Unlikely Heroes: Yemeni Women on a Mission to Find Their Men

For years, Yemeni women activists have indirectly challenged the abuses of government and de facto authorities, regardless of their political affiliation. Women have uncovered the ugliness of politicians, demanded peaceful coexistence, and struggled to achieve justice for all, even though they are often victims themselves. Now they are on the front lines, demanding human rights.
Unlikely Heroes Yemeni Women on a Mission to Find Their Men
Photo credit: Al Jazeera English

Women who have been forced to endure the bitterest hardships of the devastating war in Yemen are fighting back. At a protest held on September 30 in Aden, countless Yemeni women stood outside Interior Minister Ahmed al-Meissari’s home and demanded that he exert pressure on the Bir Ahmad prison administration in the city (supervised by United Arab Emirates-backed Security Belt Forces) to release their forcibly disappeared sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers.

Yemeni activists posted a video of UAE-backed southern troops attempting to disperse the women’s sit-in as they demanded to know the fates of their relatives. The footage shows an elderly woman sitting on the ground with her legs outstretched, screaming in the face of a soldier: “I will never move from here.”

“I want to see my son,” she demanded. “[He] has been [missing] for two years . . . . I want my son to be released . . . . [S]et them free or bring them to the courts if there is a charge,” the mother desperately pleaded. The short video ends as the camera cuts away, the women still standing their ground in protest.

These recurring scenes only serve as a reminder of the tragedies that have occurred during Yemen’s four recent regimes, starting with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, the transitional period, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s regime, and the de facto rule of certain so-called authorities. These authorities include the Houthi rebels and UAE-backed forces represented by the Southern Transitional Council. Under every regime, Yemeni women have been both the champions and victims of these tragedies.

All parties to the civil war in Yemen are responsible for the forced disappearances. Currently, the UAE-backed security authorities in Aden want the prisoners they are detaining to admit to being agents of the Houthis, Iran, Qatar, and/or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Similarly, the Houthi authorities in Sanaa want detainees held by them to admit to being agents of the Saudi-UAE coalition and/or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In times of war and oppression under Yemeni dictatorships, the women of this conservative society have played a courageous humanitarian and political role. In the face of serious accusations and repressive practices, Yemeni women have been forced to go out and search for male relatives who have been abducted and forcibly disappeared by the authorities.

This is not the first time that Yemeni women, who are typically perceived only as housewives and mothers, have been involved in human rights and political activism under such dangerous circumstances.

In 2007, Yemeni women in Sanaa clashed with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime during the Saada wars—a conflict led by the Yemeni armed forces against the Houthi rebellion in Saada. When many Houthi civilian activists were arrested and abducted by the authorities, women went out to ask the authorities to disclose the fate of their missing male relatives.

After the Houthis took control of the capital, Sanaa, they used the same practices that Saleh’s regime had used against its opponents. The rebels arrested and forcibly disappeared activists, journalists, and various members and leaders of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah Party).

Yemeni authorities have repeated these repressive tactics so often that it appears to have become a common approach for all Yemeni regimes, no matter their political leanings, to get rid of their opponents.

Before the unification of Yemen in 1990, Yemeni families accused former President Saleh’s regime and the regimes that coincided with his presidency in the southern part of Yemen, of committing a number of forced disappearances against their opponents. To this day, the fate of dozens of these individuals remains unknown.

The Association of the Families of Disappeared Persons was formed in 2012 in Sanaa with the mission of exerting pressure on authorities to disclose the fate of relatives who have been missing for decades.

Forced disappearance is a serious crime that has been condemned and criminalized under international conventions. It is often used by tyrannical states to punish their political opponents and silence their voices. However, these dictatorial authorities are often quick to deny that they have resorted to these illegal methods.

Not only are victims of enforced disappearance deprived of any legal protection, they are also subjected to all kinds of inhumane torture and treatment and often end up missing permanently.

“Yemen’s warring parties, including the Houthis, UAE proxies and Yemeni government forces, have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly disappeared scores of people,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Due to the multitude of armed groups vying for power in Yemen, informal detention centers, and a brazen disregard for the law, many Yemeni families do not know where their relatives are being detained or the exact reasons for their detentions. However, even when families know a detainee’s location, they do not have the right to visit them.

Nearly 2,000 men have been forcibly disappeared into more than 18 secret prisons run by the UAE and the Yemeni government, according to a June 2017 report.

Bloomberg published an article about 20 Yemeni women who, bravely facing repression in war-torn Yemen, established a secret organization to search for the men in their lives who had been abducted.

Under the name Abductees’ Mothers Association, these women continue to search for all of the children and relatives who have been kidnapped—regardless of their political affiliations or which authorities were responsible for their abduction or concealment.

Despite Yemeni women’s attempts to fight for justice, progress, and stable lives for their families, they find themselves constantly threatened and undermined by various political, social, and religious forces in their country.

At the height of the Arab Spring, Yemeni women were a formidable force in the arenas of the revolution. In fact, the presence and activism of Yemeni women was on par with that of its men. Along with leading marches and sit-ins, they were also Yemenifeatured in the media and played an important role in providing services and security in the public squares where they protested.

However, when the achievements of Yemen’s revolutionary movement were discussed during the formation of the country’s transitional government and the National Dialogue Conference, there were few women representatives. In fact, out of 565 members who participated in the dialogue conference, the number of female participants was fewer than 40.

Women were largely excluded from the transitional government and the National Dialogue Conference because the parties involved refrained from nominating women for government responsibilities, even though they were active members in these parties. Multiple clerics also issued fatwas that opposed women assuming leadership responsibilities, creating yet another obstacle to their political participation.

Yemeni women have yet to take full advantage of the opportunities of the post-revolutionary period, and are still, to a certain extent, afraid of how the traditional social reality of their country will undermine their aspirations, according to Yemeni novelist Bushra al-Maqtari.

Although Yemeni women seem to be permanent victims of politics, both in times of peace and war, they are fighting to assert themselves in a patriarchal society that does not accept their political activism or their presence in public life. While they remain a strong and visible force now, Yemeni women’s political activism may diminish with the return of stability and the country’s conservative status quo.