Yemeni Women at War

Yemeni women and children. Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English/Flickr.

Things have gotten so catastrophic in Yemen that despite the other man-made horrors enveloping the globe, the United Nations has called the conflict in Yemen the world’s greatest man-made catastrophe. The statistics are grim with 10 million people on the brink of famine serving as a tragic byproduct of the civil war between the Saudi-backed government and a Zaydi Shiite Houthi insurgency that receives support from Iran (although it would be overly simplistic to call them Iranian puppets).

The collapse of the country’s health system has led to outbreaks of diseases such as measles and cholera, and the Armed Location and Event Data Project estimates that more than 70,000 civilians have been killed since the conflict began. US President Donald Trump, whose sequestered lifestyle never required him to fully develop a conscience or anything resembling empathy, vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have ended US involvement in the civil war. Showing no regard or knowledge of the complexity of the situation in Yemen, Trump sees the conflict through a simplistic anti-Iran prism.  In other words, the deaths of Yemenis are viewed as nothing more than collateral damage. The Twitter-in-Chief has stated that a resolution to end US involvement in Yemen “is an unnecessary, dangerous, attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.” Trump stated “we cannot end the conflict in Yemen through political documents. Peace in Yemen requires a negotiated settlement.” Trump’s defense of continued military aid to Saudi Arabia ignores the fact that the Saudi coalition has been responsible for most of the civilian deaths in the civil war. The president, in a hideous and revolting display of amoral high politics, also has stated that jobs are a reason to give the Saudi government continued access to US military largesse.

It would be convenient to lay the blame solely on Trump because of the understandable desire for progressives to look fondly at the Obama era as the good old days. However, that would be neither accurate nor fair to the women and men who are working every day to try to rebuild their shattered communities in Yemen. Sarah Leah of Human Rights Watch offers a reminder to progressives about the Obama administration’s tragic policy in Yemen that illuminates the inconvenient truth that a Democrat in the White House doesn’t automatically translate into a consistent concern for human rights overseas. In her fair, but harsh critique, Leah writes:

Well before President Trump’s appearance, we at Human Rights Watch and others had documented well over 100 apparently indiscriminate or disproportionate aerial attacks by the Saudi-led coalition on civilians and infrastructure in Yemen, causing devastation to Yemenis in their homes, markets, schools, hospitals, and even during their weddings and their funerals. In case after case, we showed that US weapons were being used in many of these attacks, including widely banned cluster munitions in populated areas.

Sheila Carapico, professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Richmond and author of Civil Society in Yemen, offered sharp criticism of Obama’s willingness to embrace the amoral politics of realpolitik: “The one thing I would give Trump credit for is being candid and saying that the war in Yemen is good for the American economy,” Carapico said. “The president admitted that this is an American jobs and American exports program. The American position has long been whatever Saudi Arabia wants we’re going to do it. The Obama administration also took that position but avoided declaring outright that multi-billion-dollar weapons sales and contracts to the Gulf monarchies favor US economic growth over humanitarian concerns.”

One of the prime reasons given for continued US support for Saudi Arabia is that the Houthis are supported by Iran. However, to view the Houthis solely through an Iran-centric prism glosses over the group’s history in Yemen. The Houthis fought a series of rebellions against the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh during the previous decade. They also took part in the massive uprising against the late dictator in 2011. Unhappy with the transition process that was supposed to pave the way for democracy, the Houthis took advantage of the relatively weak government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and – with the backing of Yemeni security forces loyal to Saleh – took over Sanaa. This garnered the support of many Yemenis, including Sunnis, who had grown disillusioned with the transition process and regarded Hadi as a puppet of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and the Saleh Loyalists – a brief marriage of convenience between former enemies – tried take over the whole country in March of 2015. Saleh is believed to have backed this coup attempt by his former foes in a bid to retain power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and seven other mostly Sunni states responded to the Houthi’s growing power by launching an air war in Yemen with the goal of restoring Hadi to power. The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, the UK and France. The Saudis forecasted the war would last two months.

The Saudi’s prediction has turned out to be tragically inaccurate. Instead of trying to solve the problem through diplomacy, the Saudi’s have viewed Yemen as a battleground in its proxy war with Iran for hegemony over the Middle East. The US government added fuel to the fire by continuing its blind and morally bankrupt support for a Saudi regime that is in many ways just as repugnant as its Iranian rivals.

Since the civil war broke out rifts have formed between previously aligned groups, making the situation on the ground more complex. The alliance between the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh ended in November 2017 following clashes over control of Sanaa’s largest mosque, leaving dozens dead. The Houthis launched an operation to take control of the capital and on December 4, 2017, they announced Saleh – their enemy-turned ally-turned enemy again – had been killed.

Meanwhile, a separatist group known as the Southern Transitional Council, which has been a part of the anti-Houthi alliance, has accused the Hadi government of corruption and mismanagement. The STC seeks independence for south Yemen, which was a separate country before unification with the north in 1990. The southerners clashed with Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces when it captured Aden while receiving backing from the UAE. This has created tension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who share a common enemy in the Houthis, yet have decided to back different groups in Yemen. If this infighting continues, it could make the peace process even more difficult.

While coalition forces are responsible for the majority of the deaths in Yemen, they are far from the only group to be complicit in human rights abuses and civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch reports the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have both indiscriminately attacked, forcefully disappeared, and blocked food and medicine to Yemeni citizens. The Houthis have recruited children, used landmines, and fired artillery and rockets into cities such as Taizz and Aden, and into Saudi Arabia. HRC also reports that Yemeni officials in Aden have beaten, raped, and tortured, migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, including women and children.

