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Yemeni women struggle for a political voice

Radia Shamsher was asked by her party to withdraw from Yemen's 2003 parliamentary elections and let a male colleague run instead to secure a seat.
PTI | By Ghaida Ghantous (Reuters)
UPDATED ON APR 19, 2004 04:08 PM IST

Radia Shamsher was asked by her party to withdraw from Yemen's 2003 parliamentary elections and let a male colleague run instead to secure a seat. She refused, ran as an independent candidate and lost.

"I did not enter to win but to prove the right of women in elections," said Shamsher, who is a member of the Yemen Socialist Party and was running in the southern city of Aden.

"The party, which prides itself on furthering women's rights, has lost its credibility," she said. "It was my family and friends who supported me. Even female members of the party did not support me...The women's movement is dead."

Yemen might have been one of the Arab world's only matriarchies thousands of years ago but today it is an uphill struggle for women to enter the sphere of male-dominated politics in this tribal country.

Yemeni women are allowed to vote and hold public office yet very few have won seats in the country's three parliamentary elections since Yemen was unified in 1990, and the number of women candidates seems to be dwindling each year.

Bilqis AbuOsba, part of a government team set up to increase the number of female MPs, said the constitution granted women equal rights but that restrictive laws, lack of government support, the limited presence of women in political parties and social norms were major obstacles.

"Tradition binds women and says a woman's place is at home with her children," she told a seminar. "But the role of women is important to support moves towards democracy."

She is named after Bilqis, as Arabs call the Queen of Sheba who, according to legend, ruled Yemen in ancient times.

AbuOsba said their team would propose introducing a quota system whereby 30 percent of MPs would be women either through a separate law or by changing electoral laws to require parties to nominate a certain percentage of women.

Only one of 13 women who contested the 2003 parliamentary polls was voted into the 301-seat body dominated by the ruling General People's Congress Party (GPC). There is also one woman in the cabinet and a female Yemeni ambassador.

Maha Saleh was running for a local council seat in 2001 but was told by her party, the GPC, to withdraw one day before the vote as part of a political compromise with another party about the number of nominees.

"The woman was the sacrifice. I am disappointed and will not run again unless I have real support," Saleh said.

EMPOWERING WOMEN

Yemeni women may be envied by their counterparts in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive, or in Kuwait where women have been striving for years for suffrage only to be knocked down repeatedly by the all-male parliament.

But some Yemeni women want more.

"We don't want to have a woman (in public office) just for decoration. We need to change cultural and social perceptions and prove that we are capable," said Bushra Murshid, a GPC member. "We do not want fake democracy, we want real change."

Around 65 percent of women in Yemen are illiterate and the education system still favours males, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme in Yemen.

It said women's "secondary status" and their poor access to resources posed a major constraint to development in the impoverished country of 19 million people, although the female share in the labour market has increased in recent years.

The report said women's equality is acknowledged in the constitution but many women say their lives are dictated by sharia Islamic law which many misinterpret to deny their rights.

Ammatisalam Rajaa, of the Islamist opposition Islah, said the party was spreading awareness of women's rights under Islam.

"What benefit is it to have one or two women reach parliament if we don't have real social change among men and women alike?" she asked.

She said not only women are intimidated. Even men's political rights are violated when candidates come under threat with guns and votes rigged.

Shafiqa Murshid, a member of the Yemen Socialist Party which ruled former South Yemen before unification with the North in 1990, said democracy was not about drafting laws but finding the mechanisms and the will to implement them.

"The biggest obstacle is the patriarchal system which says women are best suited for home and raising children and men are best suited for public life."

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