Who’s Afraid of Gender in Yemen?

Media development expert Dr. Aida Al-Kaisy explores Yemen’s gendered practice of journalism – a context riddled with conflict and security risks for journalists.

‘Who is afraid of Gender?’ is the title of acclaimed feminist philosopher, Judith Butler’s new book published in March 2024. In it, they lay bare the global war on gender and the anti-gender movement which are being used by political actors around the world to at the same time subjugate and panic populations. Although Butler focuses mainly on Western contexts, it is clear from their writing and analysis that the powerful around the world are indeed afraid of gender. Control of narratives and forms of soft power are utilised as a means of dominating and negating women’s, LGBTQ+ and human rights in general.

In Yemen, a country which continues to reel from the effects of long-term conflict, social norms are conservative and patriarchal. As a result, legal and constitutional frameworks appear to have been established by men who are clearly afraid of gender. The Personal Status Law of 1992 gives men guardianship rights over women, known as wilaya, whether it be father, brother and then husband. The man is the head of the household legally, must be obeyed by his wife and be allowed full access to her, including sexual, at any time. Although women were active in the protests and policy reform following the overthrow of the longstanding regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, the subsequent war and events which have taken place since 2014 have further entrenched negative patterns of behaviour towards women at all levels of society, including politics and the media. Incidents of GBV – gender-based violence – are on the rise and there is evidence that even those men who speak out against gender issues are also at risk of GBV in Yemen. The state is failing with no legislative processes to protect or govern ordinary citizens and women in particular. The current government has no women in senior positions and women are largely absent from the peace-building process. Women are only allowed to travel in the company of a mahram – a male person escorting – in many areas under the authority of Ansar Allah.

These issues are all present in the media scene in Yemen which is showing limited possibility to address inequality or indeed shape social attitudes. The mainstream media landscape is fragmented, polarised and highly partisan, reflecting these attitudes through its treatment of women in the media, both organisationally and representationally in content. Physical safety of women continues to be undermined by conflict – shelling, snipers, airstrikes, landmines but also increased harassment, threats, abduction, and sexual assault – are becoming predominant weapons used by security forces against women in the media. Harassment of women through online and social media platforms is pervasive and echoes the increasing prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) as a tactic of war and in the absence of fair and transparent justice mechanisms. 

Patriarchal and conservative attitudes are deeply engrained both structurally and socially and there is a lack of political will to address systemic issues or challenge social norms. In September 2023, Sanaa University’s Faculty of Mass Communication implemented a gender segregation policy which meant students were obliged to study separately for three days a week. When the Dean of the Department of Journalism, Dr Samia Al Aghbari, was openly critical of gender separation policies she was discharged leaving the faculty with no female members on its council. Restrictions on women’s ability to travel particularly in the Houthi controlled areas limits their possibilities for employment. Many media organisations are admittedly less likely to work with women journalists because dealing with the restrictions around travel becomes cumbersome and bureaucratic. Even in cities such as Taiz and Aden where conditions are said to be more forgiving for women and the media, field reporting is still difficult for women. Women are less likely to be seen in senior management positions in the media due to a range of factors which include gender pay gap, limited opportunities for promotion and unrepresentative recruitment and retention policies for women. Social expectations that women should take dominant roles in the household are also hindering women’s access to employment in the media profession.

Women rarely included in reporting as experts

As a result of structural barriers, representation of women in the Yemeni media continues to be problematic. Women are depicted as mothers, housewives or victims and are rarely seen as experts or professionals unless as doctors or teachers. Women are rarely included in political or economic reporting and the media’s representation of violence, and in particular GBV and sexual violence provides little accountability for aggressors nor any ethical considerations around protecting identities of victims, women, or children.

With the current crisis in the Red Sea and wider regional issues continuing to escalate, it is difficult to see how work to address patriarchal and exclusionary social attitudes and norms can prevail without simultaneous work to address conflict and peace. In their book, Butler calls for coalition building amongst those that are fighting for equality and justice. Indeed, Yemen has had a number of demonstrable successes of networks and coalitions such as the Women’s Solidarity Movement (WSM) and others which might be replicated for women in the media space as well as civil society. Strengthening resilience can include resilience against violence and conflict, patriarchal customs and social norms, or even financial resilience and sustainability. Without the involvement of women and women-led organisations in the struggle, we will indeed remain living in societies which continue to be afraid of gender.

IMS invited media development consultant and researcher Dr. Aida Al-Kaisy to explore factors, challenges and opportunities relating to the gendered practice of journalism in Yemen. In a context riddled with conflict and security risks for journalists, the gender analysis of the media sector in Yemen examines the role that the media can play in promoting the role of women in Yemen’s future, and generates recommendations to bolster safer, equitable, more gender-inclusive and sensitive reporting and media programmes.

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About the author: Dr. Aida Al Kaisy is a media development consultant and academic researcher who has worked extensively on media and human rights projects across the MENA region. She is currently working on projects which focus on issues related to the development of independent media, media and journalism in conflict and in countries where freedom of expression is challenged. She teaches at SOAS and is a keen promoter of ethical values in journalistic practice and media governance. Aida is a co-founder of the Iraqi independent media platform, Jummar.