It’s a Sunday afternoon in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Outside on the streets, tens of thousands are defying the government with calls for the president’s ouster and are met by gunfire, beatings and arrests. Inside classroom 41A on the campus of a private institute of higher education the atmosphere is quiet and studious. But it’s no less controversial in this traditional and deeply religious society.
The students are studying human rights. The course is the only one offered in Yemen and the issue is so divisive that the university has asked that its name not be mentioned. Today’s lesson is about non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Mogib Hassan, a teacher and human rights advocate, explains why they are important.
“You need them in order to pressure the government to accord human rights to the people,” he says.
“Locally you have to work diplomatically with as many parties as possible, the opposition, educated people, even the ruling party.” Internationally, he says, it is important to be associated with international NGOs like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW). “You can put more pressure on the government, and also find funding.”
Historically a serial violator of human rights, Yemen has come under increasing criticism as President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracks down on anti-government protests. HRW said in an April 4 report that security forces have “shown a reckless disregard for protesters' lives, shooting and killing them with impunity during largely peaceful rallies.” Freedom House dropped its rating for Yemen from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2010 report.
That may be about to change. Saleh and the opposition have agreed to a transfer of power that will bring an end to the leader’s 33-year rule. Although the two sides are still arguing over terms, the plan calls for Saleh to step down in the next 30 days and for a presidential election to be held 60 days after that.
Inside the classroom, however, Hassan encounters skepticism about human rights and its advocates.
Rihab, a student who asked that her last name not be published, shakes her head in disbelief. “Where are all these NGOs nowadays?” she asks. “Every day there are more people killed. Look at Libya. I don’t get the impression that these NGOs can do much to prevent that.”
Hassan defends them: “Mind you, NGOs aren’t political decision makers, they just try to influence them,” he says. “They pass on a lot of information to their international counterparts. They are very busy. They hardly sleep.”
The discussion heats up. Some students believe that NGOs won’t work in the Arab world because regimes are too repressive to allow independent institutions. Hassan answers back, “The fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean you should not try, does it?”
HRW, like Amnesty International, is especially concerned with the conflict in Yemen’s north, the treatment of separatists in the south, extrajudicial counter terrorism measures, women’s rights and freedom of speech and press. Arbitrary arrests, lethal force against demonstrators, obstruction to humanitarian assistance, arrests and expulsion of journalists, the lack of criminalization of domestic violence and marital rape are just some examples these organizations give.
Despite all this, Yemen is relatively open by the standards of the Arabian Peninsula. Sheila Carapico writes in her book Civil Society in Yemen that foreign and local researchers and human rights investigators are given “greater latitude than in most countries of the region and Yemenis are remarkably candid in conversation.”
This certainly is true in classroom 41A. Nobody seems restrained from expressing an opinion. But then, NGOs are a relatively uncontroversial subject. What about subjects like women rights or freedom of religion? Can Hassan talk about them without restrictions?
“These subjects are very controversial because they come down to a clash between Islam and the International Declaration of Human Rights,” Hassan says in an interview with The Media Line in a café outside the university. “I’m talking about things like the right to have four wives, or the rule that a woman only inherits half of what a man does. These topics cause many debates and disagreement.”
And indeed they do. One week later, the students are back in classroom 41A and this time the subject is women’s rights.
Hassan starts by tackling the subject of polygamy. “This is allowed in Islam but only under strict conditions. For example, the man has to be able to give all his wives exactly the same emotional and financial attention. If you read these conditions well, it is impossible to have more than one wife.”
Female student Rokaia is agitated. “Why does the West have problems with four wives? If the conditions are met, it’s allowed. What’s wrong with that? Are you against it?” she asks the teacher.
He explains that the rules regarding polygamy date from a time when women couldn’t survive without men. Marrying a second wife was meant to help a woman who, for example, had become a widow.
Hassan, who lived in the Netherlands and Britain for years, is used to these reactions. “I’m introducing human rights from a global point of view. They are very sensitive about this. They feel I’m too Western. They feel that it is threatening their identity. There are even discussions if I use English terms.”
“I try to explain to them that the Quran and the sunnah are imposed on us, that they are a way of oppressing people in the name of religion,” he says referring to Islam’s holy book and the corpus of rules and practices ascribed to the prophet Muhammad. “I try to teach them not to look at everything from a religious point of view.” In his experience, it’s a challenge. “They are conditioned to think in certain ways and to distrust other ways.”
This is evidenced when Hassan asks the class on what they believe the constitution should be based. There seems little doubt as to the answer of that question. “On the Quran and sunnah,” his students answer in unison.
“All right,” Hassan says. “But then the law must see to the correct application of these sources. The problem is that the law doesn’t. Or when it does, tradition prevents women from getting their rights. Going to court is considered ayb (shameful). So, in fact, women aren’t protected against men who misinterpret or even abuse these religious rules. This is why the outside world has a negative impression about Islam.”
Rokaia is still not convinced and employs former US President George W. Bush to make her point. “All wars in the Middle East are about religion. George Bush entered Iraq in the name of Christianity.” It isn’t clear why the crusader argument has come up in the discussion, but Hassan is used to dealing with it. “We think in a very emotional way. We aren’t able to open up to other cultures.”
He turns to the example of arranged marriages. “We don’t have to be open
like the Netherlands, but can you really live with someone you don’t
like?” he asks the class.
“Yes,” the male students cry out. The female students laugh. “That’s
easy for you to say, you can hang out with your male friends all day, do
whatever you like,” one the women shouts. Omar, one of the male
students, doesn’t see the point. “Why should a woman have her own
personal life?” Omar asks.
Despite reactions like Omar’s, Hassan is optimistic. “They aren’t all
like that. Slowly, slowly most of them start seeing the unfairness of
these things. It’s nice to see this process. It takes time but it
usually works. In my previous group, some students are now even starting
their own NGO”.
This class isn’t there yet. They are only in the beginning of the
course. Some students complain that teacher isn’t objective, that he is
trying to convince them of his ideas. “The instructor should be
objective, he should not try to brainwash us,” one says.
How does Hassan feel about this accusation of not being objective? He
takes a sip of his cappuccino, thinks for a bit and then says: “To be
honest I’m not that objective because I believe that part of my job is
to convince them that something is seriously wrong with our society.”