Samar Abdullah, Sana’a
Women’s political participation in Yemen is limited by prevailing patriarchy and further reduced by the war. In recent years, Yemeni women have tended toward involvement in relief campaigns rather than political activities. Several female politicians have migrated abroad.
Despite their marginalisation throughout history, some women played an active role in building Yemeni civilisation. The most well-known figure is Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba.
Tales of Yemen’s Queens
Stories of Yemen’s queens are abundant, some of which can be documented with evidence. The rest is local or international folklore. The story of the Queen of Sheba is a global heritage that intersects the three Abrahamic religions.
According to the Yemeni Encyclopaedia by the late Ahmad Jaber Afif, the former Yemeni Minister of Education and chair of al-Afif Cultural Foundation, the Queen of Sheba was a contemporary of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. The Qur’an and Torah are considered the primary sources of Queen of Sheba’s story, even though her name is not mentioned in either book. She was called the Queen of Sheba, or Queen of Makeda, the Southern Kingdom, which is Yemen’s name in the Torah.
The Queen of Sheba was powerful and wise, and several kingdoms, including Aksum in Ethiopia, Punt (in today’s Somaliland, and Eritrea, proclaimed her as one of their queens. She was said to have ascended to the throne despite the disdain of other rulers. After ending the rule of Himyarite King Amr Zu al-Azar, known for his tyranny and despotism, she took his place, according to The Book of Crowns on the Kings of Himyar, by historian Wahb ibn Munabbih, a book that dates back to 1624.
Besides Bilqis, other queens have been mentioned and praised by historians in Yemen. Yemeni encyclopaedist and historian Ibn al-Haik al-Hamdani, who died in 945, wrote in his book Al-Iklil, or The Crown:
I am begotten of kings,
each of whom was crowned and courageous,
and of diademed women,
like Bilqis, Shams, and Lamees.
Lamees bint Asaad Thuraya ruled the land of Sheba with her son Afrikus bin Dhu al-Manar, Africa’s likely namesake, whose military campaigns had reached the north of the continent. The list of Yemen’s women monarchs also includes Queen Shams, who, according to al-Hamdani, was Lamees’s sister. According to the same reference, Shams and Lamees were Bilqis’ daughters from her husband, Dhu Bata.
Another historical account suggests the land of Sheba was also ruled by Queen Nadeen dhe Sadqen Shams, whose image was created by YemenVR, a project that uses virtual and augmented reality techniques to document and preserve Yemen’s historical sites and artefacts.
In Hadhramaut, Queen Malak Halak, known as the Queen of Hadhramaut, daughter of Shebaic King Alhan Nahfan, ruled in the late second century CE.
When it comes to governance, sociologist Fatima Mernissi believes Yemen is exceptional in the Arab world: not only did numerous women exercise political power there, they reigned with very high authority. In her book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, she writes that two queens, Asma and Arwa, enjoyed “the privilege and unquestioned criterion of a head of state: the khutba, or sermon, proclaimed in their names in the mosques.”
“The two queens bore the same royal title: al-Sayyida al-Hurra, meaning “the noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” Even sermons opened with the following phrase: “May Allah prolong the days of al-Hurra, the perfect, the sovereign who carefully manages the affairs of the faithful.”
Asma bint Shihab was the first Arab queen after the arrival of Islam. A poet and adviser to the sole ruler of Yemen, her husband, Ali Bin Mohammed al-Sulayhi, founded the Sulayhid dynasty and unified all of Yemen under his leadership. She died in 1087.
Queen Asma was also the mother of Ahmad al-Mukkaram and the mother-in-law of Arwa al-Sulayhiyya, who was married to al-Mukkaram and became the queen of Yemen. After the death of her husband, al-Mukkaram, Arwa ruled under the authority of the Fatimid Caliph, al-Mustansir Billah. She was also in charge of spreading the Shi’ite Ismaili branch in Yemen, India, and Oman. The book Arwa, Daughter of Yemen, by Syrian author and historian Arif Tamir, states that Arwa bore alone the burden of governing the country for 40 years.
