Abdel Rahim Saeed
Activist Hind Aleryani is one of the most prominent women in Yemen. She represents a new generation of the Yemeni youths heading an initiative against the Qat tree. They aim to put an end to Yemen’s chewing habit and its consequent bad effects on the country’s society and economy.
Chewing Qat is a very popular pastime among Yemenis. Many men, and an increasing number of women and children, spend hours each afternoon sitting and chewing the leaves and stems of the Qat plant—a practice known in Arabic as “Takhzeen”.
Statistics from the United Nations World Food Project suggest that Yemeni families spend on average 10% of their income on Qat, an amount that exceeds proportional spending on health care and education.
In early 2012, Hend launched a campaign called “Day without Qat”, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote the event. She also organized several community outreach activities.
Hend told the BBC: “people’s reactions were positive, and their responses were very encouraging.” The campaign is supported by a Foundation Board for revolutionary youths, who embraced the campaign and helped to promote it. Other volunteer organizations, such as Generations Without Qat, contributed to the project by running tents to educate people to the harms of Qat. Tents were set up in many cities across Yemen, she added.
Hend intended to hold her “Day Without Qat” on January 12, 2012.
Many outside observers feel that Yemen needs a social revolution to overcome its Qat habit. Current estimates indicate that Sana’a may be the first capital in the world to suffer from drought, and this drought would be caused in part because of the preponderance of water-intensive Qat trees in a country already suffering from a shortage of water resources.
Hend didn’t stop her campaign after the first Day Without Qat, but went on in April 2012 to create an initiative known as “Government Institutions Without Qat”. The initiative demanded from the transitional government a law forbidding public employees from chewing Qat in governmental facilities, based on the logic that chewing Qat during working hours harms productivity and wastes working hours and public resources.
After months spent collecting public opinions and holding sit-ins in front of parliament, many activists under the auspices of youth organizations such as “The Will for a Homeland Without Qat” submitted a document for inclusion by the National Dialogue Conference. The work of the Conference will be used as the basis of the country’s new constitution. The joint proposal included practical steps, such as a transferal of 10% of the land used for Qat trees other agricultural products.
Hend added that, “ if elements of this strategy can be used in the Constitution, it would be for the first time in the history of Yemen that a constitution mentions ‘Qat’, which unfortunately has become more important than food and water”.
Despite Hend’s optimism, she realizes the size of the challenge that she faces in a country where men, women, and children have been chewing Qat for centuries.
Nevertheless, Hend said that spread of the “Wedding Without Qat” phenomenon gives her hope that the community has begun realizing that it is possible to have good times without chewing Qat.
On the other hand, the last serious government campaign to ban the cultivation of Qat and to limit Qat chewing in the government institutions took place in 1972. The result of this campaign was the fall of the government of Prime Minister Mohsen al-Aeny.
In the same context, Hend remembers the reaction of the Yemeni official with whom she discussed the need to find a solution to the Qat problem. He responded, “Do you want the government to fall?”
However, Hend sees that the biggest barriers to her mission are the financial stakeholders of the Qat trade: tribal elders and Qat farmers.
Communities look to the women
According to Hend, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to activist Tawakkol Karman in 2011 emphasized the importance of the Yemeni women in improving Yemen.
Hend believes that Yemeni woman play a major role in pressuring decision-makers to change the situation and to take resolute measures against the Qat problem.
“Women have a strong developmental sense, and they often show incredible enthusiasm over the matter of Qat. It is striking that many of those behind awareness campaigns in cities like Taiz are young girls”.
Actually, young activists like Hend found the courage to take stands like that they have taken against “the scourge of Yemen”, after the February 2011 revolution against the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Hend says it is natural that activists will turn their attention to othe ocial problems in the country, and in their opinion the revolution played a major role in encouraging the Qat problem. Because of al-Herak, Yemenis are now looking forward to better future. The revolutionary atmosphere helped participants to imagine a better Yemen: a democratic Yemen without corruption—and Qat.
At the same time, Hend has said that her campaign has faced a significant number of challenges and obstacles. Some people, she explained, see her only as a woman, and feel that she’s only trying to make a name for herself. They don’t care about the actual work of their initiative.
Hend encountered some negative responses from her relatives, many of whom think her campaign will only bring about a bad reputation for her. Nevertheless, Hend says she will continue in her mission against the Yemeni addiction. In her opinion, the problem of Qat is inextricably interrelated to other Yemeni problems, such as the water crisis and increasing rates of both poverty and mouth cancer.
Hend, who currently lives between Yemen and Lebanon, hopes her campaign will succeed in changing the country’s outward image, as well. She is looking forward to the day in which people no longer ask her—or any Yemeni—whether they chew Qat or not.