Jemen – Nadia al-Sakkaf – Interview

alsakkafIn 1990 your father founded the „Yemen Times“, the first independent and widely read English-language newspaper. After his death in 2005 you became editor in chief. Did many people oppose against a woman in such a powerful position?
My father passed away in 1999, my older brother Walid took over until 2005 when the torch of the family legacy was handed over to me. Within the organization there was a lot of objections, some subtle and others more vocal. It was because they did not consider a woman, and a young woman at that, capable of managing a significant organization. Also many thought they had more right than I to lead, although we did try looking inside the organization to see if there was someone who could fill the part and we did not. Many did not like being managed by a woman and so objected not in the beginning but later when they saw that I meant business.
From outside the organization there were many bets that I would bring in the doom of the family business. Needless to say that I proved them all wrong.

At the “Women In the World”-Conference in 2014 you told Jon Stewart in an interview that while acknowledging the harsh winter that has followed the Arab Spring you still think that undeniable advances for women were made. What advances did you mean exactly?
For Yemeni women, prior to the events of 2011, taking part in the political debate and public life was unheard of. However, because many opposition parties wanted to prove that their demand for regime change was substantiated by hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, both men and women, they literally transported women in busses from their homes and took them to protest in the streets and gave them posters, banners and pictures to carry. The same happened with the former regime party which was fighting for its legitimacy. Women found themselves suddenly celebrated and encouraged to shout their lungs out in the streets and started learning jargons and terms that have to do with freedoms, human rights, citizenship, equality, justice, etc. Although they were not “empowered” by mere participating in those events, but they were introduced to politics and intrigued by the experience. They started having access to social media and political debates which contributed to their awareness. This exposure cannot be undone and is one, if left to its natural evolution would have taken many years to be achieved.

After 12 years you gave up your position as editor in chief for the Yemen Times to become Yemen’s first female Minister of Information. Was it a hard decision and what did you hope to achieve in your new position?
It was the hardest decision I had taken in my entire life. And many days I regret it because it turns out gender discrimination is there even at the highest levels. I found that political positions are predominately a man’s world and even if you prove your worth and your ability there are always those “men’s clubs” and networks that exclude women. Obviously there is also the men’s mentality that women remain inferior and their political judgment may not be sound. Also, in the public sector there was so much corruption and unprofessionalism that would have required drastic measures in order to be fixed and I was concerned that maybe Yemen is not ready for a professional technocrat to make things work, and it turns out I was right.
But it was an interesting eye opening experience, one that I had learned so much from and one that had put my life in danger several times even more than an independent free journalist.

Last year you were forced to flee the country with your family after Houthi rebel fighters wanted to kill you. Can you tell us about your flight?
It was with the help of my friends at the UN who helped me and my two kids get into the last charted flights evacuating UN staff. At the time my husband was in Cairo for a conference and I did not know if I will ever see him again. Securing those seats on that small plane saved my life and I had to wear a veil in order not to be noticed. I waited for hours with my two kids until the final step where there was a passport check and people were allowed to board the plane. I surrendered my passport to the man who came asking for them. He stared at it and then asked: Are you the information minister? I said yes, as thousands of scenarios flashed through my head thinking about the different consequences for my identity being exposed, the least of which they would send me back and put me under house arrest. But it was a miracle and this man was sympathetic. He was working with the central security of the former regime and at the time the disagreements between Saleh’s people and the Houthis had just started. The former regime’s security were trained and much more educated than the Houthi rebels, although the later were the ones in charge and this had led to resentment. He told me to stay put and hold on to my passport – and that of my kids – until the last minute so as to be the last or among the last passengers to board the plane so as try and not give Houthis much time to contemplate over my situation. My good fortune also was that the Houthi man who was the making the final check on passports was a young man in his early twenties who did not really know who I was. I gave him my passport with that of my kids, he glanced at it, gave it back to me and I walked quickly towards the plane. The officer who had helped me before came rushing after me and whispered that I should run for it and get into the plane because the young Houthi had second thoughts and called his superiors to enquire about me. Because of the way Houthis operate, they have a long chain of command and so by the time the man in the airport knew who I really was the plane had taken off. Overwhelmed with relief I tore my veil and hugged my kids and celebrated our escape. It is true that we lost our home, our cars, our memories and everything we owned in Yemen to the Houthis, but at least we have each other and we are still alive and safe, something that I can’t say for millions of Yemenis who are now living in very sad and difficult circumstances.

