In Yemen, a barefaced advocate for women’s rights
The unveiled one enters.
That’s what you notice first when Amal Basha, black hair flowing, hurries into the room, deploying sentences like poetic armies. She mentions that she’s just returned from a human rights conference and is on her way to a seminar against torture. A man slides a tray before her and disappears.
Tea? Coffee? A cigarette?
“I had to wear the full niqab when I was 8 years old,” she says of the face veil worn by women here. “I couldn’t breathe. I saw the world in dark colors. I fell down because I couldn’t see when I walked. Men should put this on for one day. They would change their thinking. They don’t know how horrible it is under sun, heat and sweat. It’s a kind of torture. I decided I wanted to see the beautiful colors of life — red, blue, green. Not black.”
Papers shuffle. She looks for something, pushes the pile aside, clicks her lighter, a wisp of smoke. Where were we? Islamic fundamentalists sanctioning child brides and turning women into opaque cut-outs billowing through towns and villages, denied good educations, healthcare and seats at the tables of power.
“Violations on many levels.... Now they even want to put niqabs on our voices. They make it a shame for women to protest. They want us to lower the tune, not to be heard.”
A cool morning breeze blows through the window. A man saws wood in an alley. Footsteps pass.
A descendant of the prophet Muhammad, Basha fixes her shawl beneath a reproduction of the Last Supper, the meticulous light of the Renaissance set against the harsh desert and mountain rhythms of Yemen. Incongruities are part of the mystique of the woman who heads the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights, which lobbies for the rights of women, prisoners and refugees and for wider political freedoms.
Basha’s is a stinging voice in a country steeped in tribal traditions, religious rigidity and a government with a deep repressive streak. She has received threats, been sprayed in the face with an unknown liquid and once discovered that a brake line in her car had been cut. She is unabashed, a cross between eloquent lawyer and street fighter, arguing and then, between breaths, slipping in a phrase you didn’t see coming: “You know, we’re all created from the same soul.”
Yemen has emerged in the world’s consciousness as a haven for Al Qaeda, a nation with firefights in the hinterlands, ambushes in the capital and men making package bombs. But Basha says her country, the poorest in the Arab region, suffers more intractable threats, such as corruption and her estimate that eight women die a day of abuse, medical problems and complications stemming from forced childhood marriages.
In April, a 12-year-old bride died of internal bleeding after intercourse with a husband more than twice her age. That case and one of another 12-year-old who died in September while giving birth hardened the divide in the government between those wanting to outlaw child marriages and clerics and religious conservative legislators who support the practice.
The ordeals thousands of young girls here face gained international attention in 2008, when 10-year-old Nujood Ali appeared before a judge and demanded a divorce from her husband, who was reportedly in his 30s.
Basha knows well what led Ali up the courthouse steps. She herself was 8 when her family arranged her marriage, part of an intricate web of customs draped over a girl in that gasp between playgrounds and puberty. She was wed at 16.
“The day after my marriage, I went to school to play soccer,” she says. “I did not feel I was a woman. It was not time to play the wife. I didn’t feel that I was this mother to come. When I was 17, I had a baby and I divorced my husband. I couldn’t stand being a wife. I thought of how it would hurt my education. My mother raised my new son. That’s how it is in an extended family.”
Women are being “left behind,” she says. “Girls are deprived of education and by the time they’re 25, they’ve had seven or eight children.”
Basha’s defiance was sharpened during her student years at the American University in Cairo, where activism ranged from human rights to pan-Arabism, the failed dream of uniting Arab states championed by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. She returned to Yemen labeled a troublemaker, an “agent of the West” and other slurs that kept her from joining the Foreign Ministry and becoming a diplomat.
Her second husband was an Arab nationalist. He died of a heart attack in 1998 and her political enemies, who referred to her as a Zionist sympathizer, spread rumors that she had poisoned him. Basha later married a lawyer and now the 48-year-old mother of three spends much of her time traveling to conferences. The title of her autobiography could be, “I cannot accept to be unnoticed,” a phrase she uttered before mentioning that women are still paying for the sins of the temptress Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Redemption is unlikely soon. Yemen’s parliament is a man’s domain of suits, tribal dress and daggers. Out of 301 seats, one is held by a woman, despite a quota that allots women 15% of the chamber. Women face entrenched discrimination: Nearly 70% are illiterate, and the clan ethos and the Sharia law upon which the government is based often ignore them.
And the arcane proclamations of holy men confound. One of the country’s leading religious voices, Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani, a cleric with a henna-dyed beard whom the U.S. considers a terrorist, proclaimed that he had scientific proof that women cannot speak and remember simultaneously.
“Yemen is the home of the Queen of Sheba,” Basha says. “How can you say women can’t govern? Yemen is a failed state today and men have been the rulers.”
Talk of the legendary queen leads to quotations from the Koran and asides on clan codes, Islamic law and Yemen’s Constitution, all delineated, as is her way, in words scrubbed of euphemism. She knows this nation’s mountains and cities, its deserts and Arabian Peninsula coast, where soldiers patrol and anger and rebellion fume daily.
Yet it is references to the veil, that burdensome scrim of cloth she so despises, that run through her conversation, symbolizing rights denied.
“There is nothing in the Koran to say that women should cover their hair,” she says. “But if I say this, they say I am not a Muslim.... Why should women be covered in black? Invisible. Who invented this idea? Walls around our houses, veils over us, walls around our freedom of expression. Walls.”
The tea grows cold, the morning is nearly done. Basha stands. An assistant appears with more papers, stories of abuse from Yemen and across the globe. She walks into the hallway, past a poster of shackled hands. She looks at it for a while and then steps outside.
A friend tells her: “You are one of only 31 unveiled women in this country.”
“No,” she says, “the number is down to 22.”