Yemeni Women Testing Traditional Roles
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
We turn our attention to women in two traditional societies. Our first story is from Yemen, a country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. More than 80 percent of women are illiterate, and most girls are married by the age of 15. Some Yemeni women are now challenging the country's patriarchal structure. And one woman is even running for president this year.
Reporter Kristen Gillespie traveled to Yemen's capital, Sana, and beyond, and sent us this story.
(Soundbite of running water)
KRISTEN GILLESPIE reporting:
Hot, sweet tea signals the end of lunch at the Hamida Hotel. The hotel is in a poor medieval village in a remote part of a remote country. You have to pass through two checkpoints to get to it, not because the country is particularly militarized, but because if you're kidnapped between Points A and B, authorities will know how to find you. On this day, Belgian, French and Japanese tourists, along with villagers, have come to taste Hamida's cooking.
Lunch was served on a long, low table. It's all about meat and carbohydrates in Yemeni cooking: boiled meat, Rice, round wheels of bread and lamb cooked in aluminum foil.
What's unusual about the restaurant, and the small hotel attached to it, is that it's owned by a woman, a widow in her 60s named Hamida.
Ms. HAMIDA (Foreign language spoken)
GILLESPIE: Hamida's voice is muffled because, like most Yemeni women, she covers her entire face, except her eyes. She's short and plump, and a colorful skirt inches out from under her black robe, as she sits on the floor cushions that serve as chairs. Her life, she says, has been a struggle. Ten children, poverty, hunger. Then the conversation takes an unexpected turn. She says it was her husband's death three years ago that freed her to take their dilapidated hotel and turn it around.
Ms. Hamida (Foreign language spoken)
GILLESPIE: I was never afraid of hard work, she says. Everyone, men and women, told me it was shameful for me and my daughters to work. It was shameful to allow strangers into my hotel without a husband here. I told them all to shut up. Today, I own three hotels.
Success stories like Hamida's are rare in Yemen, because women rarely work outside the home. They run the house. And with an average of six children, it's more than a full-time job.
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GILLESPIE: The streets of Yemen's capital, Sana, are always crowded, mostly with men. They're whimsical in their fashion choices. The men from Yemen's countryside wear a kilt that reaches mid-calf; on top, perhaps, a long-sleeved, colorful Oxford shirt paired with flip-flops and cotton cloth wrapped around the head. Women almost all look the same, basic black with only the eyes showing. Some wear black gloves, but they don't linger much in the streets.
Women here require written permission from a husband or father to get a passport and to travel abroad. But in 2004, the president abolished a law that required a wife to obey her husband. For writer and columnist Rashida al-Qaili it's not enough. It's time for women to take charge.
Ms. RASHIDA AL-QAILI (Presidential Candidate, Yemen): (Through Translator) Women are more merciful with the people and less corrupt. I say, as an educated Yemeni woman, I have a role to play in changing the current situation.
GILLESPIE: Rashida al-Qaili is running for president. If elected, she says she'll cancel the heavy restrictions on freedom of speech. She'll curb local pork barrel politicking, create jobs, and most importantly, clean up pervasive corruption. But her campaign is facing an uphill battle.
Ms. AL-QAILI: (Through Translator) People are making fun of me. Some say if men in tribal clothes with mustaches can't defeat the president, how can a woman?
GILLESPIE: But al-Qaili sees no reason why she can't serve as Yemen's president. Islam, she says, allows women to rule. And for her that's important. Politically, al-Qaili considers herself an Islamist. Her husband, a poet, is her campaign manager and top supporter. Islam allows a man to take up to four wives. And she is his second. Al-Qaili jokes that dealing with her husband's first wife at home has given her experience in peacemaking and diplomacy.
But realistically, says prominent journalist Khaled al-Hammadi, al-Qaili's campaign has little chance of success.
Mr. KHALED AL-HAMMADI (Journalist, Yemen): I think Yemen is not ready for a female president, or female candidate for a presidential election, because, you know, Yemenese society controlled and restricted by a lot of social, tribal and Islamist culture and traditions.
GILLESPIE: Rashida al-Qaili says she's not giving up. A virtuous woman, she says, is a thousand times better than a corrupt man. It's a message she hopes voters, at least female voters, will remember on Election Day.
For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie.
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