In July 2010, New York Times foreign correspondent Robert F. Worth published an article titled "Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?" Worth argued that the region was "lawless" and "chronically a war zone," especially after the resurgence of Al Qaeda's operations in the country. Yemeni president All Abdullah Saleh, Worth said, was running the country "like a sheik: using his own tribe as a power base and constantly making deals to head off his rivals." Almost a year later, during the Arab Spring revolutions, Saleh was overthrown after thirty-three years in power. Since then, Yemen has been undergoing a democratic transition, and today, under President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi, it is debating the shape of its future government through the UN-backed National Dialogue Conference. For the first time, women have a seat at the negotiation table. The Journal spoke with Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Adviser on Yemen, about the National Dialogue Conference and how it has succeeded in bringing new actors to the political process. (1)
Journal of International Affairs: What role, if any, did women play during the Arab uprisings and political negotiations in Yemen? Were the rights of Yemeni women included as part of the transition?
Jamal Benomar: Yemen is the only state in the Arab world where there has been a negotiated transition in the context of the Arab Spring. It is also the only transition that has included a genuine national dialogue. It has really opened the way for women's and youth participation in the political process. In other states, such groups participated in the revolution and in the uprisings but then faded away afterwards, as is usually the case.
But one thing we should not forget is that Yemeni society is very conservative. There are not only Islamist movements, but also Al Qaeda, which at that time, controlled a whole province, something that had never happened in Yemen's history. Al Qaeda was in firm control of the province of Abyan, a strategic province in the south. In this conservative society, the role of women during the uprising was remarkable. Yemen remains a very segregated society, yet in the demonstrations, in the uprising, and in the square, we saw the clear, active participation of women in the movement. Many people felt that this movement for change should also lead to something for women, but it was not clear what this would entail.
One thing we did at the UN was engage with women's groups during the uprising. We went to the square and met with them. We tried to understand the agenda they "were promoting. When the parties met for the negotiations, the last thing on their minds was women's rights. At that time, we tried vehemently to make the negotiating parties understand that although we are neutral or impartial on many issues, we are not neutral or impartial when it comes to norms and standards, and women's rights and issues. We have an agenda and we promote UN norms. It was extraordinary for me how these political leaders meeting for the first time to discuss a transition agreement were divided on many issues, but when it came to women's issues, they all spoke with one voice. It was me against all the people in the room.
The main demand from women at that time was to have a quota for women. When the final agreement was finalized after a lot of negotiations, it had many provisions that enabled the empowerment of women. The first is a set of principles that refer to international law, human rights, and good governance. The second was the issue of inclusion--something we were struggling with at that time. What we tried to avoid was an elite deal that was limited to traditional political forces, with only the parliamentary groups negotiating amongst themselves. The problem in Yemen is that there were many...