BERKELEY, Calif. -- Not long ago, I attended a lecture at UC Berkeley’s law school. It was just before sunset and about 100 Yemeni Americans -- mostly young men -- filled the room to see and hear their countrywoman, 34-year old Tawakkul Karman. She’s the activist and revolutionary who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for sparking the revolution that ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdalla Saleh.
Karman is the first Arab woman, the second Muslim woman, and one of the youngest people ever to receive the Nobel Prize. Yemenis in the room look proud. Gesturing with her arm in the air, Karman chants the famous revolutionary Arabic poem with which she roused Yemeni streets, which translates to, “If the people want life, then that must be their destiny. The sun must rise, the shackles must break.” The room echoes her words.
Karman is a journalist with a degree in political science and an honorary doctorate in international law. But she’s a rarity in Yemeni society, where only about half of girls go to school and the female illiteracy rate stands at 67 percent -- the highest in the Arab world.
That’s in Yemen. You might think things change when Yemenis migrate with their families to countries with high female literacy rates, like the United States. But they haven’t.
For example, in 2009, only nine Yemenis graduated from four-year colleges in California. A recent study of Muslims in the Bay Area revealed that the large majority has a high school degree or less, and that, “all Yemeni participants did not know anyone from within their community who was a college graduate,” despite them being mostly second-generation immigrants. Of those nine California college graduates, in 2009, just one was a woman.
Why are the numbers so low? In terms of the men, Yemenis are people of commerce and trade. Historically, they have been the shopkeepers of the Arab world. Here in the United States, commerce has worked for them as well. Most young men become storekeepers -- the Yemeni American Grocers Association claims its members own 80 percent of Oakland’s liquor stores.
For girls, it’s a much tougher challenge. Yemeni girls are often pulled out of high school to get married, never having the opportunity to go to school.
The American Association of Yemeni Scientists and Professionals is trying to change that. Former president Ahmed Alkholeidi says that in terms of girls’ education, the challenge is immense. He says, “some of the families, if they have the power to have their girls not go to school, even high school, they would do so. But since laws here would not let them do that – that anyone under 18 has to be in school – it’s a must. So they don’t have power over that. So you see many girls go into high school; most of them, if not all, get married at really young ages. The latest will be right after high school.”
If that happens, he says, she gets married right after high school – and mostly, the marriage will happen in Yemen – then a year later, she has a kid. “So, she has to choose: either taking care of her kid or going to school,” he says, “so they end up not going to colleges. And that’s the major problem there.”
AAYSP was started by a group of Yemeni American students and professionals who were tired of their community being known as one of uneducated shopkeepers and illiterate women.
They hold awareness campaigns; they’ve started up Yemeni clubs at local high schools and universities. And, most significantly, they visit with families in their homes and at mosques to talk to them about why an education is necessary, useful and, the bottom line for many families: why it’s financially worth it.
Until 2012, the board and staff of AAYSP’s California chapter consisted of only men. Men are the visible members of Yemeni families here in the Bay Area, which tend to be very conservative. The women lead very private family lives, mostly at home. So, if AAYSP wanted to reach out to women, they would need to recruit a woman from within the Yemeni community.
That woman is Sumaya Albgal.
Albagal was homeschooled for half of junior high and high school because her family didn’t want her to go to schools in Richmond, Calif.; they weren’t comfortable sending her there.
Albagal grew up in Richmond, and still lives there. Her story starts out similar to most Yemenis in the Bay Area: her father comes to America in the 1970s, eventually brings her mom in the ‘80s, buys a liquor store. Albagal was born in 1986. Like most girls in Yemeni families, she was shielded from public school, and then went to Yemen at age 18 to be married.
“I think I chose it because it was a natural trajectory of the expectation my family set for me,” she says, “and also the way I understood my place as a Yemeni woman was: you get married, and that’s kind of where life begins.”
For the majority of Yemeni women here, that’s also where the story ends -- at least in terms of education. But for Al Bagal, things were different. After she had her son in 2005, her parents agreed that she could try out community college.
She says, “My father was very tenacious and ambitious and had high aspirations for his children, but he didn’t know how to translate that -- what it meant in America. There were no examples of it in front of him. But, he would say, ‘I want to establish the girls, because the boys, nobody’s gonna stop them.’”
