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Correspondent’s Outtakes: Yemen’s best hidden secret: the women behind the revolution

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I told Amal Basha, I’m a friend of Najwa in Beirut, I am in Sana’a for a few days and I’m interested in meeting women activists.

I hadn’t finished my sentence when she said, “Meet me at five.” She gave me an address on Hadda street. I didn’t know if I was going to a house or an office; when my taxi couldn’t find the place, I called her. Minutes later she was picking me up from Beirut Street.

It was an apartment I was supposed to find, that of Huriya Mashhour, and it was less than a minute away, but during the short drive I couldn’t help myself asking Amal how come she wasn’t wearing the abaya. She was actually wearing jeans and open-toed sandals, her scarf loosely wrapped over her shoulder. “Time,” she said, with a sigh and a smile.


“With age, you just decide you don’t care anymore, you drop your fears, you stop asking what ifs, and just do what you want,” she said as if talking to herself.

She made it sound like just a detail, but I learned later that in a country of 25 million people, she was just one of a dozen women—most like her around the mid forties—who decided to defy the niqab culture, a choice for many maybe, but imposed on others for sure.

Taking the stairs up to the fifth floor, Amal told me she is the head of an NGO, Sisters Forum, and we are going to join other activists who will be discussing how to best make use of the revolution.

“Hayyo, Hayyo, Hayyo,” rhymed the women greeting us. That’s a friend of Najwa, Amal told them stirring another even stronger wave of greetings. I sat next to my guide on the low U-shaped wall-to-wall couch. She introduced everyone.

Attending were writers, journalists, diplomats, social workers, and professors. Most have full time jobs, some with International organizations. Among them were independents, others had party affiliations. Most share being the daughters of affluent families and liberal fathers. All were members of Watan Coalition, a lobby group that was created in 2006 to support the candidacy of females running in the parliamentary elections.

Only one woman made it to parliament but the coalition is still alive.

On the trays placed on the floor in front of us were biscuits, nuts, fresh juices and pots of coffee. Each of the women had her qat in a small humid towel. Amal asked if I wanted to try, and I said sure.

This is how I had my first qat experience listening to women making history, shaping the future of their country.

All that was said revolved around one central idea: a strong civil state where equal citizens have equal rights. Women in Change Square are playing a central role, and one of the main challenges is to make sure that this remains the case when the revolution—here it is a when and not an if—succeeds.

The passion, the complicity, the courage, and the integrity all blended in a wrap of pragmatic sensual realism were just overwhelming.

It was too obvious that none of these women got to where she was today, the easy way.

Jamila Ali Raja walked in. She swiftly took off her abaya and the loose blue head cover while quickly throwing her words. Despite the sparkling mischievous eyes, it was obvious she was upset.

“They have a detention center now in the square, and they are not giving those kids any food or water, what do they think they are? The ministry of interior?” she said.

Jamila was referring to the security committee formed by Islah party, Yemen’s faction of the Islamic brotherhood, who had arrested and abused a dozen young men allegedly involved in fights.

“We need change in Change Square,” Amal said jokingly.

Quickly the women started discussing how problems should be handled, admitting that breaches were unavoidable given the size of the crowd and the fact that people are literally living in the tents.

“Security officers should be responsible about security, but they can’t also decide on punishments… there are lawyers and judges in the square, let them help on those matters,” Jamila said.

The discussion proceeded and it was evident that whatever challenges are facing Change Square today will only multiply when President Ali Abdallah Saleh leaves office.

The Yemeni Congregation of Reform—of which al Islah is one of three factions also including the more radical Salafi group under Abdel Majid Al-Zandani—is the only organized part of today’s opposition.

Liberals are still a minority and the young people, Al-Shabab—the real engine behind the revolution and who so far have been able to influence the classical powers, both tribal and religious—have not yet produced convincing leadership. This group of women knows that.

They know that their future depends on how they outsmart many worlds they belong to, but none of which really belonged to them. Islamists taking over is one risk they realize they are facing, and they are preparing themselves for a long battle.

Getting the help of partners willing to provide development programs as well as funding is another challenge. They know they will have to speak the right language in order to get any backup from often very “politically correct” and bureaucratic establishments.

I listened for hours, and as the woman in me grew more inspired, the journalist got more restless. I had to have this conversation on camera. I knew how challenging that was but I asked anyway. Without exception, they liked the idea.

I watched them excitingly getting their abayas, joking about their challenging colorful head covers, and I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it has been for these women to claim such basic rights that a women like me, also an Arab and a Muslim, takes so much for granted.

As I was getting ready to start filming, Intissar Sinan walked and stood next to me while putting final touches on a green and white head wrap that brought out the color of her eyes and the fullness of her lips.

A mother of four somewhere around the mid thirties, she told me she started wearing the veil in 1991, when it became too difficult not to conform.

She had her dose of bad words on the streets and was thrown with water once before she eventually decided to abide by the rules.

“I want to take it off, but if I do it now, my four daughters will follow me the same day, and then they will have to go through the same difficulties I have known,” Intissar said.

“I am here for them. I want to change things for them. I want them to have the freedom to chose,” she said.

I recalled the moment in Beirut when I told Najwa that I was going to Yemen. She cried.

Now I know why.

(Alia Ibrahim of Al Arabiya can be reached at: alia.ibrahim@mbc.net)