Amplifying the Forgotten Voices of Yemeni Women


This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Wameedh Shakir.

Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer.

Yemen is a tough place for anyone right now. It ranks last out of 167 countries on the women’s equality index that the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security publishes every other year. A civil war has been raging there for five years and more than a hundred thousand people have died. 

Wameedh Shakir They die either because of violence, because of air attack [sic]. They die because of diseases. They die because of lack of services.  

Melanne Verveer This is Wameedh Shakir. She is an activist and a writer. But she sees her most important role as a witness – a witness to how a conflict is affecting women. Wameedh spends her time documenting the lives and deaths of women in Yemen: how they survive, what they need, what they want their future to be. 

Both men and women have suffered immensely during the civil war, but Wameedh worries that the impact on women can be overlooked.  

Wameedh Shakir We care of [sic] injured people. We cry even, we do everything. But at the end of the day, we still don’t have any reward. 

Melanne Verveer For the most part, women are supposed to stay silent in Yemen. They are rarely heard or even seen. Women can’t leave their houses without their husbands’ permission. They’re not recognized as full people before the courts, and single women aren’t allowed to testify unless a man’s testimony backs them up. So, it’s not easy to document the lives of women in Yemen. But Wameedh continues to try.

Wameedh Shakir I collect voices of women, formulate their priorities, opinions, rights, and aspirations, dreams into reports. I defend for their visibility, for their participation, representation, by amplifying their voices. This is my main – my main mission in life.

Melanne Verveer The story you are about to hear from Wameedh reaches us thanks to the very brave work of a young female journalist in Yemen named Suad Ahmd. Being a journalist in Yemen is not an easy task. Kidnappings and attacks are common. Many journalists have paid with their lives for reporting out in the open. So I want to thank Suad, who has chosen a career path that really makes a difference in her home country. 

Here is Wameedh’s story, as told by Suad. 

[AUDIO RECORDING: WhatsApp message from a woman – in Arabic] 

Suad Ahmd You are hearing a woman from Aden, a city in the south of Yemen. Aden is the capital. And there are a lot of bombings and terrorist attack [sic]. It is dangerous for everyone, but especially for women. This woman says that her husband has been in the prison [sic], with no charges. For four years she has not seen him.

[AUDIO RECORDING: WhatsApp message from a woman – in Arabic] 

Suad Ahmd She says she wanted to know where her husband lives, but a security officer asked for sexual favors. She has been insulted and pushed. She says that she’s lucky, because the other wives and mothers of the prisoners have been beaten, and shot.

[AUDIO RECORDING: WhatsApp message from a woman – in Arabic] 

Suad Ahmd I shared this voice message with Wameedh Shakir, an activist here in Yemen who records these abuses. Wameed makes sure that the government and the rest of the world know what’s happening in Yemen, so they can do something about it. 

Wameedh Shakir  Every day we need new research, We have new problems. We have new findings to be assessed, to be to be measured.  

Suad Ahmd Wamedh is a researcher. This means that she’s interview [sic] women, many women, day after day. She keeps track of these women, their life, and their problems. She also records disappearances and death [sic]. 

With this, Wameedh maintains a database that she uses to write reports. Then, she sent these reports to the international bodies like the UN.

Wameedh Shakir Basically, I am a researcher. And I am a chairperson of the Itar foundation. We assess what peace and security means to young people, women and men. 

Suad Ahmd We may think that there is nothing extraordinary about counting women and their problems. That may be true somewhere else. But here in Yemen we don’t have a State to do it. We have two government locked in a civil war. Every day there are a bombings and terrorist attacks. And women cannot go alone to the street in the [sic] most of the country because of the social norms. Thanks to Wameedh, we know what is really happening to women here in Yemen.

Wameedh Shakir The current situation is very catastrophic for everybody in Yemen, especially women and children.  

[AUDIO RECORDING: Women speaking in Arabic at a meeting] 

Suad Ahmd When I met Wameedh, she was in the [sic] meeting with women activists who work in Yemen. They do the same type of research. She was encouraging them to keep up their work.

[AUDIO RECORDING: Women speaking in Arabic at a meeting] 

Suad Ahmd As Wameedh says, here in Yemen it’s difficult to find women doing research and other academic work. Women are often busy with their traditional role. They run their homes, they cook, they feed their children, they take care of their parents when they get old. And when they do work outside the home, they tend to go into healthcare, or education. 

Wameedh has built a reputation as one of the few writers in the local newspaper.

Wameedh Shakir I write about women’s contribution to intellectual life. To be a writer brings you more power, especially in newspapers, in media [sic]. You have a name as a writer. It builds your image powerfully and it facilitates your activism. I represent the needs and the interests of women to bring also gender-sensitive approaches to Arab styles of writing. 

Suad Ahmd Wameedh advocates for ambitious goal. She wants to build stable [sic] Yemen, free of corruption, with a functioning and gender-responsive government. When I asked for her résumé, the document she sent is [sic] 10 pages long, and it had 39 reports and policy papers with titles like “Internet and Women Movement in Yemen”. 

