Meet the Yemeni Woman Using Creative Direct Action to Resist the Country's Brutal War

Feminist photographer Bushra Al-Fusail wants the world to stop ignoring the more than 3,000 civilians killed in Yemen’s ongoing war, as the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed aerial assault nears the one-year mark. But she doesn’t want the dead and wounded to be seen solely as victims of bombings, combat, famine and naval blockades. She wants the world to see them as people, and to recognize the women at the forefront of efforts to survive and resist the brutality of Yemen’s conflict.

That’s why Sana’a-born Al-Fusail organized a creative, women-led protest in the heart of her besieged home city last summer that is continuing to have ripple effects around the world.

I met the young photographer at a summit last weekend organized by CodePink, examining the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Al-Fusail told me the idea for her protest first came in 2011, when the revolution had spurred a petroleum shortage, cutting transportation options. “I was talking to my close friends asking, why can’t I bike?” she said.

When the Saudi-led bombing campaign began on March 26, the petroleum shortage dramatically worsened, so Al-Fusail says she “opened the subject again. One of my friends suggested we go bike on the street. The community has to accept it.”

During a five-day ceasefire in May, Al-Fusail sent out a Facebook invitation calling for women and girls to bike in the streets of the capital, Sana’a. “At first nobody believed it, they thought it was a joke,” she said. “But then 80 people said they were going to the event on Facebook. So we had to go to the neighbors, because we didn’t have bikes.”

In mid-May, the group went early in the morning to a large street that runs through Sana’a. “I convinced five of my friends who could bike to come, and eight women joined us,” explained Al-Fusail. “I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know how to bike. So I said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to bike.’”

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What happened next would have a profound impact on Al-Fusail’s life. “We started to bike, and people were shocked, they were screaming,” she said. “But then one woman came out of her car and joined us.”

“It was like another world,” Al-Fusail continued. “We completely forgot the war and how many ugly things we had seen during that period. The women were so happy and empowered. Even if there are airstrikes, biking will let us keep our lives easier with transportation. This was our resistance to the war.”

At least a dozen countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United States and Britain) have conspired to wage a deadly bombing campaign on this country of 26 million people. Armed with U.S. weapons, the coalition has bombed refugee camps, schools, weddings and densely populated cities, prompting numerous accusations of war crimes and calls for an arms embargo. Meanwhile, a Saudi-led naval blockade has pushed Yemen to the edge of famine, in a country where violence has forcibly displaced over 2.4 million people.

Al-Fusail is not the only Yemeni who has launched creative organizing initiatives in the face of this relentless war. Just days into the coalition assault, people across Yemen and the global diaspora launched the independent online campaign Kefaya War (“Enough War” in Arabic) to document atrocities and call for a halt to the fighting on all sides.

These efforts are built upon numerous artistic and civil society campaigns, including Support Yemen Media, which uses video to tell the “under-told and under-heard struggles” of Yemenis organizing in the face of air strikes, repression and U.S. drone wars. In 2014, bereaved Yemenis who lost family members and loved ones to U.S. drone bombings created their own organization to oppose the attacks.

Among these civil society campaigns, Al-Fusail’s biking direct action appears to have struck a nerve. When she posted pictures of her bike ride online, Yemeni women who live abroad started sending messages of solidarity. “It made me more strong,” said Al-Fusail. Soon, women around the world were staging similar bike actions, from Cairo to New York City.

Al-Fusail faced considerable backlash, including a torrent of negative messages on Facebook. The stream of anger grew so intense, that ultimately Al-Faisal decided she was putting her family at risk. In June she left Yemen, going first to Jordan and eventually making her way to New York City where she lives today. Her father decided to remain behind in Sana’a.

Al-Fusail hopes her story will convey a message of strength, and encourage the world to recognize the agency of women in her country, instead of viewing them through a patronizing lens. “Yemeni women are strong,” she said. "In the war, they are the ones who are trying to make happiness in the house and make people stay together and maintain calm.”

Asked what she wants people around the world to know about Yemeni society, she said, “We are human beings. We live, we eat well. A lot of people are getting married, going to parties, taking photographs and making documentaries. At the end of the day, people are so strong and still trying to survive even if the war is almost one year since it started.”

“I want people to protest your governments that are supporting this war,” she added, saying she plans to continue her activism. “Kids are being killed, and I blame everyone. Remember this story. And let Yemeni women know you support them, that they are not alone.”

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