Rachel Cooke


It is early morning in Al-Hudaydah, a small city in the northwest of Yemen, and Aminah, my translator, is going about the awkward business of eating breakfast. We have come to a restaurant, our hotel dining room being somewhat unappetising in appearance, and this means, for starters, that we've been put in a special room, segregated, away from the eyes of male diners.

In fact, it's more of a corridor, a place at the back of the restaurant, where oil cans are stored, and great piles of vegetables kept in the cool. There are no windows - the only light is provided by the door through which we entered - and not much space: our table takes up all of that. It is dark and dank, and it makes me feel as though we are being punished rather than entertained. Aminah, I can tell, is in two minds about her veil. Should she raise it, so she can eat? Or should she leave it down, in case of passing males, and push her bread, beans and spring onions awkwardly behind it? Sometimes, I have noticed, waiters count as males, and sometimes they don't; they become conveniently invisible. This place, though, is wide open to the street, so waiters are the least of her worries. Eventually, she decides: the veil goes up, and she eats. Only now she is sitting at an odd angle, so that her face is carefully cast in shadow, like that of a spy or a fugitive.

When I first met Aminah, four days ago, I was dismayed. In Yemen, few women go about unveiled. In fact, almost none. Even so, for some reason I was expecting her to be different: the fact that she spoke English, and had a job, encouraged me to believe that when I talked to her, I would be allowed to see her face, and thus to tell what she was thinking. So when I saw her, sitting in our hotel lobby, another inverted ghost, with only her brown eyes and her hennaed fingers revealed to the world, my heart sank.

In Yemen, there is so much that is hard to understand; if she is my only means of grasping what people were feeling and saying - not even able to frown at me, or to smile - how would I ever make sense of anything? I don't feel like this any more, though. I like Aminah a lot; she has an expressive way of talking, and an openness that takes you by surprise. But I'm also used to her now. I can pick her out in a crowd of women at 10 paces even though, to all intents and purposes, everyone looks exactly the same. I know when she is cross - frequently - and when she is content. The way she looks makes me feel oddly safe, too. In her company, it is as though she has anointed me - an unveiled woman in Birkenstock sandals - with her discretion. She can take me places, literally and metaphorically. Aminah is my very own code-breaker.

In any case, her veil is a red herring. Simply by travelling with us, alone and far from her home in a southern province, Aminah is doing something exceptional (she has already been asked - by a man, a supposedly liberal man who should know better - what her father thinks of this trip). In the Arab world, as in the wider Muslim world, the words 'women' and 'rights' rarely go together, and even then only in the mouths of the earnest young people who work for NGOs.

In Yemen, however, the situation is more serious even than it is among its neighbours. In terms of freedom, it is probably Saudi Arabian women who have the hardest time of all. But even there, females have access to education and healthcare. In Yemen - sorry to make this sound like some terrible competition - an absence of citizenship rights for women horribly combines with crushing poverty to create a society in which women are not only the property of men, unable to leave the house without the permission of a male relative and vulnerable to arbitrary arrest on the street even once they have it, but are also likely to be illiterate, to be married before they reach puberty, and to die in childbirth. 'Our family law is the worst in the Middle East for women,' says Suha Bashren, a Yemeni who works as a campaign officer for Oxfam. 'It is medieval.' Does the fact that the law permits Yemeni women to drive - something that is illegal in Saudi Arabia - make up for any of this? You'll forgive Suha for thinking that it does not.

Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world, with a Human Development Index of 149 (out of 177 countries), and a poverty level of over 40 per cent. Only 35.9 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water. For women, though, life is especially tough. A woman has only a one-in-three chance of being able to read and write (some 71 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate, as opposed to 31 per cent of men; in most other Middle Eastern countries, the average female illiteracy rate stands at 35 per cent). If a Yemeni woman has a baby, she has only a one-in-five chance of being attended by a midwife, and she has a one-in-39 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth over her lifetime. As for rights, she has none - or very few. The law does not state what age a woman must be before she marries, which means that many females find themselves with a husband when they are as young as 12, something that has a serious impact on maternal mortality rates, and which can also result in other serious health problems, such as incontinence.

