Mrs. Siya Al-Bakhit, Head of the Yemen Women Union branch in Al-Mahrah Governorate, speaks in an exclusive interview to "Khuyut", about the reality of women at the present time compared to the situation that prevailed in previous years during the seventies and eighties of the last century. She also touched on how she and some other women leaders were able to establish a feminist movement demanding women's rights, which succeeded in contributing to raising the male community's awareness of the importance of the women issue, despite the political transformations, during the past periods witnessed by the eastern gate of Yemen, similar to the rest of the Yemeni areas, up to the present time of the ongoing war in Yemen, in which the society in Al-Mahra was not spared from its sever consequences.
Interviewed by: Ala'a Al-Shalali
Khuyut: If we were to make a comparison between the situation of women in Al-Mahra in the past, and their situation at the present time; What would you say in this regard?
First, on the community and family level, I would like to talk with you about my personal experience with my family who were not opposing to any tasks and work that I was carrying out with regard to serving women in Al-Mahrah. It is true that in some situations, they had personal fears, but I was able to convince my family that nothing would happen or would cause me or them any harm.
We used to travel to different Yemeni governorates without being asked to accompany a Muharram because we were raised to be trusted. Unfortunately, today there are those who seek to undermine the women self-confidence.
I would also like to point out to you how women used to suffer in the past, as we were not given any privileges or support. For instance, when we were planning for organizing events or visits, we would walk on our feet and travel far distances, as there were no luxury cars like the case today. Not only that, but we used to carry stones and work hard along with Men hand in hand in order to build schools and health facilities, and thank God, with our determination and struggle, we are still working in the service of the women of Al-Mahrah up to now.
Khuyut: What about the situation in the present?
Many girls have now obtained various educational grades, and we have Al-Mahra University, and this is an important thing, because there are various colleges, and many young women joined them. As a result, female graduates were able to work in higher administrative positions in a number of government offices within the local authority, and some of them were promoted to occupy senior positions as general managers.
In fact, the people started to realize the positive outcomes of girls’ education and its impacts on their lives. As a result, educated women played significant roles in Al-Mahra, in terms of educating other women about the importance of reproductive health. Further, local committees were then formed to solve women’s social issues, and women even worked with the judiciary and police stations.
All of this, of course, makes us feel comfortable, but I believe this is not enough. We need to see more active participation of women at the present time in order for women in Al-Mahrah to reach advanced positions at the national level.
Khuyut: How did Siya Al-Bakhit's upbringing influence the formation of her leadership character?
I was born and raised in the city of Al-Ghaidhah, the capital of Al-Mahrah Governorate, and in the vicinity of my family in which our father and the elders of the family used to encourage us to be educated. They promote in us the concepts of striving for helping others, and playing active roles in our environment like reconciliation and mediation to solve local disputes, and how religious teachings and our authentic customs and traditions urge us to do so. During my studies at the primary level, that was at the end of the sixties of the last century, I and a group of my classmates shared a common concern of advocating for the rights of girls in Al-Ghaidhah. I also remember at that time that there were no private schools for girls in Al-Mahra, except in very limited areas.
Khuyut: Could you tell us about your role in establishing the women's movement in Al-Mahra Governorate?
In the 1970s, there were no unions, associations, or organizations concerned with women’s rights in Al-Mahra. Therefore, my colleagues and I decided that we need to have a platform or an initiative or entity through which we could talk about women’s grievances and the importance of advocating for their rights by women themselves first, and then by the society in general.
Thus, we worked to establish a women's club that was composed of some educated girls from the schools of Al-Mahra Governorate, and I was the head of the women's committee in the club. One of the most essential tasks that we carried out during that period was to spread awareness among women, and to urge parents to contribute to supporting girls' education by granting girls' schools all the possible moral and financial support.
In addition, we have worked on marketing and promoting examples of educated girls who have achieved practical successes in various fields, so that this would be an incentive for other heads of families to allow their daughters to join schools as well as founding adult literacy schools to eradicate illiteracy among women in Al-Mahrah.
