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Is Women's Rights a “Mini Subject"? the Case of Women in Yemen

9 April 2013

Before watching a film and writing about it, I like searching the web to get an idea of it. The screening of The Scream about Yemeni female demonstrators, as part of the Festival de Films de Femmes in Geneva, was no exception: I made some research, got really excited about what looked like an extraordinary documentary, went to de film festival… and got puzzled! The venue was small, the festival was small, the audience was small.

The seeming lack of interest about the screening surprised me a lot, considering the good quality of the documentary by the first Yemeni female filmmaker, Khadidja Al Salami, and the passion and commitment of the festival organisers.

What a pity only few dozens people attended the screening: the film is an excellent portrait of women’s rights and participation in the Arab uprisings.

Is women’s empowerment a “mini subject”?

It seemed that the entire Festival de Films de Femmes passed almost unnoticed, at least, compared to the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights that WILPF recently attended. Again, what a pity, for the festival was an excellent occasion to watch clever films and to learn more about women’s status worldwide.

“A mini festival on women. A mini subject?” provocatively asked Swiss reporter, writer and festival organiser Ms. Deonna in the introduction to the film. Of course not. And her exceptional life, as well as the life of the incredible women interviewed in the documentary, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman, is evidence to the opposite. But the almost entirely female audience attending the screening demonstrated that still much needs to be done to give women’s rights the visibility they deserve and to make them a top priority.

A double fight against the regime and the entire society

YouTube video

Much has been said about the Arab uprisings, but what about women’s participation? The Scream is particularly interesting not only because it deals with one of the less known (and spoken about) Arab revolutions, but also because it focuses on Yemeni women’s double fight against “the government but also against all of Yemeni society, including their husbands and fathers.”

Director Khadidja Al Salami walked among protesters camped in Change Square in Sanaa armed with her camera to capture ordinary people’s feelings on women’s role in the fight for “equal rights”. But, are we talking here about men or women’s “equal rights”?

A blurry interpretation of “equal rights”

Most male interviewees seemed to agree on the importance of equal rights as an abstract concept, but when asked about practical examples, their convictions begun to waver. A middle-aged man explained that to him equal rights mean 80% men in the Government and 20% women. That is quite symptomatic of the oppression of women by men in Yemen due to religious, tribal and traditional factors.

The director was positively surprised by the fact that during the demonstrations men and women had the opportunity to pray together, especially in a society that tends to “hide” women behind anonymity (women are not allowed to tell their name) and a full face niqab. But the film also denounces the psychological and physical violence suffered by some women participating in the protests alongside men.

The Scream shows that some female demonstrators were beaten and harassed by so-called revolutionaries and asks the important question: “how can a man be rebelling against a regime while oppressing his (female) partner?”

A century-old story

Woman of Taiz
Woman of Taiz, Yemen Arab Republic, 1983. UN photo.

Khadidja Al Salami insists that Yemeni women suffer from centuries of “unconscious damages” due to subjugation and explores the causes of “man’s fear” of the power of women. She also provides a shocking data explaining the male-dominated society: as many as 70% of women are illiterate!

In such a society, where women do not enjoy the same freedoms as men, it is simply exceptional that some of them decided to rise up and make their voice heard. Or, at least, that’s what they tried to do. For when Khadidja Al Salami went back to Change Square, few months ago, she discovered that among thousands of man carrying on the protest, only a handful women where left in the sit-in camps and that a wall had been built to isolate them.

Giving voice to women from the MENA region

Despite the long struggle ahead for Yemeni women’s empowerment, The Scream offers a glimmer of hope for women from the MENA region, where WILPF is actively engaged with its MENA Agenda 1325 project.

The example of the tree brave women followed by Khadidja Al Salami during the uprising  (a human rights activist, a poet and a journalist) and of Tawakkul Karman, a committed woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her major role during the Yemeni Revolution, can be an inspiration for us all.

It is about time to give the right importance to the role of women from the MENA region who, as The Scream shows, “screamed out their suffering”, and it is about time to promote cultural events on women’s empowerment, like the Festival de Films de Femmes, throughout the world. If we do not do so, we are all losing out.

If you are interested in the status of women in the MENA region, then check out our brand new website and subscribe to our MENA newsletter.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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