Arabia Felix — the “Happy Arabia” is an old name for Yemen, a country that is not happy anymore. Yemeni people witness several types of violence in the span of their lives, such as isolation from the rest of the world, illiteracy, poverty and corruption. Most of these problems are due to the unstable political and economic situation in Yemen and the many civil wars that have shaped the population. Although Yemenis are trained in resilience after 33 years of governmental corruption and ongoing conflict situations, the recent war that has been escalating within the last ten years turned everything into ashes. An armed conflict like that is considered to be the most severe form of violence that any person experiences physically and psychologically.
For centuries, Yemen was the centre of civilization and wealth on the Arabian Peninsula. However, unlike ancient times, modern history is not one Yemenis take much pride in. Yemen is devastated by subsequent wars and poor life standards. The current Republic used to be split into two separate countries: the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The North was under control of the Ottoman Empire, then under the Imam of Yemen until 1962, while the British ruled the South until 1963. In spite of the independence of the two countries at the beginning of the sixties, the ruling systems were still staggering. Even in 1990, when the noble dream of unity at last came true after more than 150 years of separation, the unstable government and the recurrent wars made it difficult for the people to appreciate the glorious unification. Violence in Yemen is nowadays still represented on several levels from the personal and interpersonal to the collective level such as poverty, illiteracy and gender issues. Yet the recent armed conflict that burdens the country’s settlement overshadows the whole other types of violence in Yemen despite their vital roles on the daily life of people.
Poverty as a Form of Violence
More than half of Yemen’s population live below three US-Dollar per day. Yemen was ranked 168 out of 177 countries on the 2016 Human Development Index. The challenges that the country faces in addressing poverty are huge and can be seen as an inherent form of violence. It is manifested in poverty in the sense that the country would actually have several resources that qualify its people to live adequately, yet it is not unusual that families of more than fifteen persons live in one single room and cannot afford a proper diet. This can regularly be experienced by employees of international NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for whom I, Jawaher Asa’ad, was working. Once, in 2015, during one of my ICRC-trips to Hodeida City at the Red Sea, I was shocked at the level of poverty in the surrounding fishermen villages. People are living in the desert with nothing to protect them from the heat of the sun except small straw huts, with nothing inside their huts except a bed of straw and the heat of the sand under their feet. The water they drink was filled in car’s oil jerry cans, and their food was nothing except a piece of homemade bread a day. There was no possibility for more variety and this is just a sample of many other places of Yemen that represent the level of poverty.
I spent most of my life in struggle to peacefully fight for my professional rights in order to be an example to my counterpart women. A task that is not easily implemented in daily work life.
Gender Violence in a Conservative Country
Within this inherent high level of poverty and, additionally, strong conservative Yemeni traditions, women face an especially grievous position since they are challenged with different kinds of violence. Besides severe poverty, they face discrimination. Females are traditionally supposed to be under men’s guardianship within the family. This is considered to be a form of protection, but keeps them always dependent on others. Within these societal and familial settings, females are deprived of education, often forced to get married early or, on the other hand, miss the opportunity of getting married due to exaggerated dowries. Additionally, they often face sexual harassment, are forced into pregnancy and their freedom is strictly limited due to the exclusion from private and public decision-making roles and processes.
Yemeni women are under focus and their behavior is interpreted based on society’s criteria. There are many obstacles for ambitious women who aim to break through this conservative perspective and stand by their own dreams and wishes in order to live the life they want. I myself was born and grew up in Saudi Arabia — a country in which women have only been allowed to drive since September 2017 — and moved to Yemen, my parent’s country of origin, as a teenager. Although Yemen is considered slightly more open than Saudi Arabia, it took a lot of effort to get many of my basic rights conceded. I had to fight for acceptance of my demands. Through an exhausting, and often challenging, process I learned to gain my personal satisfaction without any societal approval, yet such a situation is hard to deal with in daily life. These circumstances are something I would consider another kind of war. Fortunately, my family was aware of the importance of education in contrast to many other girls’ families in Yemen who are deprived of proper education that would be of help for their future.
The same discriminating conditions that are prominent in Yemeni families account for male-dominated work settings. Male employees or principals usually do not allow women to exceed them. During my work experience in Yemen, I learned about specific stereotypes and roles that could not be changed. I spent most of my life in struggle to peacefully fight for my professional rights in order to be an example to my counterpart women. A task that is not easily implemented in daily work life: desires and dreams that are not awarded to women by the society are not supported, every decision is questioned, every action condemned.
Five Wars and a Revolution
All these different kinds of violence shape the population of a crisis region what I experienced when going through five wars myself: the Gulf War, the separation war between North and South Yemen, the civil war between the President and rebelling Houthis in Sa’ada, the Arab Spring Revolution and the recent escalation of the civil war in 2015.
Ever since my feeling of safety broke in 1990 when the Gulf War erupted, I have been living in a world of uncertainties. When the South of Yemen tried in a failed attempt to separate from the North, I lived in the border city Taiz. I heard the warplanes shelling and realized the meaning of war beyond the books of history. When Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, I was happy that people realized the need to change for the better, while, at the same time, the fear of the consequences prevailed. Although I was happy with the breeze of freedom during the Arab Spring, the consequences later on were catastrophic. Many youth lost their lives for the sake of freedom, however, a lot of political decisions distorted this peaceful revolution.
Despite the current horrendous situation, there are thousands of youth who still have hope in their country and aim for a brighter future.
During recent years, violence increased to an extreme level. The Houthis invaded the capital Sana’a in September 2014, expanded towards the South passing by Ibb, Taiz and ended up in Aden. As a consequence, upon the request of the new elected president Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi, the Saudi-led coalition launched intensive air strikes at several areas in Yemen on 26 of March 2015. Being caught in this new conflict, I realized that all the previous wars I passed through never had such a calamitous impact on my daily life as what is happening now. Daily life is reduced to basics, there is no water, no electricity, it is risky to leave the house in case of emergency. People almost do not have what is called daily life routine, because they are uncertain whether they would survive the next day. They do not have access to food either because of the limited movements or increased prices while they do not receive their salaries for more than two years. Most of the people do not have an income or lose their jobs.
To conclude my personal experience, I want to mention that, despite the current horrendous situation, there are thousands of youth who still have hope in their country and aim for a brighter future. They work for peace in small scales and organize awareness campaigns despite the threats. Moreover, during the three years of war that caused irregular income and unemployment, women got empowered to adopt new roles by participating in peacebuilding, humanitarian relief, child protection and promoting for coherence. In spite of the aforementioned traditional convictions that attributed certain activities within the society exclusively to men, they started launching small projects. This used to be extremely challenging, but slowly Yemen is also witnessing several social changes. Some of my friends started to open an outlet for selling pastries, handcrafts, launching design work, involving in human relief activities and even establishing such projects that are considered to be a taboo for women in Yemen such as driving a taxi. These examples show that tough times can also have pinpoints of light: They can make people stronger and might, on the long run, not only cause political change but to some extent even social transition.
In this article Jawaher Asa’ad gives a personal account about violence in Yemen. Her article is based on first hand experience with violence as a women who has spent most of her life in this war-torn country. Living the ups and downs, striving to achieve her dreams in spite of the obstacles that have been hindering her steps, she shares how violence is holding the country and its people back in their potentials.