"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hot links!

Or, not that hot.  Nor very many.  Here's a few articles about problems in the south as we quickly approach Unity Day, as well as one about a reconciliation gesture.   I have a strange feeling that tomorrow is going to be relatively quiet, but am more than willing to admit that maybe I feel that way because it is muggy here and I don't feel like doing anything, so can't imagine why others would.

This here article is about business and energy- more of a press release, really, about a contract to build a huge power plant in Yemen.  I wish them the best of luck.  Few things bring down the popularity and legitimacy of services more than the failure to provide basic services.  I think a government can weather violent crackdowns better than being thought of as neglectful or incompetent.  Power is something it is easy to take for granted, but we saw just how much Iraqis lost all faith in us when we couldn't keep the lights on.

Also, Greg removed himself briefly from his monastic hideaway to blog at Waq al-Waq. 

Hostages Free

Not really a "news" story anymore, but the interesting blog Third World Goes Forth nicely deconstructs coverage of the rescue of the German girls. 

It also asks why there hasn't been more made of that fact that it was a Saudi team that rescued them, inside Yemeni borders.  The truth is, I don't really know what to make of it (and no, I am not narcissistic enough to imagine that I was being asked directly.  Close, though).   I think it is ironic that after years of bickering about the border and years spent in arguments about demarcation and enforcement, the line between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is becoming increasingly vague and meaningless.  Or, rather, reverting to its historical norm, before a fairly arbitrary line was drawn.

I think as Yemen disintegrates that arbitrary line will become less and less meaningful.  It might be akin to what you see in Russia's far east- the border between Russia and China is blurring, and political designations don't stand up to historic and cultural realities.   I am not trying to paint a total Kaplan-esque scenario, here, but I do think you're going to see these lines, which have been fought over, and for which and due to which people have died, lose their importance.  History has a way of ignoring temporal matters, and making jokes out of things which seemed momentarily so important.

(Also: Third World Goes Forth is a cool site, and you should read it.  I am waiting for its analysis of Paul Kagame, who I am fascinated by.  I don't think I was ever more let down by a political figure than I have been by him.  I can't decide if he got destroyed by power, if he still truly thinks that he can save his benighted land, or if the image of him I had earlier was false, and he was always a wolf.)

The Danger of Monomanical Obsession

Sullivan linked to this neat little map from informationisbeautiful.net.   It shows what every country in the world is Number 1 at, even if it is something as silly as Female Farmhands or Brazil Nuts (Bolivia, interestingly).  Needless to say, I looked first for Yemen- because I am obsessed- and it ranked first in "Khat Users".  Predictably, I suppose.  It was in red, though, which I was curious about, so I looked at the key.  Red means "crime"- other red labels are "serial killers" (USA) and "pirate software" (Armenia, of course). 

This caused me to say, out loud, "oh, come on!  Qat use isn't a crime in Yemen!"  I also thought about how absurd it was that it is a crime anywhere, given its mild qualities and how it is just an example of ignorance to think that if something is a crime in America it must be- nay should be- a crime anywhere else and blah blah blah. 

What a bore I am.  It is a fun map, with no harm intended, and certainly without any kind of agenda.  I wonder how many people are this defensive of a subject, willing to get angry over nothing.  I think blogging tends to add to that, which can be dangerous and bad for your mental health.  I am growing increasingly fond of it as a medium, but still need to watch out for the the bad tendencies it can create.  I think the ability to step back and breathe, to have a slight sense of humor, is what is needed here, and what separates most people from, say, Marty Peretz.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Absurd Follow-Up

Below, I talked about the Saudis donating 1013 tons of dates to the World Food Program in Yemen.  This is a good thing- Yemen's food shortage is reaching a crisis point, and foreign governments are not doing enough to help, something that is morally and strategically unbelievable.  My point in posting below, though, was because I was literally* gobsmacked at the enormous amount of dates.

