Women and Revolution in Yemen

by Larry Specht

Women raise their hands as they attend an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University

My Yemeni friend, Mohammed Al-Asaadi, recently gave me a link via Facebook to an article on the role of women in the ongoing political protests in his country.  The article describes the increasing role of women in the movement to overthrow President Saleh.  It also describes near-feudal Yemeni traditions that have limited many women to lives of involuntary servitude.  In a country where domestic violence is not a legal offense, a woman who defies her family and her neighbors by engaging in public protest is in danger from not only the army and pro-Saleh thugs but also from outraged traditionalists who might well see her public engagement as a stain on family honor.

Reading about the Yemeni women who join the street protests despite the risk reminded  me of a woman who only exists in a poem.   In “A Letter from a Stupid Woman” the Syrian poet Nizar Kabbani gives voice to a woman who is well aware that she faces death for her subversive views of the Arab patriarchy but, nevertheless, dares to speak. Even though Kabbani died in 1998, he still is routinely referred to as the most popular poet in the Arab world.  He was an intensely political poet, who nevertheless earned the title “Poet of Women” for both his empathy with the plight of women in the middle East and his celebration of erotic love.

“Letters” takes the form of a letter written by a woman to her nameless “Master”.  She tells him that she is afraid to write her thoughts because his “East”, meaning Arab culture:

It uses knives…

and cleavers…

to speak to women

And further on in the poem, she seems to speak about her Master’s religion:

For your East, my dear Master,

Surrounds women with spears

And your East, my dear Master

elects the men to become Prophets,

and buries the women in the dust.

Kabbani’s “stupid woman” would be proud of her sisters in Yemen.

—  Larry Specht is an international labor organizer for the AFT, based in Washington.  His main focus is the Middle East and he travels to Yemen regularly.   He is an SDUSA “alum”.  You can view the original posting on his blog.


Dignity for All

This was a very good weekend for SDUSA.  We participated in two events, one in Buffalo and one in Pittsburgh, both very much oriented to the SD’s core mission.

Michael and Rick tabling in Buffalo

The first event was the annual awards dinner for the Coalition for Economic Justice.  It was held at the Convention Center in Buffalo on Friday evening.  As its name implies, the CEJ is a coalition of labor unions, community groups, and public officials who are dedicated to raising the standard of living in Buffalo by reducing the outsourcing of good paying jobs to other countries and by raising the wages of typically low paying jobs.  During the past year CEJ succeeded in getting a living wage ordinance passed in Buffalo and organizing janitors at HSBC Bank (a large institution that owns a high rise office tower and a sports arena).  It’s now moving on to new challenges.  The affair was heavily attended by local union leaders, and politicians who are seeking election this week. The SD was represented by local Buffalo member and YSD chair, Michael Mottern, and me, National Co-Chair Rick D’Loss, who drove up from Pittsburgh for the event.  Michael did a beautiful job of organizing our participation, and the table as well. It was impressive!  We made good contacts and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

Dr. Ragheb speaks at the Carnegie Shul

And then on Sunday afternoon, SDUSA co-sponsored a speaking engagement at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, PA, near Pittsburgh.  About 50 attendees listened to Dr. Youssef Ragheb talk about his personal experiences growing up in Cairo and protesting the Nasser government in 1968.  Then he compared his experiences with the recent revolution.  He said that the government security force in Egypt has about 1.4 million police, and everyone lives in fear.  A person can disappear for simply saying the wrong thing in public.  But he shared with us an encounter that he had last year that demonstrated that things had changed. He was visiting Egypt on vacation and talked with a waiter at his hotel.  The young man had a masters degree in engineering but unfortunately was waiting tables in order to make a living.  He was extremely frustrated about his job prospects and not afraid to say so, even though a co-worker warned him to keep quiet.  “Egypt is a pot that is ready to boil over”, the waiter said.  True enough, on January 25 of this year, a million people walked into the streets knowing very well that they could be shot by the police.

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