Racial Discrimination Doesn’t Prevent Woman from Success

Asma al-Mohattwari

It can be difficult when a person needs to fight racial discrimination on the basis of skin color. It’s even harder for a woman with black skin in Yemeni society.

Most women with black skin work as street cleaners, servants, or beggars. Mesk Saeed, a black woman, refused to accept her fate and decided something different. She believed that all the people are equal and no one can decide her future, only her. Mesk lived with her nine brothers and three sisters. When she was a child her father traveled to work in Saudi Arabia and left them believing that there he could provide his large family a better life. Her mother suffered from mental illness, so she was raised by her older sister. It is difficult for black people to enter school because they are exposed to insults from students and teachers, and the result is that they leave school to work in the street.

People with black skin called ‘Akhdam’, singular ‘Khadem’, meaning “servant” in Arabic. They are the most marginalized class.

On her first day of school, Mesk’s classmates told her, “you are Khademh and we don’t want you to be with us. Go and clean the street.” Mesk tried her best to be strong by ignoring the insults, but she failed and left class to spend all the day in the schoolyard crying. She was not alone; she was with five other black students.

 When her father came to visit, she told him she wouldn’t continue studying. Her father went to the school and shouted at the school headmistress, telling her to prevent the students from harassing his daughter and told Mesk, “beat any girl who tells you such words and if you don’t, I will not give you money for lunch.” Her father’s words encouraged her and she decided not to allow anyone to irritate her. She studied hard and got high marks in her first year. Because she was the smartest student in the class, the teachers and students started to love her.

She graduated from school dreaming of going to university. She never imagined that she would face the same views and discrimination she suffered in school. She decided to fulfill her parents dream to be an Arabic teacher. Most of the ‘Akhdam’ married their daughters at an early age, but Mesk’s father refused to marry her to anyone unless she graduated from university.

She joined the Arabic department. Her first year was perfect and she got high marks, but when she passed to the second level her teachers were changed, and her marks changed as well. The first year her professors were not Yemenis, but the second year they all were Yemenis. One day the students asked her to explain a lesson that they didn’t understand. She was happy and confidently went up to the front and started explaining. Surprisingly, a white, rich student shouted “you don’t have the right to be on the stage. You are Khademh.” Mesk was a different girl than she was in school. She didn’t go to the yard and cry. This time she held a strike with her friends and refused to study until the white girl came and apologized.

Mesk is now a teacher. She also established an association for helping marginalized girls called the Enough Association. She hopes she can find more support.

“I really want to be a human rights minister to achieve equality for all Yemeni citizens because now we have a Ministry of Human Rights in name only.”  

Despite Article 41 of the Yemeni Constitution, which states that all citizens are equal in public rights and duties and all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, the Akhdam are still suffering from discrimination.

For the Akhdam, there is a red line around all government positions. Some Akhdam scholars have announced the establishment of a National Federation of Marginalized Persons as a key step in the struggle for securing their equal rights.

Marginalized people in Yemen number over one million, but their plight hardly receives a degree of attention. Perhaps this is because they are kept out of sight; many marginalized persons live in shanty houses and shacks propped up far from the rest of Yemeni society. This is the effect of discrimination and racist attitudes passed down generation after generation.

Fifty years after the establishment of the republican regime in Yemen, public jobs and government positions are still entirely off limits for this class of people, whose men can only work cleaning streets and whose women can only beg. The strange irony is that the sanitation work done by these people creates the healthy environment for the rest of the society that turns a blind eye to their tragedy and stymied quality of life.

For the marginalized people of Yemen the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was a chance to offer their vision of a better reality for their class. The marginalized have been voicing this vision and recommendations for the future through Noaman al-Hodefi, the representative to the NDC of the marginalized issue in Yemen. Marginalized people look forward to participating in various national bodies and competent committees and joining the effort to implement the Gulf Initiative. As they say, their exclusion from all of Yemen’s bodies and institutions since the establishment of the Yemeni revolution till today only exacerbates their bad situation, especially when there is no channel for their voice to reach Yemen’s decision-makers.

According to Mesk, the NDC did nothing for them and there were no women representing marginalized women.

Rahil al-Mazroqi, a marginalized representative in the Parliament, said that no one can understand them because they don’t live in the same circumstances. She worked in the Parliament on a number of projects dealing with early marriage and the importance of education and there was a reaction by the targeted members.

“I really hope to end racism in schools and prevent begging in the streets,” said Mesk. Her demand is very easy; she doesn’t demand a quota or political positions, just preventing discrimination.