In a second-floor classroom overlooking a flowering courtyard filled with groups of students sharing textbooks and snacks, a young Yemeni woman in her late teens says simply: “[No political party] cares about us, or about the country.” The “us” to whom she refers are the other young women in the room, a group participating in an innovative program at the Girls World Communication Center (GWCC), one of many civil society organizations in Yemen dedicated to improving opportunities for young women in the poorest country in the Arab world. Young women here study English and computer skills, but they also study human rights and Islamic law, as part of a comprehensive curriculum designed to empower them to speak with their families about their changing aspirations — and to justify their choices when they complete the program. Only a handful of these young women express faith in partisan politics, but all are inspired by the women who founded the program and hope to replicate their experiences for other young women and girls through organizations of their own.

Women were granted full voting rights in the Republic of Yemen earlier than in any other country in the Gulf, and have retained and exercised those rights over the course of three parliamentary elections, two local council elections and two presidential elections in the past two decades. In the eyes of many Yemeni women, however, the right to political voice at the ballot box pales in comparison to human development indicators that continue to leave them far behind their Gulf sisters and their fellow (male) Yemeni citizens. Today, for example, almost two decades after they gained the right to vote, just under 35 percent of women in Yemen can read and write (compared with 73 percent of men), those women who earn a wage can expect to earn 30 percent of what men earn, and with public spending on health care at only 1.9 percent of the government’s budget, the large majority of Yemeni women who give birth without adequate care can expect to continue to do so. In 2008, according to the United Nations Development Program, only two countries in the world were worse off than Yemen in terms of the distribution of human development gains to women. The exclusion of women from government restricts their ability to gain equal access to those gains and limits the effectiveness of policies and programs designed to address these gaps. [1]

So, despite the vibrancy of many of the elections held since the unification of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990, Yemeni women are struggling to identify the mechanisms most effective for pressing their concerns and bringing about the kinds of changes that will most immediately affect their lives and livelihoods. Political parties, an early source of optimism, have largely disappointed women, who are today channeling their activism into the associational sector — comprised of a range of civil society organizations, media and professional associations — with some remarkable successes. That said, in the absence of a strong political opposition and amidst encroachments by President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s regime, that associational sector is ever more tightly regulated by the government, leaving women in a position of some vulnerability, even as they continue to be objects — and struggle to become more active subjects — of national discourses on development and democracy.

Partisanship in Yemen

Following unification, the new Republic of Yemen became a source of considerable optimism for others throughout the region with similar aspirations. The fact that political parties as ideologically divergent as the Yemeni Socialist Party and the Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform (or Islah) could contend for the support of the population on the basis of free and equal suffrage was indeed something remarkable in the region.

The optimism was short-lived, however, as the brief 1994 civil war between the armies of the two former ruling regimes of North and South Yemen led to the near total decline of the Socialists, accompanied by the exile of its leadership, confiscation of its resources and discriminatory policies by an increasingly centralized regime keen to punish its former competitors. In order to do so, the General People’s Congress (GPC) — the former ruling regime of North Yemen, which also secured the largest vote share in the 1993 elections — worked closely with the Islah party to marginalize the Socialists, relying on Islahi sheikhs to demonize the Socialist Party’s “atheistic” leadership. This campaign contributed to an environment that permitted (if not demanded) vigilante violence against Socialist Party members in the south and throughout the country.

Following the 1994 civil war, the Islah party entered into a governing partnership with the GPC, making its role today as the largest single opposition party both remarkable and, in the eyes of some Yemenis (particularly leftists), of questionable reliability. An alliance with leftist groups would have been anathema to many of the party’s founders, except within the Muslim Brotherhood cadre. [2] And yet by the beginning of this decade, this reform-oriented cadre within Islah had risen considerably in prominence within the party relative to other factions and was able to pursue not only coexistence with Socialists and other leftists, but to actually form with them what appears to be a durable (if shallow) alliance — a coalition called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Skepticism about Islah’s commitments runs deep, however, particularly among Yemeni women activists, who suggest that Islah’s conservative approach toward gender roles and ties to the tribal system have contributed to a climate which has increasingly come to limit the space and influence afforded to women within the political parties.

