Like many others, I have been following the tumultuous events in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf. As someone who has been to Yemen five times to work on campaign and advocacy training, I have been especially drawn to what is happening in that country. I was stunned last week when I read about President Salehs remarks admonishing women to stay off the streets and not protest, saying that their actions violated Yemeni cultural norms. It seemed a marked contrast with the President Saleh I met on my first trip to Yemen in 1997.
In 1996, I was the National Director of Womens Outreach for the Clinton/Gore reelection campaign. The campaign was obviously successful, in large part due to the gender gap that the Clinton/Gore ticket enjoyed with women voters. Shortly after that campaign was over, I was asked to go to Yemen by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Arab Democratic Institute (the latter being a Yemeni based organization) to work with all of the women running for parliament that year. As I recall there were a little over 30 women running, mostly independents, some members of the presidents party, the General Peoples Congress and some members of the Yemeni Socialist Party. (Islah, the third, and most conservative, major party, was at that time encouraging women to vote but not run for office.) The Yemeni Parliament has over 400 members and at the time had only two women members.
The Yemeni government supported this effort to work with women candidates. In fact, the government established a fund that all women candidates could use for campaign related activities mostly printing literature, posters and t-shirts, some with pictures of women fully veiled, next to their logo and slogan. My sense at the time was that President Saleh was interested in promoting a more progressive image of Yemen, as being a conservative place but also able to change with the times. I havent been back to Yemen recently, and I know its a complicated place with many competing cross-currents.
Women in Yemen are not only smart and talented, but deserve a system that gives them the ability to compete on a level playing field. When I met President Saleh, I thought supported that idea.His recent remarksseem to belie that view.