Male power is total, and not only in politics (one woman MP out of 301 members, 35 women represented in local councils out of 6,000). A woman cannot, for instance, marry without the permission of a male relative; if she has no father, she must ask her brother, or a cousin and so on until, if she has no male relatives at all, she must turn to a judge. Women are regularly the victims of arbitrary arrests, picked up for 'immoral acts' such as adultery, smoking or eating in a restaurant with a 'boyfriend'. It is not only the police who can make such arrests; power is invested in all kinds of men from the minister of the interior to local neighbourhood chiefs, even coastguards.

'Any uniform will do,' says Suha. The country's prisons are full of women who should not be there - their 'crimes' are so vague, even they are uncertain as to what they have done wrong - and many of whom have never faced a trial. Compared to all this, the way that women are expected to dress is unimportant, a cosmetic trifle. But they are highly covered up, and while this may be voluntary - this is a deeply religious society - to an outsider, even one who has travelled widely in the Middle East, it is bewitching and unnerving in equal measure. In Hadramout, a rural province in the south, I see women working in the fields whose every body part is covered in black fabric: even their hands, even their eyes. So, your vision adjusts. You stop expecting to see women's faces. You look at your own in the mirror of a hotel bathroom, and feel vaguely amazed.

It is not easy to travel in Yemen. Tribal conflicts in the north, and the growing influence of Al-Qaeda, mean that it is a dangerous place, especially for westerners. Kidnappings are a problem. In January, two Belgian workers were shot dead. The week I visit, there is a grenade attack against the US embassy in Sana'a. Luckily, the bald facts that you read on the foreign-office website still cannot compete with the magical stories you find in old guidebooks: the tales of talking hoopoes (the Queen of Sheba, who was probably from what we now call Yemen, is reputed to have been brought to King Solomon's attention by a talking hoopoe); of ancient skyscrapers that look as if they are built of gingerbread, but are in fact made of mud; of the curling daggers that every Yemeni man wears strapped across his belly. I am travelling with Yemenis, all of whom work for Oxfam on its projects here; work that I've come to see. So, I do not feel it too precarious. But it is exhausting. This is not only because Yemen is so vast, and Oxfam's work is spread across it. It is also because these issues - childbirth, early marriage, 'immoral acts' - are so sensitive. The concept of haram (shame) is so embedded in the culture that people do not always say what they mean, even - or perhaps especially - when asked a direct question. You need a translator not only of Arabic, but of the subtle language of avoidance and denial.

Say'un is a town of 30,000 people in the biggest wadi or watercourse, Wadi Hadhramawt, in the Arabian peninsula. Hadhramawt is extremely inaccessible. To get here, we flew from Sana'a, the capital, to the port of Al-Mukalla, and then drove over the desert and down through the lush wadi - it has surely changed very little since Dame Freya Stark became one of the first western women to see it in the 1930s - for nearly five hours. In Say'un, Oxfam is trying to improve reproductive healthcare, chiefly by funding the training of midwives and traditional birth attendants (TBAs). This is more important work than you may realise. In this part of Yemen - rural, religious, isolated - women are often unwilling to be treated by doctors, for the reason that they are men; it would be shameful for a woman to show her body to a man, even if the alternative meant that she might bleed to death. Getting more women into the healthcare system is therefore vital. 'Our midwives work in the hospital in Say'un,' says Basima Omer, a doctor involved in the programme. 'They save lives. But they also go back to their communities with new information about hygiene, high blood pressure ...' She sips her coffee - in the country that gave the world coffee, everyone drinks Nescafé with condensed milk - behind her veil. So how on earth did she become a doctor? She laughs, quietly. 'Oh, I went on hunger strike for three days until my father agreed.'

In a side room in the hospital, I meet some of these newly qualified midwives - and find proof of something I was told before I came here: that in Yemen there are women who, having taken the veil when they reach puberty, show their faces to no one - not even their own mothers - until they marry. For this reason, though we are in a private room, I am able to see the face of only one of the midwives (she lifts her veil because she is a divorcee). The delivery room, I can't help thinking, must make for a strange sight. The women tell me how useful they have found their training; of the status it gives them in their villages; of how grateful they are for the appreciation - and prayers - of their patients; of how gratifying it is to earn their own money. But still, certain things they cannot change. What if there are complications?

