“Men Should Put This On For One Day”

This is a brave woman. Amal Basha, of Yemen. One of maybe 22 women in that country who does not wear the veil.

“I had to wear the full niqab when I was 8 years old,” she says of the face veil worn by women here. “I couldn’t breathe. I saw the world in dark colors. I fell down because I couldn’t see when I walked. Men should put this on for one day. They would change their thinking. They don’t know how horrible it is under sun, heat and sweat. It’s a kind of torture. I decided I wanted to see the beautiful colors of life—red, blue, green. Not black.”

Basha is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed; today she heads the Sisters’ Arab Forum For Human Rights, in the planet’s poorest Islamic nation. In the light of her mind she reaches back to Mohammed—”you know,” she says, “we’re all created from the same soul”—but in life she must contend with the darkness of a world dominated by the ossified barnacles that have attached themselves to her forebear . . . such as Yemeni cleric Shiek Abdul Majeed Zindani, who claims to possess “scientific proof that women cannot speak and remember simultaneously.”

“Yemen is the home of the Queen of Sheba,” Basha retorts. “How can you say women can’t govern? Yemen is a failed state today, and men have been the rulers.”

Basha’s work documenting torture in her country moved the United Nations to call for an official investigation. She strives to legislatively end the practice of marrying off Yemeni “women” as young as eight years old. She seeks to help Yemeni women who are victims of domestic violence, of sexual harassment, of illiteracy, of caste prejudice. She advocates for prisoners and refugees.

For her pains, Basha has been threatened with death, had the brakes cut on her car, had acid hurled at her face. She has been branded by her countrymen as “un-Islamic,” a “Zionist,” an “agent of the West,” a “temptress of Eve.” Her accusers forgetting that it was Adam who received the injunction against plucking the forbidden fruit. Not Eve. Eve was innocent.

Maybe you’re thinking: “What is a ‘Yemen’? And why should I care?”

Because it’s a butterfly world, where all rolls into one.

Reflect that the current outrage du jour—the full-body scans and rubber-gloved “pat-downs” at US airports—directly flows from the Christmas 2009 misadventures of sadsack Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the would-be “underwear bomber” who trained in a Badness Camp in Yemen, where he was instructed to bring down a civilian airliner with explosives stashed in his drawers.

As I’ve mentioned here previously, twice, Mutallab’s aborted attempt to set his airborne pants on fire first prompted the Obama administration to cave to ululating bedwetters in Congress and the media, and delay repatriation of some 59 War on Terra prisoners to Yemen. And has now resulted in a decision to transform the nation’s air terminals into grotesque peep-show booths, where government employees spend their days snapping and viewing nekkid pictures, and/or roaming through people’s underwear.

Too, earlier this month the Los Angeles Times reported that the Obama administration is considering expanding into Yemen its disastrous drone show. The unmanned craft are already overflying the country, but have thus far been used solely for surveillance. But after Bad People in Yemen attempted in October to place explosives on cargo jets bound for the US, pressure within the administration to Do Something has apparently resulted in a great draining of wisdom from many brains: since the drone show in Pakistan extinguishes the lives of 98 innocents for every 2 jihadis killed, naturally you’d want to start firing missiles from the things into Yemen, too, so that friends and families of the victims in that country will also, like those in Pakistan, come to hate the United States with every fiber of their beings . . . and resolve to do something about it.

Like most all of the nations of the Third World, Yemen is an artificial colonial construct. It is situated south of Saudi Arabia, between that nation and the Arabian Sea; Oman lies to the east. In the very Olden Days, Ethiopians, Persians, and Jews ran around the place, but it’s been Muslim since the 7th Century.

Officials of the British Empire—did you think it would be anybody else?—more or less delineated the current borders in the early 20th Century, in between sips of claret and bouts of gout. During the Cold War the nation was split into South and North, and each took terms being Communist and “Free.” The two were united again in 1990.

The place is visited by many Curses: to the north is the Arabian desert, where no one can live, to the south are malarial marshes. Back when Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church, the place was muddy flatlands: dinosaur tracks are found there.

Some 65% of the population is today unemployed. Unlike its rich, fat neighbor to the north, Yemen can boast little oil. There has been an on-again, off-again civil war since 1994. The World Bank and the IMF are trying to “help,” but, as ever, this mostly means “helping” Yemen to become more enchained to Western nations and Western monies. The government is unable to extend its reach across the entire country, and thus Yemen has become home to fun-damentalist Islamic cults like Al Qaeda, which is also active across the straits in Somalia, a nation with which Yemen for many centuries has had close ties.

