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Finding refuge in art

October 25, 2022
tags:#Yemen, #India, #art, #women's rights, #war
located:Yemen, India
by:Kamran Yousuf, Asma Hafiz
Women and children bear the brunt of the ongoing war and attendant humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This artist is telling their stories.

In a painting, a woman is clad in a long, black gown, wearing a black headscarf, standing while an umbrella shields her from guns falling from the sky. This woman has a map of Yemen drawn on her gown and written on her umbrella are the words: 'We will always fight for Yemen.' The letters are taken from a South Arabian script called Al Musnad - a script used by ancient inhabitants of Yemen.

Eman Mohammad, a 24-year-old Yemini artist, is particularly fond of this piece of art she's made. She says it shows how resilient Yemini women can be, fighting against all odds to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

Mohammad's is originally from Sana'a, Yemen's capital, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the onset of war in Yemen, indiscriminate bombing would leave her trembling and she would seek shelter in the warmth of her family.

Like many members of her generation, Mohammad's life was engulfed in uncertainty as a result of the conflict. According to a 2021 assessment by the Red Cross, around 3 million children in Yemen are unable to attend school.

As she witnessed her beloved hometown being reduced to rubble, Mohammad knew she would have to leave the country for a better future.

She was barely 19 years old when she finally made the difficult decision in 2018 to leave her family behind and relocate to India to pursue a degree in German literature. Leaving for India, Mohammad had to travel through the city of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital, as the Sana'a airport was bombarded. 

As she made her way to the airport, Mohammad thought of all the girls who could not get out of the country and would have to abandon their studies.

"The civil war in Yemen, which started in 2014, badly affected the lives of the ordinary people, in particular the women and students," she told FairPlanet. "As a student, it had become difficult for me to pursue my higher education. Hence, I had to move out of the country for a better future."

Even though Mohammad is now far away from the crisis, the pain of leaving behind her family, who cannot visit her, is etched on her face. This anguish is expressed in one of her paintings, in which her sisters and her are curled up in the safety of their mother’s embrace. 

Since war erupted in Yemen, women and children have suffered the brunt of its chaos, and many of them were left homeless.

Yemen is a patriarchal society, and the war has compounded the country's deeply-rooted gender inequality, making women more vulnerable to violence and burdening them with additional responsibilities - both domestic and economic. 

For instance, a growing lack of access to clean water at home has meant that women have to travel for several hours a day to fetch potable water from water tanks. 

There are also security concerns pertaining to women, which include attacks during female-led protests and demonstrations and frequent assaults on women who walk around unaccompanied by male chaperons. 

"When your voices are being silenced and you are not allowed to speak up for your rights, art becomes the medium to speak even louder," Mohammad explained. "Through my art, I am trying to make people listen to the voices of the women in Yemen."

Mohammad was admitted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, a reputable public university located in India’s capital New Delhi, and she was settling down in her new home, she thought things were finally falling into place.

Alas, with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic she had no option but to stay in Delhi, as reuniting with her family back home was neither a viable nor a safe option.  

A Devastating War

Yemen has been shattered by a multi-sided conflict involving local, regional, and international actors, with civilians grappling with unfathomable devastation.

According to the UN Crisis Relief, Yemen is experiencing one of the most acute humanitarian crises in the world. In a country of 29 million people, the agency states. 24 million people depend on some form of humanitarian assistance.

As of the end of 2021, the war has killed 377,000 people both directly and indirectly due to hunger and disease. 

According to the World Food Programme, almost half of the country is facing food shortages, which has given rise to chronic malnutrition in children. 

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, and the UN estimates that 58 percent of its population is living in extreme poverty.  

And while the impact of war has been debilitating for the general population, women particularly are being disproportionately affected.

As per the United Nations Population Fund, the demand for support services for women increased by 36 percent in 2017, and to a lack of support groups, many cases of gender-based violence go unreported - yet are no specific laws to safeguard their wellbeing.  

When questioned about the situation in Yemen, Mohammad took a long pause. She was struggling to express her anguish, which she evidently grew used to locking away.

"I don’t prefer to comment on the situation in Yemen," she finally said, "But the international community and civil societies out there should really try hard to see what is actually happening in Yemen right now."

Showcasing the Plight of Yemini Women

As she rummaged through her paintings, Mohammad talked about the daily challenges  Yemeni women face. Most of her paintings showcase the stories of these women: Their experiences of war, their struggles and aspirations. All these women share a sense of hope and resilience, Mohammad said - something that is reflected in her work.

In one of her paintings, a group of women are standing together; despite the hardships, they carry with them a symbol of Yemeni heritage: The buildings of Sana'a's Old City, which have a distinctive architectural style.

"The resilience of Yemeni women, their active participation in society, and their capacity for self-reliance in spite of the burdensome constraints they face and the fears [...] are what my paintings are about."

Raising awareness through paintings

When Covid hit, Mohammad found refuge in art.  Thousands of miles away from her home, she was stuck in a hostel room for months.

"The longing for home was beyond words," she said. "At the same time, I was anxious to see my family and my homeland. I couldn’t do photography as well, because there was no way I could go out to capture people and places. The only thing I was left with was an empty canvass with a brush in my hand and some strong feelings to express.

Mohammad feels she has a responsibility towards the women surviving the war in Yemen. she has received recognition for her art and has organised independent exhibitions, which have been helping her sustain herself.

She is now looking forward to holding exhibitions at a larger international forum, so she could raise greater awareness about the war in Yemen through her art.

"I hope to inspire the women in my country to overcome their challenges and achieve great things in life through their talents in arts, music and education," she shared. "I want to show them that we are capable of so many great things."

Image by Kamran Yousuf.

Article written by:
Kamran Yousuf
Kamran Yousuf
Asma Hafiz
Asma Hafiz
Yemen India
Mohammad\'s paintings showcase the plight of Yemeni women.
© Kamran Yousuf
Mohammad's paintings showcase the plight of Yemeni women.
Mohammad has sold several paintings in exhibitions. She wants to help raise awareness of the situation in Yemen through her art.
© Kamran Yousuf
Mohammad has sold several paintings in exhibitions. She wants to help raise awareness of the situation in Yemen through her art.
The women of Yemen carry with them a core pillar of Yemeni heritage: the buildings of Old Sana\'a.
© Kamran Yousuf
The women of Yemen carry with them a core pillar of Yemeni heritage: the buildings of Old Sana'a.
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