Monday, June 4, 2007

First thoughts on my last day in Yemen

On June 2nd I was set to fly out of Yemen at 6:55 p.m. and I had a day packed with 4 meetings: The US Embassy, the USAID staff, UNICEF, and with the President of the Arab Sisters Forum. My last 2 meetings in Sana'a, Yemen were some of my most productive. The women from the UNICEF office challenged us to first ask the teachers' unions if they have committed to equalizing access to education for girls. I think that is entirely reasonable and I think we should make that a condition of our work with any trade union here. Improving the learning climate for girls needs to be our priority. As it stands, unless your family has money and a bit of a liberal attitude, there is absolutely no future for you except to be one of a man's possibly 4 wives having children until your uterus gives out, which can happen on your wedding day because of the genital mutilation you may have been subject to as an infant.

Conditions for Yemeni women were better before the 1st Gulf war when over 800,000 Yemeni expatriates came back with extremely conservative views, largely returning from Saudi Arabia. Now women are blatantly subjected to second-class citizenship, internalizing their own oppression, and the men we met with meanwhile are asking for time/decades/ centuries to correct it. Given what I know now, that is absolutely unacceptable. As an embassy official said this morning when I debriefed with her, "then let's fund their programs at 1885 figures, and see how much time they want to take for us to increase it." Needless to say, I LOVED her. Sadly, she is moving on to Tel Aviv in a few months.

The women at UNICEF went on to say that classroom management wouldn't be helpful unless there was some gender parity training to go with it. If boys are still the only ones called on, if secondary female students still get pushed out of school because of a lack of female teachers instead of letting them attend classes with a male teacher, if women are forced to leave the profession when they get married and have a family, when girls have to sit in the back of the room and are taught not to raise their hands, then we have much bigger problems than spitballs and talking back.

These women from UNICEF (one Dutch, one Yemeni) were amazing with their gentle but assured prodding. I was so inspired by their amazing focus on the state of women and girls. I felt like they were the first group all week to keep me totally honest about getting what I came for in Yemen.

My next meeting with Amal al Basha, the president of the Arab Sisters Forum will easily go down as a seminal moment in my life. I really felt like I was sitting at the feet of a master. Listening to her, I realized that I had merely been safely dabbling around the edges of social change. I was firmly tucked in my cocoon of half privilege safe enough to believe that there was just enough urgency for change that I merely had to offer bribes to my conscience to believe that I was doing good work for the world when in fact I am too comfortable. Her struggle will only become my struggle when I am in it as deeply as she is. Their struggle will become the world's struggle when we can successfully cause good people to lose enough sleep over the condition of women world-wide that we all do something about it. She showed me pictures of her in the paper that have her caricatured as the devil. She has been threatened with an immorality arrest for "denouncing Islam," which she never did. She is one of only 31 women in all of Yemen who do not cover their heads when they go out. Yet, she makes time in her amazingly busy schedule, and makes room in her home for this American woman she has never met. She listens to me, at this immature stage in my learning curve of the Middle East/Yemen, and offers encouragement and seems so sure of herself. She should be. She is on the side of what is right in everything she does. Is it any wonder that my meetings today were primarily with women and I felt that they were the most productive?! In all three, they essentially put the question directly to me, "How is this country going to be better for girls when you leave?" I will be honest, after talking with them, I realize now that is exactly the work I have cut out for me, for all of us.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What a privilege to go on that trip. I lived in China for a year and saw many inequalities there as well-they exist in every society, in varying degrees to varying populations. Coming back to the US-it's easy to feel like everything is so much better here, but it's a matter of degrees. One point of action for me has been little moments of education that point to another country, and say, 'open your eyes and see how much you have, and let's focus our energy outward to do good.' What will be your points of action?