SANAA (Reuters) - When Sara Ahmed joined a protest in November to demand the resignation of Yemen’s president, she and the other women marched at the very front of the crowd. But no sooner had they set off through the capital than they were shepherded towards the back.
“On that day I realized we had two fights,” said Ahmed, a 24-year-old sociology student and women’s rights advocate, who took part in some of the first protests in Yemen last year that helped oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office.
“A battle against the regime, but also another struggle - a fight within the fight - against those elements inside the revolution who oppose us and our rights as women.”
One of the poorest countries in the world and the worst for gender equality, according to a U.N. metric based on literacy and other factors, Yemeni women defied deep-rooted traditions by even participating in the campaign against Saleh, then became pivotal players in it.
Now with Saleh deposed and a political transition underway, female activists fear the country is moving forward without them, and that men who were keen to have them on the streets crying freedom do not now want them in parliament, universities or the workplace.
“Society embraced us at first,” said Faizah Al-Shami, a poet and activist. “We were there to bulk up the numbers... Now that Saleh has left they expect us to do the same: leave the streets, renounce our freedoms and return home.”
For women like Shami, 14 months of devoted dissent have proved that overthrowing an autocrat may be easier than overturning the supremacy of men in a poor and turbulent country where women are a majority at the margins.
From the earliest rumblings of discontent last January, it was clear that women would be playing a novel role in this stage of Yemen’s history.
After starting the uprising on the fringes - delivering blankets, cooking food and caring for some protesters wounded by security forces - women moved to the frontline.
From the English-speaking, educated elite of doctors, lawyers and university professors to the huge numbers of unemployed female graduates and housewives, women flocked en masse to join the revolt.
They led public rallies, slept in protest camps, went on hunger strikes and covered the unrest as bloggers and journalists. They were also among the hundreds of protesters killed last year during the government’s bloody crackdown.
Faizah Sulaimani, an accounting-graduate-turned-protest-leader, recounted lying to her family about taking part in protests before they spotted her on TV.
“My mother stopped talking to me, my father yelled at me. At that moment I decided to go public, to break all the limits, just to send a message that we are here as Yemeni women.
“For me it was the first time to think and act as an individual, as a woman. We had ideas, thoughts we had to share, a vision for a new Yemen that we had to express,” she said.
That vision even had a face: Tawakkul Karman, the head-scarved mother of three who became a figure of symbolic importance and who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Arab woman to be accorded such an honor.
Her arrest at one of the first pro-democracy protests in January last year sparked outrage and helped link scattered demonstrations outside a Sanaa University campus into full-fledged revolt.
“Women are no longer victims, they have become leaders, they are at the forefront of the demonstrations,” Karman said in November shortly after she won her Nobel, shared with two Liberians to highlight the importance of women’s rights toward securing peace.
She urged women in Arab countries to “win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men”.
But there have been few signs of political gains.
Though three of the 35 ministers selected for the national unity government established in the wake of Saleh’s resignation in December are female, that is up from two in the previous government, and the parties that make it up remain male-dominated cliques.
Aiming to break up those networks before multi-party elections due in 2014, some women activists in Yemen are pushing for a law that would guarantee them 30 percent of all elected offices and political appointments.
“The quota injects women into decision-making positions…enhancing their status will help shake some of the rigid social attitudes that have left them on the margins,” said activist Rana Jarhum.
Some question the efficacy of such methods.
“Iran has the largest female quota in their parliament, does that make them treat women any better? It’s just a scam autocratic nations use to improve their image,” said a senior member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party.
Others say women themselves must take the lead.
“Unity among women is not there, this is the problem: they are not working strategically for their demands,” said Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour, commenting on a brawl in which rival women’s factions hurled shoes at each other during a ministry-sponsored conference last month.
“When each one of them is tied to her party or cultural background it is very difficult to reach a consensus. Frankly speaking, we failed to create a unified women’s movement in Yemen,” she said.
In the absence of such a movement, religious conservatives appear to have filled the leadership vacuum on women’s role.
In Change Square - the tented epicenter of Yemen’s uprising - the physical barrier separating male and female protesters- was once marked by a rope. Now it is a towering wooden partition with a metal door.
The gender segregation, some protesters claim, reflects the steady rise of Islah, Yemen’s politically empowered Islamist party, in the protest movement and its aftermath.
Islah - which is Arabic for “reform” - has been criticized for publicly opposing women’s candidacy and contesting, on religious grounds, laws protecting women’s rights. The party, which entered a power-sharing agreement with Saleh’s powerful GPC ruling party in December, manages to attract the most women and other protesters to their demonstrations, however.
“We adhere to our faith and Sharia of Islam while pursuing the objectives of the revolution; there is no conflict between the two,” said 34-year-old Sumayya Al-Rayfani, a prominent Islah protest organizer.
“We too want to correct our parochial culture. Our role as women in a future Yemen will be strengthened and supported by our Islamic principles. We will share a role in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”
Moreover Karman, the Nobel prize-winner, is a member of Islah, maintaining that the party offers women better opportunities than any of the others.
Critics say she is window-dressing for Islah’s secret repressive social agenda. But the party has its own issues with her; ultra-conservative members are unhappy that she voiced support for a bill to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 from 15 in a country where young girls often marry in their early teens, especially in rural areas.
Activists say Yemeni politics will be not be kind to a fledgling women’s rights movement any time soon.
“Time and again, women’s rights proved to be a political tool used by both the opposition and the ruling party with no real promotion of women’s agenda,” said Atiaf Al-Wazir, a Yemeni-American blogger.
“We know too well how women have been used in past revolutions all over the world. We even have a recent example from Egypt. Unless we unite and have a strong platform, nothing is going to change for women.”
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
This story was refiled to delete extraneous words in paragraph 20