In late October of this year, hundreds of Yemeni women marched into a main street in Sanaa, the country’s capital. In the middle of streets they laid a black cloth. Then in the middle of the cloth they threw their veils, piles of them, black fabric that had used to cover themselves.
Then they did something unprecedented in public: they set fire to them, marking an end to their seclusion and to their silence.
The night before, on October 25, 2011 twenty people had died protesting in Sanaa and nearby Taiz and the women wanted the world to know that they, like everyone else who had endured President Abdullah Saleh’s 33 year old regime, had had enough.
Women have been front and center in the protests that began in Yemen over ten months ago, visible among the people gathered in change square and relishing the breakdown of segregation among those gathered there.
On the second day of protests, one brave Yemeni woman chose to pitch her tent among men one of thousands of female students, housewives, and professionals who refused to stay home when the future of their nation was being fought in Yemen’s streets. Their iconoclastic enthusiasm was buoyed when one of them Tawakkol Kamran, at 32 became the first Arab woman and the youngest ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But not everyone rejoiced at their success, some remaining insistent on retaining the old ways. On November 30, 2011, the Yemen Times reported that the Islamist Islah party erected a wooden wall in Change Square to separate men from women. As one protestor noted, the message was clear, you may break other divisions in Yemeni society, but you will not break this one. Many saw it as a visible reaction to the inroads being made by women during the protests; ones which heralded a new era in terms of gender relations.
In the words of Afra Habori, one female protestor who began a Facebook page demanding the dismantling of the wall, Yemeni women have begun the process of change but still have a long way to go.
Despite the erection of the wall, women have continued to maintain a presence in the square, but as the protests continue toward their one year anniversary, the long road ahead and the many obstacles it is likely to pose are becoming more obvious. One of these will be insuring that the removal of old hardships perpetrated by the Saleh regime, the vast silences imposed on political opponents and opposition do not translate into the creation of more walls and more exclusion.
Blog cowritten by Alireza Azizi Country Specialist for Yemen