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A large, swelling, shape-shifting mass of black cloth covered the streets of Sana'a, extending to the horizon. It was showing on our newsroom's muted TV screen, but no one was watching. This sight has become quite common in Yemen's version of the 2011 Arab Spring but it never fails to affect me.
It's amazing how much more you see when there is no sound. The TV camera zoomed in and the black mass started breaking into smaller black masses with little black arms holding banners and pictures.
I turned the volume on and the enraged chants of agitated Yemeni women protesting against the former regime flooded the humming newsroom, startling the reporters. They watched for a couple of minutes, then I turned off the sound and everyone returned to their computers. Some looked at me with questioning eyes, others simply shrugged and went back to work - they have seen it all before.
This image of a mass of black coming to life and being a collection of specific people has affected my perception of the female body. It is a well-known fact that in conservative Muslim countries like Yemen, women cover their entire body. Sometimes even their eyes will be hidden behind translucent black fabric that allows them to look out but not be seen.
In my subconscious mind I had not associated these fully covered women with activism, strength, let alone a revolution. But I have been forced to reconsider. Yemeni women were - oddly - allowed by their male guardians (husbands, fathers or even political party leaders) to venture into the streets and participate in making political change.
I say “allowed” because even when they were flooding the streets of Yemen with their black veils and black abayas demanding change, they were still organised and instructed by men. Although they temporarily changed the landscape physically as they worked to change it politically, yet all the while they were under male control.
In my country there is a complicated relationship between the female body and the traditionally accepted dress code in public and in private. The predominantly black, modest, covered public image of women in Yemen is a screaming contrast with their private selves. At women-only parties, for example, you see the latest western fashion: blooming young women wearing miniskirts and revealing tops flaunt their bodies on the dance floor, showing off every asset in seductive belly-dance. Their hair is carefully done, stroked with colours, and every part of their body displays meticulous beautifying, including black henna tattoos and painted toenails. Behind closed doors, Yemeni women spend their husbands' money on party dresses, accessories and cosmetics. There is a rule that no one party dress should be worn twice, as other women have already seen it.
In public, though, women's body parts are rendered as indistinguishable as possible. Many women dress in a way that does not reveal whether they are fat or thin, whether they have a long neck or wide hips. Moreover, men who set the rules of the dress code for women in public are not satisfied unless women look plain and ugly. Women are expected to be modest to the point of invisibility, to cloak their individuality, to be non-threatening and not enticing, draped in depressing black.
There's an interesting story behind why black is the common colour for Arab women's veils and outdoor dresses. Apparently in the past, women liked to wear all colours except black. So one fabric merchant sought the help of a famous poet to create a poem in order to market the unwanted fabric. The poet created a three-line song about the beauty of a woman in a black veil distracting a monk from his worship. This poem-turned-song worked and soon the black fabric was sold out. Since then, Arab women have worn black for their outdoors covering dress. Maybe remembering this romantic story will make the sight of a sea of black clothing less depressing. Now, though, women wear black because that’s how things are.
Women of other Muslim countries also dress conservatively. For example, Afghanistan has blue and Iran has white. I believe this is something that we in Yemen need to look at in order to change women's perception of our public presence. Perhaps transforming Yemen's "women in black" to women in colour would encourage a sense of individuality and adventure, contributing to women's empowerment in the long run.
In our struggle for a more distinguished and empowered public presence, we as Yemeni women can start by having the freedom to wear colourful outdoor dresses. So far, only active women with strong leadership attitudes dare to dress differently, they are confident enough to challenge the norm and face the societal backlash.
Now is the time to create a supportive environment that enables all Yemeni women to feel safe enough to dress differently.
In the 2011 Yemeni version of the Arab Spring, the black masses of Yemeni women in the country’s streets contributed to creating drastic change in Yemen’s political situation alongside the men of the revolution.
It may seem like a small thing to women who can choose to wear whatever colours they wish, but in Yemen, appearance can be equally revolutionary.
We must find a way to respect our identity as Yemenis and Muslims while presenting ourselves as individual women. I want all Yemeni women to be able to walk outside their homes and tell the world: “Hey, this is me… I am here!” instead of the dominant attitude of wanting to merge into blackness and become invisible in the crowd.
Our freedom, as Yemeni women, in having a say in how we present ourselves in public would truly reflect our individual and collective spirit, vitality and leadership. It could be a first step to taking our rightful place in rebuilding the country, deciding its future and leading it there.
As Yemeni women we should take courage from our participation in creating regime change to create cultural change.
Imagine this: Instead of my TV screen being a sea of anonymous women in black, I look up and see individual Yemeni women being themselves, speaking their mind, making change, in living colour. I look forward to the day I see those women, all different, all unique, on my nation’s streets.