The repercussions of seven years of war in Yemen have fallen heavily on women. Two scholars, the Yemeni researcher and poet Saba Hamzah and the artist Jihad Jarallah have launched the Yemeni Women Archive to make sure their stories are not lost.
The archive project seeks to document the experiences of women facing marginalisation, exclusion, and daily challenges, Hamzah, who resides in the Netherlands, told Al-Fanar Media.
Through narratives in various forms, the initiative aims to create a unique archive of transformation stories of women and the “gender challenges they face in their various life phases,” Hamzah said. It will serve as “a space for knowledges emerging from women’s experiences and histories in Yemen and the diaspora.”
It will collect and preserve stories of women regardless of their age, or intellectual or political affiliations, she added, noting that these experiences illuminate aspects of change that women make in all fields.
Born in Sanaa, Saba Hamzah left her home country in 2016, seeking refuge in a series of countries before settling in the Netherlands in 2018. There, she became active in writing and research in Dutch higher education institutions. She was recently appointed as a researcher at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands.
On International Women’s Day in 2020, Hamzah received an honourable mention award from Utrecht University’s Rosanna Fund for Women Grants. Last year, she was nominated for the El Hizjra Literature Prize for her first poems in Dutch, a language she learned in the diaspora.
Regarding her motives to launch the Yemeni Women Archive initiative, Hamzah said: “We believe that women in general, and Yemeni women in particular, are history makers through hundreds of incidents, but most of these stories go undocumented and might get lost, especially in times of war. This increases the responsibility and importance of documenting and archiving these stories to preserve them from loss or oblivion.”
“We believe that women in general, and Yemeni women in particular, are history makers through hundreds of incidents, but most of these stories go undocumented and might get lost, especially in times of war. This increases the responsibility and importance of documenting and archiving these stories to preserve them from loss or oblivion.”Saba Hamzah, Yemeni researcher and poet.
Hamzah’s own experience as a refugee had a great impact on her academic interests and research career. It motivated her to dedicate most of her research to women’s issues in Yemen, ways of empowering them, and the difficulties they face.
She attributes her personal motivation behind the archive project to “the constant passion for archiving and preserving memory,” she said. “This is especially true because of my lacking details of my ancestors’ history due to the lack of any pictures of them, or documenting clips of their stories,” she said.
On November 17, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced its support for the initiative’s first activity, the “Mural of She’s”, which aims to create a safe and creative space for women to write their stories.
In the activity’s first phase, seven women writers were invited to produce stories and literary texts. The writers will participate in various workshops that include networking and communication opportunities with writers from Yemen and the Arab world.
Discovering Women’s Strengths
Jihad Jarallah, the project’s co-founder, says the initiative focuses on the Yemeni identity by relating and documenting stories of Yemeni women at home and in the diaspora.
“Women represent the basis of the project,” she said. “This gives us a psychological motivation to continue and develop projects in a way that suits all participating groups.”
Jarallah, who resides in Yemen, is a writer, artist, and sculptor interested in contemporary art. She studied political science at Sana’a University before turning her interests to writing and art. She has been experimenting with sculpture recently and organised a solo exhibition, “Colourful Silence”, in 2017 in Yemen.
Jarallah said that the war has had devastating consequences on all levels, but it has also “rediscovered the capabilities of Yemeni women and unleashed their pent-up energies in all fields.”
“War has no merciful face. It is cruel to all parties, and its anguish is distributed equally to all Yemenis, but women carried an additional burden associated with providing for their families after the majority of women lost their husbands on the frontlines,” she said. “A large number of Yemeni women, regardless of their educational qualifications, entered the labour market, revealing their capabilities in commercial, literary, artistic, and other fields.”
Jarallah was one of these women. As the war progressed, she engaged in an artistic experiment through the Mejdaf project, launched by a private cultural institution in Sana’a. During this project, about 30 various traditional artworks were produced, including sculpture and painting.
“War has no merciful face. It is cruel to all parties, and its anguish is distributed equally to all Yemenis, but women carried an additional burden associated with providing for their families after most of them lost their husbands on the frontlines.”Jihad Jarallah, Yemeni researcher and artist.
Talking about women’s experiences in the shadow of the war, Jarallah said that the role Yemen women played at the height of the fighting gave them a sense of strength and empowerment and helped them rediscover themselves.
“This is one of the stories we seek to document in our archival project,” she said. “This transformation also contributed to a departure from the prevailing stereotype of a woman as a mere wife and a children’s caregiver.”
Hamzah aspires to turn the initiative into an “institution for preserving memory” inside and outside Yemen. Jarallah adds that she hopes to see the initiative’s projects widen to include more women in more regions, especially those who face the difficulties and hardships of war.
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