In the Land of Invisible Women

Article excerpt

Byline: Janine Di Giovanni

The Arab Spring gave Yemen's women a public voice and a visible face. But the revolution has faded without changing anything for millions who are married too young and shut away in mud huts for the rest of their lives.

he drive from Hodeida, the fourth-largest city in Yemen, to the Hays district takes about three hours by road through flat, barren, and decidedly desolate countryside. Hodeida is not a modern place, but traveling into the hinterland is like a voyage back to medieval times.

Women were very much part of last year's Arab Spring, but it is as though that never happened. Here, there are no women on the streets, no women shopping in the souk. And there are no women in the area's few restaurants; just men, chewing mildly narcotic khat leaves, drinking black tea, and eating chicken served on tin plates. When I finally catch a glimpse of two women shrouded in black veils, abayas, and black gloves to cover the flesh of their hands, they hurry away as if desperate to get out of sight as quickly as possible.

In Sharfih al Janebiah, a remote and dusty village of mud huts, I meet Khadi. She is 12 and recently married. She did not enjoy her wedding night. "It hurt a lot," she says of her first sexual experience. "And he is old and fat."

Her husband is not actually old and fat. But at 30, he is considerably older than Khadi, who was part of a deal arranged by her parents: Khadi married her husband so that her sister could marry his brother. Khadi was nothing but a bargaining tool.

As she tells me this story, another tiny village girl appears, unveiled. She is extraordinarily beautiful and wearing tribal dress. She stares curiously at us outsiders, and I look back, with the terrible thought that this lovely child will soon be bartered off like a stockyard animal.

For Khadi, the family waited until a month after she got her first period before the marriage ceremony. Before the wedding, her mother talked to Khadi about her responsibilities as a bride, explaining how she had to take care of the animals, sweep the hut, and sexually submit to her husband. Khadi's mother is illiterate and was herself married away by her family when she was 9. Today she is 40, but looks decades older. And when I ask her about her daughter's marriage, her voice sounds lifeless. "It was a good match for the family," she says.

To most Westerners, Yemen "is little more than a code word for bizarre terror plots," as Robert F. Worth put it recently in The New York Review of Books. It was the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and the refuge of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who became an influential force within al Qaeda until he was killed by a U.S. drone last year. Several unsuccessful terror plots have been hatched in Yemen, where al Qaeda is still active, and for the American administration, the country remains a serious security concern.

But as the media have intensified the focus on postrevolution pains in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, attention has drained away from Yemen, one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the Arab world.

Ten million Yemenis, or almost half the population, don't have enough to eat, according to the United Nations, which has sounded warnings about a possibly humanitarian disaster. A deepening conflict in the country, especially in the south, is pushing the crisis to a brink.

This abject poverty and endemic insecurity afflict Yemeni women in particular ways.

According to the World Economic Forum, Yemen consistently ranks at the bottom in the global gender gap in terms of access to education, health, economic opportunities, and decision making. A quarter of the women between the ages of 15 and 49 are severely malnourished, and girls, who are seen as an economic burden, are often married off early. There is no law specifying the age of marriage in Yemen, and more than one in two girls have been married off by the time they turn 18. …