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Past and present perspectives on civil society in South Yemen

South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]
South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]

The Arab-British Chamber of Commerce was the venue for yesterday’s workshop organised by the Academic Forum Muhammad Ali Luqman and supported by Independent Diplomat focussing on civil society, women’s activism and the role of local and international media in current developments in South Yemen, in particular from a historical and grassroots perspective.

Chaired by Thanos Petouris of SOAS, University of London, the first of two-panel sessions featured two academics: Huda Luqman, the daughter of Muhammad Ali Luqman, the Yemeni lawyer, journalist, social activist and eponym of the Berlin-based forum; and Ameen Shandhor, who serves as the forum’s vice chairman.

Luqman began by sharing her memories and experiences of the “golden age” of Yemen’s southern port city of Aden between the 1950s and 1960s when it was a British colony. She also spoke of her father’s campaign for education during the economic boom at the time, and her mother’s charity work and involvement in the Aden Women’s Association.

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Muhammad Ali Luqman himself was critical of the British, because the benefits of the boom did not reach the poorest of Aden’s society, despite their investment in the city. For example, there was a lack of education in the colony, where more than 50 per cent of children were illiterate, so he campaigned for social improvements in housing, sanitation and education.

Aden at that time, explained Huda Luqman, was the “Dubai” of the age, ironically when the neighbouring Gulf States were backward by comparison. She then touched on her mother’s role in establishing the women’s association which “had its own theatre, cinema and nursery school, adult education, arts and crafts, dance and equipment such as sewing machines.” Women of this era, she argued, enjoyed greater freedom, in a “traditional liberal society”, in comparison with the north of Yemen and neighbouring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. However, this progressive era would come to an end not long after the British abandoned the colony in the late 1960s, which led to private property becoming nationalised and an exodus of educated members of society.

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Ameen Shandhor of Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences spoke in Arabic at the workshop. Through a translator, he discussed the media coverage of current developments in southern Yemen, noting that in the wider framing of the conflict as a proxy war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, or over legitimacy between the Houthi movement and the Riyadh-backed exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the south often gets overlooked.

According to Shandhor, international reporting on southern Yemen over the past few years can be divided into two stages. The first is between 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition began its military intervention, and 2017, and largely concerns the humanitarian crisis arising from the fighting. Media coverage in this period was weak, he argued, with the conflict referred to as the “Forgotten War”, with frequent stereotyping through the prisms of Saudi-Iranian tensions and Sunni-Shia sectarianism.

South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]

South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]

Several reasons for this lack of coverage, it could be argued, were the “more tragic and more severe” crisis in Syria at the time; the inability of international media to reach Yemen with the coalition siege imposed on the country; and the “big expectations” after 2012, for what was hoped to be a peaceful transitional period with Yemen serving as a model for the region.

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The second stage, Shandor continued, was from 2017 to the present. This period of intensified media coverage could also be explained through a plethora of developments, with the dire humanitarian crisis being largely responsible for the media attention, what the UN described as the “worst humanitarian crisis” of our time. However, the friction among the many factions in the conflict is also a possible reason, such as the so-called legitimate government of Yemen backed by the Saudis and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is supported by the UAE, who are both leading partners in the anti-Houthi coalition. External developments, Shandhor added, could include the emergence of the Trump administration in the White House and the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Last, but not least, the 14 September attacks on the Saudi oil facilities cannot be discounted. They were blamed on Iran but claimed by the Houthi movement. Iran’s Supreme Leader has since admitted responsibility for ordering the attacks.

During this time, media reports about Yemen increased naturally. Shandhor noted that there had had been just two reports per month, and then there were several reports per week, both in English and Arabic print media. He highlighted the fact that the headlines and articles of the second period tended to focus on the word “separatists” more fervently, a reference to the STC, which emerged out of the southern separatist movement. While many mainstream media referred to the Houthis as “rebels” some outlets, including Reuters, referred to them as the “Houthi movement”. Shandhor argued that the STC was rarely referred to by its official name, but was instead referred to consistently as “separatists”.

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Following the interval, speakers in the second session included anthropologist Dr Susanne Dahlgren from the University of Tampere in Finland, and Rasha Obaid of the Peace Track Initiative and a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics Centre for Women, Peace and Security. Dahlgren visited southern Yemen on more than one occasion in the 1980s, and she touched upon why the women’s movement was so important, expanding from Huda Luqman’s earlier discussion towards the unification of the country in the 1990s which led to the marginalisation of Aden and saw it reduced to a provincial town.

Rasha Obaid at South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]

Rasha Obaid at South Yemen civil society event in London, on 26 November 2019 [Twitter]

The southern Yemeni women’s movement was unique, given that during the colonial era, although there existed many clubs and societies for men, these were largely ethnically segregated, whereas the women’s movement was the only civil society movement which was multi-racial. It was a pioneering group in many respects. Dahlgren pointed out that the movement had already addressed the issue of domestic violence in the 1950s, whereas her own native Finland had not done so at that time. She went on to list the achievements and contributions of the movement, in addition to mentioning Mahiyah Nagib, who was Aden’s first female editor of a women’s monthly magazine and a female judge. The South Yemen state was one of the few countries in the Arab world at the time where a woman could serve as a judge.

Following the unification of Yemen, the Saleh regime saw the women’s movement as a threat and sought to have it infiltrated by the wives of important politicians to help push the unity narrative of the regime. Dahlgren concluded that the current independence movement in the south still encourages female participation and is perhaps reflective of the women’s movement, which remains a living tradition there.

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Finally, Rasha Obaid works for the Peace Track Initiative, a Yemeni organisation founded and staffed by women, which is the largest network of Yemeni women both locally and in the diaspora. Those involved work in many fields. Obaid spoke about civil society organisations and their differences in the north and south of Yemen, and also touched upon the south’s marginalisation following the unification of the country.

From her research, she found that during the Communist rule in the South following decolonisation, there were trade unions and agricultural unions but a lack of political parties, as there was just the one-party government. In the north, although there were some trade unions and culture unions, said Obaid, the leaders of these civil society organisations were appointed by the President of the country.

Thus, in both North and South Yemen there were a lot of limitations in terms of freedom of speech. However, following unification, NGOs began to receive licences to operate in different fields, including economics and politics. Yet to due to mass centralisation in the 1990s, the vast majority of these organisations were based in Sanaa, so one can imagine, Obaid posited, “whose voices are going to be heard and whose are not”, a reference to the neglect of southern Yemeni civil society. “When you are able to get your voice heard,” she added, “you are more likely to get funding.”

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