Passport control: how Yemeni women won the right to travel without a man’s permission
By Abdullah Ali
Manal Al-Shar’oubi was one step away from her dream to begin her masters in law abroad. Having secured a scholarship to study in Canada, she was full of excitement as she headed to the immigration office in Taiz, in Yemen’s southwest, to apply for a passport.
But the 28-year-old’s hopes were crushed: she was told that a passport application by a woman was incomplete without the presence of a male guardian to authorise it. Al-Shar’oubi had been raised by a divorced mother, and, out of spite, her father had refused to accompany her to give his consent for her to travel.
Al-Shar’oubi’s case, along with scores of other Yemeni women, inspired a feminist campaign to overturn arbitrary guardianship restrictions that have long constrained women’s ability to travel in a country that has been ranked among the world’s worst places for women to live.
Olfat al-Dubai, a professor of sociology at Taiz University, says Yemen’s constitution stipulates equality between everyone, and there are no laws that give men guardianship over women. But discriminatory social practices often prevail.
“It has become customary for men to be given advantages over women due to rigid mentalities, tribal traditions, and social upbringings,” says al-Dubai, who co founded the campaign group My Passport Without Guardianship. Yemeni women like al-Shar’oubi are being “deprived of their legitimate rights,” she says.
These restrictions are taking place against a backdrop of eight years of a raging civil war, which has made an already difficult situation for Yemeni women even worse. Violations against women committed by feuding factions in the war include torture, sexual assault, arbitrary arrests and mobility constraints within the country, amid widespread domestic violence.
The conflict has meant more women need to apply for passports so they can leave the country to receive treatment for injuries from the war, or other illnesses. Other women and girls need to leave to seek refuge from the fighting.
“It has been nearly two decades that the passport authority has enforced these legally baseless restrictions,” says Yaser al-Maliky, a lawyer and co-founder of My Passport Without Guardianship alongside al-Dubai. Things “have only deteriorated during the years of war,” he says.
In August 2021, activists from My Passport Without Guardianship began studying the cases of around 80 women who were denied passports. From there, they held a series of conferences to raise awareness of the problem, and to point out that women’s constitutional rights were being breached.
By February, the campaign began staging protests outside the passport authority in Taiz.
Dalia Mohamed, a 27-year-old women’s rights activist who was also denied a passport because she didn’t have a male guardian, said she was harassed and accused of decadence for taking part in the campaign.
“Many men regard women as a likely source of moral corruption, forgetting the role women have played in societal peace throughout the war,” Mohamed says.
Al-Dubai said she became the target of speeches delivered by hard-line preachers in mosques around Taiz who deemed the movement a threat to religious principles and a call for women’s debauchery.
Nor was al-Maliky spared from what he describes as a “patriarchal mentality” – he says he was defamed, harassed and bullied by preachers alongside the other campaign members. But they were undeterred.
“It made me aware of the urgency of pushing through with societal change,” al-Dubai says. “Succeeding in bringing about change in Yemen towards a state of citizenship, order, law and development won’t happen without a social revolution that eliminates all forms of social tyranny.”
In February this year, members of the campaign met with Yemen’s prime minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, in the southern port city of Aden. Following the meeting, the minister of interior instructed various authorities to revise all regulations and to eliminate any factors hindering women from being issued passports.
Rasheda al-Zaidi, the campaign’s coordinator, says this victory “does not only bring relief to women in Taiz, but those in Ma’rib and Aden and other regions under the UN-recognised government”.
The campaign has since set up a hotline for women to report any challenges they face at the passport authority. The good news? “We have not received any complaints,” she says.
Late in March, al-Shar’oubi – the aspiring master’s student – finally applied for her passport without the need for a male guardian to authorise it. Although by then she had lost the scholarship, she says she’s hopeful that with this obstacle gone, she’ll find another way to achieve her dreams.
This story has been published in collaboration with Egab.
— Abdullah Ali is an independent Yemeni journalist whose work mostly focuses on humanitarian issues.
— Mythili Sampathkumar is an independent journalist based in New York.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement, Mythili Sampathkumar and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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