By: Rachel Cookea typical woman in Yemen



In Yemen, women belong to men. Most are illiterate. They are arrested in the street. They die in childbirth. In this special report, Rachel Cooke meets the brave few who are campaigning for midwives and against early marriage.


Say’un is a town of 30,000 people in the biggest wadi or watercourse, Wadi Hadhramawt, in the Arabian peninsula. Hadhramawt is extremely inaccessible. To get here, we flew from Sana’a, the capital, to the port of Al-Mukalla, and then drove over the desert and down through the lush wadi – it has surely changed very little since Dame Freya Stark became one of the first western women to see it in the 1930s – for nearly five hours. In Say’un, Oxfam is trying to improve reproductive healthcare, chiefly by funding the training of midwives and traditional birth attendants (TBAs). This is more important work than you may realise. In this part of Yemen – rural, religious, isolated – women are often unwilling to be treated by doctors, for the reason that they are men; it would be shameful for a woman to show her body to a man, even if the alternative meant that she might bleed to death. Getting more women into the healthcare system is therefore vital. ‘Our midwives work in the hospital in Say’un,’ says Basima Omer, a doctor involved in the programme. ‘They save lives. But they also go back to their communities with new information about hygiene, high blood pressure …’ She sips her coffee – in the country that gave the world coffee, everyone drinks Nescafé with condensed milk – behind her veil. So how on earth did she become a doctor? She laughs, quietly. ‘Oh, I went on hunger strike for three days until my father agreed.’

In a side room in the hospital, I meet some of these newly qualified midwives – and find proof of something I was told before I came here: that in Yemen there are women who, having taken the veil when they reach puberty, show their faces to no one – not even their own mothers – until they marry. For this reason, though we are in a private room, I am able to see the face of only one of the midwives (she lifts her veil because she is a divorcee). The delivery room, I can’t help thinking, must make for a strange sight. The women tell me how useful they have found their training; of the status it gives them in their villages; of how grateful they are for the appreciation – and prayers – of their patients; of how gratifying it is to earn their own money. But still, certain things they cannot change. What if there are complications?

‘Some women will see a surgeon, but most won’t allow a doctor [ie, a man] to see them,’ says Asia Al-Jamah, 22. ‘Not even for a check-up or an injection. They just go back home.’ Then what? She gives me a wry look. ‘We once had a woman who was bleeding. She refused to see the surgeon, even though we told her and her mother what might happen. So, she went home. A while later, I met her mother in the street and I asked her about her daughter. She was fine.’ She shrugs. ‘So, she was lucky.’

The midwives cannot work in isolation. Many women in rural areas don’t make it to hospital in time, so in addition to the 22 midwives Oxfam will have trained by 2011, it also hopes to educate 30 traditional birth attendants: older women, trusted by their communities. An hour’s drive from Say’un is the village of Sah. We arrive in its narrow streets in the early afternoon, when most people, even the men, are indoors, though I feel instinctively that our presence has been noted, that there are watchful eyes behind the deep windows of the ancient houses. Sure enough, when our contact, Jamilah, emerges from her home in a veil that covers every last part of her face, she tells us: ‘Now everyone will be gossiping about me.’ Jamilah helps to run a women’s co-op in Sah, and has been active in encouraging women to sign up for TBA training. This has not made her popular with the imams, though it’s hard to know why, given that all they are learning is some basic healthcare. ‘We face problems from the religious men,’ she says. ‘It is difficult for us to do anything. We’re really suffering. But we won’t surrender.’ What she means is that she won’t surrender. The trouble is, Basima tells me later, that Jamilah has few allies even among Sah’s women.

Yemen’s traditional houses are vertiginous towers that somewhat contradict the idea that the concept of high-rise living is both new, and unnatural. But, of course, their confusing passages and steep staircases are also designed to aid segregation. In the diwan (a large room reserved for socialising) of one such house, Jamilah has arranged for me to have tea with Sah women, including some who have trained as TBAs. They lift their veils to reveal their beautiful faces, but drop them at the first sight of my camera. They, too, have nothing but praise for what they have learnt. ‘I used to tie the cord just once, then cut it,’ says one. ‘Now I know to tie it twice. The other thing is cleanliness: the tools, the wounds. We know if a woman has high blood pressure, and which cases should go to hospital.’ Jamilah, who is unsure of her age but guesses it to be 42, has 10 children (the minimum in this group of women is eight), and her last baby was delivered after she completed her training. ‘I knew better this time,’ she says. ‘I knew that if I hadn’t delivered after 12 hours, I should go to hospital. My mother said: “No, you’ll deliver in the road!” I didn’t care. I was right. In hospital, I had an operation [a caesarian section].’ She has since sent other women to hospital, one after she failed to deliver her placenta; in the past, this would never have happened.

