After ten months of Yemeni revolution, the Islamists decided to build a wooden wall to separate women from men in Change Square. In the first months of the Yemeni revolution there were no restrictions between men and women. For some reason, the gender differences in Yemen’s traditional, highly conservative society disappeared while people were busy protesting, setting up tents and arranging their lives in the square.On just the second day of protests, one brave woman decided to pitch her tent among the men. Women began to march with men, live in the square with men and protest alongside men. When Saleh famously accused them of “mingling with men”, they rose up in their tens of thousands, showing just how strong Yemeni women really are. Since then, women’s marches have become a common sight in Sana’a and the fact that women are heard, that they can raise their demands to the world, reflects the improving political role of women in Yemen.
Yet today, after ten months of growing political participation by women, the Islah party has erected a fence to segregate the sexes.
“It is not only a wall, it has a political and social meaning beyond it,” said one of the female protesters at Change Square. “It is a way to measure the changes in women’s mentality after ten months of protests,” she said. “Will they rebel against the wall or will they obey orders and keep it?”
Gender equality is one of the principles of Change Square, as it is a symbol of the society that the revolutionaries want to promote once their demands have been met. While tiny changes have been taking place in Yemen’s conservative society, with people accepting that women stay in tents on the streets to stand up for their beliefs, the role of women in the revolution remains controversial.
Some believe that these changes will lead to more freedom for women while others say women are simply being used to fulfill the opposition’s aims and once their goals have been achieved, women will no longer be heard.
The wall represents that fear. Afraa Al-Habori, an active female protester who has shone in Change Square, has started a Facebook campaign to break the wall.
“Islah responded to our campaign against the wall and cut it down in size, they cut it to please us yet still leave it for privacy. But still for me the whole idea of the wall is unacceptable,” said Al-Habori.
Some male protesters try to justified the wall, saying it was set up to make the women feel more comfortable, so they can sit, eat and prey without men staring at them.
“It [the wall] is only to grant them [the women] more freedom” said Mohammed Al-Taeeb, a protester in the square.
Summer Al-Jarbani, a third year student at the Mass Communication collage, in Sana’a university and an activist since the start of the revolution, told the Yemen Times that she is amazed by the role she and her sister are playing in the revolution, leaving behind society’s “narrow judgments on women,” and that the wall will not take away what they have gained.
“We live near the square, my whole family is supporting the revolution and that is the gap that allowed change to pass through into their mentality,” said Al-Jarbani, “Before the revolution I would never dare to not be home by Magreb prayer [sunset time], but now I can stay the night at the square and my family is ok with it.”
Al-Jarbani added that her two sisters help with nursing in the square and their family respect the roles they play. She and her sisters usually spend the night at the square after there have been attacks, so they can help the wounded.
“One day I came home late with my sisters from the square at 10pm, we expected to be told off for being late but when we entered everyone was gathered around the TV watching the news that another attack was happening right then. I started crying for them and my father told me to go to the square immediately to help,” she explained.
Al-Jarbani said that she would never have dared to ask her father’s permission to go to the square at midnight but the revolution created “a miracle.” He is from the conservative Hamdan tribe but now his mentality has changed.
Al-Habori, who was one of the first participators in Change Square, said it is Yemen’s traditions and culture that is cropping up in the square – the wall is not something unique to the square. “This [wall] represents women’s role in society, not in the square.”
Some female activists like to describe their experience in Change Square as two revolutions; one against the regime and the second against Yemen’s male-dominated society.
Others like to brag that the Yemeni revolution was led by a woman from the beginning. Tawakul Karman ended up representing the Yemeni revolution around the world, winning the Noble Peace Prize for her efforts. She was also the one who delivered Saleh’s crimes to the International Criminal Court after the political opposition signed an accord granting him immunity.
But despite these achievements, the issue of how women’s roles have been affected – whether they have improved or deteriorated – during the ten-month revolution is still a big question.
Women’s rights NGOs are designing programs to empower the Yemeni woman politically, to make sure she becomes a partner in the country’s political life rather than simply being told what to do by men in the squares. “The wall means nothing to us, they [Islah] can have their wall there, but we still have the whole square to do whatever we want,” said Al-Jurbani.