'Some women will see a surgeon, but most won't allow a doctor [ie, a man] to see them,' says Asia Al-Jamah, 22. 'Not even for a check-up or an injection. They just go back home.' Then what? She gives me a wry look. 'We once had a woman who was bleeding. She refused to see the surgeon, even though we told her and her mother what might happen. So, she went home. A while later, I met her mother in the street and I asked her about her daughter. She was fine.' She shrugs. 'So, she was lucky.'

The midwives cannot work in isolation. Many women in rural areas don't make it to hospital in time, so in addition to the 22 midwives Oxfam will have trained by 2011, it also hopes to educate 30 traditional birth attendants: older women, trusted by their communities. An hour's drive from Say'un is the village of Sah. We arrive in its narrow streets in the early afternoon, when most people, even the men, are indoors, though I feel instinctively that our presence has been noted, that there are watchful eyes behind the deep windows of the ancient houses. Sure enough, when our contact, Jamilah, emerges from her home in a veil that covers every last part of her face, she tells us: 'Now everyone will be gossiping about me.' Jamilah helps to run a women's co-op in Sah, and has been active in encouraging women to sign up for TBA training. This has not made her popular with the imams, though it's hard to know why, given that all they are learning is some basic healthcare. 'We face problems from the religious men,' she says. 'It is difficult for us to do anything. We're really suffering. But we won't surrender.' What she means is that she won't surrender. The trouble is, Basima tells me later, that Jamilah has few allies even among Sah's women.

Yemen's traditional houses are vertiginous towers that somewhat contradict the idea that the concept of high-rise living is both new, and unnatural. But, of course, their confusing passages and steep staircases are also designed to aid segregation. In the diwan (a large room reserved for socialising) of one such house, Jamilah has arranged for me to have tea with Sah women, including some who have trained as TBAs. They lift their veils to reveal their beautiful faces, but drop them at the first sight of my camera. They, too, have nothing but praise for what they have learnt. 'I used to tie the cord just once, then cut it,' says one. 'Now I know to tie it twice. The other thing is cleanliness: the tools, the wounds. We know if a woman has high blood pressure, and which cases should go to hospital.' Jamilah, who is unsure of her age but guesses it to be 42, has 10 children (the minimum in this group of women is eight), and her last baby was delivered after she completed her training. 'I knew better this time,' she says. 'I knew that if I hadn't delivered after 12 hours, I should go to hospital. My mother said: "No, you'll deliver in the road!" I didn't care. I was right. In hospital, I had an operation [a caesarian section].' She has since sent other women to hospital, one after she failed to deliver her placenta; in the past, this would never have happened.

The midwives had told me that they never discuss contraception with their patients. Have these women ever considered limiting their families? No! They round on me, their voices rising when they discover I have no children. 'They're happy about their children,' explains Aminah. 'It's from God.' But what about the expense? Sah is poor; they have already spoken of rising food prices. 'It's not in our hands,' says one. 'It's fine for you to have your work,' says another. 'But who will look after you when you are old?' Another woman tells me that she hopes my husband will give me a child as soon as I get home. A few of them are laughing openly at what they regard as my stupidity and lack of foresight. After I leave, and I'm once again in Sah's narrow, reticent streets, I look up at the high windows of the diwan. A couple of the younger women gaze down at me, their veils inky against the burnished red mud of the house. I wave at them and, after a moment's consideration, they wave back. I know what they're thinking. I'm a fool. A poor misguided English fool.

