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Story Publication logo September 25, 2008

Hostility on the Streets of Yemen


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The poorest nation in the Arab world struggles with high population growth, 40% unemployment and a...


The day I was stoned in public happened to be my birthday.

I was walking along a quiet side street, close to the parliament building in Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

I was alone, but I did not think twice when a battered old pick-up truck drove towards me.

It was just like hundreds of other pick-up trucks that I saw every day in Yemen. There were two tribesmen in the driver's cabin and a handful of young men standing in the flat-bed, holding onto the side rails to keep upright.

They wore long white robes, curved daggers on belts around their waists and red and white head-dresses. Normal day wear for the average Yemeni man about town.

The truck had almost travelled past me when a rock hit me in the stomach, hurled from the back of the vehicle as it passed.

Indignant and furious, I whirled round on the spot and shouted after them: "Laish?" - an Arabic word for 'why'.

But the truck was already out of earshot and there were no witnesses to answer my question. So I dusted myself down and carried on.


I was not really hurt, just surprised.

I have spent more than a year living in the country. I have often been stared at in the street but I had never encountered open aggression before.

I cannot be sure why I provoked hostility that day, but I think that I was a target as a foreigner and a non-Muslim, despite my black headscarf, baggy trousers and long black dress.

My presence as a single woman walking unchaperoned was a provocation in a devout, conservative country where men and women are strictly segregated.

And to be stoned once in a single day could be regarded as a misfortune, but there was more to come.

Later that afternoon, I made an appointment to interview some Somali women who had recently arrived on refugee boats across the Gulf of Aden.

They had travelled from landing spots on Yemen's southern beaches to a safe house in the capital. They asked to see me in the privacy of this safe house, because any public meeting would make them feel uncomfortable and exposed.

Sulieman, my male translator (who is also Somali) guided me through a residential suburb. It was a typical urban neighbourhood with high concrete walls, small grocery stores and barefoot children playing in the rubbish-strewn roads.

Flouting convention

When we reached the safe house, Sulieman and I disappeared together through a metal gate into a private courtyard.

The interviews went well, and we emerged 40 minutes later into the twilight.

A crowd of children had gathered in the dirt alley. As I walked away, I was hit by a hail of small stones and gravel.

In Yemen, Western women have a terrible reputation for promiscuity. I can only imagine what the neighbours and their children thought I was doing behind closed doors in that safe house with Sulieman.

But I do not suppose they guessed that I was a journalist and he was my translator, and that we were simply working.

As a female reporter in Yemen, I often have to flout convention and defy local notions of acceptable behaviour.

Whether I am interviewing Yemeni politicians in a café, or catching a taxi home alone from an evening embassy function, I am challenging local ideas about what women are and what women should do.

And I am often working at the margins, especially with Somali refugees, who are outcasts within Yemeni society.

For the most part, my Yemeni colleagues go out of their way to accommodate me, and my cultural baggage. In return, I do what I can to minimise any offence I might cause.

Threatened by modern life

But tension is building here. This is a country that has an uneasy relationship with the West.

While I have always received a great deal of affection from Yemeni friends, there is widespread hostility to US foreign policy and to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's co-operation with the West on counter-terrorism.

There have been two attacks on the US embassy since March, and tourists have become a target for a resurgent terrorist movement.

In the last 12 months, ten Europeans and four Yemenis have been killed in attacks on tourist convoys outside the capital.

And a parallel movement has emerged to enforce conservative cultural practices like veiling and gender segregation.

A self-appointed committee of Islamic clerics and tribal leaders are alerting police to infringements of Sharia law.

"It's a desperate backlash by powerful religious figures who feel threatened by modern life," said one Yemeni friend, but she doubted the vice and virtue movement would really take off.

"The president doesn't want this thing to get out of control," she said.

If it does, there could be many more foreign women stoned in the streets like me, but Yemen is a long way from that just now.







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