It is characteristic of the American condition that we want to save the world. This may be seen economically, politically, in terms of human rights, consumption of resources, education or healthcare - any way one chooses. Like the missionaries that knock on my door every week, the idea that America has "got it" and can save the world based on whatever "it" is, is often the product of good intentions and a genuine desire to help others. Yet this desire is often founded on a superficial knowledge, at best, of other peoples and can do genuine damage in movements that are gaining their own home-grown momentum - by speaking languages we don't bother to learn or understanding social systems we dismiss as "primitive".
It can be argued that the lives of women are an arena in which this pattern of "saving" is quite visible, and it has not gone unnoticed. Yemen is a country with a violent and beautiful history, whose women are often not given the opportunity to speak about their own lives to the wider world. The lives of women in Yemen gain international attention when issues like child marriage arise - such as in the vivid portrayal given by Nujood Ali in her book I am Nujood, Aged 10 and Divorced - or that of the role of women in Yemen's revolution as part of the recent Arab Spring.
There is no question that issues such as child marriage, sex trafficking, revolution and other devastating and tragic events are newsworthy and must be known by the greater world, but that is often the only time we consider the lives of Yemeni women - in relation to tragedy.
Yemen, up close and personal
As I prepared for my first summer of ethnographic fieldwork in Yemen in 2006, I read anything I could on the country. I expected to be looking precisely for that voice, that of the women themselves, yet I could find almost nothing of it in the literature. The mainly male ethnographers that had been to Yemen in the past, such as Tim Mackintosh-Smith and Steven Caton, wrote of their experiences with women as minimal, usually as the spouses of contacts. This is understandable since Yemen is a segregated society, with women and men mixing little outside professional, educational, or family venues.
Like other Muslim countries that segregate the sexes in an effort to stave off immoral sexual behaviour (there will be another time to discuss whether that is actually effective or not), Yemen is a very traditional and conservative society. Currently, a general Amazon search of books written about Yemen include older ethnographies by famous British explorer Freya Stark, the works mentioned above, and a host of other books, mainly focused on Yemen's role in the "War on Terror" or a fantasy novel about salmon fishing. There is very little focused on discovering the lives of Yemenis and their rich history, and even less about the lives of their women - unless it is in relation to tragedy. It is therefore no wonder that we easily associate the women of Yemen with those who need to be "saved" from their oppressive, patriarchal, traditional culture. But we would be wrong.
My first experience with the women of Yemen was in the village of Dhamt, halfway between Sana'a, the capital, and Aden, the popular port city in the south. While welcoming me with great joy, the women of the house also periodically teased me. I was unable to bake bread, wash laundry by hand, carry heavy loads, or withstand their water. Only the last was understandable.
With pride, they showed me the burns on their arms - not caused by abusive husbands or evil brothers - but by the side of the cylindrical oven (similar to tandoori) they used to bake bread, evidence of their superior baking skills. They washed laundry for homes with large families in a local well and laid them on rocks to dry, then carried buckets of heavy loads - usually vegetables or local shrubs - to their destinations without apparently breaking a sweat. These women were tough and quite industrious. They made trades out of whatever they could. Some sewed wedding dresses (which comes in handy when weddings last at least a week), others made a living out of painting khudab (a black ink made from local rocks, in the shapes of intricate flowers onto the arms and legs of brides). In a women-only hamam - or bathhouse - women sold everything from baby clothes to party favours. Traditional Islamic and tribal customs that protect a woman's right to her earnings were commonly invoked. Women kept stores of gold and silver (despite sometimes abject poverty) to pass on to daughters so that they would never be without their own source of income if needed. This is, of course, an issue of greater contention, but it would be extremely untrue to claim that women work solely for the purpose of increasing the monetary holdings of their men, and even more so that they do not work at all. In many cases, the businesses that women ran were theirs - they learned the trade, set their rates, got advertising via word of mouth, and kept the profits or spent them on children.
Since my goal was to provide a venue for these women to address the accusations of the greater world, I allowed myself some lesser questions. For example, I asked a young woman how she felt about starting to wear the face veil, or niqab. She, and every other woman I asked, found my question absurd. They were disheartened and confused as to why the greater world would call this method of dress "oppressive", while to this young woman it merely meant she was coming of age. She wore it with the same excitement and pride she showed when carrying an empty purse and playing with make-up. Further, why should the greater world be concerned with how she dresses? People are going hungry, being denied employment and education, and facing far worse than a perceived wardrobe malfunction.
Issues of education and employment had a great deal more to do with poverty and accessibility of resources than it did with sexism alone, and even child marriage, while it can in no way be excused, is at times a reaction to poverty, not a lack of care for girls. What use, then, are efforts to elevate the value of girls without addressing the reality of life in Yemen, particularly in the rural areas? Since my research in 2006 - during which I determined these women, while they didn't have degrees or pay taxes, were tougher than any women I'd ever met - UNICEF and other international organisations have worked to improve schools and other needs, such as providing clean running water to homes which frees up several hours a day for girls to attend school.