Coincidentally, I was at the grocery store this afternoon and while in the produce section weighed out a pound of dates.  It came to about 18 dates to a pound.  I don't know if these were wholly representative of dates or not, but I'm going to assume they were.  I'm just going to be American-centric and assume it is a short ton.  So, 18 times 2000 times 1013 = 36,468,000 dates (margin of error: 4 dates). 

To put that in perspective, that is just an enormous amount of dates.

*Not literally

(EDIT: First sentence originally said "pounds" instead of "tons".  Thanks to comment below for catching that.)

How Not To Write About Yemen: Right-Wing Edition

...and we're restoring equilibrium.

After yesterday's long, cathartic rant against self-proclaimed dissidents who patronizingly see everything bad in Yemen as being a product of US evil-mongering, it is refreshing to jump back to those who see everything bad happening in Yemen as a product of devious, Oriental, two-faced malice.  I think both points of view provide comfort: one sees the world's troubles as rational and planned, the other is able to pin-point all problems on one end of a simple black-and-white spectrum. Granted, the conspiracy-addled left also assigns absolute roles; but they needlessly complicate things with backroom plots (Believe me, I am also very aware of the addled, Trilateral Commission obsessed witches-brew mindset on the far right, but that doesn't come into play in this particular discussion of the Middle East).

That brings us today's FrontPage Magazine article on double-dealing allies in Yemen and Pakistan.  To me, and I would imagine to most people, this is: not news.  It takes a very peculiar mindset to imagine that in any country the wishes or imperatives of any ruling class or people are going to align perfectly with those of the United States.  Ideally, of course, they would, but that is not the world with which we are dealing, nor is it one that is remotely possible.  Instead, we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we want it to be.  I may make juvenile jokes, but I still think that the preceding sentence reflects an adult mindset.

Not everyone thinks that way.

Good date

From Zawya:

18 May 2010
Sana'a -- The Representative of the World Food Program (WFP) in Yemen, Gian Carlo Cirri received here today 1013 tons of dates provided by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of WFP activities in the fields of shelter and relief.

The dates were handed over by the Counselor at the Saudi Embassy in Yemen, Ahmed Al-Mohammadi.
To put that in perspective: that is a whole lot of fucking dates.  

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How Not To Write About Yemen: Left-Wing Edition

There's a label on this blog called "Right-Wing Watch", which is one of the bigger non-Yemen ones (this isn't saying much, I admit).  So it is with a self-congratulatory sense of ecumenicalism that I introduce this post, which fisks a far-left view of what is happening Yemen.  I do this not (just) to make fun of people I don't know and feel like a big man, but to illustrate one of the most frustrating parts of analyzing US foreign policy: our parochialism, and almost knee-jerk instinct to view anything through narrow and self-serving partisan lenses. 

This article comes from Dissident Voice, "a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and justice."  Right off the bat, I am annoyed by this.  I don't like someone calling themselves a dissident when they are publishing safely in their name.  Maybe the town fathers will click their tongues at your non-conformity, but I think dissident needs to imply a danger to your physical safety and independence.  Havel was a dissident.  I looked through the site a bit and didn't see any mention of people being imprisoned or killed for their view.  When the biggest danger you incur is getting an STD from some free spirit you met at the co-op, you haven't really earned your right to being called a dissident.

That might be a bit over the top, but I get annoyed at self-righteousness (except my own, it seems).

A few more Yemen links

(Remember when I sometimes wrote about things other than Yemen on this?  Me neither.) 

Haley Sweetland Edwards has a good article on the southern problems in the LATimes, much better and more fact-based than my rambling post below. 

There is war talk along the southern Yemen coast and the flag of rebellion is painted on the stocks of guns. The separatists call this land South Arabia, and villagers say it's only a matter of time before insurgency erupts.

"We are ready to fight. All of us. Men, women and children," said Zahra Saleh Abdullah, a separatist leader, sitting in a living room with a dozen would-be rebels in Yafa, a restive tribal territory in the south. "Yemen is not our country. South Arabia is our country."

