‘Men tested and failed; Time for women to shine,’ - fmr. Yemeni minister

"My goal is to change the mindset of Yemenis and those involved in Yemen to consider women as leaders and give them their rightful place."

Nadia Al-Sakkaf and The Media Line's Felice Friedson run a journalism workshop in the offices of The Yemen Times in 2011. (photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
Nadia Al-Sakkaf and The Media Line's Felice Friedson run a journalism workshop in the offices of The Yemen Times in 2011.
(photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
Nadia Al-Sakkaf has already gone where many would not dare to go. Born and raised in Yemen, Al-Sakkaf was editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times and later served as minister of information in the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Recently, she completed her Ph.D. in politics, researching gender in Yemen.

The Media Line: Welcome, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, to Facing the Middle East and it’s a privilege to have you join me today.

Al-Sakkaf: Thank you. It’s my honor to be here.
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TML: It’s not often that I get an opportunity to speak to an expert on gender studies, let alone dealing with Yemen. Looking at the country where you were born, describe the disparity between those that have and those that don’t.

Al-Sakkaf: The gender gap in Yemen is huge. Yemen is the last, according to the World Economic Forum, in terms of the gender gap between men and women. Since 2006, we were reported as the worst place in the world to be a woman. That being said, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any amazing pioneer women, although the majority of Yemeni women do not have control over their bodies, their future, their education. So many women are now becoming pioneers and leading.

TML: There is a huge population in Yemen – 30 million people living there – and yet… Can you try to illustrate the numbers of women that are in higher education that actually could be viewed as the leaders of tomorrow?

Al-Sakkaf: The statistics are very sad. One in two women over the age of 15 cannot read or write. Imagine what it’s like for women in university or in the workforce. Less than 20% of women are in the workforce. In fact, most of them are in agriculture as unpaid employees or unpaid workers. Women in health care, every day nine women die because of unattended pregnancy and delivery complications. Women do not have [proper] access to water and sanitation. Women are not there in the politics as much. Although there are a few women in the limelight, they are not representative of the greater women’s group.

TML: Yemen is in turmoil in the midst of a civil war, and looking back when you were on the streets of Sanaa and elsewhere, handing out pamphlets to get women and men to vote, do you feel that the country can emerge and actually come back to that point where young people will be able to vote and actually educate each other?

Al-Sakkaf: It seems like a long, long time ago. There is an armed conflict ongoing. There is instability. There is turmoil all over. It’s not just the political and security. The economic situation is very difficult. The social texture is being torn apart. So, it’s not just about elections. That seems like a luxury now. Now people want to survive. They just want to be alive. 

Imagine that you don’t know if you go out of your house whether you will be coming back or not. Imagine when you send your children to school where they get a very pathetic education, whether they will come back or not. Imagine if you have an emergency health care situation and you need service and you cannot afford it. Now with the COVID – it’s rampant – there aren’t any health facilities, there aren’t any professionals in the medical sector. Even vaccines are not allowed to enter the country. So many places where the Houthis are controlling, they are not allowing vaccines to be distributed.

It’s very far from the time when we were talking about democracy and politics and the future. Now, it’s just about survival.

TML: You just obtained a Ph.D. in gender studies, and Yemen, as I said earlier, is a great classroom. What do you feel that you can bring to Yemen that doesn’t exist today?

Al-Sakkaf: My goal is to change the mindset of Yemenis and those involved in Yemen to consider women as leaders and give them their rightful place. And I do believe the future is female. I do believe this is the time for us, because men in Yemen have been tested, and failed.

TML: Right, right!

Al-Sakkaf: So, there is no way around it, just how do we organize ourselves as the women’s movement? And how do we present ourselves? And we need that sort of support, like somebody very influential to [come] and say let’s now push for more women. Having women in Lebanon as defense, in finance, [in the] interior, is actually something to look forward to, because of our cabinet being all male in December. That was a shock. We’ll have to fight back.

TML: Well, it’s more about your hopes, I think too. It’s both.

Al-Sakkaf: I think, as I said earlier, this is the time for women to shine, or this is the decade for women in power. Men have already been tested and failed, unfortunately, without giving the rightful place for women. We are going to miss out. I truly believe that women can bring change and that they can bring their society together for a better future. The last cabinet that we had, in December, was all men, and that was a huge disappointment. It has not happened before in the last 20 years. We created a campaign against this. The women’s movement came together. I think that this might be the opportunity to fight back because we have reached rock bottom. And the only way from here has to be up.

TML: Well, let’s talk right here about you. A very resilient woman who had to work her way up, and an interesting story, because it was not easy. Your father was killed by President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh for human rights issues. Your brother took over the paper, and subsequently, you were at the helm. Looking back, did that make you stronger? And how hard was that?

Al-Sakkaf: Every experience and challenge in your life makes you stronger. You have to build on it, and I relate this to like a journey in life, and then you’re walking through this journey and you’re building up like patches on your skin – scars on the battles. It just makes you a different person, but you can show. You can say, this I got when I was discriminated against. This I got when I was fighting for human rights, and so on. It makes you who you are, but it makes you colorful. It makes you inclusive. It makes you empathetic. It definitely makes you stronger.

For me, today as we speak, I am sentenced to death by the Houthis in absentia, so I cannot even go home to my own country, but still, it doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t say, OK, Nadia, just give up and go live a normal life. No, I have to do something, because otherwise, what’s the point?

