By Hind Aleryani
Throughout the Arab Spring, I have often heard the word “change.” Yet, despite the gentle Arab Spring breeze that blew over the country, you will see no such change when you visit Yemen. Corruption is everywhere; everything is still as it was, and probably even worse… However, I shall not talk hereafter about politics, but rather about the genuine social “change” I noticed.
During my college studies in Yemen, I transferred from a girls-only university to a mixed university due to the sterile thinking I was being exposed to (refer to the previous blog post “How I did not become a terrorist”). However, the intermingling of female and male students only means that instead of seeing but one color in the lecture hall – the black clothing worn by girls – one would see many other colors worn by the young men in the same hall. However, there was still a permanent barricade between us, as we talked to one another only on rare occasions and often about an extremely important issue pertaining to our studies. Indeed, a girl who talked too much with young men might have her reputation stained and a girl with a stained reputation would be jeopardizing her chances of getting married.
The first in her family
I used to have a friend from a very conservative tribe. She was the first girl in her family to be allowed a college education and in her environment, studying in a mixed-gender university dimmed her marriage chances. I remember that my friend’s brother would not talk to his sister while at university out of fear of having someone think he is her boyfriend rather than her brother. When he wanted to say he was going home and she should come with him, he would walk in front of us and dangle the car keys. We’d hear the distinctive sound and know that my friend should leave with her brother. This did not bother me at the time and I admit I and my friends were rather proud that we never spoke with any young men as a sign of “our good manners.”
Winds of change
I have changed and it seems that some slight change has occurred in Yemen too, as I noticed during my latest visit there.
Due to the revolution and to the intermingling of young men and women in the square, one sees young men and women going out in groups to cafés, protests and cultural events, talking and laughing with one another. This was inconceivable only a few years ago, i.e. immediately before the Arab Spring. When I asked one girl about it, she said: “I don’t think that society in general has changed; some of us have changed but others still are criticizing us. However, we have changed and we no longer care about their opinion like we used to do.”
I also noticed in Yemeni women a certain boldness and strength, the likes of which I have never seen before and here too, I am not talking about politics. Rather, I felt this strength on an ordinary occasion when a friend of mine, who works as a university teacher, invited me to a popular café. I went into the café with a certain degree of apprehension: We were women and not many women go to popular cafés and even if they did, there would have to be a women-only section with blinds to hide them from view. I was expecting we would head to the women-only section but my friend took me by surprise by confidently sitting down in the men’s section. I fearfully interjected, “but this is the men’s section,” and she said: “Don’t worry. My friends and I have gotten them accustomed to our coming here and sitting in out in the open air outside. We do not want to be confined behind the blinds.” It was then that I felt a woman’s strength. I was indescribably happy.
Yes, there is change indeed. Yet I shall not forget to mention here that the parents of my friend whose brother avoided talking to her at university did not allow her to work. She is still waiting for the man who would accept to marry a girl who studied at a mixed-gender university to come and propose.
Hind Aleryani is a Yemeni activist and working as a journalist at NOW Lebanon. She can be found on Twitter @HindAleryani.