Pushed into the Shadows

Graphic artists paint a wall in Sana'a, Yemen on January 28, 2014. (Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Graphic artists paint a wall in Sana'a, Yemen on January 28, 2014. (Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“Violence against women is neither inevitable nor acceptable,” wrote Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the former UN Resident Coordinator in Yemen, in the Yemen Observer on International Women’s Day in March 2013.

Three long years have passed since Yemenis, men and women alike, stood side-by-side, equal in their demands for change. Together they brought down three decades of nepotism.

Since then many have argued that the nation succeeded in breaking down the wall of fear to stand as one because all Yemen’s social groups, including women, worked together.

But Yemen’s revolutionary days are long gone. Whatever window was flung open in 2011 is closing as social complacency, silence and injustice creep in once again. If women felt liberated by the Arab Spring as they stepped out from the shadows of men, darkness is once again threatening to swallow them up—especially when it comes to violence and sexual harassment.

Today, the women of Yemen are no closer to finding refuge in the law. Violence against women remains endemic, the product of a patriarchal society built on tribal traditions and a harsh interpretation of Islamic scriptures.

Many Yemenis have tried to justify their negative attitudes towards women by arguing that Islam requires that certain restrictions be placed on women. While Islam does clearly lay out social rules for women’s behavior—just as it does for men—it never advocates abuse.

Women in Islam are prizes to be cherished, the pillars of society. Islam does not define women as lesser creatures destined to suffer and endure the brutality of men, quite the opposite. Islam has long served as a guarantor of women’s rights. It is men who have distorted such rights and reduced women to mere objects.

Women continue to be sexually abused in their work places and universities. Nada, who works as a nurse in a private clinic said her male colleagues often make derogatory and sexually charged comments. “Whenever I walk down the corridor I hear disgusting comments . . . some have grabbed my arms, pinched me, bumped into me as if by mistake.” She describes another incident, but this time with a senior member of staff: “Once a former manager told me he could secure me a promotion if I was to agree to spend time with him. He kept telling me that I was like a sister to him and that he wanted someone kind to talk to about his marriage difficulties . . . Things like that happen all the time . . . I can’t say anything to my family as they will think I am somehow to blame. Women in Yemen are always blamed.”

Students have revealed that professors at many universities have used their positions to terrorize girls and force them to comply with some of their lewd demands, threatening to fail them academically or spread nasty rumors should they refuse.

With no one to talk to and no one to listen, the women of Yemen are trapped in a vicious cycle of violence and abuse, where they are made to feel the guilty party.

Beyond setting up a legal framework to protect women and their rights, it is society that needs to change its outlook on women. At some point, men will have to realize that for every woman they harm it is their mother whom they are disrespecting.

The women of Yemen should not be made to live in fear.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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