The feminist diaspora's role in confronting human rights violations in Yemen

‘Yemen women activist street messages, ‘Hands Off Yemen,’ Damascus Street, Sana'a, Yemen, 2015. Detail from Yemen Hands by Julien Harneis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0.) Edited.

I have been living in Sweden with my husband and children for five years now. In May 2015, I fled Aden because of the tumultuous war, while the ominous sounds of rockets and explosions echoed in the background. I held my baby tightly in my arms as the weight of my nation’s sorrow weighed heavily on my heart. It seemed as though the deafening explosions were relentlessly chasing me, as if they were longing to drag me back to my treasured hometown and first love — Aden.

Leaving Yemen was a hard decision to make. However, I was left with no option but to emigrate when my younger brother, Ahmad, was tragically killed while trying to rescue unarmed civilians from the merciless bombardment by the Houthis during their invasion of the city in 2015.

The memory of our terrifying escape from Aden remains etched in my mind, marked by my mother’s wrenching collapse in the car as she grieved the loss of her beloved son, the haunting sight of the lifeless bodies strewn on the roadsides, and the menacing presence of teenage Houthi militants, who would stop us at their checkpoints in search of weapons or individuals of interest.

After leaving Yemen, I now live in a safe and stable area where human rights and freedoms are highly valued, a blessing that many Yemeni men and women, both inside Yemen and outside, do not have. However, my communication with my mother, sisters, relatives, and friends who remained back home, became filled with anxiety and sadness. I miss them, I long to drink the amazing Yemeni coffee with them and I feel a strong sense of nostalgia to return to Yemen. 

Although I have integrated into Swedish society through work, language learning, and social connections, I am still authentically Yemeni and feel a deep connection to the country where I was born, raised, and spent most of my life. Unfortunately, the only reason that compelled me to leave was the dire security and dire humanitarian situation. 

I am not alone in this: nearly 10 million Yemeni citizens are currently living in the diaspora worldwide. Prior to the 2011 uprising, many Yemenis migrated to earn a living, particularly in the Gulf states where over three million Yemenis still reside, mostly in Saudi Arabia

However, that popular uprising, which was inspired by the Arab Spring, quickly turned into a violent conflict, leading to a breakdown in security and the displacement of millions Yemeni citizens. As a result of the worsening political and security situation, Yemen has become less appealing to its citizens, prompting those who have the means, social connections, or educational qualifications to obtain visas for other countries to leave their homeland.

Perhaps being forced to leave Yemen is a blessing in disguise for me and others. Living in Sweden has granted me the freedom of expression and the opportunity to reflect on how the freedom enjoyed by Yemenis in the West, allowed them to accurately portray the situation in Yemen in international forums. This is particularly true for Yemeni women, who are placed at a great disadvantage because of their gender.  I would like to share some of my reflections on the role of Yemeni feminists and activists living abroad, as well as some of the challenges they encounter.

Feminists support Yemen from abroad

Yemeni activist and feminist entities in the West play a crucial and effective role in raising awareness, advocating for, and amplifying the voices and experiences of those who cannot express themselves freely in Yemen, particularly women who are silenced for security reasons. These entities have become the most powerful ambassadors for Yemen abroad, and this is especially important given the global media's tendency to turn a blind eye on the situation there, and the limited resources of official embassies.

Yemeni feminists and women human rights activists have been actively organizing cultural, human rights, and advocacy events, including demonstrations and exhibitions to influence decision-makers in the countries where they live, formally or informally. They have also formed alliances such as the Feminist Solidarity network with the support of the Peace Track Initiative Foundation, and other coalitions that carry out advocacy campaigns to protect activists at home, particularly women, and support their causes.

Perhaps one of the most significant accomplishments of Yemeni women was the production of a women's roadmap for peace. This was the first time such a comprehensive community discussion had taken place in Yemen, and it has resulted in the only national project of its kind that was initiated by Yemenis, with community involvement and a gender perspective.

Indeed, the briefings given by numerous Yemeni women leaders in the UN Security Council served as compelling evidence of the strength, maturity, and consciousness of Yemeni women, their unwavering commitment to the issues affecting their country, and their persistent efforts to offer assistance.

Challenges, threats, and misleading campaigns

Since the beginning of the war in Yemen in 2015, civil society organizations have faced significant challenges due to a reduction in donor support. As a result, many activities and projects related to human rights and protection programs have been suspended, mainly because of the security and political situation and the shifting direction of financial support towards relief work.

However, despite these obstacles, women's initiatives abroad have increasingly played a crucial role in Yemen by forming partnerships, alliances, and joint initiatives with women in the country. This has helped bridge the gap caused by obstacles facing women's civil action in Yemen.

Despite the efforts of women activists and human rights defenders abroad, many of them are exposed to various forms of digital violence, including taunts and underestimation of the importance of their roles in participating in peace processes and rebuilding the nation.

Yemeni women activists, both at home and abroad, often face tendentious media campaigns aimed at discrediting their political and human rights activism. As a result, they may be accused of colluding with the West or even face accusations related to “honor” — forgetting that the projects they have accomplished would not have been completed if they had stayed in Yemen.

Regardless of whether they are inside or outside the country, Yemeni women will continue their work. They view their homeland as a common right and a shared responsibility among all Yemenis, both inside and outside the country. Despite the challenges, they are determined to work together to rebuild Yemen in a way that ensures a safe and decent life for all.


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