While the civil war in Yemen doesn’t suffer from a paucity of villains, this shouldn’t distract from the amazing work people are doing every day in Yemen.

“It was called a leader-full revolution,” Carapico said. “It’s really hard for anyone to generalize, because there are such different circumstances in almost every locality, and almost everywhere there are unarmed male and female civil society leaders leading projects like trying to keep schools together, combatting cholera, and collecting garbage.”

Carapico said many of the people doing the most laudable work, such as medical personnel working to combat cholera, have dropped off social media to avoid becoming targets.

“The best people in Yemen are the hardest to find,” she said.

While both men and women were involved in the 2011 Yemeni Spring and are currently involved in trying to help alleviate suffering and bring peace to their local communities, women have been at the forefront of many efforts to bring social change to the country on issues as diverse as challenging entrenched patriarchal gender norms and working to negotiate peace in their communities and in the country as a whole.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman is the most well-known of this group. However, Karman is just one of many women who have played vital roles during the Yemeni revolution as well as during the violent and complex events that have followed the end of Saleh’s rule. Mona Luqman, co-founder of the Yemeni women’s coalition, Women Solidarity Network, also has been a prominent voice for women’s rights in her country.

“We are here for the long haul, and we are not giving up. Should peace get a chance in Yemen, then we will need women at the table,” Luqman told the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Nisma Mansour, field coordinator of the Yemeni NGO Peace Track Initiative, also has been outspoken about the role Yemeni women should play in ending the war, as well as the need for the international community to be supportive of the inclusion of women in future Yemeni peace talks.

“I really see it as my duty to speak and bring the voices of Yemeni women to the international community,” Mansour said. “We are also trying to speak to the government, but they are not interested in what we have to say, so our strategy is really to get the international community to push for our inclusion. The more visible we are, the harder it is to silence us.”

While most women in Yemen have stayed out of the conflict, some women have actively played a role in aiding one side. For example, Nasseem Al-Odaini stayed behind in Houthi-occupied Taiz and initiated an organization to support the army. She did this despite her family fleeing to the neighboring Ibb region. Al-Odaini told Middle East Eye “We want to encourage the pro-government forces to advance in the province by raising the spirits of the fighters.” She is one of five women who support army fighters on the front lines as part of a female collective called “Love It.”  The group provides pro-government fighters with food, water and medical supplies. The group prioritizes aid for those living in conflict zones and for those on the front lines. Reham Badr, another member of Love It, told MEE that she views herself as helping liberate Taiz from Houthi occupiers. “We should liberate the city,” she said. “It’s the least we can give to our city.” The women’s role in the conflict has been criticized by local Islamic clerics as going against Islam, but group has largely ignored such critiques and forged. Although Badr and Odaini see themselves as fighting for a better tomorrow, the anti-Houthi resistance forces they have aided have fought alongside the local Al-Qaeda branch, AQAP. This reinforces the moral complexity and ambiguity that has manifested itself as a result of the way the civil war in Yemen has evolved. The other tragic component of Badr and Odaini’s stories is both women have lost loved ones in the war: Odaini lost a cousin to Houthi shelling, and Badr’s brother was killed in battle.

These two women’s positions concerning the war illustrates the complexity of Yemeni politics with some women viewing Hadi as a puppet, and others seeing the Houthis as the main enemy. Research by Marie-Christine Heinze and Marwa Baabbad further illuminates the heterogenous attitudes of women towards the conflict. The authors focused their work on how the civil war affected women’s lives in the governorates of Ibb and Aden. In Aden their research illustrated how women viewed activities such as preparing and delivering food and water for fighters, nursing the wounded, manning checkpoints and, in rare cases, taking up arms, as contributions to peace. This view undermines the view that all women see themselves as nothing more than passive victims in a complex, multi-faceted civil war.

However, the paradigm-challenging views of some women in Yemen doesn’t change the overall grim picture of the war’s negative impact on women’s ability to participate in public life: checkpoints, restrictions imposed by families because of security concerns, threats posed by armed groups, and the resurgence of gender norms promoted by conservative groups. In her speech to the UN security Council in November 2018, Rasha Jarhum, founder and director of the Women Solidarity Network in Yemen, noted the drastic increase in gender-based violence, including rape, and child marriage five months after the conflict had broken out in her country. She reported that gender-based violence increased by 70 percent during this time period, while child marriage rose by 66 percent.

Despite the severe adversity women face in Yemen, local groups like the Association of the Mothers of Abductees, despite peril to their own physical health, have been able to achieve justice for the oppressed. Jarhum informed the council that this group had obtained the releases of 336 detainees. She compared this number to the zero detainee releases that had been secured at that time by the UN-sponsored process.

While women’s roles in the conflict have not always aligned with common preconceptions, Yemeni women will have trouble achieving equal rights, challenging entrenched patriarchy and rebuilding their communities when amoral international actors like the US government continue to feed arms to opposing groups in the country. This is why female activists in the country often talk about the need for Yemeni women to be involved in negotiating for peace in Yemen.  Aside from supporting the work of Jarhum, Luqman and many others, citizens in the United States should also demand its government no longer be complicit in what can and should be described as crimes against humanity. There has been a dispiriting lack non-violent protest over the US role in Yemen. Compassion fatigue is not a reasonable excuse for inaction on this urgent issue.

Henry Thoreau rendered Americans a sense of one’s obligation to his or her fellow human beings in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience”, which offers important lessons about the US citizenry’s responsibilities to Yemenis today. In the essay, he wrote:

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

It is long past time US citizens demand their tax dollars no longer be used to kill innocent human beings who have already suffered enough.

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