In economic news, the World Bank has released a report about the upturn and potential in Yemen's economy.  As I tend to fall into a deep and restful sleep reading economic reports, I am grateful for its summary.   The report is surprisingly optimistic, basing itself on an uptick in oil prices and the LNG pipeline.  This is good news, although I tend to think it is misleadingly rosy- prices went up again this year after correcting themselves last year, and it is a fools game to predict these things or to think they will remain stable.  Yemen's oil economy might be able to stay afloat, but it is clearly unsustainable and unsteady.  Perhaps Yemen-philes can keep their fingers crossed for more catastrophic spills in the Gulf of Mexico.  Here's hoping! 

In completely unrelated news, the Sox game today opened with Juan Pierre taking a walk and then Omar Vizquel getting a hit.  This is as close to a near-zero chance occurring, not just in baseball, but in the entire known universe.

Free album

Bizzaro musician Tim Fite has a new free album, Under the Table-Tennis, on his web-site.   If you like hard-left, folk-influenced, pastiche-ridden hip-hop, with strange musical twists and lyrics that range from the nearly-head-slapping obvious to the sublimely goofy, and ripe with frustrated anger and Chomsky-esque conspiracy theories, this is for you.   NSFW or anything.   Much, much further left than, say, me, but consistently interesting.   And a lot of fun as well.  He's one of the few guys that can be dead-serious but also funny. 

I'm not really good at talking about music ("I sure like the song"), but as this is free, I would check it out.

We Now Return To Semi-Regular, Haphazardly-Scheduled Blogging

Nervous times in Yemen.  This Saturday, the 22nd, is the 20th anniversary of unity, a difficult, shambling, often-bloody and perhaps terminally-failed experiment.  As anyone following Yemen knows, the south (a political term which also encapsulates much of the eastern portion of the country) has been in a steadily-rising revolt against what they see as essentially a military, cultural and economic occupation by the north.   The revolt has increasingly gotten more and more violent, concurrent with but not proportional to the crackdown by President Salih.  Of the "three revolutions" in Yemen- the south, the Huthi rebellion, and the threat of al-Qaeda- the secession movement is probably the least-covered but most important.   The bulk of oil and gas reserves are in the south, and as we've seen with nearly every separation or divorce in history, the rump countries left over rarely manage to be stable or peaceful.  The loss of revenue would be a death-blow to the Salih regime (not to mention the final nail in the coffin of his credibility).  And, my guess anyway, the fervor which unites revolutionaries is generally just a mask for internal divisions which bubble bloodily to the surface once power is gained and has to be divided.   I doubt the south could make it for very long.  I realize that such a statement is in line with Salih's propaganda, but a statement is not false simply for coming from a distasteful mouth.   

Anyway, this Saturday is Unity Day, and not just any Unity Day, but the 20th Anniversary.  In theory, of course, this is no more significant than the 19th or the 23rd, and unity is no more or less certain on Saturday than it would be on Friday or Sunday.  But symbolism is important in politics, especially the immediate life-and-death politics that Yemen is facing.   It seems a near-certainty that both sides will be using the date to push their storyline- for Salih, the tenuous but undeniable success of a unified Yemen; for the southerners it will be a story of irreconcilable differences and failure. 

In light of that, this is an interesting story: Salih has predictably released 19 separatists from jail.  This is a normal move in a quasi-authoritarian state, especially one in which power is personified.  The move is to show reconciliation and brotherhood, a patching-over of differences.   This is something which usually has some success- even if no one believes in the purity of motive, it shows a willingness to step back from the breach.  This obviously isn't the first time Salih has released Southerners, or anyone- imprisonment and release is a normal part of Yemeni politics- but it will be interesting to see the level of symbolic gestures we see in the next five days, and how they will be received or reciprocated.  While not a flawless augur, they might help us see the outlines of the near-future.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Odd and End

Something I've been meaning to post for nearly a week, and now I have a few minutes.

I wrote a while ago about the AQAP video that ABC managed to get their hands on, at one point saying, "They are shooting, charmingly, at make-shift flags of Israel, England, and the United Nations (pretty much just a piece of cloth with "UN" written on it)."

Val, a reader from the UK, wrote me with a correction and an interesting insight.