Another widely known Yemenite feminist, the Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, had to flee after Houthi rebels attacked her home. Are you still in contact with other Yemenites living in exile?
I am in contact with Tawakkol and many others, one day we will return and contribute to rebuilding our country.

I am sure you’ll never forget the night of January 20th, 2015, when the rebels took the capital. Instead of hiding you logged on to your Twitter account and kept the world up-to-date through the night. Your first tweet said “It’s a coup. The presidential palace has been attacked.” Weren’t you afraid?
I think it was the adrenaline rush and the feeling of responsibility as Information Minister. I thought, if I did not say what was going on and inform the people who will? I was scared but also it was like I was driven by some force that took over me and pushed me for many hours. Looking back now, I think what was I thinking?!

Right now you are living in London with your family, you are currently making your PhD in politics. I am sure you are the only former minister in your class. Was it difficult to adjust to this new life? Was it difficult for your family?
I am actually living in Reading not London, I am studying at University of Reading. Not many people know about my background and I did not disclose unless there was a reason. I did not feel any different as minister because I was very real and I knew even when I took up the position that it was temporary and that in two years I was to go back to my regular life as an editor. I had a mission to work with other like-minded people in the cabinet of professionals and to save the country’s economy and put it in the right track for the future. It turned out the position was much more temporary than I thought. Even as minister I did not really assume the position with the luxury that comes with it and worked hard every day to make a difference. I did not have much time for my family back then and in fact being here today and assuming the less exciting life of a researcher is much better for my family and my kids who see more of me now.

After decades of being demonized by the US, Iran emerged from international isolation with the nuclear deal. How significant is the part Iran plays in the Yemen war in your opinion?
It proves to the fact that what is happening in Yemen is beyond us and that there is a larger picture that we need to understand and deal with. If we just look into the past and read from history we would be able to understand what is going on today in better light. Unfortunately Yemeni decision makers have a very short memory.

Many people I talk to think it will take Yemen decades (if ever) to rise again from the war’s destruction. What do you think and can you imagine yourself returning to Yemen?
I do sadly tend to agree that it will take decades, two if we are lucky, to rise again. This is because the damage is not just physical and the loss is not just the lives and infrastructure. It is the social texture and the trust in the nation and the role of the government/state. This is very dangerous because we had just started to talk and advocate for a civic state and now it’s every man for himself, even the tribal system has failed.

The conflict in your country has been marginalized in the media because of the bigger conflict in Syria. If you’d be a member of the European Parliament what would you change about the way Europe is handling (or not handling) the refugee crisis?
I would bring to their attention the plight of my people and the hidden war they don’t seem to recognize. It’s not just the Houthi rebellion and their atrocities – which is not even acknowledged in the west – it is also the indiscriminating air strikes and the lack of accountability. It is the double standards of international organizations and countries who would rather deal with the power in charge than the legitimate one because they are concerned with their best interests and the so-called war on terror. They refuse to understand that if you acknowledge that powers in charge even if they are undemocratic and committing terrorist crimes, you are encouraging this trend of power taking over and encouraging more bloodshed and instability.

Let’s finish with the million-dollar-question: what is the solution to the war in Yemen?
It is actually straight forward but unfortunately it is one that cannot come from outside. Only Yemenis can stop this war and make Yemen safe again. But we have not had enough of bloodshed and are blindingly following power hungry selfish leaders who don’t care about anything but themselves. Yemenis need to wake up realize what they are doing and throw their weapons and start working together to pick up the pieces and rebuild their country. There is so much baggage and so many divisions and grievances that prevent this from happening. We keep looking at the past and this is not letting us focus on the future.