The midwives had told me that they never discuss contraception with their patients. Have these women ever considered limiting their families? No! They round on me, their voices rising when they discover I have no children. ‘They’re happy about their children,’ explains Aminah. ‘It’s from God.’ But what about the expense? Sah is poor; they have already spoken of rising food prices. ‘It’s not in our hands,’ says one. ‘It’s fine for you to have your work,’ says another. ‘But who will look after you when you are old?’ Another woman tells me that she hopes my husband will give me a child as soon as I get home. A few of them are laughing openly at what they regard as my stupidity and lack of foresight. After I leave, and I’m once again in Sah’s narrow, reticent streets, I look up at the high windows of the diwan. A couple of the younger women gaze down at me, their veils inky against the burnished red mud of the house. I wave at them and, after a moment’s consideration, they wave back. I know what they’re thinking. I’m a fool. A poor misguided English fool.

The next day, we get up at 3.30am, and drive back through the wadi for the flight to Sana’a. From Sana’a, we then drive for another four hours over the western mountains (the road is terrifying, especially since, by the time we leave, it is qat time, and every driver on the road is mildly stoned from chewing his afternoon leaves), until we reach the coast, and Al-Hudaydah. We stop only twice, so our drivers can pray. In Hudaydah, I am accompanied by Suha Bashren and her colleague, Wameedh Shaker. Suha and Wameedh are the only women I meet in Yemen who do not cover their faces in public (though they do cover their hair). ‘Yes, we’re unusual,’ says Wameedh. How unusual? Very. Both women, who are in their thirties, recently got married: Wameedh to a journalist, Suha to an Oxfam colleague. ‘The amazement! There were newspaper articles about us: “Oxfam workers get married. Congratulations to these very active women!” We were expected to stay single. It was thought that we were too liberal ever to find men.’

What is it like living in such a society? ‘Whenever you do something, anything, you feel it, you’re testing the water. All Arab countries suffer from a lack of citizenship rights, violence against women and so on. But in general, they’re more advanced in terms of education, social labour and some political rights. They have laws, authorities, that we don’t have. It’s a mess, and it is marginalised women who bear the burden. Beside them, we feel small. They have much more courage than us.’ For women such as Suha and Wameedh, who come from Aden, in the south, the situation is doubly frustrating. When Yemen was two countries, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, in the south, was a Marxist state with the most feminist constitution in the Arab world. But when reunification with the nationalist Yemen Arab Republic took place in 1990 and was followed by a civil war four years later, it was the north that emerged as victor. Unity was strengthened, but sharia became the basis of law-making. The influence of Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabism is also having its effect, especially close to the border.

Wameedh and Suha take me to Hudaydah prison and, after a long wait on the governor’s Seventies leather sofa beneath a creaking ceiling fan, I’m taken to meet women on whose cases Oxfam’s volunteer lawyers work in their free time (the prison governor is unaware that I am journalist). The women’s prison is a squat concrete building, its communal cells built around a yard in which washing can be hung in the sun. The place is clean and tidy, the cells, open to the yard, freshly scrubbed by the 52 inmates who inhabit them. But it’s shocking how many of the women have babies, and how terribly young some of the prisoners are; when a warder gathers them to ask for volunteers to meet me, it’s as though I’ve walked into a classroom rather than a prison. S (for their own safety, I am unable to identify the women) is 21, A is 22 and M just 14. Their stories are patchy and dreamlike, a quality that perhaps catches the sophistry that led to their arrest.

‘I was visiting a friend,’ says M. ‘We were in a friend’s house. We were chewing qat. Suddenly, I was arrested for prostitution. I’ve been here 11 months.’ M, who has been in prison for two months, recounts that she was watching TV in a neighbour’s house when she was arrested on suspicion of having committed an immoral act.

A tells me that a man offered to pay her for sex; when she refused, he took her to an interrogation centre where she was beaten until she admitted ‘to everything I had done in the past’. She has been in prison for three months. None of the women has so far faced a trial.

Between them, Wameedh and Aminah unpick their stories for me. The friend whom S was visiting in her friend’s house was probably a boyfriend. In the case of M, Wameedh believes that she is probably too ashamed to admit to me that she was having sex with a boy as well as watching television with him, though she later passed a virginity test. A has fallen victim to a local self-appointed religious vigilante, who is making it his business to arrest women on the streets. S begins to cry. ‘My family are poor,’ she says. ‘They cannot do anything.’ (Some prisoners are released if their families can pay up – irrespective of the so-called legal process.) The truth drawn out, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I am lost for words.