In fact, in the video, it was a Union Jack (not an English flag) which comprises the separate countries of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

An English flag would have been a white rectangle with a red cross on it – ie, the central part of the Union Jack. I’m prepared to bet no-one in Yemen has ever seen one, or would know what it meant! Sadly, it’s the great Crusader flag – which if any Yemenis or other Arabs recognised would be rightly very offensive to them.

It strikes me that it’s just this kind of elementary mistake which can cause so many problems in a country like Yemen where tribal affiliations are so significant. I’m left thinking ‘How on earth could he have thought that was an English flag?’ and probably they’re thinking half the time ‘How on earth are they thinking that’s the relationship between our tribes?’

It just ‘flags’ up (excuse the dreadful pun) how very important a proper historical context is.

As I explained, there is a chance that I made the mistake intentionally, because as an old Irish patriot I refuse to recognize that symbol of Cromwellian oppression.   But since that isn't true, it is more likely I dashed off something stupid.

Val is very right though- there is so much laziness and assumption in relations between countries, and especially in the pundit class.   This is annoying, but it is also dangerous.  Words mean something, and language is the mother of action.   I know this example is small, and more evidence of my personal failing than any trans-Atlantic rift (though I bet many in America aren't sure of the exact relationship between England/Great Britain.  I've got it, but the Netherlands/Dutch thing still makes gives me a headache.)  When you reflect on something like that, then add innumerable liguistic, cultural and historical hurdles, and it is easy to see why so many are relationships are- in the words of Berlin- a major clusterfuck.

(Incidentally, I was mildly surprised that "Cromwellian" didn't prompt a little red spell-check line.  I suppose you know you've got it made when your name is a recognized adjective.  I doubt O'Neill-esque will make it into the lexicon, unless they ever need a go-to description for a shambolic wastrel.) 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Programming Notes

Blogging will be light to non-existent this week.  My folks are moving from my boyhood home to a condo, and there is a ton of stuff to pack and throw away and drive around the area to their various vulture-like children (especially myself) and less rapacious charities.  I know, none of you care about the reason why I am not blogging.  

I started to write something about the house, and maybe I will later, but everything was a series of dull cliches.  I'm tired.  I sit at a computer all day- this lifting stuff is for the birds. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Book Review

I have a review of Victoria Clark's Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes in The National.    It is a worthwhile read (the book, not my review, though that isn't terrible, you know?). 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Jews of Yemen Are Disappearing. I Suppose That is Their Own Fault, Right "Dr" Mearshimer? And Yet Prsident Obama Still Thinks He Can Work With Muslims. When Will He Learn? And When, For That Matter, Will Jimmy Carter?

Sorry- I just always wanted to write a rambling, crazy-bones blog title like Marty Peretz.  It is kind of fun and disturbingly easy.  You just plug in a few people who irritate you. (Irritate Peretz, I mean.)

But I really don't mean to make light of this story.  Via Lippman comes this heart-breaking story about the how the Jews in Yemen are vanishing, being harassed out of the country in which they have lived for centuries, emigrating to more forgiving environments.   The article mostly focuses on one man, Abraham Zahry, who says he used to chew qat daily with Muslim friends.

Zahry, who stands out with his long locks of hair hanging from the side of his head, says he is sometimes verbally harassed on the streets.
“They call me things like Jew and dog,” he said.
He also remembers how one time someone grabbed his locks and pulled them.
While educated Yemenis differentiate between local Jews and despised Israelis, “the ignorant don’t," he says.
He says he and his community are scared of the “radicals” who have increased in number.
“There are much more radical people than before who think Jews are a horrible thing and that they don’t believe in God,"  he said. "Those who know and understand Islam know this is not the case…but others just base their information from what they hear on TV and from people."

There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here. Someone once said that you can measure the moral nature of society by how they treat their Jews.  This might be putting too fine a point on it, but I think it has some worth.  It is the small and vulnerable minority being targeted as individuals for the "sins" of the group.  This is sadly normal in a society that is undergoing convulsions.  Blame Israel, blame all the Jews, even those who are suffering as much as you and who have lived among you for generations.

