Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Jan 18th, 2017

War with the Sexes

Much has been written about the age-old war “of” the sexes, pitting males against females. When Muslim women in niqab are written about in the West, it is invariably about the patriarchal mode that is said to reduce them to mere chattel. The specter of fully covered Muslim women haunts both the liberal and conservative elements of Europe. There is, so to speak, a blanket condemnation of the gender because of the dress.

But in the absurd mass rally media age we live in, there is also the propaganda value of war “with” the sexes, women as virtual soldiers, marching to show their support of violent resistance. This was the case reported yesterday in Yemen, where the Huthi-led regime brought out hundreds, if not thousands of niqab-bearing women armed with a range of weapons, including phallic-shaped anti-tank guns. These women were protesting the fact that the U.N. has now officially stated that the death toll in the bombing campaign and civil strife against the Huthis has resulted in over 10,000 deaths.

War is no respecter of gender, any more than in real life. Almost all soldiers in this conflict are male, many young men in their teens. But women and children are inevitably innocent victims of what is usually dismissed by the one doing the killing as “collateral damage.” Yemeni women do not really wage war, but they suffer from its consequences with the loss of brothers, fathers, husbands and sons and the brutal humanitarian crisis that has disrupted all aspects of life in this poor country.

There is something chilling about the photographs circulating in the media reportage of this protest march. The unnecessary deaths they protest are a legitimate goal, but the fact that the weapons are a prop and the weapons are symbolic trivializes the sad reality of a killing field. A woman in niqab may be seen as a social or cultural victim, but a more potent image would be a woman’s body exposed, such as Delacroix’s 1830 “La Liberté guidant le peuple,” where the flag bearer has her breasts exposed. Metaphorically the conflict in Yemen, no matter who is doing the fighting, is an act of rape. There is nothing noble in the fighting, nor in this contrived hollow show of these women. Yemen is being stripped before our eyes, humiliated and violated. This should not be covered up, as it has been for almost two years in the international media.

So who was this protest intended for? Obviously the tabloids delight in such exotic images. Are the Huthis trying to out-salafize the ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi view of women? Are they saying they are more authentically Islamic then their neighbor who has been saying they are not for several decades? Are they reaching out to fellow Muslims around the world to say that their war is a righteous jihad, their intentions as pure as the idealized covered women? Or is it to maintain support for an unwinnable war, a stalemate that does nothing to lighten the burden of constant fear, lack of health services, electricity, water and hope?

War remains hell, no matter which sex is on parade. Yemen’s descent into a living hell will not be checked by a media-made war with the sexes, especially not one generated for political show rather than spontaneously rising from the agony of suffering.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.