In his book, This is Yemen, the contemporary Yemeni writer Abdullah al-Thawr proves that Queen Arwa was “steadfast (on) her principles, loved her people and was faithful to them.”
After her husband fell ill, Arwa moved the capital of her kingdom from Sana’a to Jibla, a city six kilometres south of the city of Ibb. Its elevation of over 2,000 metres in a mountainous backdrop made it a safer and more stable location.
May Allah prolong the days of al-Hurra, the perfect, the sovereign who carefully manages the affairs of the faithful.”
The story of Queen Arwa also has its mythical aspects. In his book Popular Culture: Yemeni Experience and Sayings, the poet Abdullah al-Bardouni wrote that many folktales are attributed to Sayyida Arwa. One says: “She had ten demons who brought her all the gold she required from China and dresses from India. They also told her the news of conspirators and enemy plots.”
Yemenis used to summon Sayyida Arwa when something went wrong. They prayed, saying, “O Honoured Lady, O Glorious Lady, stand by us, Mother of Goodness.” Al-Bardouni explained why Arwa was called glorious: “She did not monopolise money, but rather distributed what she had among the poor.”
Other than Asma and Arwa, Queen Alam, who ruled the principality of Zubayd, a city near Sana’a, bore the title of al-Sayyida al-Hurra. Despite her origin as a simple jariya, a female slave, Alam succeeded through her intelligence in running the kingdom’s affairs. After the death of her husband, the King of Zubayd Mansur Ibn Najah, she continued to rule Zubayd as a guardian of her son, who was still under the legal age, without the privilege of mentioning her names in sermons. She died in 1150, though her regime had ended thirty years earlier when her son was poisoned.
Yemen’s history is rich with its queens and free women. Whether their stories are real, anchored in documents, or a mere montage of images representing women in power, the names of Yemen’s queens survive in folklore, revealing what was possible in the past and what could be possible in the future.
Mohammed Ali Mahroos, Taiz
“My friends give me the determination to continue what I have done for my community and my country.”
When Shinaz al-Akhali was featured last September in a documentary film on three leading women peacemakers in Taiz, she was pleasantly surprised.
The film was part of the Inspiring Women of Taiz campaign led by Generations Without Qat, a local NGO.
An activist fighting violence against women, al-Akhali has worked for the last two years as coordinator for Communities Build Peace, a project launched by the National Organisation for Community Development (NODS), with funding from Saferworld, a global non-profit group.
A cornerstone of the project is to train young men and women in conflict resolution. The next phase involves fieldwork to solve community conflicts in coordination with local authorities.
Residents of three villages in the Sabir al-Mawadim district south of Taiz have borne the brunt of a thirty-year dispute over ownership of local spring water and the share of each village in its total water supply. The conflict led to the destruction of water pipes that cut off water supplies from the villages of al-Shaab, al-Adouf, and al-Amiqa,
for more than eight years.
After months of intensive meetings with leaders from all three villages, al-Akhali managed to resolve this conflict in 2020. Although Yemenis generally do not accept women in steering positions regarding social issues, al-Akhali managed to challenge this perception while advancing local mediation efforts to resolve conflicts.
As stipulated in the Yemen National Dialogue Conference Outcomes, the project requires a 30% quota for women as staff members. Al-Akhali surpassed this ratio and reached 50%.
“My priorities are to encourage women to work in a way that makes it impossible to overlook them in our communities,” al-Akhali said about the equal representation of women and men on the team. “I think I succeeded.”
She has remained a prominent human rights activist in a volatile environment, thanks to unlimited support from her family. This is crucial to her work, she said, adding, “It encourages me to advocate for greater female presence at all levels of society.”
Al-Akhali is eager to help members of her team reach their full potential.