I also think it is half-heartening/half-sad how Zahry distinguishes between "educated" and others.  This is nice, because it shows that anti-Antisemitism is not, like, genetically inherent in Muslims, as the fanatics on our side basically insinuate (looking over your way again, Peretz).   It is sad to once again realize how dangerous TV and radio, with the intimations of authority, can be in a semi-literate society.

So I am kind of torn.  Yemeni Jews have long been part of what makes the country such a vibrant, fascinating place, unique in the world.  It would be shame to have them all air-lifted out of there.  But my Orientalist fascination shouldn't be enough to convince a persecuted people to stay in danger.  It is just another sign of a nation on the brink.

Quick Technology Question

There was something in yesterday's Times article about catching the Times Square bomber wanna-be that was very confusing to me.

The young woman in Bridgeport who last month sold Mr. Shahzad the rusting 1993 Nissan Pathfinder prosecutors say he used in the failed attack did not remember his name. But she had his telephone number.
That number was traced back to a prepaid cellular phone purchased by Mr. Shahzad, one that received four calls from Pakistan in the hours before he bought the S.U.V.
How did they know it was his phone, unless he paid by credit card (which, frankly, I wouldn't put past him).  There clearly is way to trace these, despite what I have been led to believe by Jack Bauer.  My buddy Brett offered a vague and drunken hypothesis, but if any of my legion of readers who are too shy to comment has any ideas of how this works, I would really appreciate it.   


The Times provokes questions; the Times provides answers.  Apparently the last time Shahzad came back from Pakistan he was given extra screening and had to provide a phone number.  Same one he used to handle other transactions.   This guy really is going to go down as one of the worst terrorists ever.  I don't want to make light of things at all- clearly I am on record as saying that AQAP poses a very real threat- but I think the phrase I am looking for, regarding Shahzad, is: what a maroon.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Peter King, the Republican congressman from Iowa (not the strange man who talks about coffee when he is supposed to be talking about football) no longer even pretends to believe in the Constitution.  In talking about the arrest of the man suspected of the attempted Times Square bombing- who, despite having a funny name, is an American citizen- King said,

“I hope that [Attorney General Eric] Holder did discuss this with the intelligence community. If they believe they got enough from him, how much more should they get? Did they Mirandize him? I know he’s an American citizen but still,” King told POLITICO.
Really?  "But still"?   Is King really that afraid of these guys?   And, honestly, if eagerly wanting to destroy Constitutional rights doesn't make you an enemy combatant, I don't know what will.

Look, if this guy is guilty, I hope he is prosecuted under the full extent of the law.  We are in bizarre times when the phrase "of the law" is somehow weak and squishy and possibly even traitorous.  Foreign terrorist suspects are a gray area, in which I am on the side of civil courts, for a number of reasons, but I admit there is an argument.   I think what it comes down to is that if the bomber was a Tea Partier, an anarchist, an anti-abortion loon or any kind of traditional American terrorist, we wouldn't be having this debate.  His crime is compounded by the belief behind it, which, while surely not better, is hardly worse than anyone else willing to slaughter for an imagined Kingdom of Heaven.  

Also, Glenn Beck is in favor of Miranda rights for this guy based on his citizenship.  When Beck is more sane than top Republicans (and Joe Lieberman), the swing has officially gone around the bar.

(link thread via Sullivan)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Follow-up on the niqab

Thanks again to Haley Sweetland Edwards for her essay on the niqab, below.   Coincidentally, last night I was re-reading Tahar Djaout's The Last Summer of Reason, a barely-veiled satire of the Islamist madness that was gripping Algeria in the late 80s and early 90s.  It is a small, beautiful book, made more tragic by Djaout's assasination at the hands of fanatics worried about the power of his words.  The manuscript for the book was found after his murder, and it is drenched with a tragic foretelling. 

Anyway, I wanted to type out a couple of passages that echoed what we've been talking about with the niqab, and the way fanaticism warps the relationship between the sexes. They might be slight exaggerations, but the mentality behind them is implicit in extremism. 

