GUBAIYA, Yemen – The women in this village never earned money, never left home without the permission of their husbands. It had been that way for as long as anyone could remember.
Then the war arrived.
Now before dawn each day, mothers and daughters walk to the mountainous scrub to gather wood, which they turn into charcoal and sell. The men stay home and care for the children, and sometimes do the cooking and the cleaning.
“I feel the war has changed my personality,” said Ayde Ahmed Shabon, 33, her voice soft but clear. “I feel equal to the man now.”
Yemen has consistently ranked among the worst countries for women and girls, and the war has only made life harder. But in pockets of the Middle East’s poorest country, an unexpected social recalibration appears to be underway, aid workers say.
As the war destroys jobs and countless men join the fight, a growing number of women are providing income for their families. Often, they are working in areas that had been considered the purview of men or culturally unacceptable for women in Yemen’s ultraconservative tribal society. Some are now butchers, barbers and chicken sellers, interacting socially in ways their mothers and grandmothers could never have imagined.
In a region where women historically have had much less power than men, the changes have given many Yemeni women new influence in their families and community. But they have also had a negative effect.
“Women are becoming more empowered to make decisions for the household,” said Wael Ibrahim, Yemen country director for the aid agency CARE. “But many women have also reported that conflicts in their homes have risen.”
Five years ago, there was great optimism for Yemeni women.
Thousands took part in the revolt – part of the Arab Spring – that upended the nation’s political order and ended the three-decade rule of autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. Women even took leadership roles in organizing protests across the country, the most well known being Tawakkul Karman, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
By 2014, women were making headway in seeking greater representation in government and asserting their rights. Child marriages, for example, started to decline. The advances, though, barely reached remote areas like Gubaiya, where culture and traditions rule and modern laws enshrining women’s rights are not enforced.
The following year, rebels known as Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and drove out President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government. The rebels now control Yemen’s northwest, and Hadi’s forces rule swaths of the south and east. A regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and supported by Washington, has intervened on Hadi’s side.
U.N. humanitarian officials say the conflict has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis, including civilians. About 3 million people have fled their homes. Two-thirds of the country’s 27 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.
Since September 2015, violence against women and girls, including rapes and domestic assaults, have risen 70 percent, according to aid officials, and child marriages have spiked. The conflict has deprived more girls and women of access to education and health care, and their involvement in civic activities has all but ended.
“Perhaps the most concerning social consequence of the war has been its impact on the rights and situation of women,” said Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser for the aid agency Oxfam America. “The assault on Yemen’s economy has helped break down barriers to women’s participation in the workforce. Unfortunately, women have effectively been shut out of the political process.”
And yet, the conflict has reshaped their role within the family.
With Saudi-led coalition airstrikes and clashes eviscerating the economy, many families are trying to make money any way they can. Thousands of men have been killed or seriously injured in the war, leaving women with greater authority in their households.
In Gubaiya, a sedate hamlet in northwestern Yemen, many men worked in neighboring Saudi Arabia on construction sites, at restaurants and in menial jobs. With the border closed, job opportunities vanished. Some men left to fight; others went south to find work in Sanaa and never returned. Those who remained tried to care for their families.
First, they used up their savings. Then, they were forced to sell their cattle.
Running out of options, Mohammed Kuweit, 41, finally turned to someone he never expected to ask for help: his wife. They made a plan. She would collect wood every day to turn into charcoal to sell, and he would seek work as a day laborer. On days when he found no work, he would help her.
“I’m not happy, but I am forced to do this,” Kuweit said. “No one can accept seeing his wife go out and suffer.”
Now, Kuweit is charting new territory again. He helps clean the house and gets water from the well. If his wife arrives home late from work, he helps prepare dinner. Kuweit insists that he is “still the one in control” but concedes that their relationship has changed.
“In the past, my wife would have a say in the running of the house,” Kuweit said. “Now, I consult with her on more matters, especially anything related to income. The workload is more divided now.”
A recent survey conducted by CARE, Oxfam and others involved in humanitarian work in four of Yemen’s 22 provinces found that the labor reversals had caused increased conflict between husbands and wives in some areas. But in other areas, the survey said there was greater appreciation of women’s and men’s roles and “an improved sense of how gender roles are mutually reliant.” In particular, there was “an increased openness” to women working in jobs considered “shameful” including as “butchers, barbers or chicken sellers.”
For most of her life, Shabon wasn’t allowed to participate in the community or seek employment. She was forced to drop out of school to marry and have children.
“I used to just stay at home and take care of my children,” said the mother of eight, who, like every woman here, wore a black abaya and veil that covered her body and face save for her eyes.
But these days, she heads to the scrub to gather wood after she makes breakfast. Her husband, Hassan Abdo Ibrahim, feeds their children, gathers water and washes the clothes while she is out.
“At home, we are equal. There is no difference,” he said a bit grudgingly. “I have no choice.”
When she returns home, he helps her with the wood to make charcoal, and together they go to the market. Each bag, which takes a week to prepare, sells for $3.50.
Shabon said she even attends workshops run by local aid agencies in nearby areas. “I just tell my husband I am traveling, and he doesn’t mind,” she said, adding that he goes with her if a neighbor can look after the children.
The question now is: What will happen to their relationship, and her role, after the war ends?
“Hopefully, I’ll be side by side with him for better or for worse,” she said, before turning her attention to a half-filled bag of charcoal in front of their mud-brick house, where her husband was waiting to assist.