Munira al-Samit, 33, led the water mediation process with al-Akhali after training as a peacebuilder, noting she went through a transformation of her own. In the beginning, she said, she lacked the confidence to speak publicly.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “But Shinaz always inspired me to participate. I can’t forget where I was and where I am today. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Shorouk al-Rifai, 22, another team member, was subjected to bullying in the past. Al-Akhali helped her overcome the long-term psychological effects of harassment. “She is a great woman, always fighting for her family and society,” al-Rifai said.
Al-Akhali gets a warm reception whenever she visits the centre of Taiz’ Sabr al-Mawadim District. She has been instrumental in changing public perception of women by dispelling gender stereotypes that confined them to specific roles.
Now 40, she was delighted to be included in the documentary about women peacemakers. “I was extremely happy, not only with the film, but also with the congratulations of my friends,” she said. “They give me the determination to continue working for my community and my country.”
Zain Alaabdain Ali, Seiyun
Saadiya Ali’s teaching journey started two years after her graduation when she started volunteering at schools in three different governorates. Her colleagues occasionally helped her with financial support. Over the past ten years, she taught literacy classes to 150 women. Ali continued to apply for a permit to be officially hired as a teacher, but to no avail.
When Ali saw her desire unmet with a need unfilled, she decided to take action. “I heard women complaining about missing out on the chance to be educated,” she said, “so I simply offered to teach them.” That is how Ali, 37, begins her story, which started when she was a 16-year-old high school graduate.
Without knowledge, we are blind.“
Years later, when the war threatened her safety, she fled her village in ‘Abs with her husband and three children. She feared her two sons, 14 and 17, would be forced to join one of the warring parties. “After boys around my children’s age were taken in neighbour- ing villages, I was afraid my sons would also be forced to fight,” Ali said.
They left their home, possessions, livestock and decades of memories, taking only their clothes. After travelling hundreds of kilometres, they arrived at the Mariama camp for displaced persons, east of the city of Seiyun, in April 2020.
For two hours every day, over fifty students, aged 15-50, have been studying at two different levels in her modest tent ever since. Last year, 25 women registered; they’re now at the second level. This year, 30 students enrolled.
To be able to offer this form of service fills Ali with joy.
“I feel I’m giving something to society when I see an older woman who is happy to read and write after being deprived of an education her whole life,” she said.
Mulheya Zo’ait, 50, faces the blackboard as she copies one of the assignments. Ali praises her performance and her fellow students applaud her efforts. Zo’ait looks shy but happy.
“If Ali doesn’t correct my notebook or ask me to stand at the board, I get upset because I want to compete with my fellow students,” Zo’ait said.
One of them, Sabah al-Barih, has a no-nonsense outlook for her fellow displaced companions when it comes to literacy.
“Without knowledge, we are blind,” she said. The 30-year-old stressed the importance of understanding what her children are studying at school. She compares education to lifting a veil of darkness.
But the camp’s 270 families suffer from a lack of basic services. “Most of the displaced struggle just to get a kilo of flour,” al-Barih explained. “We have to haul water from a place outside the camp, and we have no coolers.”
The camp provides a suitable building for classes, a regular stipend, and school supplies, since most of the students are in a difficult situation, without the means to print the textbook, which costs 1,000 rials (about four US dollars).
Despite the adverse conditions, al-Barih is determined to continue her studies.
“With God’s grace we will study, even if we have to sit in the dust,” she said. With every new lesson, Ali introduces the other displaced women to a new world. After each class, the students disperse to carry out their chores and responsibilities until the next learning session in the teacher’s tent.
فاطمة باوزير، المكلا
Social and cultural conditions have long been stacked against women in Yemen, and the war ravaging the country since 2014 has inflicted even greater harm on them, according to a UN report.
The finding by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2018 had already established that the repercussions of war on economic and social life had led to an increase in violence against women in Yemen. The same organisation says the number of women at risk of gender-based violence rose from three million in 2017 to six million in 2021.
The war has led to “near-total erosion of the protection mechanisms available” to women and “increased their vulnerability to violence and abuse,” the UNFPA noted.