A man and a woman in the street, deeply engrossed in a griendly discussion.  She has no wish to avoid him.  He, the brute guided by his sex, does not think of throwing himself on her and knocking her down.  She is not hiding her face because she fears that might awaken the beast in hum.  He does not flee from her because he fears the devil in him might control his decisions.

Boualem Yekker is thinking of scenes that were once normal and natural, of men and women having discussions like human beings with reason, restraint and consideration; people capable of friendship, affection, respect, civic responsibility, and anger- men and woman so vastly different from the watchful beasts they have since become to each other.

From inside his store, through the triangle cut by the open door, he watches the black shapes, the hermetically sealed fabric that leaves no trace whatever of a human body.  Women are hiding inside, cursed beings of temptation and lust to be ignored by the eyes of the believer.  Sometimes he sees couples pass by, a strange togetherness of two people who avow no bond; the man, most often bearded, restricted by his hybrid garb of gandoura and jacket or an overcoat; the woman, entirely invisible inside her black tower.

The whole book is achingly sad and powerfully written and well worth reading, a masterpiece of the importance of doubt against certainty, and of words against The Word.  Well worth a read.

The Yemeni Food Crisis

One of the reasons the Yemeni government is so toxic and discredited is because of its inability to provide a decent standard of living for many of its people.  Of course, there are some structural reasons for this, and it is not entirely the fault of the government.  There is clearly fault there, of course, but in some ways it is irrelevant.  When someone is in charge, any failure becomes their responsibility. 

Over at The American Chronicle, hunger expert William Lambers writes about the growing food crisis in Yemen, which is unable to feed itself.   Lambers estimates that it will take about $78 million to keep Yemen from starving- which is a lot, but not that much in the big picture, especially when you consider the consequences of a failed state.

What Lambers doesn't mention is just how corrupt Yemen is, and how difficult it is to give aid to such a corrupt and broken system.  I think that the food crisis presents the world the perfect opportunity to learn how to work outside the system, and deal directly with the increasingly autonomous regions outside central control.  Not only is this the moral thing to do, but it is also one of the ways that the West can help to fix its image in Yemen. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's Feierstein

Laura Rozen at Politico reports that it is confirmed that Gerald Feierstein is getting the nomination to be the next US Ambassador to Yemen.  She was also nice enough to link to this blog.  We'll have a lot more on this as the week progresses.

Hat tip to Daniel Lippman for sending me the story. 

Guest Post- Haley Sweetland Edwards on the niqab

(I'm always reluctant to talk about the niqab, the veil, etc- my thoughts are scattered, and, being a guy, fraught with a certain remove.  So I asked top-notch journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards, of the Sana'a Bureau, to guest-post her thoughts and observations.  She graciously obliged.  Read her thoughts below- it is an excellent essay.)  

Brian asked me a few weeks ago if I’d guest blog about the niqab. I agreed, and then immediately regretted it. It’s a huge topic, full of secret trapdoors and perilous questions of cultural relativism and all kinds of things that could get me in all kinds of trouble with my Western and Yemeni friends alike.

Still, I’ve given my word, so here are my thoughts. Please, feel free to set me straight.

But first, because Western journalists are always messing this up, here’s a definition of what we’re talking about:  The niqab refers to the black veil that a woman wears over her face, obscuring her chest, neck, mouth, nose and – often enough – her eyes. (Niqabs come with a thin cloth layer that women can wear flapped down over their eyes.) The niqab is not to be confused with the hijab, which covers only the head and hair. The balto, a.k.a., the abaya, is the long formless cloak; the burqa is the head-to-toe cloak with mesh for the eyes, most often worn in Central Asia.

Conservative Yemenis and (often male) Western journalists often refer to the niqab as “just another item of clothing.” I’d like to go on the record to say that’s completely absurd. It’s a lazy phrase that, while presumably an attempt at assuaging cultural imperialism, completely misses the point. The niqab is not like a tie. It’s not like a t-shirt. It’s not like high heels. It is a long black cloth worn over the face.  The very function of the niqab is to obscure a person’s identity. It’s an invisibility cloak by design. No other “item of clothing” does that.