Some women in this prison were working as prostitutes (prostitution increases in the summer, when tourists from Saudi Arabia visit) and others have committed adultery, both ‘crimes’ under sharia law. But even by the standards of sharia, these women’s ‘offences’ are slight; nor has any ‘evidence’ been presented to anything even resembling a court. When, as we leave, Wameedh challenges the governor about the cases of some of the women we have seen today, he acts the hapless victim of the state. Yes, people should get bail, but it never happens. No, children should not be in prison, but what can he do? Oxfam aims to challenge such sluggish and inhumane bureaucracy by raising awareness of women’s rights (such as they are) and by providing legal aid to those who find themselves trapped within the Kafkaesque system. Slowly, working with their local partner, the Women’s National Committee, they are affecting change. Until recently, a woman who had completed her sentence could not leave the prison until she was collected by a male relative. This rule has since been changed.

It is difficult enough to fight state-endorsed discrimination. But perhaps it’s even more of a struggle to change the minds of people who have lived in such a culture all their lives. In a slum suburb of Hudaydah, I’m taken to meet a group of poor city women – many of them the wives and daughters of Yemeni workers who were expelled from Saudi Arabia following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (a million Yemenis were expelled as punishment for their country’s failure to join the alliance against Iraq, and they now form one of its most deprived communities). These women are going to tell me about their experiences of early marriage, a practice that Oxfam and its partners are campaigning against. Poor families are keen on early marriage; the parents of a daughter will have one less mouth to feed, the parents of a son will receive both a dowry, and another unpaid worker. They also cite the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was just nine years old (some scholars have argued that this was not so, but they remain in the minority). Sunnis believe that Aisha was the great love of the prophet’s life, and that what was good enough for him, is good enough for them. They conveniently disregard the fact that Mohammed also took several other wives, all of them much older.

‘Our approach to early marriage is not to link it to women’s rights,’ says Suha. ‘No one would accept that. We link it to development. We talk about health, about how 430 women per 100,000 die during childbirth, one of the highest rates in the world. We tell them this number is not falling, and that 50 per cent of these women die before they are 19. So we link early marriage and pregnancy. We explain the effect of long years of fertility on the family economy and the country’s resources.’

When she first started working on the issue in 2006, the mosques went mad. ‘A mosque can destroy all your work in a day. An imam can wipe you from the surface of the earth. So we went very quiet. We waited. Then we began working again, forming alliances with tribal chiefs, and the people who write marriage contracts.’ She and her colleagues will soon lobby parliament yet again in the hope that a law will be passed setting the legal age at which a girl can be married at 18, and she is hopeful. ‘Resistance is getting lower.’ What about the women? Are they starting to refuse to arrange marriages for their girls? She hesitates. ‘We can’t measure the impact yet.’

Once we are in the diwan of one of the women’s houses, I realise why she hesitated. Most of the women gathered here, all of them married as teenagers, insist that they have been happy in their marriages. Then one, Shueiyah, who suddenly found herself with a husband at 12, before she’d even had her first period, tells me how horrible it was.

‘At first, I was happy. There was singing, I had new shoes. Then I was alone with him in my room. I was afraid. I started to cry. He called his mother. She had to explain: “This is your husband. Don’t be afraid. You’re grown-up now. Act like a woman.” I couldn’t say no to my parents, but I didn’t know what marriage involved.’

She didn’t mind the cooking and cleaning. The only thing she didn’t like was the night time. She used to try and find excuses to stay away from him. ‘We argued a lot. But I couldn’t explain why to his family. I couldn’t tell them that it was because of sex. He wanted to have sex every night. No one told me anything about sex.’

She gave birth to a son, but four years later she and her husband divorced. We seize the moment. Was she too young? Would she put a daughter of hers through such a marriage? She laughs. ‘I would be happy for my daughter to marry early.’ When Suha starts to argue with her, Shueiyah becomes annoyed. It isn’t long before she brings up Aisha.

On the journey back to our hotel, Suha lets off steam. She wonders aloud how she can prove to people that refusing to marry off children is not haram. Then she invites me to join her and Wameedh at the house of one of the Oxfam lawyers to chew qat. I do join them, though I don’t chew qat; I don’t have the taste for it. Our hostess has prepared delicious food, and she lights a water pipe for us. She dabs at our ears with exotic scents as if we were in a harem. No one is veiled; there are no men in the house. We could go on all night. Abdullah, our driver, is happy to wait for us: he is lying with the guard on a divan outside, chewing qat, in the cool of the night. It’s a happy evening, our last before we go back to Sana’a. I admire these women more than I can say. So I get out my camera. I’m going to take a picture. But, no. Our hostess – a lawyer who gives up hours of her time fighting the cases of abused and forgotten women – gives me a big smile. ‘I’m sorry but you can’t take a photograph of me,’ she says. ‘Not like this.’ She points to her unveiled face. ‘I must ask my husband’s permission, and he is out with his friends.’ Like I said, nothing is straightforward here. Suha chews on her qat furiously.


Some names have been changed. For more information on Oxfam’s work go to © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008.



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