Political Analysis

Yemeni Women Leading Change

National Yemen

Asma al-Mohattwari

Since ancient times, Yemeni women have been linked with political life and have had a distinct role. This historical legacy makes Yemen one of the few countries where women have gained balanced roles in public life in political history and enjoyed the confidence, respect, and acceptance for running and handling the affairs of governance.

Recent history has seen a crystallization of women’s roles that were considered honorable and heroic in the struggle against the British colonial regime in the south and the Imamate rule in the north. Yemeni women fought and struggled alongside men for independence. Women in the south have been engaged in organizing political parties, participated in the establishment of associations, and participated in political and social life, while in northern Yemen conditions were more complex for women because of the historical and social heritage of the Imamate rule.

However, after the revolution of September 26, 1962 women achieved a degree of education and laid the first pillar of change in the lives of Yemeni women in the north.

Before the revolution, Yemeni women lived in a difficult era. Women are still suffering from a lack of freedom. Perhaps this suffering gave them motivation for equality.

Amatalalim al-Soswa is one of the women who inspired Yemeni women’s freedom after the September 26th revolution. Al-Soswa is a Yemeni journalist and politician from Taiz. She served as the Assistant Secretary-General, then Assistant Administrator and finally Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States.

At a young age, al-Soswa began her career as journalist. She began broadcasting at the age of 10 on a local radio program in the Governorate of Taiz. Later on, she was a TV anchor on Yemen Television where she served as a political commentator and news broadcaster.

Al-Soswa holds a B.A. in Mass Communications from Cairo University and an M.A. in International Communications from the American University in Washington, DC. She speaks Arabic and English fluently and communicates in French and Russian.

Between 1984 and 1986, she worked as the Deputy TV Programs Director at Sana’a TV, where she held the most senior position as a woman in Yemeni television. Subsequently, she became Chief Editor of Mutaba’at I’elamiah Journal, a monthly magazine focusing on communications and media affairs. From 1989 to 1991, al-Soswa led the Yemeni Women’s Union before Yemeni unification.

From 1997 to 1999, she was Undersecretary at Yemen’s Ministry of Information and Chairperson of the National Women’s Committee – the first woman Undersecretary in the Ministry of Information. Between 2000 and 2003, she served as Yemen’s ambassador to Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where she was Yemen’s Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. She was also the first woman Ambassador to the Netherlands, residing in The Hague, and a non-resident Ambassador to both Sweden and Denmark.

In May 2003, al-Soswa was appointed the Minister of Human Rights in Yemen, the first female Minister of Human Rights in Yemen’s history. During her tenure, she established and oversaw Yemen’s Human Rights Ministry, initiated the country’s first national human rights report, and established a public human rights resource center.

On March 22, 2014, Ambassador al-Soswa was appointed Executive Director of the Executive Bureau for the Acceleration of Aid Absorption and Implementation of the Mutual Accountability Framework.

She has published and lectured extensively and has received numerous awards. She was made an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur (France) and received the Medal of the Egyptian Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity (Egypt). Al-Soswa is also a Trustee of the Arab Democracy Foundation.

She writes and speaks on women’s rights and democracy and has been an activist for human rights and the freedom of expression.

Al-Soswa says that the freedom cannot be achieved without the participation of all Yemeni women and demanding their rights through work and community participation. “The majority of women work in rural areas in agriculture. Unfortunately, their efforts are not counted within the economic output of the year because they don’t receive a salary for their work,” she stated.

She added that Yemeni women have economic and educational rights. In addition, they have the right to political participation. “The issue of equality is generally related to what the constitutions and laws protect and guarantee, so we notice the main focus is on women’s participation in formulating the constitution and the elaboration of general principles emphasize women’s full rights as complete eligible citizens. Yemen is still facing a high rate of illiteracy and poverty among women and their inability to access to health services,” she said.

Over the past few years, especially since unification, the status of women has greatly improved, including their participation in society and their integration in the development process. Yemeni women also led the Revolution of 2011. Tawakwl Karman is an example. During the 2011 Yemeni protests, Tawakwl Karman organized student rallies in Sana’a in protest against the long-standing rule of Saleh’s government. On January 22, she was stopped while driving with her husband by three plain-clothed men without police identification and taken to prison, where she was held for 36 hours until she was released on parole on January 24. She then led another protest on January 29 where she called for a “Day of Rage.”

Karman became the first Arab woman and the youngest person ever to become a Nobel Peace Laureate and the category’s second Muslim woman.