BLM: slim hope of change for Yemen's marginalised black minority

Seizing on the worldwide movement for equality is difficult in a country in conflict

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is reshaping societies worldwide, black Yemenis have scant hope for an end to centuries of discrimination that has worsened in their country's civil war.

Haitham Hassan's life in the capital Sanaa remains unchanged despite the global wave of protests sparked by the death in May of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, who was pinned down under a white US police officer's knee.

Mr Hassan gives no flicker of recognition when asked about Black Lives Matter.

But he can tell of how he faces racism on a daily basis, often having to tolerate slurs that mean "slave" or "servant" because of the colour of his skin.

In Sanaa, members of the minority group known as Muhamasheen, meaning the marginalised, live in dismal conditions in densely populated slums.

They are among the poorest of the poor in the Arab world's most impoverished country, which has been blighted by more than five years of conflict.

In the narrow streets of a shantytown in southern Sanaa, lined with makeshift tents and cardboard homes along with a few simple brick structures, women cook outside on stoves fuelled with scraps of rubbish.

"It's as if we are not part of Yemeni society, even though we hold Yemeni identification papers," Mr Hassan said.

"Our children in schools are treated differently and we are looked at sideways on the streets and in markets."

They have given us no rights, but it is time that we are granted those rights

Moujahid Azzam, community leader

Most black Yemenis live in the Red Sea coastal plain of Tihama, which extends from the Bab Al Mandeb to the western port city of Hodeidah.

Others live in Sanaa in the north and Aden in southern Yemen.

There is debate over the ethnic origins of the community, says the UK's Minority Rights Group International.

"Some believe they are descended from African slaves or Ethiopian soldiers from as far back as the sixth century," the group said in a report.

"Others nevertheless think they are of Yemeni origin.

"They have suffered from higher rates of unemployment and generally live in poverty, lacking access to basic services such as water, sanitation and education, as well as economic opportunities."

Black Yemenis, who make up between 2 and 10 per cent of the population according to different estimates, have long struggled to survive, confined to low-paying jobs such as sweeping streets or collecting rubbish.

They exist outside the country's tribal social structure, which increases their vulnerability.

"We suffer from racial discrimination," said Moujahid Azzam, a community leader in the rebel-held city of Sanaa.

"They have given us no rights but it is time that we are granted those rights.

The country's conflict pits Iran-backed Houthis against the internationally recognised government, which is supported by a Saudi-led military coalition.

Last month, rebel chief Abdulmalik Al Houthi called for the integration of black Yemenis into society under a long-term national programme, sparking much scepticism.

Nuaman Al Hudhaifi, president of the National Union of the Marginalised, which advocates for the community in Yemen, said the rebels' call was a ploy to exploit black people.

"The goal is to play on the emotions of the marginalised and recruit them to fight on the front lines," Nuaman Al Hudhaifi said.

Since the start of the war, which saw the rebels seize Sanaa in 2014 before going on to capture much of the north, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced.

Even before the conflict, "Yemen's caste system put Al Muhamasheen at the very bottom of the social hierarchy", said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Their suffering has only worsened since war broke out, Ms Nasser said.

Mr Al Hudhaifi said that when popular protests broke out in 2011 demanding political change, inspired by the Arab uprisings, black Yemenis joined the demonstrations hoping their situation would improve.

But the war has slowed any momentum towards reform and ensured that the Black Lives Matter movement will have little impact.

"If Yemen was a stable country, we would have been part of this global movement on the streets protesting at this historic moment, but the war has prevented us from doing so," Mr Al Hudhaifi said.

"Unfortunately, the situation in Yemen will remain the same because of these complicated social and tribal structures, in which discrimination is embedded and based on tribe, region and religion."

Updated: July 17, 2020 04:08 AM

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