by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.Nisma Mansoor likes to watch “Game of Thrones” and wear make-up. She peppers her Facebook wall with emojis, memes, and selfies. She studies the same subjects that her parents did in college. She has a blog and a part-time job at an NGO. A feminist with liberal political convictions, Nisma wants to work as a hydraulic engineer. In Europe or North America, no one would think twice about such a typical collegian. It might shock Westerners, then, to learn that Nisma lives in Yemen.
At twenty-two years old, Nisma is finishing her last year at the University of Aden, the country’s second-largest city and one of the few that the Yemeni government still controls after Iranian-backed rebels seized the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014. The circuitous path that encouraged Nisma to become a hydraulic engineer and feminist parallels Yemen’s own complex history with women’s rights.
From 1967 to 1990, Yemen struggled with the same division that plagued Germany, Korea, and Vietnam during the Cold War. Pro-Western nationalists governed North Yemen from Sana’a while South Yemen, the only communist state in the Arab world, had its capital at Aden. Women’s rights in Aden flourished under the socialist regime. Some women even joined the army and the police.
The South’s progressive, secularist social policies encouraged women such as Nisma’s mother, herself a communist, to seek advanced degrees. Her parents met at a university in Baku, then part of the Soviet Union. Her father was studying hydrogeology, her mother petroleum engineering.When Nisma was born in 1994, the year of a brutal civil war between northerners and southerners after Yemen’s 1990 unification, her parents emphasized the importance of female education in a country that had been at the forefront of women’s rights in the Arab world.
“My childhood was very good,” Nisma reflected. “I was raised by very caring parents. I grew up in a family that values education.” Her parents enrolled her in an international school because of the tribal conservatism that had started creeping into Yemen’s state schools. After the northerners defeated the southerners in the 1994 civil war, they imposed family laws restricting women’s rights on Aden.
Whereas Nisma’s parents had learned Russian, she studied English with the hope of one day attending an American or European university. Nisma could study civil engineering at the University of Aden, but only a foreign education could offer expertise in hydraulic engineering. “I want to be a women’s rights activist and engineer to be the voice of southern women while helping them with their quality of life,” she told me. Smiling behind a blue headscarf, Nisma plans to confront two of Yemen’s greatest challenges at once: gender apartheid and water scarcity.
“Yemeni women face severe discrimination in all aspects of their lives,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2013. “Women cannot marry without the permission of their male guardians; they do not have equal rights to divorce, inheritance or child custody, and a lack of legal protection leaves them exposed to domestic and sexual violence.” The ongoing civil war that began in 2015, meanwhile, worsened a water crisis in one of the world’s driest, poorest countries. “While the war is going on, the water level in the aquifer is going down, so the problem may end up being bigger than the war,” said William Cosgrove, a water expert and former World Bank water resources specialist for the Middle East.“Everyone can build a house, but being a hydraulic engineer means changing people’s lives,” Nisma observed over Facebook Messenger. “I’ve seen people who spend their entire days looking for something to drink. Girls who should be in school are instead searching for water.” For Nisma, fighting water scarcity equals fighting for women’s rights on her terms.
“Nisma’s approach to studying hydraulic engineering for development purposes actually fits very well within the framework Yemeni women’s movements have established since the outset—framing the issues as national duties, rather than women’s issues per se,” remarked Natana Delong-Bas, a professor at Boston College specializing in women and gender in the Muslim world. “This has long been a way for women to make a contribution seen to have national purpose.”
Hundreds of women like Nisma attend Yemeni universities, yet they face difficulties translating their education into employment. “All universities in Yemen have over 60 percent female enrolment, but it doesn’t transfer to the workforce,” said Fernando Carvajal, an academic who has lived in Aden and Sana’a and runs the blog Diwan. Extremists from al-Qaeda and ISIS have also threatened the University of Aden for failing to implement sex segregation. According to Nisma, they once kidnapped the dean.
For Nisma to become a hydraulic engineer, she will likely have to study in Europe or North America. She considered applying to American universities through the Fulbright Program, but Executive Orders 13769 and 13780, US President Donald Trump’s attempt at a Muslim ban, torpedoed those plans because they prevent Yemenis from obtaining visas to the United States. “I hope you get rid of Trump soon,” said Nisma. “He’s insane.”
While looking for alternative programs in other Western countries, Nisma is focusing her efforts closer to Aden. “She loves her city.” noted Mohammed al-Qalisi, one of her friends from Aden. “As a community activist, she’s become a decisionmaker, putting forward her vision to help our civil society fight different bad attitudes and habits,” added Nazar Nasser Ali Haitham, like Nisma an agitator for the South’s return to independence. Nisma’s job as a monitoring and evaluation assistance at RNW Media, a Dutch NGO promoting freedom of the press and speech, ensures that her community hears her voice.
“While most of the women in world enjoy their lives and rights, women in Yemen are fighting every day to get their basic needs,” Nisma wrote on Facebook. “They fight each and every day to ensure that their children will have clean water to drink and food to eat.” To her, the fight against gender apartheid and water scarcity are the same battle, and she plans to lead it.