[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Yemeni women protesting in the streets of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2011 – chanting in Arabic]

Suad Ahmd This is from the first days of the Arab Spring in 2011, when young people, men and women, took to the streets in protest. The number of women who came out was surprising to many. Here, they are chanting: “We want to build civil state [sic] for all men and women”. Wameedh was also there.

Wameedh Shakir  I was a protester, like everyone else. Like every young man. Like every young woman. But my role exactly was to integrate women movement [sic]  into a national movement, and to make that woman movement taking [sic] the lead.

Suad Ahmd Wameedh was in the streets when the police attacked protestors. In response, she urged Watan, a women’s coalition in Yemen, to seek help from an unlikely ally.

Wameedh Shakir When the protest started by young men, by the students of Sana’a University, and they were beaten in the street in front of everybody, I suggested to write a letter to sheikhs [sic] of Yemen, all sheikhs of Yemen, calling them to intervene and to protect the traditions of Yemeni people which protect civilians, protect unarmed people, and protect women especially.

Suad Ahmd The sheiks represent one of the most traditional sectors of the Yemeni society: the tribes. And it was a surprise when the tribes agreed to help the protestors. 

Wameedh Shakir And that movement decided to partner with tribes. Normally women movements or civil movements, they feel tribe or tribal sectors as enemy [sic]. But in Yemen and during 2011, we found out that they are not enemy [sic], they have good assets that if we use as women we will be supported and successful. This is what I wrote in one of my reports, that even the protest took advantages [sic] of Yemeni culture.

Suad Ahmd After the regime fell, a National Dialogue Conference was formed. Women represented 27 percent of the total membership. There was a hope in the future. 

But then… the civil war started. 

[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Air strike in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2015]

Suad Ahmd All the advances [sic] in women’s rights were put on hold. For many in Yemen, life now is much worse than it was before the Arab Spring. More than a hundred thousand people have been killed, many of them men, leaving women as the only caretakers for their families. 

Wameedh Shakir And just imagine how a woman’s situation can be under this. Plus, we have the violence, hostile operations everywhere. And women who have their young people, their young son participating in the conflict in the war, being arrested, being killed, being injured. This is the situation of women. They are carrying only burden, carrying only suffering over their shoulders. Will women be protected better in the future? Be compensated? Be appreciated? Acknowledged? 

Suad Ahmd Right now, that future can be hard to imagine. But Wameedh knows that if the burden the women are carrying is not documented, there will be no record of their sacrifice. No memory of what they suffered. This is why she’s interviewing other women and writing reports about them.

[AUDIO RECORDING: Huda Taher introducing herself – Arabic] 

Suad Ahmd This is Huda Taher, another woman, a young activist. She tells me that Wameedh is a role model for women in Yemen. A beacon for what they can be, and what they can do with their lives. But being a beacon is dangerous in Yemen. Wameedh knows she is a target for some radical groups here. 

Wameedh Shakir I don’t go from my house a lot. My kids, they don’t go out a lot.  I have to take extra precaution to protect them. Of course we have to watch our expression over social media, over newspapers or writing, even verbal communication. We have to keep low profile, keeping independency, keeping [sic] good relations with different parties.  

Suad Ahmd Like most of the work women do here in Yemen, Wameedh tries to do hers quietly. But she is louder than most. She certainly does not hide her views. 

Wameedh Shakir No one in Yemen feels safe. I told you, it’s not security only – which means ending violence and to have security. It is to have good police and security forces and programs. It is human security.  Freedom of speech is not there. 

Suad Ahmd All this research that Wameedh does is like a record of everything that happens to women here in Yemen and it can be used by the future government and the international community to design specific policies. Because as Wameedh usually says, more important than research is turning that research into real change. 



Melanne Verveer The civil war continues to take a toll in Yemen and women like Wameedh and Suad are working tirelessly to support those in need.

This story was produced by Suad Ahmd in collaboration with UN Women.

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In our next episode, we’ll speak with 18-year-old Tamil Canadian actor Maitrey Ramakrishan. We’ll hear about her passion for diversity in media representation, and what it was like to play Devi in Mindy Kaling’s series Never Have I Ever. Maitrey is also the global ambassador for Plan International Canada, where she supports women and girls’ rights. 

Maitrey Ramakrishnan I became normalized to that fact that, I guess characters just don’t look like me often. Especially younger characters, you know, like young south asian characters that I could relate to. But after I finished filming Never Have I Ever, I was like: “This needs to change”. You know, I shouldn’t have to live in the shadows, I shouldn’t feel like I’m not being seen and neither should any minority, no matter your race, ethnicity, you know, sexuality… anything.  

Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace. 

The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and Adonde Media, in collaboration with UN Women and Our Secure Feature. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the interviewees and participants and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations.

I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.