The JMP has experienced some limited success since its establishment, but its leadership continues to view the 2006 presidential election as its most “victorious” moment, with little to show for the three years since then. While the JMP’s candidate, Faysal bin Shamlan, did not win the election, he secured far more votes than many expected and was seen as compelling the incumbent Salih to compete for votes against a credible challenger. Within a year of the election, however, the JMP experienced a series of internal conflicts, both between its members and within the party apparatuses of the Socialists and Islah, in particular. As a result, the concerns of the JMP have become almost exclusively “procedural” in nature — focusing on issues of government accountability and transparency and the technical aspects of election procedure — as its leadership has assiduously sought to avoid ideological issues that might cause further strife among JMP members and thereby enable a further consolidation of power by the Salih regime.

Canceling the 2009 Elections

By the beginning of 2009, it had become quite clear that the parliamentary elections scheduled for April were in jeopardy, for a number of reasons. First, the JMP was not eager to participate in a poll that its leadership feared would not be fair. This concern was not unreasonable, given the failure of JMP efforts in the summer and fall of 2008 to achieve a set of reforms in the electoral law and rules concerning the internal functioning of the Supreme Council on Elections and Referenda. As the body that oversees elections, the Council has faced considerable domestic and international criticism for its lack of independence from the ruling party and the Salih regime, particularly in the 2006 polls.

Second, the protest movement in the southern governorates was escalating (and continues to do so as this goes to press). This movement brings together people with a range of interests, all of whom have been critical of the incumbent regime but many of whom are equally critical of the JMP leadership.  While individual members of the JMP have supported (some) southern demands, amid the debate over the elections they were reluctant to more assertively support a movement with its own grassroots leadership. As the protests increasingly resulted in violent clashes between the military (and quasi-military actors with ties to the regime) and southern activists, the JMP could not endorse the methods or some of the more extreme demands of the southern movement without risking its own position in Sanaa. When secessionist demands began to reemerge in the southern lexicon, the leadership of the JMP was forced to tread even more lightly, further stoking the southern movement’s criticisms of the opposition alliance. [3] At the same time, the rise of this local leadership risked further eroding support for the JMP, which has been criticized for abandoning its ties to many of its constituents in favor of the elite politics of court intrigue playing out in Sanaa. [4]

Lastly, members of the regime and the GPC expressed concerns about the international effect of holding elections without a viable opposition. Presidential adviser ‘Abd al-Karim al-‘Iryani reportedly told a meeting of the GPC’s General Committee in January 2009 that holding elections without the JMP “is like when you sit on the edge of the bed and play cards by yourself.” [5] Neither the regime nor the opposition was eager to play the role of democratic spoiler by announcing either a boycott or a unilateral suspension of the elections. Instead, they “negotiated” a postponement, delaying debate on the same issues of procedural and substantive reform that created the unwillingness to proceed to the polls in the first place.

Women, Partisanship and Elections

Such politics of partisan negotiation have been, by and large, a men’s game. While women are objects of political debate in Yemen today, they are often largely excluded from the conversation. The “rights of women” and the “status of women” are vociferously debated by men in all of the political parties, reflected as distinctive concerns in party platforms and the topics of symposia that bring together local non-governmental organizations and major international donor agencies. At the same time, women also seek to identify ways to advance their interests, however widely defined, as subjects in their own right. Elections — particularly in regions that are deeply contested or in which the stakes are perceived to be high — are arenas in which women have struggled to compete and have been offered little to no assistance from political parties. The parties welcome women as voters, but either explicitly reject or ignore them as candidates. The majority of women who have run for parliamentary or local council office in Yemen have run as independents after their own parties have refused them endorsement.