Though many people in Yemen struggle each day to find enough to eat, it is estimated that there are some 60 million guns in the country, or more than two for every Yemeni citizen, from infants in the cradle to old folks on the lip of the grave. In Yemen there are six hospital beds for every 10,000 people. Life expectancy is age 63; for women, it is considerably less. Most of the children who die in this country die from illnesses for which vaccines are available, or which are otherwise preventable. Parliament, by law, is supposed to be composed of 15% women; of the 301 seats in Parliament, one is currently occupied by a woman.

Amal Basha’s resume is here. Quite impressive—for any woman, any person, anywhere. Her Facebook page is here. A contact page for Sisters’ Arabic Forum For Human Rights is here.

The “shadow report” that Basha and her sisters submitted to the United Nations documenting torture in the state of Yemen may be accessed from this page. The “shadow report” they filed outlining Yemen’s woeful failure to comply with the Convention on Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women can be read here.

These documents are worth reading. They are pinpricks of light emerging from a sea of darkness.

Here can be viewed a video prepared by the Sisters’ Arabic Forum on the plight of Akhdam women in Yemen. Akhdam, singular “Khadem,” translates from the Arabic as “servant”: this is a group of Yemeni people distinguished by their darker skin and African descent, which renders them “low-caste,” and thus frequent and routine victims of discrimination, violence, sexual assault, and other abuse.

Below is embedded a brief video of Basha succinctly explaining life in Yemen:

In April of this year Basha and the Sisters’ Arab Forum publicized the cases of two Yemeni child brides who were severely sexually assaulted by their much older husbands. An 11-year-old was hospitalized; a 13-year-old died.

The 11-year-old was married when she was 10, under the condition that her husband would wait until she reached puberty before he consummated the marriage. But he did not wait.

The 13-year-old was repeatedly raped by her husband, a man the authorities determined was “under pressure to prove his manhood.”

“She looked like she was butchered,” said the slain girl’s mother.

Basha’s group estimates that eight women a day die in Yemen due to child marriage. Many perish while giving birth. Yemen has a maternal death rate of 430 women per 100,000 births—more than 20 times that of its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. According to UNICEF, most of the deaths are due to early pregnancies.

It is estimated that 50 percent of the women in Yemen are married off before the age of 18. Some are shoved into matrimony at the age of 8. The efforts of women like Basha to put a stop to the practice are fiercely resisted by (male) clerics who hallucinate that the practice is divinely ordained. “They say my campaign is a Western agenda, that it will lead to sex out of wedlock and prostitution,” Basha says.

Amal Basha herself was betrothed at age 8, and wed at age 16.

“The day after my marriage, I went to school to play soccer,” she says. “I did not feel I was a woman. It was not time to play the wife. I didn’t feel that I was this mother to come. When I was 17, I had a baby and I divorced my husband. I couldn’t stand being a wife. I thought of how it would hurt my education. My mother raised my new son. That’s how it is in an extended family.”

Basha attended the American University in Cairo, and returned to Yemen labeled “a troublemaker,” an “agent of the West,” and various assorted other slurs that prevented her from pursuing the career of her choice: joining the Foreign Ministry as a diplomat.

Her second husband was an Arab nationalist, who died of a heart attack in 1998. Her political enemies denounced her as a Zionist who had poisoned him. She later married a lawyer, and today, at age 48, she devotes a good part of her time to traveling to international conferences.

Basha attended a two-day conference in Cairo in December of last year, the first ever regional meeting to address sexual harassment of women in the Arab world. The attendees concluded that such harassment goes unchecked “because laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it, and the authorities ignore it.” In her own country, related Basha, some 90 percent of women report some form of sexual harassment.

“The religious leaders are always blaming the women, making them live in a constant state of fear because out there, someone is following them,” she said.

At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace confab in Washington DC in June of 2010, Basha urged the US government to be more transparent in its dealings with human-rights activists such as herself.

American officials meeting with individuals, or small groups, in secret, at the US Embassy—this, Basha says, is not enough. “We don’t want these secret meetings,” she says, “because we don’t have any secrets.”

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