‘A woman can be whatever she likes’
Yemeni rapper Amani Yahya’s dress sense is raising as many eyebrows as her lyrics in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. The 21-year-old swaps the traditional abaya and veil to busk in jeans, a t-shirt and a cap.
After spending her childhood in Saudi Arabia, she returned to Yemen in 2010 and started rapping two years later. A Dentistry student at the University of Sana’a, Yahya uses the art form to express her thoughts – in English – on women’s rights and issues. Her latest work, ‘Mary’, is about child marriage, based on a true story.
Finding her voice in a society where creativity has long been suppressed, but not quashed, by dictatorial regimes is not without its challenges. ‘People don’t accept the fact that I’m a rapper, they think rap is just a foreign kind of art and I’m copying Western styles, but art has no nationality,’ says Yahya.
A perfect storm
Yahya is breaking taboos in a country often spoken about in unflattering superlatives: ranked in 2014’s Global Gender Gap Report as the least gender-equal nation in the world, outdoing Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan, Yemen is also the poorest state in the Middle East.
‘People don’t accept the fact that I’m a rapper, they think rap is just a foreign kind of art and I’m copying Western styles, but art has no nationality’
Half of the 25-million population is below the age of 15 and, due to a high birth rate, the number of people is expected to double by 2033. Some 13 million Yemenis lack access to safe water or sanitation, with water supplies set to disappear in urban areas within 15 years. Only five nations are more food insecure than Yemen and 334,000 people are internally displaced due to droughts and conflict.
Since 2002, US air and drone strikes have wreaked havoc in areas often hit, increasing support for and reliance on Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular (AQAP). In 2011, when then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was clinging to power in Sana’a, rival parties began to fill the power vacuum in other regions. The political instability has worsened since the Houthis gained control of the capital last September.
It is in this context that Yemeni girls and women experience inequality and a double hardship. According to the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) 32 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before their 18th birthday. A quarter of women aged between 15-49 have undergone Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) and intimate partner violence is common.
‘We cannot voice our opinions freely’
‘Yemen’s new draft constitution [launched days before the Houthi rebel government takeover on 22 January] passed two important issues,’ says Yemeni social researcher Rasha Jarhum. ‘The first was a 30-per-cent quota for women’s political participation; the second was to set a minimum age of marriage.’ Both pieces of legislation faced resistance from within the Constitution Drafting Committee but feminist groups came together to lobby for their implementation. If this constitution had seen the light it would have been a great victory for Yemeni women.
‘Since the coup by the Houthis, it feels like the status of women has gone back to the dark ages,’ says Jarhum, currently living in Beirut. ‘We hear about these new imposed codes of conducts like no going out after 7pm and music not being allowed.
Recently Yemeni Shirin Makawi and her French colleague [Isabelle Prime] were kidnapped. This is not only unacceptable by international and national human rights standards but also unacceptable by the tribal code of conduct and norms.’
Melody Of Our Alienation by #SupportYemen media collective. supportyemen.org
Amal Al Yarisi is a journalist for the Yemen Times. ‘We cannot voice our opinions freely, especially regarding political matters. Most Yemenis believe that women shouldn’t occupy any political positions or even participate in the decision-making process.’
‘What other challenges do women face in 2015?’ I ask. ‘Illiteracy is prevalent among women and girls, especially in rural areas,’ responds Al Yarisi.
‘More than 80 per cent of women work in agriculture. Rural women have no forms of social protection and often their work is not economically accounted for,’ explains Jurham. ‘They work long hours and their rights are often disregarded, sometimes even by feminist groups.’
(Post) revolution through a lens
Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring presented an opportunity for women to become more politically active. ‘The revolution was not just a political one,’ describes blogger Afrah Nasser over Skype. ‘My friends revolted inside their homes: they rebelled against the tradition that says you shouldn’t speak up as a woman. For women to literally walk on the street and shout and then to say to their parents, “I’m going to be part of the uprising”, was a revolution in itself. There were consequences. Women got divorced because they went against the will of their husbands.’
‘We cannot voice our opinions freely, especially regarding political matters. Most Yemenis believe that women shouldn’t occupy any political positions or even participate in decision-making process’
And now? ‘There were, and still are, political powers that use women solely as decoration to polish their image,’ Nasser believes. ‘The problem is that sometimes even women themselves don’t think that it’s a problem. Yemen is a conservative society with a lot of patriarchy. This is one of the reasons why I continue in media – if I let life’s problems get me out of there, I am going to give away a place for another macho guy talking as if he knows best about women’s issues.
‘I think we need more women in the media because their history gets vanished. If it is only men that are represented in the public eye, we will see fewer stories about women.’
Yemeni photographer Thana Faroq is one of the many women who have taken up the mantle. She was studying in the US when she began ‘shooting humans and their daily activities in the street’. By the time she returned to Yemen, her interest in street photography had grown. ‘I felt there were many untold stories that needed to be reflected on photographs away from what the media stream allows.’ One of Faroq’s projects is on child marriage, another shows women making a difference through leadership, courage or passion.
‘Shooting in Yemen has never been easy, culturally and security-wise. Not so many people would be thrilled to see a young woman carrying her camera and targeting them for photos. But I don’t really focus on the obstacles as much as on my documentation mission of everyday life in Yemen and the messages I aspire to deliver through my photographs.’
Make it happen
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Make it happen: encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women’. There are ways in which women around the world can help with this, says Amal Al Yarisi. ‘They can involve Yemeni women in conferences that tackle gender-related issues. And raise awareness among women in Yemen through workshops, conferences and symposiums to enable them to voice their opinions and participate in political and decision-making processes.’
Amani Yahya is already making it happen. Recently profiled by the BBC, her career as both dentist and rapper – perhaps a rapping dentist – is ahead of her. ‘My hope for Yemeni society is that they accept the fact that a woman can be something and that she can change something, she can be whatever she likes.’