The civil war in Yemen has been taking its murderous toll for over a year. It has affected virtually every household in some way or another; husbands have been killed, wives have become widows and children have become orphans. According to the United Nations, the death toll has reached more than 8000, half of them civilians. Human rights groups say the true toll is even higher.
Some of the people most badly affected are the widows. When married women with children become widows, they have two choices – to keep their children or to remarry. If they choose to keep their children, they are unlikely to have enough money to support them; if they chose to remarry they lose their children who will be brought up by the in-laws.
What happens in most cases is that widows choose to raise their children, live in poverty and automatically forfeit their right to remarry. While the official mourning period of a widow is 130 days, in effect she is condemned to suffer for the rest of her life.
Here are the stories of some of these women:
Hanan: 'You have no children, I don’t need to give you anything'
A 22-year-old graduate of from Sana’a University with a major in radio and television, Hanan Al-Ajmi suffered grievously when her husband was killed in 2014. Not only did she lose her unborn child, but she has been sorely mistreated by her husband’s family. Her father remains her sole companion and provider.
The Media Line visited her father’s modest home north of the Yemeni capital Sana’a to hear her story. “Where should I start?” she asks. “With the loss of my husband? The loss of my child? My husband’s family’s treatment of me? My current loneliness?”
Hanan continues, “I live in my father’s house, without my husband Mohammed, and without my son who died the same day as his father. I was four months pregnant when I received news of his death, I collapsed, lost consciousness and miscarried.”
What happened next is typical of how Yemeni women are treated when their husbands die.
“Two days after Mohammed’s death, his father comes to the home we shared, takes the keys to his car, his ID and credit cards, and accuses me of stealing the cash my husband had in his bank account.” Her father-in-law refused to help her, claiming that, “since you have no children, I don’t need to give you anything.”
Hanan desperately sought help to allow her to get by until she found a job. She even went to her husband’s place of work.
“I went to Yemen Today TV station, where my husband worked, but they refused to give me his salary, saying that since we had no children, his father and mother would get the salary ($325 per month).
When The Media Line contacted an official at Yemen Today, he contended that Hanan had come to them with no proof that she was the correspondent’s wife.
Hanan says she advised her husband not to work for Yemen Today, which was owned by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and was thus a target of anti-Houthi coalition forces. “But he would not listen to me. He risked his life for his work and now I am alone.”
A widow in Yemen is not deemed desirable marriage material, especially if she has offspring. Even though Hanan has no children, it is unlikely she will find a man of her age. Most widows, no matter what their age, marry older men who take them as second and sometimes even as third wives.
She says that her husband was a man who took pride in what he did and “he always told me that he wanted to become minister of information, but he also said his life was in danger because he worked for a TV station targeted by the Saudi-led coalition.”
Mohammed Shamsan, a broadcaster at Yemen FM radio station and a correspondent for Yemen Today TV, both owned by former President Saleh, was killed by the fall-out from a bombing strike that hit his micro-bus in front of Yemen Today.
According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists, 12 media professionals, including photographers, broadcasters and correspondents, have been killed in Yemen since early 2015.
Ghania: 'My life is over'
Just 25-years-old, Ghania al-Mejalli, whose name means “radiant beauty,” has been shrouded in black since the day her husband Al-Meqdad was killed. Her dark clothes only serve to highlight the pallor of her skin and make her look older than her years. When her husband was alive, she lived in his parents’ home, but since his death she has been living with her father in Sana’a, in the house in which she grew up.
Ghania is still in the official Islamic mourning period for a widow who is required to remain at home and live as simply and modestly as possible.
Tears fall onto the photo she is holding of her husband as she relates her story. “My life is over. Without Meqdad I have nothing, I am nothing” she says, biting her lower lip and brushing away her tears. “Meqdad was my aunt’s son. I married him two years ago, in a traditional ceremony. I did not love him at the beginning, but after we married, I loved him more than any woman has ever loved a husband.”
Meqdad, a free-lance journalist, translator and an avid photographer, who worked for several media outlets including VOA and IRIN, was killed on January 17 in an air strike which targeted a resort-village south of Sana’a.
Ghania relates, “Meqdad used to work for humanitarian organizations and the Houthis threatened to murder him if he continued working in journalism and translating for foreigners. I believe he was targeted by the Saudi-led coalition for reasons unknown to me. He was the only person killed in the air strike.”
Meqdad’s father, mother and three brothers, as well as his wife, relate that he told them he was a target and they should expect his death.
Crying again, Ghania says, “My relationship with Meqdad’s family is very good. I am not going to demand any inheritance from them. I had no children with him so I have no right to demand anything.”
Takiya, Samira and Belquees: Looking after each other
Abdulrahman Al-Ghaimani from Sanhan district in Sana’a Province was killed five months ago in Marib province while fighting for the Houthis against the Saudi-led coalition. He left behind three widows and seven orphans who all live in difficult circumstances after their sole provider died in the brutal war.
The three women try to survive by selling items they produce and farming their land. They refused to remarry because they would lose custody of their children, so they decided to face life together as a team.
The first wife, named Takiya, meaning “pious” in Arabic, grew up in Sana’a Province without a formal education. She married Ghaimani, her cousin, 10 years ago. When he died she was in her forties and was considered too old to remarry. She became the head of her extended family and their main provider. She sells bread and firewood in Sana’a city to help make ends meet.
Because Takiya was unable to bear children, Ghaimani married a second wife from Ibb Province named Samira, now in her thirties, who studied till the sixth grade. She has two daughters who make janbiya belts for the daggers which Yemeni men must wear on special occasions.
The youngest and third wife Belqees is from Old City of Sana’a city. She bore Ghaimani three boys and two daughters, her eldest son is six. She tries to help support her family by making clothes. She was successful at this until the electricity supply failed several months ago and fuel became too expensive to be able to run a generator.
Ghaimani was a rich sheikh who made a comfortable living from several farms he owned. He also had additional income from resolving tribal conflicts. All the women still live in one house and there is a strong bond between them, which is very rare for women in their position.
However, because of the desperate situation in the country the family is in such dire straits that they make do with the simplest and cheapest foods, such as porridge with chili.
Their cousins, sons of their late husband’s brother, are trying to take everything from them – not a surprising occurrence in Yemen. There a numerous cases of distant relatives attempting to usurp the property of the deceased, especially when the person who stands to inherit is a female.
Though this family owns several properties which could easily be turned into income they haven't managed to accomplish this because they lack the knowledge and skills to do so. Their life experience consists of being housewives. This is the case with many rural women.
Ironically, traditional-minded men, who believe in jihad against the Saudis or combating the shame of being invaded by other countries, end up as casualties of the civil war. Meaning there is no shortage of widows who are left to face life on their own without ever being trained to do so.