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Story Publication logo March 8, 2010

Yemen's Women Have Little to Celebrate

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After the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 in December, Yemen again became the focus of US...

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It's a little surreal being in Yemen on International Women's Day. This place is not exactly a feminist's paradise.

A 2009 World Economic Forum report on gender equality listed Yemen for the fourth year in a row as the worst country in the world to be a woman. The worst. We're talking worse than Saudi Arabia. Worse than Pakistan. A March 2010 Freedom House report backed up the World Economic Forum's findings, reporting that while many Middle Eastern country's women's rights records have improved in the last five years, Yemen's has not.

The criteria behind both those rankings are complex, but they hinge, at least to some degree, on the fact that roughly 70 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate, maternity mortality rates are achingly high, and girls as young as 8-years-old are regularly married off to men they've never met. To top it off, most Yemeni women are, by virtue of a Sharia (Koranic) legal system, almost entirely powerless in the eyes of both society and the government.*

But statistics can begin to feel a little abstract. On the ground, they translate to the fact that most Yemeni schools and universities are single-sex -- and with the number of educated women declining, the number of women available to teach school is declining, too. Social events -- parties, weddings and daily meal times -- are also almost entirely single-sex. Men and women do not interact in public. (It's considered rude to write, or in many cases to speak, a woman's name; she is "the mother of," or the "wife of.") Roughly 90 percent of the women you see on the street are dressed head-to-toe in black fabric, with only an inch-wide slit for their eyes.

For a lack of infinite space and time to illustrate the plight of women in this culture, here's a single anecdote: Last month, I went bowling with Nujood Ali, an 11-year-old girl whose parents married her off to a 30-year-old delivery man when she was 10. (Nicholas Kristof wrote about her last week.)

Nujood is famous in Yemen – a French journalist wrote a book about her, and she's been featured in hundreds of local and international news stories – partly because she's the exception. She ran away from home, her story got picked up by a few crusading local journalists, and she won a divorce. There are thousands of girls like Nujood – child brides; second graders on their wedding nights – whose stories go untold. Last year, a 12-year-old girl died in childbirth – again, one of the few instances that are actually reported by families, much less picked up by the media.

As a side note, Nujood is – I happily report – a darling, spunky little kid who seems to have rebounded from the crisis that has pushed her into the limelight. She didn't quite beat me at bowling, but she did get a strike, which was pretty good, considering she had to hold the ball with both hands. When I tried to direct her over to the pool tables, she gave me a perfect third-grader's sidelong look: "That's boring," she said, "Can't we go outside and play?" And so we did. Bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, and a burger and fries later, she and her brother went home.

* A woman's testimony counts for only half of a man's testimony in the court of law. (When I asked a Yemeni friend why that was, he explained that it was because it was "scientifically proven" that women can't speak and remember at the same time. That little gem of pseudoscience is straight out of a sermon by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an influential cleric who the U.S. categorizes as a terrorist, but who most Yemenis think is a pretty charismatic guy.)

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