The reasons for this vary by party. The Socialists, for example, are not ideologically opposed at all to the idea of women’s candidacy and have run a small number of women in the past, but women in the party report pressure to advance socialism ahead of any “divisive” issue, like women’s rights. Recalling her own candidacy in the 2001 local council elections, the head of the Socialist Party’s Women’s Directorate noted of her fellow female candidates that, even with endorsement of the party, “We had no money, we had no qat to distribute to people, we’re forbidden to speak on the radio, or on the television, outside of the news coverage. It is impossible for us, as Socialist women, to reach high levels.” [6] The GPC, widely considered to be devoid of concrete ideology, is principally interested in winning, which has led the party to put substantial pressure on female candidates to withdraw from constituencies in which their victory is not assured. For its part, despite internal division over the issue, the Islah party, which claims the largest number of women voters in the country, maintains its objection to women’s candidacy on ideological grounds. Collectively, then, the major political parties provide relatively weak channels for activism for many women.

In addition to this, the issue of women’s candidacy has also become a wedge issue dividing the parties of the JMP opposition, both among and within themselves. Before the death of Sheikh ‘Abdallah bin Husayn al-Ahmar, head of Islah, in December 2007, conflicts within Islah had a largely triangular character, with a progressive Muslim Brotherhood wing (driving the alliance with the JMP, for example), a very religiously conservative salafi wing led by the controversial Sheikh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, and a socially conservative tribal base led by Sheikh al-Ahmar, which often functioned as a “swing vote” between the two more ideological rivals. Since al-Ahmar’s death, however, no clear replacement has come forward and the nature of intra-Islahi conflict is now much more “bipolar” than previously with a fierce struggle for the center. The issue of women’s participation in public life — and women’s candidacy in particular — has become the issue over which these two rival factions spar.

This fissure has presented an opportunity to the regime, which has exploited the ambiguities of its long-standing relationship with Sheikh al-Zindani. In what may have been a bid to strengthen his own waning position within Islah, in 2008 al-Zindani joined with other salafi clerics (only some of whom are affiliated with Islah) in the formation of an organization known as al-Fadila, which called on the government to establish a vice and virtue commission on the Saudi model, designed to enforce conservative social norms. While much of al-Fadila’s emphasis was on limiting women’s roles in the public sphere, the organization also endorsed press censorship in ways that would benefit the incumbent regime and undermine the reformists within Islah at the same time. Al-Fadila’s creation led to substantial internal debate within Islah but near total media silence from Islahi outlets. The ties between the progressive Muslim Brotherhood wing of Islah and the independent media, however, gave the Brothers an alternative set of channels for launching its own counterattack against al-Fadila and a government that seemed willing to entertain its demands. [7] By early 2009, al-‘Iryani noted that “al-Fadila has finally become stillborn…thanks to so many private journalists, who attacked it from the first day, waging a negative media campaign against al-Fadila. This is something to be said about the non-partisan press.”

Against the backdrop of these internal partisan struggles, women have found it difficult to press their demands effectively within their respective parties, though there have been some limited exceptions. Where those exceptions have been most notable, women have skillfully used their ties to the independent media and civil society organizations to weave networks of protection and support. The 2007 Islah party internal conference was emblematic of the barriers to women active in political life: Amat al-Salam Raja’, the head of the Islah’s Women’s Directorate, received the tenth largest voter share among the 130 members elected to the party’s internal majlis al-shura. Under her leadership, a body of more than 5,000 party members also voted at a ratio of more than 4:1 to increase funding for and cooperation with the Women’s Directorate. But if Amat al-Salam, who also teaches Islamic jurisprudence and theology at Sanaa University and is widely respected by younger Islahi reformers, in particular, were to run for public office, she could not count on the support of her party.

