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From opponent to supporter

Gender equality from an Islamic perspective in Yemen

Yemen 21 Forum

Yemen 21 Forum is a Yemeni civil society organisation with headquarters in Sana'a operating since 2006.  Yemen 21 Forum leads locally driven projects, solutions and initiatives that contribute to the development of Yemen as a nation with special focus on human rights, press freedom, gender equality, good governance and youth empowerment.

Women Leadership Project

The Leadership Project, implemented by Yemen 21 Forum in 2014 and supported by Women on the Frontline, aimed to increase the number and profiles of female leaders in Yemen to counter the argument that ‘no female leaders are available’. This project reached out to female leaders in and outside Sana’a, as well as women from other governorates, to be better equipped to advocate for women’s rights and to take up formal decision-making positions and a prominent role in public life.

I never thought I would be confronted with myself in this way. Because of this leadership programme, I better understand my religion and the way Islam supports women’s rights.

This is how Nabeela started her feedback on the last day of the Women Leadership Project. Nabeela, teacher of Islamic Studies at Sana’a University, is a very powerful and unique person in Yemeni society. She is able to mobilise hundreds by a simple text message and influence thousands with her lectures. Every week on Thursday, groups of women gather at her house to listen to and discuss religious and social matters with her. As head of the Women's Department at the Ministry of Endowment, Nabeela has reached the top level for a woman in the official religious sector in Yemen. She is polite and well versed in the Quran and teachings of the Prophet. From a young age onwards, she believed teaching religion was her calling. As a scholar in Sharia law, she is quite protective about Islam and always engages in debates on what is allowed and what is not according to Islam. She would vigorously oppose every international treaty or convention regarding women’s rights, in particular the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Based on the views of traditional religious men and cultural conceptions spread amongst conservative Yemenis by religious scholars, she argued that international Western conventions are negative, contradictory and even destructive to Islamic norms and values. During various trainings and workshops, participants with a more liberal point of view usually criticised Nabeela and labeled her ideas as backwards and oppressive to women. These attitudes and opinions made her act defensively, leading to her to withdraw from these events and automatically reject what ‘others’ had to say.

In 2014, Nabeela attended the Women Leadership Project along with two trainers and thirteen other participants. The thirteen women all came from different backgrounds. Some were lawyers, others journalists, public servants and business women. When designing the project, the trainers only took into account the women’s backgrounds and did not propose international agreements as a benchmark. Instead, they asked the women themselves to share what they believed were their rights. Mona Ali, the main trainer, who is head of the Women’s Department at the Ministry of Human Rights:

I realised immediately that Nabeela would be a problem because every time I said anything that had to do with international agreements on women she would object and say: ‘This is not our business and whatever we need we should seek it in the Quran.’ I decided to change tactics and instead of talking about tools available to make our lives better, we discussed what our problems are as working women and what we want to change. This worked immediately.

As the women formulated a wish list of rights (such as equal salaries, equal career opportunities, respect in the workplace, and an enabling working environment for wives and mothers), Nabeela started pitching references for these wishes from the Quran and Hadith. The trainers did not counter this, as Nabeela says:

The facilitators of this programme, along with the participants, did not challenge me from an ‘us versus them’ perspective. They gave me the feeling and idea that we are all women who came together in the training to improve the lives of women in Yemen. The women were professionals from all walks of life and they shared how, despite their qualifications, they were not given a fair chance in society because of patriarchal attitudes in the Yemeni culture.

The approach of the trainers made Nabeela rethink how her attitude towards women is shaped by culture rather than religion:

I started questioning myself. I know that Islam is a fair and inclusive religion. However, if this is the case, why are Muslim women oppressed in the public space? So I dug deep into the holy book and the sayings of the Prophet and found that in fact Islam is a supportive religion for women. It is the religious male scholars who interpret it in a way to suit their cultural values. That inspired me to use evidence from within my own religion for the sake of women’s rights.

At this stage of the project, the facilitators shared with Nabeela that most of the international conventions are actually in line with what the women believed were their natural rights. This was an eye-opener for Nabeela. It changed her attitude towards international conventions completely. She came to realise that these treaties were in fact largely compatible with Islam. Eventually, she became very enthusiastic and started mentioning women’s right that go beyond those stated in international treaties and conventions. For example, the right to be paid for motherhood and the right to wear different clothes during each season.

In Islam, a mother should be paid for breastfeeding her child. In Islam, a husband is obliged to provide his wife with household help and has no right to take the money she earned by working.

At the end of the Leadership Project, Nabeela initiated a new project: finding religious references for the women's rights mentioned in CEDAW and other international agreements on women. Together with the people supporting her, and by making use of the influence she already has in society, she is today advocating for women's rights expressed in international conventions from a uniquely religious perspective. It is a perspective that is unfamiliar and rarely discussed in Yemeni society, where women’s rights are manifested through laws made by men. Today, she is advocating for women’s rights in her lectures using texts from Islam, not only on behalf of Yemeni women, but Muslim women worldwide.

Nabeela reading the Quran Nabeela reading from the Quran