Yemeni Women’s Safety Among Worst In Middle East: L.’s Story

The sky had clouded over, a deep grey. Fat raindrops began falling and within minutes the streets were flooded.

Eight people would drown in slums on the outskirts of Sana’a that day.

I ran through the streets. The call to prayer was blasting from minarets of the more than 100 mosques in the old city.

Flashes of lightning lit up the old city’s mud-brick buildings – the elaborate friezes and stained glass windows, hemmed in white, leering eight stories and higher above the narrow, winding streets.

I reached the hotel and hurried to its small restaurant to meet L.: a 25-year-old Yemeni woman and victim of childhood sexual abuse.

We drank coffee in the restaurant, waiting for the rain to pass, and then left to walk through the Old City.

The Old City’s shops’ walls were lined with gorgeous Jambia (traditional Yemeni knives), water-colored paintings depicting Shibam’s mud-brick skyscrapers, jewelry, thaubs, and the red and white keffiyeh worn by the Bedouin.

Bookstores were crammed, Qurans in windows.

Texts on windows spelled out Islamic expressions: “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.”

As a Westerner walking alone in the Old City, the abusive nature of Yemen is invisible.

However, as L. and I walked, the dream-like facade of the souq vanished.

Men stared at L. through narrowed eyes. Others told her she was not a Muslim. One man stood in front of her shaking a finger and told her she had brought shame to her family.

A group of men lounging on the side of the street, cheeks bloated with the mild narcotic leaf, qat, asked her why she liked sucking my cock: they had proper Yemeni cocks, she could “f**k” those instead.

As we walked, L. talked about her former employer.

He had asked her to have sex with him the previous week, saying they could get married secretly if it made her more comfortable.

She had walked out of the office and he had since refused to pay her.

We arrived at a different hotel that towered above the Old City and took the elevator to the rooftop cafe.

L. had told me several days earlier that she had been raped as a child, but would not go into details.

I had persuaded her to talk to me, on condition of anonymity, after we discussed the case of a woman who had found her brother-in-law undressing her seven-year-old daughter.

We sat above the city, veiled women walking in the streets below, and L. began talking.

When she was six-years-old, her cousin N. had watched her playing with her younger cousins on the bottom floor of the family’s two-story house.

She said that she remembered feeling his eyes on her; he had looked at her in a “very bad way”.

The call to prayer started and her mother asked N. to help L. get ready.

He took her to her bedroom on the second floor.

He pushed her onto her bed and stuffed clothes into her mouth. L. said she tried to scream, but no one could hear her.

He pulled her dress up and sexually assaulted her.

“He tied clothes around my mouth. I could feel his fingers doing things to me. When he finished, he told me to go to pray.”

N. raped L. from age six to age fourteen. His brother M. began sexually assaulting L. a few weeks after the first assault.

Her uncle, aged 33, twice raped L. in her bedroom.

For a period of eight years, L. was raped up to three times each week by family members.

“Maybe one month ago, I told my Aunt that M. and N. had done these things to me. She told me that N. was very bad so I should tell my father, but M. was a very good person, so I couldn’t tell anyone about what he did. It hurts me so much because they don’t care about me, but they care about the person who did it.”

Sexual assault of minors is common in the Middle East, particularly in Oman and Saudi Arabia.

However, Yemen is set apart by one significant factor: the country is speeding towards complete disintegration, limiting the timeframe for major reforms.

With the higher standards of living yielded through enormous resource wealth and its position as the epicenter of middle eastern trade and finance, the Gulf has shown itself open to modernization, even if that modernization has not yet led to full-scale adoption of human rights principles.

Yemen is different: It is resource poor, ultra-conservative and bound to tribal customs.

A 2005 UNDP report put female literacy at 28 percent while a 2009 UNICEF report put malnutrition in five-year-olds at 47 percent.

The Government, notorious for its corruption, barely controls the major cities and the majority of the population lives in areas characterized by grinding poverty where the rule of the sword holds sway.

And so, women like L. have little recourse to hope.

In Yemen, men wield total power in government and society. Intermixed with the country’s patriarchy is a dangerously conservative Islamism which serves to buttress male hegemony and frame women’s actions in terms of consistency with Quranic imperatives.

As such, women’s rights are systematically violated on a daily basis, and few organizations can offer women support and protection.

In a 2009 report – Yemen’s Dark Side: Discrimination and Violence against Women and Girls -Amnesty International argued that Yemeni women faced widespread discrimination and violence.

The report addressed restrictions placed on women’s movements, forced and early marriage – including the case of a girl married at the age of eight, honor killings, and laws relating to Zina (immoral behavior) in which, predominantly, male enforcement bodies decided what constituted an “immoral” act.

In the case of Zina, Amnesty International argued that Article 232 of the Penal Code reinforced a woman’s inferior status: if a husband caught his wife committing adultery and killed her – an ‘honor killing’ – he would receive a maximum prison sentence of one year, or a fine.

Furthermore, a woman arrested for immoral behavior is forbidden from testifying by Article 53 of the Evidence Law. As such, a woman cannot defend herself against charges that have extreme ramifications: floggings and the death penalty.

Earlier this year, the government legislated against early marriage and made 17 the minimum age for a woman to be married.

