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Researching The Plight Of Yemeni Women

Published: February 15, 2016

Religious Studies’ Sophia Pandya feels uncomfortable about how well her research into the women of Yemen is doing. “There are a lot of displaced people due to the ongoing war. Many women now find themselves without food, fuel, water or physical security. In fact, about 80 percent of Yemen’s population is in dire need of humanitarian aid. It is a very tough time to be a Yemeni woman,” she said. “That is why it is awkward to say my research is going well!”

Pandya is an expert on women and Islam who has visited Yemen four times, most recently in 2009, to study the women in a nation where the poverty level reached 54.5 percent in 2012 side by side with one of the world’s highest population growth rates. The Yemeni Civil War began in 2015, a conflict rooted in the Arab Spring which had its origins with Yemeni women.

Pandya, a member of the university since 2006, recently authored an article for Georgetown University’s Center for International and Regional Studies on Yemeni women and the Arab Spring that looked at the women’s activism through the lens of ritual. “During a ritual, everybody comes together, rich and poor, women and men, and are allowed to participate,” she explained. “But after the ritual, everybody goes back to where they started. Thus women’s participation in the Arab Spring does not always translate to gains in their rights.”

During the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011, women were allowed—for a while–to publicly agitate for the removal of the corrupt Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Women activists were allowed to go out into the streets, at one point even pulling off their face veils and burning them,” she said. “A Yemeni journalist, Tawakkol Karman, was named a joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to launch the Arab Spring in the first place. The former chair of Yemen’s National Women’s Committee, Rashida Al-Hamdani, had to flee Yemen for her new home in Detroit.”

Women activists in Yemen have a lot of ground to cover; Yemen has ranked at the bottom of the World Bank’s Gender Gap Index for the past six years (142nd out of 142 countries). “Yemen is quite patriarchal: men possess immensely greater access to resources and formal power,” said Pandya. “Even though women can vote and run for office, out of 301 parliamentarians, currently none is a woman. The aftermath of the war is unlikely to bring relief. In post-war periods, women are vulnerable to domestic violence. Often women are re-victimized by men’s aggressive impulse to restore male dominance and the traditional family structure, destabilized during political turbulence, in order to counter feelings of chaos and emasculation.”

The departure of educated Yemeni women activists during wartime represents one of the biggest problems for today’s Yemeni women, Pandya believes, creating a brain drain.

“Elite, educated women who were gender activists have fled Yemen,” Pandya explained. “Some of these women were, in fact, part of the government. One of my friends, Hooria Mashhour, was the human rights minister for the government of Yemen. Now she’s in Germany. Because she pressed for women’s rights and human rights in Yemen, she received death threats. Many of the women capable of serving at the highest levels of the Yemeni government are in diaspora right now.”

In terms of women’s education, very few women have attained high degrees. According to Pandya, only about 40 percent of Yemeni women can read and in rural Yemen, the only education that some women can get at all is religious and even that extends only to the ages of 10 to 11.

One reason it is difficult for women to get an education in Yemen is the expense. “Given that Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, I’ve heard really nice men tell me that they wish they had enough money to educate their daughters and they feel really sad about it,” she said, noting that while public school is free, textbooks are expensive. “Their daughters tell me they want to be doctors and the fathers tell me they are taking them out of school the next year.”

Sophia Pandya
Sophia Pandya

Many Yemeni women are not able to use modern technology, meaning very few have access to aspects of globalization.

“For example,” she said, “very few Yemenis have access to the Internet. There are internet cafes everywhere but they are expensive. Only 15 percent or so of Yemeni families have computers, though the middle- and upper-classes do have cell phones.”

Pandya received her bilingual teaching credential from San Jose State before teaching migrant farm workers’ children in Salinas for six years. She earned her B.A. in Near Eastern Studies/Arabic at UC Berkeley and her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from UC Santa Barbara. The mother of three has studied seven languages—English, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic.

Pandya pointed out that Yemeni women have experienced religious change.

“The gender activists I have interviewed promote a more liberal interpretation of Islam regarding women’s issues,” she said. “Gender activists think Islam is clear about women’s right to an education and women’s full participation in society, including in leadership roles. They believe a true interpretation of the Qur’an would not be oppressive.”

While some scholars argue that Yemen is a hopeless case, Pandya disagrees, noting that some of her friends say the Yemen they knew no longer exists, though optimists say there is always hope.

“They believe the nation needs peace, stability and an infusion of funds as well as support from the international community,” she said. “In terms of women’s active participation in government, it really won’t happen without global support. The Syrian refugees have been getting a lot of press but the war in Yemen is an absolute humanitarian disaster for everybody there and especially for women, and it has not received much international attention.”

Pandya sees a tough future for Yemen. “Yemen’s biggest problem is that Saudi Arabia is bombing it,” she said. “The south wants to secede. The Houthi Shiites are fighting the current Sunni government. There is a civil war and an external war. Those are Yemen’s biggest problems. Access to the Internet and globalization are not the problems the average Yemeni talks about.”