Raeda Ruwaished, a conflict and gender analysis consultant, has devoted her efforts to ending violence against women in Yemen, convinced that ongoing research can explain the root causes of the problem and help solve them.
Ruwaished studied computer engineering at the University of Hadhramaut, but when she couldn’t find a job in the field, she had to consider alternatives. Looking at ways to improve her social environment, she began by working in several organisations that specialised in conflict resolution.
Since gender-based abuse is one of the most prominent forms of violence in Yemen, she focused on issues specific to violence against women.
The problem is compounded by the backdrop of a patriarchal society whose customs leave Yemeni women largely unable to seek help or file a complaint with authorities.
“The family doesn’t seem to play a big role in supporting women when they are subjected to violence,” Ruwaished said. This is because women avoid complaining to their families for fear of reprisals and a damaged reputation.
Families tend to cover up most cases of violence against women, especially those perceived to relate to a notion of honour, Ruwaished explained.
“The absence of a specialised service to handle cases of violence in rural areas compounds women’s suffering and exacerbates their vulnerability to violence,” she added.
This is borne out in another report that points to women’s historically subordinate role in society. “The Impact of War in Yemen on Violence Against Women and Girls,” by the Arabia Felix Centre for Studies, says violence against women was a recurring problem long before the outbreak of the war, particularly within families.
“It is socially shameful to report abuse by a close family member such as a father or husband,” the study said. “Prevailing attitudes within Yemeni culture permit a father or husband to hit or insult their daughter or wife as a form of discipline and ‘preserve the family’s honour,’ in what is usually considered an internal family affair. The deeply rooted patriarchal culture often gives husbands the right to decide on affairs within the family.”
The issue is further compounded by the early marriage of Yemeni girls under the age of 18, which rose from 66% in 2017 to 75%, according to a UNICEF report published in June 2021.
In 2021, Ruwaished worked on an EU-funded project, Women’s Voice Advocacy and Gender-Based Violence (GBV), conducted by Search for Common Ground, an international NGO that supports women’s groups against violence and small-scale initiatives to reduce domestic violence in Lahij and Hadhramaut Governorates.
Ruwaished sees her work as the first building block in the development of practical actions that help mitigate violence. This begins with the police and the judiciary as the first line of defence against domestic abuse and the first place women should contact when subjected to violence. These structures function within a specific legal framework, starting with the submission of a complaint and ending with a judgement in accordance with evidence and legal procedures.
“Dealing with these two official bodies is nonetheless limited,” Ruwaished said. “Most abused women resort to informal groups and human rights organisations, such as the Yemeni Women’s Union.” These institutions provide partial or full support such as medical treatment, psychological support, and access to shelters and legal representation.
Ruwaished is resolved to helping end violence against women through public outreach projects in cooperation with regional authorities. She hopes her engagement will continue to bring about positive, tangible change in the lives of Yemeni women.
Zain Alaabdain Ali, Marib
Balagh al-Awshamy, 41, moved from Ibb to Marib over 20 years ago with an ambition to start her own business. In 2013, the mother of two succeeded: she opened a store that sells clothing, perfume, cosmetics, and kitchenware. Al-Awshamy is the first woman to own a shop in Marib Governorate.
Arabia Felix: How did you get started?
Balagh al-Awshamy: I mastered henna tattoo when I got used to drawing for my sisters and friends, and I picked up other skills such as sewing, hairdressing and broom-making. My first successful project was making and selling ice cream at home and in schools. I turned a good profit around 50,000 rials (then around US$200). When I opened my store with cartons full of the goods I’d bought in Sana’a, my neighbours laughed atme. I still remember their mockery when they saw all the boxes. That was about ten years ago.
Whenever a customer wants something I don’t have in stock, I order it. The item usually arrives in a week or ten days, and I let them know. I’ve been doing this in addition to my work as a hairdresser and henna designer. I invest all my revenue in the business. I later expanded the store to include women’s and children’s clothes, kitchen utensils, cosmetics, and perfume.