Seeking Change Outside of Politics

If Amat al-Salam’s limited success within a partisan framework is more the exception than the rule, for the most part, those who find themselves best able to influence the lives of Yemeni women are doing so within the associational sector. Women have been active in a vibrant associational life throughout the Republic of Yemen since unification. [8] At the same time, the landscape of political activism in Yemen is one that leaves women particularly poised to invest in the associational sector at the expense of political parties — and the parties have no one to blame for this but themselves. Even those limited gains that have been achieved, such as more effective monitoring of women’s participation and voting rights in the 2006 local council and presidential elections or increased voter registration among women, have occurred under the aegis of civil society organizations like Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights and Women Journalists Without Chains.

One particularly striking example of the potential of civil society organizations to transform the lives of women from outside of the partisan framework can be seen in a remarkable trio of organizations based in Sanaa. Under the umbrella of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation, sisters Intilaq and Qaboul al-Mutawakkil administer two distinct organizations — the GWCC and its coeducational partner institution, the Youth Economic Development Center. According to the Foundation, both organizations are designed to “increase youth participation in social, political and economic aspects of society, especially through education in vocational, communication, leadership and life skills.”

The origins of these programs lie in the exclusionary politics of the political parties and the sense that parties could be expected to ignore women’s development needs, at best, and to work against them, at worst. In the late 1990s, Intilaq al-Mutawakkil was a graduate student, completing her Ph.D. under the supervision of the well-known activist Ra’ufa Hasan, the director of the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center at Sanaa University. The Center became embroiled in a thorny controversy surrounding questions of Qur’anic exegesis regarding women’s rights and responsibilities in society — a controversy driven largely by political and religious leaders associated with the Islah party. At the time, since the Socialists and other leftist parties were fading into obsolescence, the ruling GPC was really the only party capable of challenging Islah’s position. According to Intilaq, the government’s decision to close the research center demonstrated its and the GPC’s willingness to sacrifice the advancement of women in exchange for Islah’s endorsement of the incumbent Salih in the 1999 presidential election. [9]

Shortly thereafter, Intilaq turned away from partisan politics and developed the GWCC to address what she saw as the most pressing needs facing women and girls in Yemen: education and the skills to improve their own life circumstances. What began as a series of tutoring sessions for a small number of girls soon mushroomed into a licensed program with its own facilities, curriculum and job placement office. The GWCC is not a school so much as a life skills center, training young women effectively to replicate their experiences there through the development of projects of their own, but also offering courses on women’s rights in Islam designed to transform (carefully and gradually) how young women understand their own position in society. These courses are taught by the founders’ father, the well-known professor and public intellectual, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, himself the co-founder of an influential NGO, the Political Forum, committed to advancing democratic reform. As one graduate recalls, “He teaches us that if we don’t read, search for ourselves, then all our ideas are coming from culture. He’s a man, telling [the students] to open the Qur’an, read it, interpret it. He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do X,’ but he says, ‘Go, search, see my result, your result.’” This approach is particularly important, she explains, because “women have a right to work…to be respected, but only when [those ideas] are linked to Islam can you succeed.”

While its coeducational partner program at the Youth Economic Development Center puts more emphasis on skills that reflect the needs of the labor market, the curriculum at the GWCC remains focused on the development of what one Yemeni journalist called “rights consciousness” among Yemeni women. This includes Muhammad al-Mutawakkil’s lectures on human rights and Islam, the Human Rights Information Center (with digital and print resources on human rights and women’s rights) and related programming. Conscious of the fact that education is often the privilege of a select number of largely urban and middle- or upper-class women, the GWCC offers an extensive scholarship program designed to increase the participation of women from poor families and those outside of Sanaa. Programs have been extended to the governorates of Aden, Hudayda, Hajja and Mahwit, and the umbrella Youth Leadership Development Foundation is in the process of establishing new programs for youth in Ibb and Hadramawt.

