry weapons.

A consequence of modernity

Abdullah al-Nuwairah, who is interested in security issues, believes that carrying weapon by women has not become a widespread phenomenon, even if it exists among some Yemeni women, particularly female students and employees who carry arms small enough to be concealed in a purse.

“This is not a civilized behaviour anyway” she says.

She added, “It could be the surrounding circumstances that imposes a fear or anxiety of assault, and so a women’s carrying of arms is a direct result of the existence of crime, which is found in any modern society. Usually criminals do not commit crimes against women in traditions that actively seek to protect women, and so they always consider attacking women and children a great dishonour. Thus women have always been safeguarded here, even during times of war. Hence ‘‘it is necessarily contradictory for a woman to carry both make-up and a weapon in her same handbag.”

Arms trade

It is not easy to gain journalistic insight into the underworld of the arms trade in Yemen. Most arms dealers refused to talk to Rua’a about whether Yemeni women come to them to buy weapons. However, after making great efforts, No’man, an arms dealer, agreed to talk. He started with the weapons prices indicating that, recently, prices of arms especially pistols and guns designed for women have increased. “There are Russian pistols of different types, sizes and prices,” said No’man. “An average gun, for instance, costs between YR 10,000 and 15,000, which is about $50 to 75. A small silver American gun is $350 to 400, but a ‘top of the range’ model, i.e. one that is small, light weapon with a quick rate of fire, is priced at about $600, but it is not in demand and is rarely available.”

He explained that some men who buy guns for their wives or female relatives request they (the guns) to be small and not require force when shooting.

Unlike young men, these people do not request the guns to be of elegant design. “It’s rare,” No’man went on , “for a woman to come to arms stores herself, and if she does, she never comes alone.” He said that if a woman has no choice, she would come with other women and the buyer is usually discreet concerning personal details or where she lives. “Women who buy guns probably come from urban areas and their appearance indicates they are employees or businesswomen,” concluded No’man.

Maria al-Qubtati, a policewoman staff sergeant, said it is not good, especially in cities where there are security and surveillance measures. “There are also police foot patrols that can provide protection to girls if harassed on streets, so there’s no need for women to carry arms in cities, or even around the country,” asserted Maria, “because Yemeni society places a great value upon the protection of women everywhere.” She added that she has noticed during her work that most of the arms owned by women are not licensed.

Negative practice

“Women are part of the society and thus they should feel certain that streets are safe and that they live under a government that protects them, so that they would feel there is no need to carry guns by them, or even by men”, said Nabila al-Mufti, chairwoman of the Lawyers’ Union Rights and Freedoms Committee. “Now,” al-Mufti proceeded to say, “we need / want / have a law that regulates personal bodyguard escorts and carrying arms. Therefore, Yemeni businesswomen will need security guards, which is a negative practice. We aspire to settle all disputes peacefully, and be a society in which policemen carry sticks instead of guns.”

She explained that(i) imitation of men, or (ii) apprehension of becoming subject to harassment. However, she admits that there is a precedence where women are harassed. Al-Mufti asserted that carrying arms in cities is a socially detrimental phenomenon, regardless of whether it is by men or women.

Behavioural disorder

All this raises the question, “is carrying weapons normal for women?”Prof. Najat al-Saim, a psychologist at Sana’a University said, “Women carrying weapons in a civil society is not normal.” She added that the reasons may be both the spread of robbery, and feeling threatened by others, specially

when there is a lack of effective law enforcement. She affirmed that because women are naturally gentler than men it is uncharacteristic of them to have weapons.

She also said that such practice make women more aggressive, and they can eventually suffer some sort of behavioural disorder or attitudinal change. However, she continued, it is natural for a woman to have a gun for protection if she is alone at home while the man is away.

Facing the problem

“Confronting this problem requires continual and diligent efforts from society, more than it needs political resolution,” said Izzudin al-Asbahi, chairman of Human Rights Information and Training Centre (HRITC).

He said that the matter is multifaceted with many legal problems and cultural and social issues. According to al-Asbahi, possible solutions include drafting laws that prohibit, and not regulate, carrying weapons. Such laws would then be applied gradually, over a series of stages, starting with main cities, eventually being enforced at all levels and to all people, including government officials, politicians and social dignitaries. Also, to help solve the issue, the law needs to be enforced more seriously, and we must minimize the number of agencies that grant arms licenses.

“We should raise awareness among people about the hazards of handling weapons and we should find ways to change the unspoken belief that a man or woman’s person is not complete unless they carrying weapons.”