Trailblazing mother seeks to become Yemen’s 1st woman president

SANAA — Sumayya Ali Rajja is dogged by rumours that her bid to become Yemen’s first female president is part of a shady deal struck with the incumbent leader, but she refuses to let gossip halt her fledgling campaign.

She says her true aim is to advance women’s rights in a country of largely tribal attitudes, and to spread the word that Yemen is a budding democracy.

“My candidacy is going to help Yemen. It’s going to get the West off our back,” said Rajja, whose announcement has caused a stir in this conservative Arab country where most women cover themselves from head to toe and are denied many basic rights.

“I nominated myself for all the women in Yemen. This is the last barrier.” Born in southern Yemen, the 50-year-old is accustomed to being an innovator and comes from an unusually liberal family given their conservative surroundings.

“We were the first modern Yemeni women to remove the ‘sharshaf’,” she said of her and her three sisters’ refusal to put on the draping black robes that most wear to cover their entire bodies except for their eyes.

“What I am trying to do is raise awareness of the fact that you cannot hide half of your population,” she explained at her upmarket apartment in the capital Sanaa which serves as her campaign headquarters.

Rajja, who covers her hair with a simple headscarf, said the condition of Yemeni women had deteriorated over the past 20 years, which is “in part” why she decided to run.

She studied in the United States and worked for Yemeni television before going to live in France for 10 years following her marriage to a French national.

The mother of two returned to Yemen last October following her divorce and subsequently turned her attention to politics.

She faces an uphill battle against Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has held the top office since 1978. Even though he announced last year that he would not seek another seven-year mandate, it is widely believed that he will be voted in again.

Plus Rajja essentially needs his approval to become an official candidate, since she must get the nod from the government-appointed “Majlis Al Shura” or consultative council, and from at least five per cent of MPs, 229 out of 301 of whom are members of the ruling party.

Saleh “cannot run as a lone candidate. So he needs me,” she said, while acknowledging she “will need his approval” and that of his ruling party.

“You cannot do anything in this country without his [Saleh’s] approval.” Rajja announced her intention to run last December, and her bid was followed by about a dozen others, including two other women, though none are regarded as serious contenders.

Even though Rajja believes Saleh takes her “seriously,” she has faced wildly circulating rumours that she is being paid by Saleh to post her candidature, or that she has struck some sort of secret deal with the head of state.

In the strange bedfellows world of Yemeni politics, and in a country where things are rarely as they seem, such a notion cannot be ruled out.

One diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity that the president “will have fun showing the world that a woman can run for president.” Rajja said she is disturbed by the rumors.

“This is what has really hurt me all along. Women come to me and say: ‘The president told you to do this, didn’t he?’  Because my sister was a diplomat… some people come up to me and say: ‘We know you’re funded by Ali Abdullah Saleh’.  Right now, I am using my own money.” She said she is working with a budget of $200,000  and benefits from the volunteer work of a half-dozen advisers.

“What is wrong with this government is that instead of working for society, it’s everybody working for himself,” she said, describing a system of “despicable patronage.” 

“The reason people vote for Saleh is because they want to continue their little business.

“To think that we have a democracy is an illusion. I am the only one who can tell people: ‘The emperor has no clothes’,” she said.

If her candidacy is approved, Rajja will break ground by becoming the first woman ever to run for president in Yemen, where women make up close to half of the electorate and where a handful of women have made it into parliament.

“The biggest fear of the ruling party is the nomination of a woman,” she said.

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