At the peak of the uprising against the now-ousted Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, Khadija Al Salami left her diplomatic post in Paris to film the mass participation by long-marginalised women in the revolt.
In her documentary The Scream, which was screened at the Dubai International Film Festival last week, Salami – who was forced to marry at the age of 11 – focuses on the role women played during the year-long uprising in the impoverished Arab state.
“Traditionally, a woman’s voice must not be heard, just as her hair must remain covered,” says Salami, who herself does not cover.
“I chose this title for my film because women have shouted out through their uprising and movement that they exist in Yemen’s male-dominated society. They screamed out their suffering, announcing that their revolt is not only against the government but also against all of Yemeni society, including their husbands and -fathers.”
Filming in the vast sit-in camp that sprang up outside the gates of Sanaa University, Salami followed the daily lives of women who demonstrated alongside men until Saleh finally quit under a power transfer deal signed in November last year.
Salami says she was “amazed to see these women standing up” for their rights in Yemen: “I wanted to be part of the revolt.”
In The Scream, Salami follows Rahma, a journalist, Balqis, a human-rights activist, and Huda, a poet – three women who played major roles throughout the -long uprising.
The film shows Rahma fearlessly contacting senior officials to denounce the use of prohibited weapons by security forces against protesters. Balqis, meanwhile, breaks the conservative tradition that women do not visit coffee shops and is seen sitting at a cafe, boldly discussing gender equality with the men there. And Huda is pictured climbing on to the podium at the camp – which became known as Change Square – to make fiery speeches and encourage demonstrators.
The women, who insist on being part of the uprising, refuse to put up their own tents away from those of the men and they soon begin facing problems in Yemen's ultraconservative, deeply- -tribal community. "Women took to the streets alongside men but they were beaten and harassed by the so-called revolutionaries," says Salami. "How can a man be rebelling against a regime while oppressing his -[female] partner?"
Her documentary also shows women being treated with -contempt by the companions of a prominent religious figure, as Saleh himself in his speeches criticised the mixing of the sexes among -opposition ranks.
As it nears its end, The Scream portrays the disappointment of women as they realise that the uprising has failed to improve their status within Yemeni society.
“Now women do not fear anybody. They have a voice and they will continue the struggle to achieve their rights,” says Salami. However, she concedes that it will be “a long fight”.
In Paris, Salami also filmed the prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman after she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her influential role in the uprising.
Salami is already working on a new film that tells the stories of young girls who have been forced to marry older men – an ancient, traditional practice in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country that she condemns as -
Salami, now 46, was a child when she was forced by her family to marry a 20-year-old man. "I felt abused. I had two choices – I could either end my own life or rebel against society," she says. "I chose the latter and got a divorce, but only after much difficulty."
She believes her salvation came through education. She won a scholarship to continue her schooling in the US; later, she became the director of the Paris-based Centre for Communication and Culture of Yemen.
In 2006, Salami published (with Charles Hoots) her book Tears of Sheba: Tales of Survival and Intrigue in Arabia. Its title, she explains, is to “remind people that women had ruled Yemen” during the country’s ancient past.