Muna Luqman, a Yemeni human rights activist, has been assisting local women since rebel Houthis took over her city, Taiz, in 2014. Years of advocacy work against war and violence have taught her how dangerous it is for women to take part in peace building. But that does not stop her.
“Women are most affected by the war, so we take the most risks,” she said. “We know what violence means so we are doing whatever they can to mitigate it. I had a mission and I had to do it, no matter what happens.”
As the Yemeni civil war enters its fourth year, death and misery continue to reign. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. Women and girls especially are experiencing worsening conditions. United Nations Population Fund statistics show that around three million women are at risk of gender-based violence in Yemen. Out of over two million internally displaced people, 76 percent are women and children.
When the war broke out, Luqman found herself in a city under siege. Armed men came from both the North and the South, and Taiz, the third largest city in the country, was trapped in the middle.
Hunger, street fights and homelessness plagued the city. Luqman’s own home was destroyed in an airstrike as militias bombed a nearby school that had by then become a military warehouse and prison.
“I woke up to what seemed to be a volcano erupting lighting up the sky, followed by what felt like an earthquake. Our neighbors—a family of five—perished under the rubble,” Luqman recalled in a statement to the UN Security Council.
As a woman held in high esteem by locals, Luqman started to raise money to provide people with food and shelter. She built bathrooms for families and schools. She helped evacuate children when soldiers took over local orphanages. Sickened at the thought that local youth might be enticed to join the fighters, she intervened and encouraged them to work with her on peace building and humanitarian assistance.
“It is extremely difficult and very dangerous to carry out humanitarian work in Taiz,” said Marie-Christine Heinze, president of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, who spoke of her own field research experiences in Yemen.
“Female aid workers face constant harassment on the street,” she said. The Houthi rebels, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood control different parts of Taiz. If women wish to deliver supplies to local families, they have to pass through multiple checkpoints guarded by militiamen and often have to hand in parts of their supplies in exchange for free passage. With no real power, local police cannot stop the harassment and assault even if they wish to, Heinz said. “On a regular basis, women in Taiz are seriously injured or even killed.”
The most famous case is the murder of a 32-year old woman named Reham Al-Badr. Like Luqman, Al-Badr had been helping people in Tai ever since fighting began in 2014. Last February, on her way to deliver food supplies to starving families, she was shot dead by a Houthi sniper targeting relief teams.
Luqman noted that women activists face arbitrary arrests and are often forced to quit their peace building work. She recently spearheaded a campaign to push for the release of her colleague, Awfaa Al-Naami, who was illegally detained in January for more than two weeks.
“Yemeni women were traditionally very active and Taiz has always been on the forefront of women’s participation in public life,” Luqman said. “When the war happened, it all went backward. We are fighting to get our representation back.”
Najwa Adra, a Middle East expert who has been conducting field research in Yemen since 1978, echoed Luqman’s claim that the civil war has taken a toll on women’s ability to take part in public affairs.
The war has led to the rise of extremist Islamist teachings that tried to create a generation of submissive women, she explained. By installing radical preachers in local schools and mosques, militant groups have reversed women’s traditional influence on their communities, locking them instead in their homes.
“Older women have told me, ‘this is not Islam,’ ” Adra said. Before the shift, Yemeni women knew how to maneuver tribal traditions to deter their husbands, sons and neighbors from violence. When a woman had had enough of the fighting, she would go outside of her house, take down her face veil and show her bare breasts to shame the men.
Yemeni women have always played an active role in promoting peace. And advocates like Luqman understand how crucial it is to revive women’s unique influence on their communities.
“When the war came to Taiz, the men and the government were not there to help,” Luqman said. “Men are more interested in power.”
“Women are always managing things when their husbands are not around. We don’t have that kind of greed that can be found in men. We think about solutions.”
Sophie Stevens, a British researcher who has written extensively on women as peace builders in Yemen, noted that these Yemeni women do not necessarily see themselves as women’s rights defenders. They are simply trying to meet the needs of their community, as they have always done, even before the civil war.
“The women who are known by the international community are familiar with the language of rights and the UN framework. But they are a little elite and disconnected from what’s happening on the local level, ” she said. “But if you go to the community, you see local women trying to keep the schools open, providing food and healthcare. They are the ones on the frontline, without recognition.”
Luqman could not agree more. “I’m not politically affiliated. I’ve never gotten any money from the UN or the government…I never saw myself as a human rights defender or peace activist until everyone else told me that’s who I am.”