The next day, we get up at 3.30am, and drive back through the wadi for the flight to Sana'a. From Sana'a, we then drive for another four hours over the western mountains (the road is terrifying, especially since, by the time we leave, it is qat time, and every driver on the road is mildly stoned from chewing his afternoon leaves), until we reach the coast, and Al-Hudaydah. We stop only twice, so our drivers can pray. In Hudaydah, I am accompanied by Suha Bashren and her colleague, Wameedh Shaker. Suha and Wameedh are the only women I meet in Yemen who do not cover their faces in public (though they do cover their hair). 'Yes, we're unusual,' says Wameedh. How unusual? Very. Both women, who are in their thirties, recently got married: Wameedh to a journalist, Suha to an Oxfam colleague. 'The amazement! There were newspaper articles about us: "Oxfam workers get married. Congratulations to these very active women!" We were expected to stay single. It was thought that we were too liberal ever to find men.'

What is it like living in such a society? 'Whenever you do something, anything, you feel it, you're testing the water. All Arab countries suffer from a lack of citizenship rights, violence against women and so on. But in general, they're more advanced in terms of education, social labour and some political rights. They have laws, authorities, that we don't have. It's a mess, and it is marginalised women who bear the burden. Beside them, we feel small. They have much more courage than us.' For women such as Suha and Wameedh, who come from Aden, in the south, the situation is doubly frustrating. When Yemen was two countries, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, in the south, was a Marxist state with the most feminist constitution in the Arab world. But when reunification with the nationalist Yemen Arab Republic took place in 1990 and was followed by a civil war four years later, it was the north that emerged as victor. Unity was strengthened, but sharia became the basis of law-making. The influence of Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabism is also having its effect, especially close to the border.

Wameedh and Suha take me to Hudaydah prison and, after a long wait on the governor's Seventies leather sofa beneath a creaking ceiling fan, I'm taken to meet women on whose cases Oxfam's volunteer lawyers work in their free time (the prison governor is unaware that I am journalist). The women's prison is a squat concrete building, its communal cells built around a yard in which washing can be hung in the sun. The place is clean and tidy, the cells, open to the yard, freshly scrubbed by the 52 inmates who inhabit them. But it's shocking how many of the women have babies, and how terribly young some of the prisoners are; when a warder gathers them to ask for volunteers to meet me, it's as though I've walked into a classroom rather than a prison. S (for their own safety, I am unable to identify the women) is 21, A is 22 and M just 14. Their stories are patchy and dreamlike, a quality that perhaps catches the sophistry that led to their arrest.

'I was visiting a friend,' says M. 'We were in a friend's house. We were chewing qat. Suddenly, I was arrested for prostitution. I've been here 11 months.' M, who has been in prison for two months, recounts that she was watching TV in a neighbour's house when she was arrested on suspicion of having committed an immoral act.

A tells me that a man offered to pay her for sex; when she refused, he took her to an interrogation centre where she was beaten until she admitted 'to everything I had done in the past'. She has been in prison for three months. None of the women has so far faced a trial.

Between them, Wameedh and Aminah unpick their stories for me. The friend whom S was visiting in her friend's house was probably a boyfriend. In the case of M, Wameedh believes that she is probably too ashamed to admit to me that she was having sex with a boy as well as watching television with him, though she later passed a virginity test. A has fallen victim to a local self-appointed religious vigilante, who is making it his business to arrest women on the streets. S begins to cry. 'My family are poor,' she says. 'They cannot do anything.' (Some prisoners are released if their families can pay up - irrespective of the so-called legal process.) The truth drawn out, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I am lost for words.

Some women in this prison were working as prostitutes (prostitution increases in the summer, when tourists from Saudi Arabia visit) and others have committed adultery, both 'crimes' under sharia law. But even by the standards of sharia, these women's 'offences' are slight; nor has any 'evidence' been presented to anything even resembling a court. When, as we leave, Wameedh challenges the governor about the cases of some of the women we have seen today, he acts the hapless victim of the state. Yes, people should get bail, but it never happens. No, children should not be in prison, but what can he do? Oxfam aims to challenge such sluggish and inhumane bureaucracy by raising awareness of women's rights (such as they are) and by providing legal aid to those who find themselves trapped within the Kafkaesque system. Slowly, working with their local partner, the Women's National Committee, they are affecting change. Until recently, a woman who had completed her sentence could not leave the prison until she was collected by a male relative. This rule has since been changed.