The law enraged Yemen’s fundamentalists and street protests were staged, led by Sheikhs championing a minor’s right to marriage. The argument put forward by the fundamentalists was that by marrying as a child, a girl would be less likely to commit an immoral act later in life: have sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

Concluding that the government needed to take effective steps to address discriminatory laws and change societal attitudes, the Amnesty report stated that women’s rights were “routinely violated because Yemeni laws as well as tribal and customary practices treat them as second class citizens”.

L. said she was afraid to approach any organizations and she would not report the assaults to the police – in a court bound by Sharia Law, her testimony was worth half as much as a man’s.

“I have heard about bad things being done at those organizations.”

Pausing, L. looked out over the Old City towards the distant, massive Abdullah Saleh mosque, its gold-capped minarets glinting in the late afternoon sun.

“We can’t change anything because it comes from society. The government can’t make the society do something it doesn’t want.”

She took a quick sip of her lemon juice and continued talking.

“I am not virgin. If I go to the police they will see me as a woman they can have sex with. It’s the same with the organizations.

“They will try to have sex with me.”

Her eyes sunk down to the table.

“If I tell my father, he will kill them and go to jail. The police will make a big problem for me.”

L.’s story is not uncommon. She knows four women who were abused during childhood by family members, including one of her 23-year-old female cousins.

None of them reported the assaults.

“Why do they do this to us? Would they do it to their sisters?”

“Because they can’t have sex, or a relationship, they do it to children.”

According to an unpublished 2008 study – overseen by UNICEF – of university students at four Yemeni Universities, 30 percent of students had been physically sexually abused as minors.

Overwhelmingly, sexual abuse took place in the victims’ homes: 37 percent of the incidents occurred in the home, while 18 percent of assaults took place in neighbors homes.

85 percent of perpetrators were males and almost 40 percent of perpetrators were relatives; In addition, 25 percent of perpetrators were members of the victims’ nuclear family.

The study demonstrated that most sexual violence-58 percent-was directed against 6-to-12-year-olds, and that 43 percent of victims were assaulted repeatedly.

15 percent of victims were under the age of 6.

Given the personal freedoms given to males, the study postulated that males were more susceptible to sexual abuse, stating that 53.6 percent of sexual assault victims were males, while 46.4 percent were females.

L. said she had only just begun to address the issues which stemmed from her abuse.

“I am angry because I don’t tell anyone. I want to know if it’s something wrong with me that made them do these bad things.

“If I tell my mother she will die from shame. I’m not a virgin. My family will be shamed. No one will marry me.”

For L. the abuse has persisted, becoming a thing of adulthood.

She doesn’t wear the niqab (veil) and she said she is constantly abused in the street.

“If I wear niqab, men tell me I am the most beautiful, very beautiful girl. If I wear hijab bas (only), they say bad things to me, like that I should have sex with them.”

“My uncle still touches me in a very bad way. He touches me and pretends it is just an accident. But how can I tell my Aunt? I will hurt her if I tell, I will hurt my family.”

“My society is sick.”

We finished talking as the sun began sinking. L.’s curfew – 7 p.m. – was approaching.

We walked through the Old City. Little six-pointed stars could faintly be seen above some buildings’ doorways.

The call to prayer was echoing through the streets. The microphone in a mosque was picking up the whisperings of men in prayer, underneath the call.

A week after I interviewed L., National Security gave me 72 hours to leave Yemen.

L. came to my apartment to say goodbye. She brought a cake.

We were eating a slice of cake when we heard the first screams from the street.

I looked out the window of my apartment and knew the situation was bad.

There were around 50 men on the ramshackle street. Some were holding rubbish, others stones or sticks.

I asked L. to put her veil on, ran downstairs, and opened the large gate.

I was met by cold glares, before a man with cheeks bulging from Qat – his thaub cut at his calves – began speaking in panicked Arabic, his pitch rising as he became more frantic.

Some local boys had seen L. enter my apartment and had informed the neighbors. Within minutes a crowd of men had gathered.

The assumption was that she was having sexual intercourse and making pornography.

I told the crowd that she was a friend who had come to say goodbye as I was leaving Yemen.

The man began screaming at me to bring her out. He said she was “haram” – a woman who had violated Quranic imperatives: a sinner.

He said that the police were coming.

I ran upstairs. L. was shaking and saying “No” over and over.

“They will kill me,” she said.

If the Police arrived, she would be tested for virginity and flogged 100 times. No one would believe that she had been sexually assaulted.

Then her family would bludgeon her to death.

We went downstairs. The landlord was waiting.

He told us that we had to get to a taxi. He opened the gate and let us out.

I took her hand and told her to stay close to me. We pushed out into the crowd

L. was crying. Two men grabbed her arms and started pulling her away through the crowd.

She was begging for them to let her go. They were screaming in her face: “Sharmoota” (bitch: used normally to refer to a woman who has had sex outside of marriage).

They were yelling that she was a thief and accused her of making pornography.

Some teenage boys began throwing rubbish. I broke the men’s grips on her wrists and pushed them away, telling them to leave.

The crowd was screaming “Haram.” I was saying that she was a friend only and that there was no problem.

Men were pulling at her hijab and veil.

I thought about a Yemeni woman who was burned to death by her family for having intercourse outside of marriage.

L. was terrified.

We had no time.

And then it stopped.

They let us walk through. By this time, everyone on the street had come out to see what was happening.

L. walked past the veiled women glaring at her.

Past the storekeepers shaking their heads.

Past the men standing, watching silently with their children.

A child ran up to L. and yelled “F**k you,” his face twisted by a hate he did not understand.