New Internationalist

Guilty secrets

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In strictly segregated Yemeni society, child sexual abuse is kept well-hidden. Glen Johnson hears the harrowing testimony of a survivor.

Photo by: Aysegul Tastaban under a CC Licence
Photo by: Aysegul Tastaban under a CC Licence

The sky had clouded over, a deep grey. Fat raindrops began falling and within minutes the streets were flooded.

Eight people would drown in slums on the outskirts of Sana’a that day.

I ran through the streets of the Old City. Flashes of lightning lit up the mud-brick buildings – the elaborate friezes and stained glass windows, hemmed in white, looming eight storeys and higher above the narrow, winding streets.

I reached the hotel and hurried to its small restaurant to meet Safa: a 25-year-old Yemeni woman and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. We drank coffee waiting for the rain to pass, and then left to walk through the Old City.

The Old City’s shop walls were lined with gorgeous Jambia (traditional Yemeni knives), water-colour paintings depicting Shibam’s mud-brick skyscrapers, jewellery, thaubs and the red and white keffiyeh worn by the Bedouin. Bookstores were crammed, Qur’ans in windows. There were sacks of raisins, nuts and spices. Men were preparing shawerma sandwiches: pita-like bread stuffed with onion, lettuce and spices. The aromas of the Old City swirled around, reassuring.

To a Westerner walking alone in the Old City, the abusive aspects of Yemeni society are invisible. However, as Safa and I walked, the dream-like facade of the souq vanished. Men stared at her through narrowed eyes. Others told her she was not a Muslim. One man stood in front of her shaking a finger and told her she had brought shame to her family.

A group of men lounging on the side of the street, cheeks bloated with the mild narcotic leaf Qat, asked her, in feigned innocence, why she liked sucking my penis: they had proper Yemeni penises, she could use those instead.

As we walked Safa talked about her former employer. He had asked her to have sex with him the previous week, saying they could get married secretly if it made her more comfortable. She had walked out of the office and he had since refused to pay her.

We arrived at a different hotel that towered above the Old City and took the elevator to the rooftop cafe.

Safa had told me several days earlier that she had been raped as a child, but would not go into details.

I had persuaded her to talk to me, on condition of anonymity, after we discussed the case of a woman who had found her brother-in-law undressing her seven-year-old daughter.

We sat above the city, veiled women walking in the streets below, and Safa began talking. When she was six years old her cousin N had watched her playing with her younger cousins on the bottom floor of the family’s two-storey house. She said that she remembered feeling his eyes on her, that he had looked at her in a ‘very bad way’.

The call to prayer started and her mother asked N to help Safa get ready.

He took her to her bedroom on the second floor. He pushed her onto her bed and stuffed clothes into her mouth. Safa said she tried to scream, but no-one could hear her. He pulled her dress up and sexually assaulted her.

To a Westerner walking alone in the Old City, the abusive aspects of Yemeni society are invisible. However, as Safa and I walked, the dream-like facade of the souq vanished. Men stared at her through narrowed eyes

‘He tied clothes around my mouth. I could feel his fingers doing things to me. When he finished, he told me to go to pray.’

N raped Safa from age six to when she was fourteen. His brother M began sexually assaulting her a few weeks after the first assault. Her uncle, aged 33, twice raped her in her bedroom. For a period of eight years, Safa was sexually assaulted up to three times each week by family members.

‘Maybe one month ago, I told my Aunt that M and N had done these things to me. She told me that N was very bad so I should tell my father, but M was a very good person, so I couldn’t tell anyone about what he did.

‘It hurts me so much because they don’t care about me, but they care about the person who did it.’

Men’s laws

In Yemen, men wield total power in government and society. Mixed with the patriarchy are dangerously conservative and masculine forms of Islam which serve to buttress male hegemony. As such, women’s rights are systematically violated and few organizations can offer women support and protection.

In a 2009 report, ‘Yemen’s Dark Side: Discrimination and Violence against Women and Girls’, Amnesty International argued that Yemeni women faced widespread discrimination and violence. The report addressed restrictions placed on women’s movements, forced and early marriage – including the case of a girl married at the age of eight, honour killings, and laws relating to Zina (immoral behaviour) in which, predominantly, male enforcement bodies decided what constituted an ‘immoral’ act.

Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence
Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence

In the case of Zina, Amnesty International argued that Article 232 of the Penal Code (law No. 12/1994 ) reinforced a woman’s inferior status: If a husband caught his wife committing adultery and killed her – an ‘honour killing’ – he would receive a maximum prison sentence of one year, or a fine.

Furthermore, a woman arrested for immoral behaviour is forbidden from testifying by Article 53 of the Evidence Law. As such, a woman cannot defend herself against charges that have extreme ramifications: floggings and the death penalty.

The list goes on: women need permission from a father or husband to leave the house and are often accompanied by a relative; a man is allowed up to four wives at any one time – whom he can divorce at will by uttering a short phrase – but a woman is permitted only one husband, whom she cannot divorce without his consent; and attempts to legislate against early marriage have met fierce resistance.

In a landmark case, eight year-old Nojoud Nasser was married to a 30 year-old man by her father. Nasser took herself off to a judge and argued for divorce. She succeeded in having the marriage annulled despite it having been (forcibly) consummated.

In Yemen, men wield total power in government and society. Mixed with the patriarchy are dangerously conservative and masculine forms of Islam which serve to buttress male hegemony

Earlier this year, the government attempted to legislate against early marriage, proposing 17 as the minimum age for a woman to be married.

The proposals enraged Yemen’s fundamentalists and street protests were staged, led by sheikhs championing a minor’s right to marriage. The argument put forward by the fundamentalists was twofold: That the Qur’an did not prohibit child marriage and that, by marrying as a child, a girl would be less likely to commit an immoral act later in life – have sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

Concluding that the government needed to take effective steps to address discriminatory laws and change societal attitudes, the Amnesty report said that women’s rights were ‘routinely violated because Yemeni laws as well as tribal and customary practices treat them as second class citizens’.

Social strictures

Safa said she was afraid to approach any organizations and she would not report the assaults to the police.

‘I have heard about bad things being done at those organizations.’

Pausing, Safa looked out over the Old City towards the distant, massive Ali Abdullah Saleh mosque, its gold-capped minarets glinting in the late afternoon sun.

‘We can’t change anything because it comes from society. The government can’t make the society do something it doesn’t want.

‘I am not virgin. If I go to the police they will see me as a woman they can have sex with. It’s the same with the organizations. They will try to have sex with me.’

Her eyes sank down to the table.

‘If I tell my father, he will kill them and go to jail. The police will make a big problem for me.’

Safa’s story is not uncommon. She knows four women who were abused during childhood by family members, including one of her 23 year-old female cousins. None of them reported the assaults.

‘Why do they do this to us? Because they can’t have sex, or a relationship, they do it to children.’

According to an unpublished 2008 study – overseen by UNICEF – of university students at four Yemeni Universities, 30 per cent of students had been physically sexually abused as minors, while more than 50 per cent had been sexually abused in some way.

Overwhelmingly, sexual abuse took place in the victims’ homes: 37 per cent of the incidents occurred in the home, while 18 per cent of assaults took place in neighbours’ homes.

Eighty-five per cent of perpetrators were males and almost 40 per cent of perpetrators were relatives. An additional 25 per cent of offenders were nuclear family.

The study demonstrated that most sexual violence, 58 per cent, was directed against 6 to 12 year-olds and that 43 per cent of victims were assaulted repeatedly. Fifteen per cent of victims were under the age of 6.

Somewhat surprisingly, and because of the greater personal freedoms granted males, the study postulated that males were more susceptible to sexual abuse, stating that 53.6 per cent of sexual assault victims were males, while 46.4 per cent were females.

Crisis writ large

In Yemen, there is an extreme form of sexual segregation, which undoubtedly contributes to sexual violence. And the country appears to be speeding towards complete disintegration, limiting the timeframe for major reforms.

Yemen is resource poor, ultra-conservative and bound to tribal customs. Its ground water aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate – for which cultivation of the thirsty Qat plant holds a good deal of responsibility. With 45 per cent of the population under the age of 15, the total population of 24 million is expected to double by 2050.