It is difficult enough to fight state-endorsed discrimination. But perhaps it's even more of a struggle to change the minds of people who have lived in such a culture all their lives. In a slum suburb of Hudaydah, I'm taken to meet a group of poor city women - many of them the wives and daughters of Yemeni workers who were expelled from Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (a million Yemenis were expelled as punishment for their country's failure to join the alliance against Iraq, and they now form one of its most deprived communities). These women are going to tell me about their experiences of early marriage, a practice that Oxfam and its partners are campaigning against. Poor families are keen on early marriage; the parents of a daughter will have one less mouth to feed, the parents of a son will receive both a dowry, and another unpaid worker. They also cite the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was just nine years old (some scholars have argued that this was not so, but they remain in the minority). Sunnis believe that Aisha was the great love of the prophet's life, and that what was good enough for him, is good enough for them. They conveniently disregard the fact that Mohammed also took several other wives, all of them much older.

'Our approach to early marriage is not to link it to women's rights,' says Suha. 'No one would accept that. We link it to development. We talk about health, about how 430 women per 100,000 die during childbirth, one of the highest rates in the world. We tell them this number is not falling, and that 50 per cent of these women die before they are 19. So we link early marriage and pregnancy. We explain the effect of long years of fertility on the family economy and the country's resources.'

When she first started working on the issue in 2006, the mosques went mad. 'A mosque can destroy all your work in a day. An imam can wipe you from the surface of the earth. So we went very quiet. We waited. Then we began working again, forming alliances with tribal chiefs, and the people who write marriage contracts.' She and her colleagues will soon lobby parliament yet again in the hope that a law will be passed setting the legal age at which a girl can be married at 18, and she is hopeful. 'Resistance is getting lower.' What about the women? Are they starting to refuse to arrange marriages for their girls? She hesitates. 'We can't measure the impact yet.'

Once we are in the diwan of one of the women's houses, I realise why she hesitated. Most of the women gathered here, all of them married as teenagers, insist that they have been happy in their marriages. Then one, Shueiyah, who suddenly found herself with a husband at 12, before she'd even had her first period, tells me how horrible it was.

'At first, I was happy. There was singing, I had new shoes. Then I was alone with him in my room. I was afraid. I started to cry. He called his mother. She had to explain: "This is your husband. Don't be afraid. You're grown-up now. Act like a woman." I couldn't say no to my parents, but I didn't know what marriage involved.'

She didn't mind the cooking and cleaning. The only thing she didn't like was the night time. She used to try and find excuses to stay away from him. 'We argued a lot. But I couldn't explain why to his family. I couldn't tell them that it was because of sex. He wanted to have sex every night. No one told me anything about sex.'

She gave birth to a son, but four years later she and her husband divorced. We seize the moment. Was she too young? Would she put a daughter of hers through such a marriage? She laughs. 'I would be happy for my daughter to marry early.' When Suha starts to argue with her, Shueiyah becomes annoyed. It isn't long before she brings up Aisha.

On the journey back to our hotel, Suha lets off steam. She wonders aloud how she can prove to people that refusing to marry off children is not haram. Then she invites me to join her and Wameedh at the house of one of the Oxfam lawyers to chew qat. I do join them, though I don't chew qat; I don't have the taste for it. Our hostess has prepared delicious food, and she lights a water pipe for us. She dabs at our ears with exotic scents as if we were in a harem. No one is veiled; there are no men in the house. We could go on all night. Abdullah, our driver, is happy to wait for us: he is lying with the guard on a divan outside, chewing qat, in the cool of the night. It's a happy evening, our last before we go back to Sana'a. I admire these women more than I can say. So I get out my camera. I'm going to take a picture. But, no. Our hostess - a lawyer who gives up hours of her time fighting the cases of abused and forgotten women - gives me a big smile. 'I'm sorry but you can't take a photograph of me,' she says. 'Not like this.' She points to her unveiled face. 'I must ask my husband's permission, and he is out with his friends.' Like I said, nothing is straightforward here. Suha chews on her qat furiously.

· Some names have been changed. For more information on Oxfam's work go towww.oxfam.org.uk

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