AF: How did your work evolve?
BA: I moved into the business of buying and renting minibuses and motorcycles. My husband supervised this enterprise and followed up with the renters. The returns were paid as shares in an association [a group of friends or well-known individuals contribute a fixed amount every month, and each month the collective amount is paid to one member of the group]. I don’t like liquidity or bank accounts.
After my husband died in 2018, I sold all the minibuses and motorcycles I had and started investing in the real estate field by building and renting houses. I lived on the second floor of the first house I built while renting out the first floor for about a year. I earned money by participating in several associations. Sometimes my shares amounted to eight million rials (about US$25,000 at the time). Whenever I receive money from any association, I invest it in real estate. That’s how I bought a second house and then a third, a four-story house, all of which are rented now.
AF: How did you overcome the mindset that keeps women from working outside the home?
BA: With determination and the support of my late husband, especially since my family frowned on my business, clinging to customs and traditions that forbid women from gainful employment. They were even preventing me from working with henna and hairdressing.
Do not be ashamed. Be proud of your work, and hold your head high.”
AF: What are your greatest difficulties?
BA: The culture of shame and restricting customs. My older brother was against my working; he even incited my husband’s parents and brothers, saying, “Why does he allow her to work and break tribal traditions?” That was the most confrontational thing I ever experienced. I have many difficulties, but nothing stops me. I worked in several fields and incurred many losses, but I never gave up. Whenever I lose in one field, I compensate in another. You win some, you lose some.
AF: How does society view youas the first woman to open a shop in Marib?
BA: Most of my merchandise is for women, so most of my customers are women. There is mutual respect in the al-Hosun market among everyone, and it’s important not to do anything wrong. In the past 12 years since I opened the store, I have never been harassed. I never feel like I’m from another area or different from them, even if my accent and style are different from the rest of the community. The sense of coexistence in al-Hosun market is so profound that people sometimes leave their doors unlocked in an atmosphere of trust and security.
AF: You were illiterate at first. How did that affect your work?
BA: At the beginning of my career, I could not read or write at all. I would make certain marks on the purchase invoices to note the prices involved. Over time, my sisters and my children taught me literacy. Now I train women and displaced people in some institutions in Marib on sewing, henna tattoo, and hairstyling. Many places invite me to give training courses.
AF: How has the war impacted your business?
BA: I buy my goods from Sana’a, where the rate of financial transfer commission rose to 50%. That affected my work. The opening of several malls encouraged customers to shop there instead.
AF: What do you wish for?
BA: I want my children to complete their university education. My son is in seventh grade; my daughter is in sixth grade. Because I didn’t enjoy the right to education, I don’t want them to be deprived of it, and I’m going to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen. My big dream now is to build a high-rise that exceeds 12 stories so it will be the tallest building in Marib.
AF: What is your message to women?
BA: I tell them not to give up, but to face obstacles. Your family or friends may try to frustrate you, but do not back down. The important thing is to do something useful with your life, your future, and your children. Do not be ashamed. Be proud of your work, and hold your head high.
Mohammed Ali Mahroos, Taiz
Like hundreds of girls in her village, eight-year-old Misk al-Maqrami dressed neatly and carried her tidy bookbag to school every day. But her dark skin made her a target of constant bullying; her classmates and even teachers treated her with contempt and made her feel inferior.
One day, after her teacher yelled mocking insults at her, Misk couldn’t bear the pain anymore. She burst into tears and went home feeling shattered.
Looking back on that terrible episode over 40 years ago, al-Maqrami says she could not have survived the abuse without her father’s support.
“He just got up and took me back to school, and that gave me enough power and motivation to continue no matter what I faced,” she said. “My father would stand up to anyone who tried to bully me.”
The experience left a lasting impression that still stirs al-Maqrami to take a similar stand whenever she’s confronted by discrimination today. It’s also one of the reasons she became a representative of the muhamasheen, a marginalised, visible Yemeni minority to which she belongs, in her community.
