Ranking the lowest score with both its Human Development Index and the Gender Inequality Index (162/162) you can surely state that Yemen is one of the worst countries for being a woman. Cultural heritage preservation has silently paved the way for diplomacy and offered insight towards gender equality.
Between 2013 and 2014, I was in Yemen on three occasions alongside the Director of the Istituto Veneto per i Beni Culturali, a cultural heritage conservation institute based in Venice, Italy.
The Istituto strongly advocated for the presence of female trainees within the Yemeni team, and in a country where the gender separation is a fact in all aspects of both the public and private life, getting a female conservator was one of the Istituto’s greatest achievements.
Situation for Yemeni Women
The GII provides insights into gender gaps in major areas of human development, effectively highlighting areas in need of critical policy intervention. In 2018, Yemen had a GII value of 0.834 while the world’s average sat at 0.439, meaning Yemeni women have a lower standard of living compared to men.
Clearly the still on-going humanitarian crisis brought up by the Saudi-led intervention in the country exacerbated an already difficult and problematic situation.
However, I had the privilege of seeing some little seeds of hope for women being planted and this is a story that surely deserves to be told.
The Istituto had been working in Yemen since 2010 on two important projects for the restoration of the Great Mosque in the old city of the capital Sana’a, one of Islam’s oldest mosques and the Al-Ashrafiyya mosque in the second largest city, Taiz.
While in Italy the finest conservation professionals are mostly women, in Yemen, where such discipline was almost non-existent, opening it up to female trainees was surely something we took lots of pride in.
The fact that women could train alongside their male counterparts was an enormous success.
Especially considering that both mosques have no female prayer sections. Both the Italian and the Yemeni female conservators were the first women to set a foot on their ground.
Pride in Preserving the Heritage
While working with my Yemeni colleagues, both female and male, I remarked how proud they were to contribute towards the preservation of these monuments. They took pride in the work and the process of learning how to take care of their own cultural heritage.
Yemen has an exquisite and diverse wealth of cultural and archaeological sites, and the Yemeni people are particularly proud of their ancient history. Yemeni heritage is an expression of a deeply rooted civilization, where the human creativity naturally combined with the local environment, resulting in a unique vernacular of architecture only found there.
Diplomacy Through Culture and Archaeology
Working with my Yemini colleagues made me realise that our two countries—Italy and Yemen—were a lot closer than I originally thought.
Italy has a long-lasting diplomatic and economic relation with Yemen, having been the first country to recognize the Mutawakkilite Kingdome of Yemen (which then became the Yemen Arab Republic in 1968) back in 1926. In addition to that, Italy is famous worldwide for its cultural heritage and efforts on the implementation of cultural heritage conservation measures. The Italian “cultural” presence in Yemen started with an archaeological mission back in 1980, which then became fundamental to define the Arabia Felix prehistory.
For me, working towards heritage conservation both in Venice and in Sana’a, has been like a diplomatic experience. Those projects enabled the construction of a solid and fruitful partnership, whose impact was clearly demonstrated by the commitment and pride both the Yemeni and the Italian team put in their work.
Another War Zone
Unfortunately, the Istituto’s team had to flee the country in February 2015, a month before the operation “Decisive Storm” was launched by the Saudi-led coalition in response to the government takeover by the Houthi movement—an Islamic political and armed movement that originally emerged from Sa’dah in northern Yemen back in the 1990s.
This soon escalated into a proper conflict, which received widespread criticism and resulted in a dramatic worsening effect on Yemen’s humanitarian situation, that reached the level of a “humanitarian catastrophe” as often stated by United Nations Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths.
Yemeni Heritage has been heavily affected by the war and was made a target by both warrant parties.
The Istituto participated in several national and international initiatives to advocate for the protection of cultural sites and historic cities in close collaboration with both UNESCO and the Social Fund, as the Istituto still acts as a consultant for both organisations.
In 2018, in partnership with the European Union, UNESCO has launched emergency response actions to cooperate with esteemed local partners to provide emergency relief assistance, safeguard heritage, and foster sustainable cultural development. Thanks to the Cash for Work: Promoting Livelihood Opportunities for Urban Youth program in Yemen, UNESCO, the Social Fund for Development, and the European Union have been creating 500,000 cash-for-work working hours for 4,000 young women and men, to rehabilitate urban heritage environments in the cities of Sana’a, Shibam, Zabid and Aden.
There is still plenty of work to be done and the conflict—despite the silence of the international media—is still on going and the Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse.
Post-conflict leaders will have to consider in their agenda that heritage conservation has proven to be a fertile ground for the reconstruction of the country’s social fabric, which for too long has been exhausted by conflicts, abuse of power, corruption, gender discrimination and poverty.
Cristina Muradore works as International Mobility Coordinator at the University of Worcester UK and is still a cultural advisor for the Istituto Veneto per i Beni Culturali.
She was one of the contributing writers to the book Architectural Heritage of Yemen.