TML: I remember standing in Yemen with you in your office. We were with the rabbi from Sanaa, and since then many of the Jews, almost all now, are out of Yemen. The Houthis insisted that they leave Yemen, the last few. So much has changed looking back at the history, the rich history, of Yemen. What, in looking back at that moment when we were talking to the rabbi, and he, too, knew that many Jews were leaving, but he wanted to stay. What went through your mind at that moment?

Al-Sakkaf: Well, we were losing our diversity. We were losing our richness as a country, and it’s not just religious freedoms and attacking on minorities. It’s also within the Muslim faith, within the Muslim groups. Now there’s Shia and Sunni, and even within Shia there are special sects that have elitist powers. It’s actually all about power. How do you dominate others and use the pretext of religion [to do it]. Unfortunately, our heritage, our rich culture, has been chipped at, one piece after the other, and I cannot say now that we are the rich country that we used to be culture-wise. We used to be very, very homogeneous and we used to be inclusive. You had people from different colors of skin, and different religion, and different backgrounds, and they would live together. Now it’s so so hard just to be different.

TML: You mentioned [that] you were marked by the Houthis. How did you flee?

Al-Sakkaf: I had to flee with the support of the United Nations. I fled under disguise. I took my two young children and waited for hours to be allowed to enter the chartered plane by the United Nations. I was disguised as one of their staff or employees, and they helped me get into the plane. Somebody within the security, of the Houthis, was very helpful. He was God-sent. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. He said, “Leave it to me. I know who you are, and it’s good that it was me that found out. Let me help you.” And me and my two young children – I had my daughter, she was 8, my son who was 2 years old. My husband was away, and I wasn’t able to reach him because of the blockade, so I didn’t even know if I was ever going to be reunited with my husband.
And this man took my passport and he said, “You’re the minister. I know. Just leave it with me.” And we were the last to enter that plane. But then, while we were heading toward that chartered plane with the other staff members of the UN, somebody among the Houthis recognized me and then he reported me. That person who helped me then told me to run, and I literally ran to the plane, and because of the chain of command, that was slow at the time, by the time the instructions came to arrest me, I was on the plane and the plane was in the air. So, I think it was a matter of minutes. And then we went to Khartoum, [Sudan], and then we went to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, and from there I took another flight to Cairo, [Egypt]. I met my husband there, and from there we went to Jordan, and we stayed a few months. And the rest of the story is just being in exile.

TML: The new American administration has taken the Houthis off of the terrorist list, but there doesn’t seem to be a stopping, a cessation, of violence. Do you think that the Americans are doing the right thing?

Al-Sakkaf: I think the Americans are doing the right thing for America. I don’t think they are doing the right thing for Yemen, because you need to be consistent on how you define terrorism and what a terrorist is. It cannot be according to your whims or what serves you. But eventually, we as Yemenis have to come together and stop this war no matter how many envoys or how many diplomats try to intervene, if the Yemenis do not decide to drop their weapons and talk to each other, nobody else can help them. So, I understand the politics, the external foreign affair politics of the United States. I don’t think they suit us at this point, because we are suffering, and it’s not about humanitarian [aid], because humanitarian aid doesn’t reach Yemen anyway, even if it reaches the borders.

There is more to it. I think Iran is playing a role in it. There is the regional politics. We are just pawns in this larger story. I don’t think the Americans are seeing it correctly, but eventually, it’s up to us as Yemenis.

TML: Journalism is in trouble. There are cries everywhere for people who are in journalism, to understand, [and] who really care about journalism done properly. And you, as an editor of The Yemen Times, looking now at where we are, what would you say?

Al-Sakkaf: The line between journalism and activism has blurred so much since the Arab Spring in my region, and this is because so many activists took to social media platforms and created their own websites, and influenced the way traditional media is working to the extent that professionalism, neutral, unbiased reporting has become almost a myth. And now, every political party has its own political instruments in the media, and there are journalists who understand that if they write a certain way, they can get published. And also, there are activists who indirectly affect the nationalism of this industry, because they are passionate about their cause.

Sometimes risking the lives of innocent victims, taking photos of children, reporting on things without checking sources, so it’s a mess. And there is also the lack of interest. We have a very short concentration span now, so people do not want to read the proper journalistic report. They want a Twitter feed [that] they can read in three sentences. They want a quick video, not even more than 30 seconds. So, it’s kind of like chasing updates, without really understanding what’s really going on. And this is a problem.

TML: Well, it certainly is, and I sure hope that there are solutions to this problem that you and I both feel very strongly, I believe, about. Nadia, [with regard to] Yemen, nobody knows where it is going to end. What are your final hopes in terms of Yemen and its people? Your desire to see your homeland again.

Al-Sakkaf: I still believe that there is hope. I think that hope comes in the hands of men and women, especially younger ones, who have not given up. I think the future is female. I think that leadership in the hands of women is going to make a difference. I believe that the diaspora will play a very strong role in building Yemen again, and I think we have to learn from our history and the mistakes that are happening all around us and in other regions. Because if we don’t learn from our past, we cannot build our future.

TML: You said that this is the year of the woman. And, for us at The Media Line, women are always talked about for years in highlighting great women like yourself. For the audience at large, because it’s becoming a momentum, and you see people starting podcasts and it’s all about women today, what would you say?

Al-Sakkaf: I would say that this is the decade for women in power. I would say that this is our opportunity, and notwithstanding the differences we have, in cultures, in communities and perspectives, together as a global movement, women can help the world be better. And we do it with our supportive men. It’s not us against them. We need to have friends and family and male colleagues who are also supportive. They are our rocks, but it is our time to shine.
TML: On that note, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, thank you for joining me on Facing the Middle East.