Albagal went on to community college, then UC Berkeley. She’s now a second year student at UC Hastings College of the Law. She says she’s the first woman in her community to graduate with a degree. A pioneer. Her family is proud, but always well aware of the chatter. Albagal says, “Sure, there was a buzz around the community and the sly comments of, ‘What is that like?’ ‘What time does she get home to take care of her child?’ ‘Who makes dinner?’”
The challenge is a deeply cultural one. Although Bay Area Yemenis live in one of the most inclusive, culturally diverse areas in the country, where women’s rights and women’s education were fought for and championed, they’re wary of what many perceive as a morally corrupt society. It’s the conundrum of being very conservative in the most liberal of places, and it doesn’t help that most Yemenis live in low-income inner city neighborhoods like East Oakland and San Francisco’s Tenderloin district -- places where teen pregnancy rates are high, gangs push drugs, and crime is rampant. This is the America they see and live in. So this is the America they fear.
Bushra Al’absi teaches at the predominantly Yemeni Al-Tawheed Mosque in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, which has a fulltime school. She says she struggles with some parents pulling their daughters out of even an Islamic program, as young as 13 and 14. They’re either kept home, or sent to Yemen to be raised by their aunts and grandmothers. But she never tires of trying to convince them otherwise. Al Absi says, “The parents are too afraid of American society! I have to work with the parents and say, ‘Look, you came to America. These girls need to stay in school. To be educated girls means they will be educated wives and mothers to their children!’ We need to stress the importance of learning and that it does not mean corruption of values.”
Oakland shopkeeper Abdulbaqi Saleh has a 12-year-old daughter. He eloquently sums up the father’s perspective, saying his worst nightmare is that she’ll run off with a college boyfriend. Saleh says he encourages education. “I’m an educated man,” he says, “and I don’t mind my daughter to be educated. But if the right man comes along, marriage is the ideal situation -- instead of losing her to an American boy or something.”
The more people I talk with, the more I get the sense that this is something Yemenis can agree on: that a girl should be married first and foremost. Then she can get an education if she wants. Sumaya Albagal from AAYSP says that because of this, the time to get to most Yemeni women is after marriage. When allowing married women to go to college becomes more normal, they can start on the conversation about letting unmarried girls go to college. They’ve started with celebratory events, like a graduation party AAYSP held for female high school and junior college grads.
Albagal says that was a great experience “because the audience was moved by these women in their graduation robes and so proud of their daughters and these Yemeni women who still look like Yemeni women, who are great girls who are very proud of who they are and who they are representing but were achieving these great levels of success. They’d like it to be a harmony, like, a ‘Let’s move towards change together. Let’s all agree that this is good for us.’”
Three hundred women attended that party -- the highest attendance they’ve had. But Albagal sounds distressed as she talks about how difficult it is to get women to come to smaller meetings and workshops, or even to talk openly about the issue. The community’s privacy stands in the way of these projects. Still, she says, their campaign messages must be getting through. She is starting to see more Yemeni women quietly going to school. No fanfare. No hoopla. But change is happening.
In a few short years, she observes, “the community was willing to put aside their notions of ‘the big scary world out there and lock up your daughters,’ and decided to try.” Albagal believes that speaks to those families who are willing to hear the story, and hear the example of people like her and say, “I want my daughter to do that. And she held on to her roots and enhanced what it’s like to be a Yemeni woman in America. They’re just getting educated, they’re not changing who they are, they’re not adopting another identity.” That, according to Albagal, has given parents a lot of ease and hope.
While AAYSP tries to make change in the community, perhaps what will help are the words of a Nobel Laureate. When I told Tawakkul Karman that local Yemeni girls were being discouraged from college, she frowned and looked down for a minute. Then she looked back up, and sent a direct message to her countrywomen living in the United States.
She said, “In Yemen, girls struggle to go to school and buy books. Here you have all this opportunity in America. Yemeni women! Do not disappear. If you disappear, someone else will take your place, and this is your place. You will not be able to change your future -- your current -- without learning. You have to be in school and in college and I’m sure you’re smart and clever and you will achieve all your goals.”
This story was made possible by New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship.