Where have all the Yemeni Socialist women gone?
A history of struggle
Wahbia Sabra, president of the women’s administration in the YSP’s political office, and a member of the Executive Board of the National Council, said “The YSP was the first Yemeni party that had a large number of women members” and that “women in the YSP were fighters just like the men [of the party].”
She asserted that even prior to the 1978 founding of the YSP in south Yemen, “There were a lot of names of socialist women who participated directly in the struggle against British colonialism.”
She claimed that women struggled for independence from the British alongside men, though often working covertly to provide supplies and shelter for rebels. Many were imprisoned. After the independence of the south, women socialists continued to be imprisoned for their activities against the government of the then Yemeni Arab Republic (YAR), before unification. Women socialists persecuted in the north often fled across the Wborder to the safety of Aden, Sabra said.
Speaking on the circumstances socialist women face today, Sabra said, “I think that the current woman’s struggle is harder than it was during the days of the British occupation or the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [PDRY] prior to unification, because at the time everyone struggled for one particular thing. There was no religious ideology that repressed a woman or kept her from going out.”
“Before there were conservative habits and traditions, but they were easier on women than what she’s experiencing now under the security breakdown and Islamic extremism—an extremism I think Islam itself is not guilty of. I think that now women are facing greater difficulty in going out into the streets, in political struggle, in getting an education and in religious matters.”
Jawhara Hamood, state minister for the YSP in the national unity government, confirmed the leading role that women held in the YSP in the years prior to unification. She said that after the independence of south Yemen from the British, women began occupying important government positions in the PDRY leadership. Women were members of the Central Committee of the YSP, one of the highest decision-making bodies in the party.
“They demanded equality, and equality became a reality for them,” Hamood said, referring to women in the YSP in the pre-unification era.
Blows to the leadership
YSP’s female leadership began to decline following the unification of the Arab Republic of Yemen and the PDRY. According to Hamood and Sabra, however, it hit a dramatic decline following the 1994 civil war between the north and south.
Hamood said that beginning after unification, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh allowed conservative religious and tribal groups to impose their agenda on the south in order to constrain progressive movements that could threaten his power. A series of laws created to give a boost to women’s status in the days of YSP control in the PDRY, known as the family laws, were negotiated away when the two governments merged.
“The family laws had protected the rights of women in the general community and in public posts and in the family,” Hamood said. “From this, women had been able to achieve advanced positions in all fields.”
According to Hamood, these conservative groups tried to take away a woman’s right to education, to work and to state-sponsored childcare and the right to keep the marriage home in divorce cases.
The new power arrangement after the civil war excluded the YSP from governance, and the YSP took on the nickname of the “stay at home” party because of discrimination against party members in employment, leaving many members jobless and relegated to the home.
“The war of 1994 was a war of destruction on the YSP,” Sabra said. “They (northern forces) were not satisfied with merely taking Aden, but they excluded all members of the YSP and southerners with high-level positions from government, be they men or women.”
After 1994, the jobs of known Socialist party members were threatened by the regime. With state-supported welfare services disappearing, party members found themselves in a more and more precarious position.
Female members, already facing discrimination in Yemeni society, particularly in the north, were the most dramatically affected by the pressures on the party. Hamood said that following the civil war, female leaders in the YSP’s Central Committees began to fear even attending meetings because of the risk of losing their jobs. Large numbers left the YSP and joined Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) to avoid persecution.
“Many women from the YSP, out of poverty and want, and under religious pressure and intimidation, entered the GPC,” Sabra said. “Lots of the women leaders you find in the GPC now are originally from the Socialists.”
“Those who wouldn’t join the GPC, who had deep-rooted and strong values who couldn’t bear to swap their party for another, they’re at home, with no work or income.”
According to Sabra, following the 1994 war, the GPC’s hegemony grew to the point that a woman graduating university who hoped to find a job couldn’t do so without a GPC membership card. This closed the door to the possibility of rebuilding the YSP’s female membership for years.
Women’s future role
Despite the blows that the YSP has taken, both Sabra and Hamood feel that Yemen’s revolution and transitional government have created opportunities for socialist women to become political pioneers in Yemen once again.
“This revolution was a victory for women at a basic level. Women started to once again consider the rights that they had lost. Freedom, justice, democracy, equality, putting an end to despotism, corruption, oppression: these are the things for which women suffered and the outcome [of the revolution] which women demanded,” Hamood remarked, smiling.
She noted that transitional government policy stipulates that women have a thirty percent minimum representation in government bodies.
“This is the beginning on the right path. Now women have a meaningful presence in the legislative and executive councils.”
Sabra stressed that “socialist women cannot play a role isolated from politics. If political performance improves, and government positions become the property of the citizen and not merely of some despot, socialist women will play a distinguished role, as any woman might in another party or political body.”
Hamood said it’s important for women of the Socialist party to participate with all other women in helping to build a new state during the transitional period. She emphasized that she doesn’t want the YSP to set itself too far apart from other parties while Yemen is so fragile, as she believes it could lead to political fissures generating exclusive tendencies down the line.
For her part, Sabra said in order to bring women’s leadership back to the YSP, a broader campaign to change views around women’s roles in Yemeni society has to be undertaken. She said it’s critical that Yemeni women first be able to get an education and begin changing the stereotype of a woman as someone “who only sews, cooks and works in the garden.”
She underscored how important it is that today’s political leaders, in the transitional government or otherwise, challenge discrimination against women with concrete policy, as had been done with the family laws.
“When you say that you’re for women, I want to see you practice this in reality, not in newspapers or the internet or TV.”