SHE TALKS PEACE: Islamic Feminism in Yemen

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews /19 December) — When I was in high school, we used to kid and ask “where do hippies come from?”  From “Yeah, men” of course.  That was my introduction, via a joke,  to the fascinating country that is Yemen.  I now regret never visiting Yemen when I had the chance.  A country that attracted even American tourists to its beaches and ancient architecture, it is now caught in a vicious cycle of armed conflict.

How did the war start?

Analysts trace the roots in the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising.  Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to transfer power to  Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, then his deputy.  President Hadi’s administration was wracked by political and security land mines early on: attacks by violent extremists and a separatist movement in the south, attacks by Saleh loyalists,  corruption, joblessness and hunger. Most of these problems he had inherited from Saleh.

The conflict situation escalated over the years, with the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), supporting the Shia Muslim minority of Yemen,  taking control of Saada province.  Later, the rebellion grew and reached the capital city, Sanaa.  The growth of a Shia base right at their doorsteps made Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states come together to wage war against Ansar Allah in 2015.  Concerned with the expansion of `Iran’s power, the governments of the US, UK and France lent support.

Today, Yemen is far from being the tourist paradise it was.  Saudi Arabia and allies thought they would be victorious after a few weeks of military intervention.  Six  years hence, it is a humanitarian crisis situation, overshadowed by other global crisis.

At the start of the war Saudi officials forecast that it would last only a few weeks. But four years of military stalemate have followed.

Our guest on She Talks Peace, Professor Antelak Mutawakel of Sana’a University, is the co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF), She firmly believes in the foundation’s vision “that Yemen has effective and skilled young leaders, both female and male, who play an important leadership role in community development and contribute to making a better world.”  YLDF was established in 1988, long before the armed conflict started, and Antelak continues to work with young Yemeni women and men to restore their communities, their democracy and attain their dream of a better world.  For more information about Antelak and the Youth Leadership Development Foundation, visit

Antelak educated Dina and me with the reality of Islam and feminism. Women today are discriminated against in many Muslim countries.  Antelak tells the story of a man who was in a Yemeni court which had a female judge.  He left, because the judge was a woman.

Antelak says the oppression of women is not a matter of faith but of authoritarian dictates.  She goes back to the introduction of Islam to the Arab world.  Islam liberated women, the first faith to outlaw acts of gender-based violence by criminalizing the killing of girl babies.  Islam recognized women’s rights by legalizing the right of women to inherit, to divorce, among others.  The Holy Prophet (PBUH) was a champion of women’s right to lead, accepting a woman as his boss.  Khadija, the first Muslim feminist, owned her business and employed the prophet.   She later became his wife and strongest supporter.

Antelak has used his relationship between the Prophet and his wife to educate the young about the role women play in Islamic society, organizing a program called “Khadija”. The program aims to regain acceptance of society for women as leaders and managers, using the Quran as basis.

Where are the Yemeni women?  According to Antelak, while the men go to fight battles, the women keep the society and family together, becoming strong advocates of human rights and lobbyists for humanitarian aid. Women-led civil society organizations are in all fields: development, human rights, empowerment.  From 2011, Antelak observed that women took to street protests, accepted by both opposition and the regime who needed their support.  And yet today, male-dominated authoritarian forces try to keep women at home.

And so Antelak uses her lectures at Sanaa University, her papers, and her work in civil society to re-educate the young about what Islam really envisioned for society – a community of men and women with rights of participation and leadership.  Meanwhile, Antelak hopes that Saudi Arabia will start treating Yemen as a neighbor and stop fighting a proxy war with Iran, over the dead bodies of Yemenis and their starving children.

I also hope and pray that the governments of the United States and allies will support a peaceful and humane approach to the conflict in Yemen.  As Antelak says, “Inshallah”.

Do listen to our fascinating conversation with Antelak Almutawakel:



(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights and democracy)