The government draws most of its revenue from oil. However, oil production is expected to drop to zero by 2017, approximately the same time as the water crisis reaches its apex. Unemployment currently sits at 40 per cent, a mid-ranking civil servant averages a monthly wage of around $200. A 2005 UNDP report put female literacy at 28 per cent, while a 2009 UNICEF report put malnutrition in five year olds at 47 per cent.

The government, notorious for its corruption, barely controls the major cities and the majority of the population live in areas characterized by grinding poverty where the rule of the sword holds sway.

With its mix of tribal customs, religious extremism, lack of government control, widespread poverty and looming water and oil crises, not to mention numerous armed groups, Yemen is set apart from the rest of the Middle East in that it shows no real propensity for change.

‘My society is sick’

And so women like Safa have little recourse to hope.

Safa said she had only just begun to address the issues which stemmed from her abuse.

‘I am angry because I don’t tell anyone. I want to know if it’s something wrong with me that made them do these bad things. If I tell my mother she will die from shame. I’m not a virgin. My family will be shamed. No-one will marry me.’

A woman arrested for immoral behaviour is forbidden from testifying by Article 53 of the Evidence Law. As such, a woman cannot defend herself against charges that have extreme ramifications: floggings and the death penalty

For Safa the abuse has persisted, becoming a thing of adulthood. She doesn’t normally wear the niqab (veil) and is therefore constantly abused in the street.

Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence
Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence

‘If I wear a niqab, men tell me I am the most beautiful, very beautiful girl. If I wear hijab only, they say bad things to me, like that I should have sex with them. My uncle still touches me in a very bad way. He touches me and pretends it is just an accident. But how can I tell my aunt? I will hurt her if I tell, I will hurt my family. My society is sick.’

We finished talking as the sun began sinking. Safa’s curfew – 7 pm – was approaching. We walked through the Old City. Little six-pointed stars could faintly be seen above some buildings’ doorways. The call to prayer was echoing through the streets. The microphone in a mosque was picking up the whisperings of men in prayer, underneath the call.

Escape?

A week after I interviewed Safa, National Security gave me 72 hours to leave Yemen.

Safa came to my apartment to say goodbye. She brought a cake.

We were eating it, when we heard the first screams from the street. I looked out the window and knew the situation was bad. There were around 50 men gathered below, holding stones or sticks.

I asked Safa to put her veil on, ran downstairs, and opened the large gate.

Some local boys had seen her enter my apartment and had informed the neighbours. Within minutes a crowd of men had gathered.

The assumption was that she was having sexual intercourse and making pornography. I told the crowd that she was a friend who had come to say goodbye as I was leaving Yemen.

One man began screaming at me to bring her out. Her actions were ‘haram’ – she had violated Qur’anic imperatives.

He said that the police were coming.

I ran upstairs. Safa was shaking and saying ‘no’ over and over. ‘They will kill me,’ she said. If the police arrived, she would most likely be flogged 100 times. No-one would believe that she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Then her family would bludgeon her to death. We went downstairs. The landlord was waiting. He told us that we had to get to a taxi. He opened the gate and let us out.

In Yemen, there is an extreme form of sexual segregation, which undoubtedly contributes to sexual violence. And the country appears to be speeding towards complete disintegration, limiting the timeframe for major reforms

I took her hand and told her to stay close to me. We pushed out into the crowd. Safa began crying. Two men grabbed her arms and started pulling her away through the crowd. She was begging for them to let her go. They were yelling: ‘Sharmoota’ (bitch: used normally to refer to a woman who has had sex outside of marriage).

Some teenage boys began throwing rubbish. I broke the men’s grips on her wrists and pushed them away, telling them to leave. The crowd was screaming ‘haramee’ (thief). I was saying that she was a friend only and that there was no problem.

Men were pulling at her hijab and veil.

I thought about a Yemeni woman who was burned to death by her family for having intercourse outside of marriage.

And then it stopped.

They let us walk through. By now, everyone on the street had come out to see what was happening. Safa walked past the veiled women glaring at her. Past the storekeepers shaking their heads. Past the men standing, watching silently with their children.

A child ran up to Safa and yelled ‘fuck you’, his face twisted by a hate which he did not understand, nor had any freedom of thought over.

Safa wept as she walked, her head hung in shame. Short gasps and whimpers. Little exhalations.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.

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