The programs administered by the Foundation are fee-based, but the organization is non-profit, and its pricing structure reflects its commitment to providing accessible programming. For example, the fee schedule for 2009 indicates that students can enroll in an English diploma program (which will culminate with TOEFL preparation and testing) for $990, including tuition and books. While this is still a very large sum in a country where income is estimated by the UNDP to be only $930 per capita  and urban rural gaps are substantial, the GWCC has offered more than 1,300 scholarships for participants in this program, which comprises over 750 hours of classroom instruction.

The favorite project of GWCC administrators, however, is clearly the Young Women’s Leadership Program, which requires that students design and conduct original research in their area of interest and develop programming to address the problems that they have identified. In a focus group discussion with a group of students soon to graduate from the leadership program, participants expressed a jadedness toward political parties that reflects the history of partisan disappointments. They suggested that they would not join any of the existing political parties, but would instead seek to replicate the experience that has had such an impact on their own lives. In particular, these students expressed the desire to work with or found an NGO related to the research projects that they conducted at the GWCC. This goal is not unrealistic: Of the most recent class of 39 graduates of the program, 20 found work in a civil society organization or in the media sector, and many of the remaining graduates were hired as staff at the GWCC on an ongoing basis, according to graduate Safa’ Rawiya. Students in the program also reported feeling better enabled to convince their families that this would be appropriate work for women. As one young woman from Dhammar put it, because of the lectures and classes provided by the program, and guest speakers who volunteer at GWCC, “I’ve learned that women work outside of the home. Now I actually know women lawyers, women doctors.”

While the experiences of the GWCC and other women’s organizations in Yemen undoubtedly disproportionately reflect attitudes and experiences of middle-class and elite women, their disaffection is still a troubling picture for the future of partisan competition in Yemen. As the parties of the JMP opposition continue to focus on the intra-elite politics of Sanaa and ignore their grassroots political base, a courageous associational sector composed of activists, lawyers and journalists struggles to maintain pressure for reform. This sector, like the parties, has long been dominated by men but shows a greater willingness to make room for — and absorb the talents of — Yemeni women. While it is unlikely that women will join in (increasingly violent) protest movements in large numbers, they are showing signs of partisan disengagement that should serve as a warning to a faltering opposition that might well benefit from the greater inclusion of women activists. The greatest risk of partisan disengagement, however, may be to the women themselves. In the absence of a vibrant and capable opposition to check the ambitions of the regime, the associational sector (and particularly the media) has come under increased pressure. Those who devote their energies to an associational sector that is at the whim of an increasingly unconstrained regime run the risk of a politics of division, cooptation and repression that may leave them in much the same position as those working within the embattled partisan structure.


[1] Marta Colburn, The Dynamic of Development and Democratization in Yemen (Bonn: Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2002), p. 87.
[2] Jillian Schwedler, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Yemen and Jordan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 181.
[3] Stephen Day, “Updating Yemeni Unity: Could Lingering Regional Divisions Bring Down the Regime?” Middle East Journal 62/3 (2008); Stephen Day, “Yemen Postpones Its April 2009 Parliamentary Elections,” Middle East Institute Viewpoints 11 (2009).
[4] Sarah Phillips, “Politics in a Vacuum: The Yemeni Opposition’s Dilemma,” Middle East Institute Viewpoints 11 (2009).
[5] Interview with ‘Abd al-Karim al-‘Iryani, Sanaa, January 4, 2009.
[6] Interview with Wahbiyya Sabra, Sanaa, January 10, 2009.
[7] Interviews with Thabit Sayyid and Sami Ghalib, New York, October 25, 2008.
[8] Sheila Carapico, Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Janine Clark, Islam, Charity and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).
[9] Interview with Intilaq al-Mutawakkil, Sanaa, September 12, 2005.

How to cite this article:

Stacey Philbrick Yadav "Does a Vote Equal a Voice?," Middle East Report 252 (Fall 2009).

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