SANAA // Thousands of Yemeni women gathered in Sanaa yesterday to burn their veils and headscarves in protest of attacks on children and women over the past two months by security forces battling to quell a growing anti-government movement, as fresh fighting killed as many as 25 people.
Medical and local officials said up to 25 civilians, tribal fighters and government soldiers died late on Tuesday night and yesterday in Sanaa and the restive city of Taiz despite a ceasefire announcement by President Ali Abdullah Saleh late on Tuesday. Scores more were wounded.
In Sanaa's protest, women spread a black cloth across a main street in the capital and threw their full-body veils, known as makrama, onto a pile, sprayed it with oil and set it ablaze. As the flames rose, they chanted: "Who protects Yemeni women from the crimes of the thugs?"
Yemen's women have played a key role in the uprising against Mr Saleh's authoritarian rule that erupted in March, inspired by other Arab revolutions. Their role was underlined this month when Yemeni woman activist Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two Liberian women, for their struggle for women's rights.
But yesterday's protest was not over women's rights or issues surrounding the Islamic veils. Rather, the act of women burning their clothing is a symbolic Bedouin tribal gesture signifying an appeal for help to tribesmen, in this case to stop the attacks on the protesters.
"We burn our veils and say 'shame on you, oh tribes of Yemen. You see us being attacked and killed and insist on staying quiet'," said Nora Al Maqdashi, one of the women taking part in the burning. Yemeni women had been degraded under Mr Saleh's rule, she added.
"Women ruled Yemen during its years of prosperity. Tribes must defend their women before we lose our respect for them," she said.
In the latest fighting, a medical official said seven tribal fighters were among those killed in Sanaa's Hassaba district. Another medical official said four residents and nine soldiers also died in the fighting there. Government forces also shelled houses in Taiz - a hotbed of anti-Saleh protests - killing five people, including four members of one family, a local official said.
The United Nations Security Council last week passed a resolution calling on Mr Saleh to stand aside peacefully in return for immunity from prosecution under a proposal drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Mr Saleh reportedly met the US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, on Tuesday and offered to sign the deal. But the Yemeni leader has already repeatedly backed out of such a deal.
The government denies targeting women, blaming armed opposition supporters.
Abdu Ganadi, the deputy information minister, said armed protesters were killing each other and blaming the government.
"The youth who are protesting are not innocent. They have machine guns and kill security forces. They attack houses and kill women then blame the government for the killings," he said.
Activists vowed more veil-burning protests would be held throughout the country, one of the poorest in the Arab world. "We will tour the country burning veils and headscarves until the Saleh regime comes to an end. We will not accept a woman-killer as our leader and men will have no choice but to stand with us," said Salma Al Mikhlafi, an activist in the city of Taiz.
"Women in Yemen will lead the call for change. There are thousands of Karmans in Yemen and not only one," she added, referring to the Nobel prize laureate.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press