Her father insisted on securing an education for Maqrami’s six brothers and a sister. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language studies from the education department at Taiz University, something she sees as a crucial step to fulfilling her ambitions.
“I learned a lot from my father,” al-Maqrami said. “He used to take me along when he was invited as a mediator to solve problems between families, and he never hesitated to consult me,” al-Maqrami said.
Today she works in community outreach at al-Shamayateen, a rural area in the south of Taiz Governorate. Working as an intermediary between parties of conflicts, she managed to reopen a road that had been blocked for five years due to a local conflict that authorities couldn’t resolve.
In 2014, al-Maqrami founded an association called Kifaya (Enough) to address the issues of the muhamasheen by providing support and capacity building for greater integration and social contributions as a collective force. Forming this group was a dream come true for her, born in part out of her second-grade nightmare.
Kifaya offers workshops to raise awareness about human rights issues affecting the muhamasheen. It also gives training in crafts to enable women to support their families. Spreading a culture of coexistence is a cornerstone of Kifaya’s agenda. One project, dubbed Samrawat – Brown Female Peace Mediators, involved the training of twenty young women in conflict resolution. They were later encouraged to promote peaceful environments in their own neighbourhoods.
Ahlam Ali, 41, gathers strength when she works with al-Maqrami.
“I have learned from Misk that there is no sense in giving up,” said Ahlam. “She gives us a sense of self-worth, determination, and a spirit of persistence.”
In September 2021, Misk al-Maqrami was honoured for her years of community service in a leadership role. Generations without Qat for Awareness and Development, a local organisation, named al-Maqrami as one of three inspiring women in Taiz.
Interview Najla Shamsan: A Museum for Yemen’s Memories
Eslah Saleh, Aden
Najla Shamsan’s childhood was shaped by political resistance. At the al-Midan Primary School in Aden’s Crater district, she was among the top pupils of her class. She participated in the 1962 uprising against the Mutawakkilite Kingdom; in October 1963 she took part in the opposition to the British occupation. At the time, she was known as a “homing pigeon.”
“When I was 12,” Shamsan recalls, “teachers who were involved in the revolution appointed me to deliver messages that specified the dates of demonstrations and the course of their movements. I was always successful in getting the messages across peacefully.”
She enjoyed a career most would consider highly unusual for a woman in Yemen. After working as a social affairs officer for the Yemeni Women’s Union, she established the first kindergarten in the Sheik Othman district, her birthplace. She later worked in mechanics, a field ordinarily off-limits to Yemeni women.
In later years, she realised the importance of documenting Yemeni history, heritage and folklore. In 1996, she opened a self-funded museum, the Yemeni House of Popular Folklore. “I dedicated part of my house to exhibit heritage collectables,” she said. “Then it gradually expanded until it occupied half of my home.”
With the help of street vendors and elderly citizens who preserved the belongings of their parents and grandparents, Shamsan was able to collect artefacts from all over the country. The museum houses collections of silverware, pottery, textiles, handicrafts and antiques – all of which manifest Yemeni culture and traditions.
She collected whatever she could that related to Yemen’s folk heritage. “It started as a hobby; then it developed into a passion, an identity,” Shamsan said.
The museum’s location in the heart of al-Tawahi district, near the port, was once a tourist attraction for hundreds of people interested in the country’s folk heritage. Since the war brought tourism to a halt, the number of visitors has dramatically declined.
Shamsan engaged her museum in many fixed and mobile exhibitions, workshops, and conferences where collectables were displayed in customised boxes, complete with explanations of the items’ past uses and benefits.
Now 71, Najla Shamsan is pleased with the fruits of her efforts over the last 25 years. She takes pride in her collection that reflects the richness of Yemeni culture and looks forward to a day when she can welcome more visitors to her museum in a country free of war.
The Yemeni House of Popular Folklore.
© Mahmoud al-Filastini / Arabia Felix Magazine