March of the Yemeni Women

Angered by the taunts of Yemen's embattled president, women take to the streets of Sanaa to call for his head.


SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s revolution has been a slow-burning one. Nine weeks after an 18-day whirlwind of mass demonstrations tossed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from power, Yemen’s youthful protesters are still in the thick of their own Arab uprising, battling a president who, despite suffering the defection of senior members of his own government, major generals, and members of his own tribe, continues to ride out resounding calls for his resignation.

But on Saturday, April 16, Yemen’s revolution suddenly entered uncharted waters when a crowd of about 10,000 Yemeni women marched through the dusty streets of the capital Sanaa to denounce their long-standing ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and stoke the embers of the country’s revolt.

The women were reacting to a defiant speech delivered by Saleh to his supporters after Friday prayers, in which he accused Yemen’s female protesters of violating Islamic law by "mingling with men" at the demonstrations. It was not the first time Saleh has let his tongue wag on such an occasion. Last month, he told a gathering of Sanaa University professors and students of "an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world [that is] run by the White House." On that occasion, a swift apology earned him some respite from the White House. This time, however, he appears to have overstepped the mark with his own countrywomen.

His speech, broadcast live on state TV, immediately sent shock waves rippling through the country. In Yemen, a largely tribal society with deeply conservative social and religious traditions, Saleh’s accusation of "male-female mingling" was seen as tantamount to calling the female protesters faasakaat, or "prostitutes." (It also didn’t help that Saleh is widely seen as irreligious by Yemenis, underscored by his recently revealed banter with U.S. diplomats about whiskey smuggling.)

Within hours, a text message was pinging its way through people’s homes across the capital. "Saleh has brought shame upon his country’s women; meet tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. at Sanaa University for a women’s march of honor."

The women of Sanaa heeded the call. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the usually deserted streets adjoining Sanaa University were choked with female protesters in black abayas. Some waved homemade banners with pictures of the president depicted as an Islamic cleric; others scrawled "leave" with face paint on little girls’ foreheads. Their fury at Saleh was felt not through their facial expressions, most of which were concealed behind jet-black veils, but through their words.

Shrill cries of "Oh youth, the honor of women has been slandered" and "the people want the regime to fall" rang out across the university campus as the swarm of incensed women suddenly broke forth and began marching en masse toward the city center.

Aside from the gender aspect, the makeup of the crowd — a mishmash of businesswomen, housewives, students, politicians, nurses, and children — was different from those of protests past. One woman in her mid-40s, who declined to give her name, said she had never before gotten involved in politics. But on Saturday she came out with her two young daughters "so that Saleh would feel the wrath of his country’s women."

"Our role in this revolution is both religiously sound and vital to its success," screamed Jameela al-Qabsi, a bright-eyed female professor at an education college, through a crackling microphone. "Who is feeding the protesters? Who is tending to their bullet wounds? We are!"

"If Saleh read the Quran, he wouldn’t have made this accusation," one protester, who gave her name only as Majda, told a group of journalists. "He should be tried according to Islamic law."

A brief moment of panic broke out as the churning crowd of women neared a busy intersection: a group of men were trying to force their way into the crowd to march alongside the women. "Why should we be kept separate like Saleh says? This is against Islam!" shouted a young man in a tight pink T-shirt and jeans as he tried to push his way through a human chain of male protesters and reach his wife. He was quickly ushered away by defected soldiers wielding batons. Cries of "Ayeeb, Ayeeb," "Shame, Shame," followed the man as he sloped away.

As the afternoon progressed, the crowds — which by now resembled a massive, surging black river — grew in strength as small pockets of other women waiting by the roadside slowly fed into the heaving masses.

The climax came when those at the front marched out into the middle of a six-lane ring road, the deafening sound of car horns and revving engines soon muffled by their high-pitched chants. Soon, a Soviet-era government helicopter was circling nervously overhead, drawing boos and hisses from the women as a bunch of nervous-looking husbands shuffled alongside in the opposite lane of the motorway trying to keep an eye on their loved ones.

The excitement was capped off when a group of female protesters emerged from the chief prosecutor’s office after handing in an official complaint against Saleh for his remarks. They announced that the prosecutor had ordered an investigation.

Although it was a young woman named Tawakul Karman who first led anti-Saleh demonstrations on a university campus in late January, women did not begin turning out in large numbers until early March. Now, in a country suffering from some of the highest gender inequality rates globally (according to the U.N. Development Program’s 2008 Gender Inequality Index, Yemen ranks 138th of 138 countries included, with female illiteracy at 60 percent, compared with male illiteracy at 29 percent), the number of Yemeni women joining the protests and playing critical roles in the opposition’s operations is steadily on the rise, and Saleh’s recent comments appear only to have added fuel to the fire. In flagrant defiance of Yemeni state television’s attempt to portray them as "dishonorable women," females are providing aid, support, and motivation to the protesters — working as nurses in makeshift hospitals and in ambulances, cooking and delivering batches of food, and delivering speeches and singing songs at the demonstrations.

"We watched our last revolution [1962] from behind closed doors. This time around we’re leading it. This revolution belongs to us all," said Faizah Suliman, a senior development officer at the Social Fund for Development. "Saleh is terrified by us."

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