Sanaa — Yemeni women activists are responding combatively to the media war waged by state outlets this week aimed at denouncing female participation in protests sweeping the nation.
Sparking the row, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Friday criticized gender intermingling during the demonstrations in a televised speech delivered to thousands of pro-regime supporters.
“I call on them [the joint meeting parties] to reject the mixing of sexes as it’s forbidden by Islam,” Saleh urged in Sanaa.
State-run television channels in subsequent days hosted several men who allegedly defected from demonstrations in Tagheer (Change) Square, the epicenter of Yemen’s unrest, because of female behavior there.
“I used to see men getting inside their tents, sharing poems or whatever. That bothered me a lot, as it’s a big shame,” a self-proclaimed member of one women protection committee said on the show, which was later posted on YouTube and publicized on social media sites.
“Once I saw some girls mingling with some male protesters," the member said. "Then they took a taxi and left the protest together. I informed the security committee but they did nothing. They said it’s not the time to address this kind of problem.”
Saleh’s state media mechanism has sought to appeal to the religious and socially conservative Yemeni majority through its criticism of female involvement in the unrest. State-run news websites continue to pursue a defamation campaign against the women demonstrators. They publish photos of females mingling with men in Tagheer Square, some holding discussions in academic tents with men chewing Qat — a natural amphetamine pervasively used among men in Yemen.
“As a girl I can’t isolate myself from the society and not participate in what’s happening only because men in my society chew Qat and are not used to hosting women during their chewing sessions,” Sara Gamal, featured in one of the photos, told Al-Masry Al-Youm, while insisting her participation in political discussions with male counterparts does not violate Islamic rules.
In response to Saleh’s remarks, Yemeni female demonstrators on Saturday submitted a defamation suit to the general prosecution office against President Saleh, Minister of Information Hassan Al-Lawzy and head of the Yemeni Public Cooperation for Radio and Television, Hussein Ghuthem. The suit includes charges of libel and slander.
Critics of the regime say the head of state, in power for three decades, is resorting to any means necessary to retain power.
“Saleh contradicts himself. At the beginning he wanted to scare the Yemeni women, saying that if his regime withdrew, the Islamists will make Yemen another Afghanistan where women have no voice or rights,” said Arwa al-Faqeeh, a female activist involved in the defamation suit who has been camped out at Tagheer Square. “But now he is trying to act Taliban himself by denying our rights in making change in the streets along with our brothers.”
“He should be the last to talk about Islam or the Yemeni female honor and manners. He is a two-faced man that shouts for the constitutional legitimacy but, once we practice our constitutional rights, he accuses us of being un-Islamic!”
Al-Faqeeh and her fellow activists also arranged large marches in Taiz, Aden, Ibb and Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. Civil society activists, moreover, coordinated a mixed march in Sanaa to deliver a message to Saleh that women have nothing to hide in demonstrating beside men. And the Islamist Islah Party, the country’s largest opposition bloc, arranged marches strictly for women.
But some Yemenis, even those women dedicatedly involved in the pro-democracy movement sweeping the nation, suggest Saleh’s remarks are impacting the mentality of the unrest.
“Saleh led us to a dangerous way of thinking,” said female activist Samia al-Hadad. “He succeeded in making us relate the honor of women with the fact of mixing with men in general activities.”
“The regime is playing a strong psychological game against the revolution and the protesters in Change Square,” said political analyst Ahmed al-Zurqa. “The president knows how sensitive the stereotype of the Yemeni women is from an ethical point of view. He meant to cause defections in the square.”
But the condemnation of female involvement is not only having a psychological effect. During the mixed march in Sanaa, defected army soldiers who vowed to protect the revolution, along with members of Islah Party, beat several female demonstrators. On Tuesday, those same activists arranged a march to the general prosecutor’s office to submit a criminal suit of violation and assault.
“The soldiers came from tribal and Islamist backgrounds and are sensitive towards female participation,” said al-Zurqa. “They still have the stereotype of segregation that doesn’t suit the revolution.”
Following the attacks, President Saleh held a conference with Yemeni women in which he said his remarks on Friday were interpreted inaccurately. He believes, Saleh told the activists, women are half of Yemeni society.
"We do not suspect our mothers, daughters or sisters. Women are too honorable to say anything about,” Saleh said, denying he suggested women were pursuing inappropriate relations with men. "When we talked and said ‘why are you mixing?’ — that is because of our worry for our daughters, sisters and mothers from mobs and anarchists."
Throughout the country, people often discuss the Islamic view on women in Tagheer Square. In discussions among ordinary Yemenis, people commonly deny women the right “for any reason” to sleep in a public tent.
One protester sparked recent controversy by delivering her baby in one of Tagheer’s female medical tents.
“How can a woman dare to open her legs that way to deliver a babe in a street?” a pro-government citizen said. “This is a shame that makes me disrespect the women who protest in Change Square.”
The recent announcement of a marriage engagement between two Yemenis who met during demonstrations over the past nearly three months has also visibly revealed the discord between state media and progressive activism.
Anti-government media and protesters alike reacted to the marriage announcement with happiness and appreciation, saying the relationship started in a respectful environment. The state media apparatus characterized the situation as shameful evidence that women sleep in the square seeking husbands.
But, despite conflicting reports on the reformation of gender views, many female protesters confirmed to Al-Masry Al-Youm that the protests have created a new culture of relative gender equality in Tagheer Square.
“The culture we created in the square is more like a miracle in which tribesmen, soldiers and civilized people respect us,” said activist al-Faqeeh. “The square is unlike what we were used to before the revolution started.”