Which brings us to the function of the niqab. All the imams, sheikhs and conservative politicians I’ve spoken to on the subject say the end goal of the niqab is twofold: 1) to preserve a woman’s modesty, and 2) to protect her brothers’/father’s/husband’s honor, which is assailed if their women’s modesty is compromised by, say, being seen by someone outside her family. “If a man were to see a woman’s body and face” – a woman’s lips, he said, are similar to her private parts – “the man would be overcome with sexual yearning, which would endanger the woman,” an imam from Sana’a told me last fall. Women in the West don’t wear niqab, which is the reason we have so much rape, he told me. An Islamist member of parliament, Sheikh Ali al-Werafi, likened women to gems, and told me they must be protected from thiefs:  “Wouldn’t you cover up your jewels?”

It should be mentioned here that, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing about the niqab in the Koran. Any mention of women’s dress in the Koran and the accompanying hadiths stipulate only that a woman must dress modestly, according to Ramzia Aleryani, the director of the Women’s Union in Sana, and devout Muslim. Showing her face and hands is fully acceptable.

Most Yemeni women, in my experience in Sanani kitchens, henna shops and salons, have varying opinions on the Niqab Issue.  Some hate it. Others like it, as a public demonstration of their piety. Most have never really thought about wearing or not-wearing it; it’s just what their grandmothers wear, and what their mothers wear and what their friends wear. In Yemen, both Sana’a and the villages around Yemen, almost 90 percent of women wear niqab. Little girls dress up in elastic “training niqabs”; teenage girls take wearing the niqab as a sign of being “grown-up.”

That wasn’t always the case. Women from the former South Yemen didn’t wear the niqab (when it was under British, Socialist, and later, Communist rule). In fact, most women from the South didn’t even start wearing hijab until the ‘90s, when South Yemen unified with the more conservative North Yemen. As a result, lots of Yemeni women who are in their 30s and 40s today grew up dressing in Western-style clothing.

For some, the transition to niqab has been difficult. I spoke to one woman who had gone to a co-ed school in Aden, a port city in Yemen’s south, had male friends, played on sports leagues and wore knee-length skirts (a scandal by today’s standards). Now, she’s clothed in head-to-toe black cloth. She despises it, but said it’s “not worth it” to buck the rules. “If you go out on the street without a niqab, your life is miserable.  People will judge you, your sons, your brothers, your husband. It will bring shame on everyone,” she said. “They will think you’re naughty.”

My friend Faisa Hussein – one of the few Yemeni women with a university education and a job – completely disagreed. She chooses to wear the niqab and is annoyed by Westerners and Western politicians who look at it as a symbol of oppression. I wear [the niqab] because it makes me feel free. When I wear it, I can talk and laugh and eat and smile, and no one looks at me,” she said.  

(And that, of course, brings up an interesting point: Why does she not feel comfortable talking, laughing, eating and smiling in public?)

At any rate, any discussion of the niqab is, of course, a veiled discussion of women’s rights (a horrible pun; apologies). And it shouldn’t be any surprise that women’s rights in Yemen are abysmal. Worse than abysmal. A quarter of all Yemeni girl-children are married before they’re 15 – some as young as 8 or 9 – and half before they’re 18.  Most bear 6.3 children; most never have access to family planning, much less adequate medical care. The majority never learn to read, and those that do – the wealthy, the lucky – still need their brothers’ or fathers’ permission to travel, to enroll in school or to marry, and her testimony is worth only half of a man’s in court. Most spend their lives bearing children. Referring to a woman by name is considered rude in many circles; she is a “wife of” or a “daughter of.”

In that context, Faisa’s right. Western politicians’ obsession with the niqab as a symbol of oppression is annoying – mostly because it dramatically misses the point.  Women in Yemen – indeed, women in much of the Middle East – are up against illiteracy, poverty, domestic abuse, child marriage, honor killings, poor heath care and unequal access to legal representation. Let’s address that, and then worry about what they’re wearing on their faces.