SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's revolution has been a slow-burning one. Nine weeks after an 18-day whirlwind of mass demonstrations tossed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak from power, Yemen's youthful protesters are still in the thick of their own Arab uprising, battling a president who, despite suffering the defection of senior members of his own government, major generals, and members of his own tribe, continues to ride out resounding calls for his resignation.
But on Saturday, April 16, Yemen's revolution suddenly entered uncharted waters when a crowd of about 10,000 Yemeni women marched through the dusty streets of the capital Sanaa to denounce their long-standing ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and stoke the embers of the country's revolt.
The women were reacting to a defiant speech delivered by Saleh to his supporters after Friday prayers, in which he accused Yemen's female protesters of violating Islamic law by "mingling with men" at the demonstrations. It was not the first time Saleh has let his tongue wag on such an occasion. Last month, he told a gathering of Sanaa University professors and students of "an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world [that is] run by the White House." On that occasion, a swift apology earned him some respite from the White House. This time, however, he appears to have overstepped the mark with his own countrywomen.
His speech, broadcast live on state TV, immediately sent shock waves rippling through the country. In Yemen, a largely tribal society with deeply conservative social and religious traditions, Saleh's accusation of "male-female mingling" was seen as tantamount to calling the female protesters faasakaat, or "prostitutes." (It also didn't help that Saleh is widely seen as irreligious by Yemenis, underscored by his recently revealed banter with U.S. diplomats about whiskey smuggling.)
Within hours, a text message was pinging its way through people's homes across the capital. "Saleh has brought shame upon his country's women; meet tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. at Sanaa University for a women's march of honor."
The women of Sanaa heeded the call. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the usually deserted streets adjoining Sanaa University were choked with female protesters in black abayas. Some waved homemade banners with pictures of the president depicted as an Islamic cleric; others scrawled "leave" with face paint on little girls' foreheads. Their fury at Saleh was felt not through their facial expressions, most of which were concealed behind jet-black veils, but through their words.