A localised feminism
In 2009, I returned to Yemen to do research on religious syncretism among women; the mingling of traditional folk traditions with Islam, and the role women play in these systems. This time I focused on the capital, Sana'a, and found myself at the door of Al-Iman University, one of Yemen's most famous religious schools. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this school had been on the "hot list" in American politics over concerns for some of its male members, including Anwar al-Awlaki.
During the visit, I was introduced to a side of conservative Islam in Yemen that I had not anticipated. The women's section of Al-Iman was taught exclusively by women, such as Sheikha Aisha Zindani, the daughter of Sheikh Zindani, also on the "hot list". In 2009, tuition for these women was free. Transportation to the school was free, as was child care. While I had serious problems with the theology of the school, they were providing a means for women to learn to read and write modern and classical Arabic, something that not all Americans with advanced degrees in Islam can do.
One teacher, Sheikha Khadija, even provided job training, such as tailoring. This was not the image of conservative Islam that the West usually encounters. And later, when I was banned from Al-Iman by Sheikha Aisha, I thought long and hard about why. Only after I had seen what they were doing for their own sisters - giving them access to literacy, job training, and even health care - was I told not to come back by and large because I was American looking from the outside in on a foreign world that trad. These women, who operated within their context to improve the lives of other women without any help from Western feminism, refused to let me return until I acquired a better understanding of what they were really doing behind those big, imposing doors. While the reasons I was banned from Al-Iman are complex, I am sure that at least one reason was because the reputation of Americans as neo-imperialists, who will tell women to abandon their children and focus on careers as a path to freedom, was well known. Such an approach ignores the reality of Yemeni women, and robs them of their right to create their own freedom, rather than accept ours.
Since then, Yemeni women have come to the forefront a little more. Tawakkol Karman, a journalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, while Amira Al-Sharif, a photographer, gained international attention for her work with UNICEF and Oxfam International. Yet they are not the women we think of when we think of Yemen, or even Arab women. Instead, we hold tight to an orientalist vision of the Middle East that makes women into oversexed and illiterate haram maidens. While human rights abuses and other ills are undoubtedly important issues that must be addressed and cannot be sugarcoated, they also cannot be simplified into issues that are purely the result of sexism imposed by allegedly inherently misogynistic Arab and Islamic cultures, a claim that further simplifies rich and complex traditions through stereotypes and ignorance.
It is often said that the principles of feminism are universally applicable, but rarely are these principles clarified. Western feminism, being largely focused on the individual, material growth, and a separation from tradition, is not necessarily compatible with other cultures. To arrive in Yemen proclaiming "I will save you" commits the same fallacy - the usurpation of the voices and experiences of these women, as those against whom they struggle in the first place. A culturally competent feminism is one in which the women within a given context define "feminism" for themselves and work with it. It may be adhering to tribal traditions that help protect their wealth, or using religious education to teach women to read and find ways to support themselves, or using art and the written word to tell the world about their lives - rather than others telling these women about their own lives, as viewed from outside.
Start by listening
Yemeni, and all, women should not have to worry themselves with taking back their voices and identities from a world that stereotypes them, sometimes for unsavoury reasons, rather than working for the improvement of their own society, especially as Yemen struggles to recover from its revolution. It may, therefore, be said that the only principle that is universally capable of defining "feminism" is that women are fully human beings, and deserving of a healthy, happy life free from fear and pain. How those things are defined, and how they come about, is the right of women themselves to define, in whatever context they find themselves. Should it be a contentious issue and a global concern, then it can be addressed as a human issue in the global arena, and not simply as the issue of women who, by varying outside groups, are not allowed to speak for themselves.
At the heart of this issue then we do not simply have a gender issue that focuses on the oppression of women, but a human issue in which we continue to refuse to see each other as human beings, invariably influencing how comfortable we are with the suffering of others. It may be that the struggles facing women are purely the arena in which this broader problem is most evident; it is also the arena in which the alleviation of this problem - that of the negation of human dignity - will be most effective in restoring that dignity, as woman are commonly the first teachers of children and the passers-on of culture and tradition. But the restoration of that dignity cannot take place while the voices of these women are not given their due, and they are instead spoken of and for by others, whether the goal of those groups is oppression or freedom. For Women's History Month, perhaps the greatest thing we can do to begin to support woman globally, and restore that dignity, is to start with merely listening.
"I am a Yemeni woman who is looking forward to show the entire world the truth of Yemen and its people. People can see who am I by looking through my photos, as my photos are an extension of me."
- Amira al-Sharif
Rachelle Fawcett is completing her MA in Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary, has lived in Yemen and Egypt, and writes, speaks, and presents on Islamic feminism, cultural competency, pluralism, and critical theology.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.