By Maria Yahya Saleh
A Question for the President
I had never dreamed of getting the chance to pose a question to a sitting president, but I got my chance a few months ago. In September 2012, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi paid a visit to Washington DC. Having grown up in Yemen, I was intrigued by his arrival. And as a woman, I wanted to hear about his vision for women’s role in the new Yemen.
Right as President Hadi’s question and answer session was coming to an end, I managed to wrestle away the microphone. I asked the President about his plans for Yemen, especially regarding the transition to democracy and how new officials would be appointed. I was especially interested in how women could play a larger part in the process. Hadi noted that the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement, which ended Yemen’s political crisis, would secure women’s participation on all levels, “We are in need of an inclusive approach and we will make this initiative work,” he said.
Theoretically, the agreement paves the way for a gradual transfer of power. Right now, Yemen is gearing up its National Dialogue phase. The National Dialogue will be a conference where all political parties cooperate to rewrite the country’s constitution.
Each political “bloc” participating in the National Dialogue is to be comprised of 30% women. So the National Dialogue, which will officially launch on March 18, provides a short but critical window of opportunity for women. But it will not overcome all the challenges women in Yemen face.
Flashback to November 2011
The revolution in Yemen had already been underway for nine months. Yemeni women had become extremely vocal during the revolution. They took to the streets and demanded better access to employment, education, social services, and political involvement. Surprisingly, the Yemeni female movement became even more prominent than their counterparts in other Arab countries. This was shocking since Yemen has been one of the world’s most oppressive countries when it comes to women’s rights.
Yemeni women were immediately praised and admired for their active role in the revolution. But more than one year later, it’s hard to see any evidence of increased participation of women in the new regime:
– Only 3 out of 35 federal government ministers are women. And two of these positions have almost always been held by women, so very little progress there.
– Only 2 women are members of the Shura Council.
– Only 1 of the 301 members of parliament is a woman.
– Only 6 of the 31 members of the preparatory committee for the upcoming National Dialogue are women.
So the question arises—is this all Yemeni women deserve for playing so crucial a part in the revolution? Is this the inclusive approach envisioned for Yemen’s transition to democracy?
And even though optimists have pointed to the 30 percent quota for the National Dialogue, women still have a potentially steep uphill battle:
Quantity v. Quality. Yes, 30% is great compared to pre-revolution Yemen. But the selection criteria for female nominees to the National Dialogue are still unclear. I fear that some conservative blocs could hinder the goal of the quota by only nominating women that will tow the party line.
Divide and Conquer. There will no doubt be disagreement on women’s rights when a new constitution is drafted. Should it specifically address women’s issues, or should it discuss them within the broader discourse of human rights? Should it be based on Sharia law, or should it guarantee a secular state? These decisions will shape family and suffrage laws. But I am most concerned that women participants who support different parties will not be able to present a unified approach to women’s rights reform.
Intimidation. In order to have a productive and open discussion, women cannot be afraid to speak up. Yet many female activists in Yemen have faced verbal and physical threats, harassment, and slander in the days leading up to the National Dialogue. The quota means nothing if these women are intimidated.
So when I think about the President’s call for an inclusive approach, I feel hopeful, but guarded. An inclusive approach would be women not only being present but having an opportunity to voice their demands. An inclusive approach would result in women’s demands being incorporated into the Constitution. An inclusive approach would lead to women becoming a true political force representing other women in a new Yemeni government.
So of course, I agree with President Hadi’s vision of an inclusive approach. It is crucial for Yemen’s transition to a democracy. But it is essential to make sure that some people are not more included than others.
Maria Yahya Saleh works as a project manager at an international development firm in Washington, DC. She focuses on global women’s issues and Yemen. Prior to this, Maria worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Maria has a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Washington University in Saint Louis. She published her dissertation, Spiral into the Arab Spring: The Surprising Rise of Yemeni Women, as a chapter in World in Their Hands: Ideas from the Next Generation.