Khuyut: How has the community responded to these efforts?
n fact, the people started to realize the positive outcomes of girls’ education and its impacts on their lives. As a result, educated women played significant roles in Al-Mahra, in terms of educating other women about the importance of reproductive health. Further, local committees were then formed to solve women’s social issues. Consequently, our efforts, along with other women in the southern areas, embodied in the state's approval of the family law that protects women in its infancy, and we are working to resolve disputes between spouses. We have also formed local committees of married women with notable social figures, who would help us to solve many problems related to women in all districts, villages and parts of Al-Mahra. Additionally, we even went further as we were able to achieve remarkable gains, on top of which, the inclusion of Al-Mahri women in the police and military forces, for the first time in the history of Al-Mahra.
Khuyut: Can you list some of the names of women who had prominent roles in advocating for women's issues and rights in Al-Mahra?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the enrollment rate of girls in the various educational levels was very small, compared to the present time, but the awareness was present among women that they must have a notable activity that would be met with appreciation and gratitude from society, which encouraged many women leaders to establish an effective women's movement.
In this regard, I can remember some of the leaders of feminist work in Al-Mahra Governorate, from the first generation, such as my friend (Naima Suwaid), who grew up with me and worked together to establish the women movement in Al-Mahra, and she is now residing outside Yemen due to personal circumstances. Also, I must remember those who worked in silence, such as Tanweer Harmush, the late Lebeht Bakrit, and others. Nor should we overlook the role of men who contributed to supporting the establishment of the women's movement in Al-Mahra, such as: Hussein Salem Al-Haraizi, Mohammad Salem Kedah, Mohammad Abdullah Kedah, Salem Saad, Rashid Yashool, and others who backed upholding the values of respect for women in Al-Mahra.
Khuyut: How were you able to reconcile your political activities with your tasks in the field of civil society organizations?
I was a member of the executive body for youth in the south, and in the Fatah camp, and when the system and law of local authority were established, I was elected for three consecutive terms in the local council in Al-Mahra, starting in 1973. After that, I was appointed as a member of the executive office in social affairs. These tasks were compatible with my tasks in civil society organizations, and we were only partisan to the homeland, so I did not find difficulties in harmonizing my work between government agencies and my work in the federation.
During the transitional period, in 2013, I participated in the Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference, and as a member of the dialogue, I was demanding, along with other members, for women to have 30% quota representation in all the various state agencies and institutions, whether local or central, but unfortunately the implementation of this outcome is going at a very slow pace.
Khuyut: How was the Yemen Women Union established in Al-Mahrah?
My friend Naima Swuaid and I were invited to attend the first conference of the Yemen Women Union, in the city of Seiyun in 1974, in which I participated on behalf of the women of Al-Mahrah. At the conference, a new leadership was established, and a comprehensive study was drawn up to establish a Union and a central council that includes all governorates. A strategy and internal control for the Union have been developed and women's committees were formed. After that, by-elections were held to select female leaders, and I was nominated and selected to be the head the Yemen Women Union in Al-Mahra.
After that, the second conference of the Yemen Women Union was organized in the city of Aden, and special cards were issued for the members of the union.
Since that period, I have been elected three times to head the Union branch in Al-Mahra, the last of which was in 2003, until our present time. Thank God we have a permanent office, and we have activities and projects that are implemented at the level of all villages and districts of Al-Mahra, and projects related to women’s economic empowerment as well as educational and awareness of women’s rights and women advocacy activities.
Consequences of the conflict
Khuyut: To what extent has the war in Yemen affected the activities of the Women Union work in Al-Mahra?
Since the outbreak of the war, our activity decreased to the lowest level, and we still communicating with the central management of the Executive Office of the Yemen Women Union in Sana'a from time to time, but the financial and supervisory channels are not affective between our office and executive office. Hence, we currently work according to a system under the supervision of the local authority in Al-Mahra Governorate, which spares no effort in helping us. However, we suffer from the lack of sufficient financial and operational support.
Khuyut: What about the support of international organizations concerned with women's rights?
Unfortunately, now the role of international organizations has become weak due to the war in Yemen. Previously, it had an excellent, important and tangible role according to their financial resources available. However, during the years of war and the ongoing conflict, the federations became almost forgotten, but despite this, we work according to the laws of the state and carry out our activities according to the available resources. It is worth mentioning the positive roles and support we have received from the Social Fund for Development, UNICEF and CARE organizations.
In conclusion, we hope that the country will recover from the current crises, that the war will come to an end, and happy Yemen will resume to its normal position among other nations.