Amidst bombings and shortages in fuel, food and vital supplies, a group of Yemeni women came together for an unconventional demonstration against the war—and the lack of women’s rights.
Bushra Al Fusail was the brains behind the #BikeForYemen campaign organized through social media which called on women to ride their bikes through the war torn capital in order to protest against the ongoing conflict, the Saudi led coalition’s blockade of Yemeni port that is limiting entry of fuel and vital supplies into the country and patriarchal structures that have long marginalized Yemeni women and limited their rights.
“I’ve had the idea since 2011, when the first fuel crisis hit Yemen,” said a 28-year-old freelance photographer and women’s rights activist in Sanaa.
Women's rights progress halted and eroded
Before the conflict escalated in late March, women were on course to achieve minor but significant progress with a draft constitution including a number of pro-women rights articles included within it. With the continuation of the war, women’s rights are once again forgotten, with previous progress made being eroded.
“For women who had achieved some successes before the war—women who had jobs, who were self-sufficient—the main concern as the conflict escalated became survival for themselves and their families,” says Bushra. ”It is like returning to a bygone age, where meeting even your families’ basic needs is a daily challenge. We will not however give in and continue to find coping mechanisms!”
Despite the enthusiasm for the event on social media, only 14 women showed up on the day of the bike ride. Four knew how to ride a bike, the rest offered moral support.
Women riding bikes remains controversial
However, to demonstrate the women’s rights in the country, the photos of women on bikes caused a storm locally; with many previous supporters withdrawing their support, while many men and women posted angry comments on their social media page, blaming the organizers for destroying the social fabric of Yemeni culture. Some said that the participants were not true Muslims and they were importing western values into Yemen society. Others messaged the organizer, Bushra, personally to say she was not a ‘real’ woman—since a woman cannot ride a bicycle. A few people even said that women riding bicycles is far worse than the current war.
But Bushra remains defiant. “I know that Yemenis will slowly accept this. We want to spread this initiative to Taiz, Aden and other cities.”
But “first, the war has to stop.”
Two days after the interview, Bushra’s house in Sanaa was hit by a bomb. Thankfully, Bushra and her family are safe. This serves as a reminder of the severity and unpredictability of the current conflict in Yemen.
Oxfam has been working in Yemen for more than 30 years, working with government authorities, as well as local organizations, to improve the health care and livelihoods of thousands of people living in poverty.
A ceasefire is needed to get life-saving aid to families that need it. We must act now.