Afrah Nasser is an internationally renowned Yemeni journalist, blogger and human rights activist, who writes about human rights issues and the political developments in Yemen since early 2010.
Nasser rose to prominence during Yemen’s 2011 uprising telling the untold stories on the ground. After receiving death threats for her anti-regime writings she became a political refugee in Sweden in May 2011.
Her writings have appeared in various publications, including CNN, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Doha Center for Free Media, The National and Al Arabi magazine.
She has appeared as a guest commentator on the BBC, Al-Jazeera, France24 and other networks.
Clarion Project: Can you briefly summarize the situation in Yemen for people who may not understand what’s going on?
Afrah Nasser: It is a double-conflict, there is both an external and an internal conflict going on at the same time. The external conflict is of regional powers jockeying for position, and the internal conflict is between the myriad of different factions fighting on the ground. I lived through the 1994 civil war and I have never seen anything like this.
I would urge everyone to call it a war, not fighting or conflict – it really is a war that is going in. In some ways one could argue that what’s happening is worse than Syria, although it’s obviously not a competition.
Yemen was already a much more impoverished place and this war is taking an extreme toll.
As for sectarianism, the Houthis are running the areas they control in a double-motivated way: sectarian and political — arresting people who don't belong to their sect and who belong to the Islah [Muslim Brotherhood] political party .
Maybe it wasn’t sectarian to begin with but it is now.
On the Saudi vs Iran narrative? The Saudis are much more "active" – after all, they are conducting bombing raids on Yemeni targets. Iran is still involved indirectly, but it’s lazy analysis to paint it as simply Saudi Arabia vs. Iran.
It’s important to remember this is a very historical time and the social and political order is changing rapidly.
Clarion: You’ve been in exile since 2011. Why did you leave Yemen? What would make you go back?
Nasser: I left to participate in a leadership run by the Swedish Institute – I have a background as a journalist. I actually had no plans to stay in Sweden, but I got stuck. I was already getting death threats from some pro-government individuals because of my blogging, but then the airport was shut down because of the fighting.
I was able to get political asylum [in Sweden] and since then it’s been quite an adventure. It felt like I was sort of floating. I continued writing and became a sort of e-activist.
Still, it was really tough not being in Yemen.
Thankfully, I co-founded The Yemeni Salon which is a non-profit organization working on improving the understanding of Yemen within the Swedish public debate, which was wonderful as a space for me to interact with other Yemenis. Two years on and we’ve been able to invite a lot of Yemeni voices including Bushra al-Maqtari from the socialist party in Yemen.
It’s been a nice platform opening more people up to understand about Yemen, given that Sweden is one of the main aid donors to Yemen!
Clarion: There doesn’t seem to be much to support in either the Houthis or the Saudis. Who can people look to for leadership?
Nasser: The important thing right now is to push for peace talks and support diplomatic work: End the violence and sit down and talk. If people just want to give money that won’t help. It’s important to go there and learn before supplying developmental aid.
You have to have a local perspective.
Clarion: On your blog you speak about groups working on charity and emergency initiatives.
What’s your take on such groups trying to alleviate the situation?
Nasser: So I like groups like this only if they are actually showing solidarity and interacting with people on the ground and not being patronizing. Yemen is going through a horrific time, but it is important to amplify the struggle and not hijack it.
Clarion: How has the violence affected women and girls?
Nasser: For a long time Yemen has been very divided. In the South women have been a lot more outgoing, a legacy of socialism. The North is much more conservative, women overwhelmingly stay at home, they do not have much access to public space.
But since 2011 North Yemen has been changing, especially in the cities. Women in Sanaa are challenging this and are also using art to show resilience. There is also an increase on women’s presence on TV advocating for peace.
In the South women are even more daring – even guarding checkpoints. Although women are not really involved directly in fighting right now I would understand if women started fighting.
There isn’t any Yemeni feminist organization, just grassroots change popping up. Women across Yemen are resisting discrimination and engaging in calls for peacebuilding.
It’s really wonderful to see this.
Gender discrimination is still everywhere. Although violence is perpetrated against everyone, women who aren’t mobile can easily be targeted. For example, we see children going to get water, why are they going and not their mothers who are at home?
Nevertheless, in Yemen there is nowhere near the level of violence against women that we see in Syria and in the areas of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State.
But what annoys me is that there is a continuous misuse of words like “rape” and “menstruation” to ridicule a situation within the public discourse in Yemen.
For instance, one male writer comments on the horrendous destruction of the Old City by describing it as a situation of raping a female. Another mocks how the expected peace talks in Geneva being postponed as how females’ menstruation get delayed sometimes.
As a feminist, I find such comments very misogynistic.
Overall, women and children in Yemen represent a great deal of the noncombatants as their lives are at risk continuously in this war.
Clarion: How have you coped with the death threats against you?
Nasser: Not easily. By laughing at my misery as often as possible. I’ve found that very helpful. I shouldn’t reduce how tough it was in Sweden at the beginning though. Everything was new, it was hard to adjust.
There was lots of reflecting, and it is very difficult to learn the language as a refugee — a very different experience from as an immigrant. A refugee is just seeking safety, an immigrant is there deliberately. It’s a very different focus and a different mentality.
Books have been my best medicine.
Today I’m reading a book about trauma.
Clarion: What has your reception been like in Sweden. Have you faced discrimination?
Nasser: There’s nothing interesting about it – except that it is freezing. Sweden was so, so miserable until I discovered vitamin D. The weather is crucial. After that I’ve had a very pleasant stay.
I was very lucky to have a media profile which connected me with leftist people who are now dear friends. Otherwise it would have been extremely hard, people who come here without that sort of network have a much rougher time of it.
Integration is definitely a two-way street – both the newcomers integrating and society adapting and welcoming.
Clarion: What should be done?
Nasser: This is a very historical time, what’s going on is just horrible. I don’t want to call ISIS the Islamic State. Yet this is the strongest group and they’ve made themselves sustainable. That’s very, very scary.
At the same time, ISIS and other extremist groups can’t last. Since 2011 people are starting to change and have a new mentality. The social and political order has been dismantled and so this is a new situation.
Really, we’re still in the first 5 minutes of this revolution.
I’m not really optimistic, it’s more of a tragic optimism. We have to accept the reality and put our courage forward to face the past and the present for the future.
We need people with conviction to oppose Islamists resolutely with passion.
Clarion: How do we find the middle way between extremism and secular dictatorship?
Nasser: That’s the million-dollar question. Empower freedom of expression and freedom of speech. People who are resisting extremism in any way –strengthen their voices.
Strengthen the voices of those who oppose the Islamists – those people who can generate discussion and show and prove how horrible it is to be an extremist.
But the battle in the media is and will be hard because their resources and conviction is louder.