During her first visit back to Yemen in 11 years, Afrah Nasser would wake up thinking “Damn, I’m a woman.”
A Yemeni human rights activist and writer who claimed political asylum in Sweden in 2011, Afrah is accustomed to freedom of movement. Here, in her native country in 2022, she faced mahram rules that forbid women’s movement without the presence or written permission of a male guardian.
“My concern about going to Yemen was that I didn’t know if my name was on a blacklist, but I realized on the ground there that my biggest problem was that I was a woman and a woman without a man, a woman without a guardian,” she said in an interview.
It was her first trip to witness the situation in Yemen firsthand since making the difficult decision to claim political asylum in Sweden in mid-2011 during the civilian uprising against the 30-year authoritarian rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“I didn’t choose Sweden, it was just an accident,” she said. “I was there at a workshop during the period when the peaceful revolution started to take a different turn.” A guerrilla warfare began in the streets of her hometown, Sana’a. The airport got shut down.
As a journalist and blogger in Yemen who exposed human rights abuse and criticized the regime, Afrah had stood up to hate messages and death threats. Could she remain defiant? “My family told me you can come back but you will not write again because it’s dangerous. So, I had to make the hard decision. I couldn’t imagine life without writing.”
Since then, staying connected from abroad with an extensive network of contacts, Afrah has chronicled arbitrary detention, torture, and other human rights abuses; the steady marginalization of women; and Yemen’s descent into poverty amid civil war.
“The majority of the country is just barely surviving economic hardship,” she said. “A young Yemeni woman today has the responsibility of putting food on the table. Women are the hungriest because they prioritize the men and their children. It’s a dire humanitarian situation.”
Conflict began in March 2015 between the internationally recognized government, backed by a Saudi and UAE-led military coalition, and the Houthi movement supported by Iran. A truce in 2022 lasted only six months.
An independent writer and commentator who worked as a researcher at Human Rights Watch, Afrah has been honoured frequently with awards for her journalism and activism. “I’m thankful for the blessing of passion,” she said.
Amid accolades, she remains acutely aware of her position in a privileged elite. “I feel a huge responsibility because what I’m doing is nothing to what a lot of Yemeni women are doing inside the country.”
She said persecution of “the forgotten women of Yemen” is a function of militarism and toxic patriarchy, with the worst treatment in areas controlled by armed Houthi groups.
During the war, child marriage has increased, as has violence against women. Detainees are held without charge and face torture in Houthi prisons. “Women in Yemen are not cutting their hair on camera,” she said, referring to the Iranian women’s revolution. “They are suffering in silence.”
“If I would have one message in this interview, it’s that I think there is a big moral responsibility for European and American diplomats meeting Yemeni officials,” she said. “They must ask ‘Where are the women in this room?’ ‘Why in this delegation is there no woman?’ They have a responsibility if they are truly pro-women’s rights, to confront Yemeni officials with those questions and pressure them to include half of the society.”
She recently put the spotlight on severe failures in humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, long the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa . “People are hungry, but they don’t even know where to register for aid that was given by the UN,” she said. “And God knows how much has gone in corruption cases.”
Among her proposals is a call for international condemnation of the Houthi restrictions on women, including female humanitarian aid workers (both Yemenis and foreigners), whom the Houthis force to have a male guardian when traveling for work inside Yemen.
Afrah posts her analyses for think tanks and publications on her blog which has been viewed more than a million times. The blog is illustrated by an Associated Press photo at Change Square in Sana’a where peaceful protesters gathered each morning near her university. “It represents the birth of my political work.”
She keeps a photo on her desk of her mentor, the pioneering Yemeni women’s rights advocate and journalist Raufa Hassan. “One time I told her ‘I want to be like you.’ And she said ‘I’m taken. Just be yourself.’ I always keep it in mind.”
That conversation is echoed in her advice for other activists. “Believe in yourself. Say and do things as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Believe that you are worth listening to. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. Don’t wait for recognition. Have confidence in the significance of what you do.’
Afrah Nasser is a passionate advocate for the people of Yemen. She is an award-winning journalist, researcher and human rights activist who lives between Sweden and Yemen.
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ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.