SANA’A, Yemen—Although she received a grant from the Yemeni government in the 1980’s to study for a master’s degree in Britain, Wahiba Fara’a attended university in Egypt.
“I had a baby and a husband. I could not stay away from them,” said Fara’a, who in 1996 founded Queen Arwa University, the first private higher educational institution in Yemen. “I chose Cairo as it was closer to my country and I could travel to visit my family every week.”
Fara’a’s story illustrates the challenges facing Yemeni women seeking to enter academe. Some women in the Arabian Gulf republic have opportunities to study at universities. But those lucky few still must operate in a society largely run by men with roadblocks that often prevent the women from using their educations for the country’s benefit.
“Getting a college degree is not easy for women in Yemen,” said Fara’a, who also became Yemen’s first female cabinet minister in 2001 when she was appointed to oversee human rights in the country. “Only elite families send their daughters to schools and universities.”
Around 15,000 women study at Yemeni universities compared 60,000 men, said Zikra Motahar, general director of research at the Ministry of Higher Education. Around 11 percent of graduate students in the country are female.
That disparity is among the highest in the world, according to United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report published in 2010. Narrowly defined gender roles, early marriage and segregation between the sexes contribute to the divide, the report found.
“We are living in a male-dominated society,” said Motahar. “Yemeni women have not taken their full rights. They are suffering from stifling social restrictions.”
The numbers are bleak, but, to a certain degree, it’s remarkable that women study at all. Yemen consistently scores at the bottom of international groups’ rankings of women’s rights.
Around half of Yemeni girls attend primary school and two out of three women in the country are illiterate, according to Unicef statistics. The World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report ranked Yemen as the worst country for women to live out of the 136 countries surveyed.
Yemen’s poor economy also works against women. With average incomes of around $2,500 a year, most families carefully budget money they might devote to their children’s educations.
“Most Yemeni families who have some money prefer to educate their sons, not daughters,” Motahar said. In addition, social barriers against women traveling alone prevent many of them from studying away from the family home.
Female students also often must consider financial issues when determining their courses of study. “Girls tended generally to the humanities because they are less expensive and do not require an attendance commitment,” Motahar said.
A major obstacle for women attending university in Yemen is the lack of support for girls in primary and secondary schools. Because Yemeni families often refuse to let men teach their daughters, few schools have sufficient staff to educate large numbers of girls. Those girls, in turn, might attend university and later return home to work as schoolteachers.
Around only 28 percent of teachers in public primary and secondary schools were female, according to the Ministry of Education. In higher education, 15.5 percent are female.
“We can’t ignore the role of poverty and ignorance in the high rates of illiteracy,” said Majdi Aklan, vice president of graduate studies at Sana’a University, the country’s largest public higher-education institution.
Recognizing the low enrollments of girls in primary and secondary schools, Yemen’s Ministry of Education has started a campaign to increase female enrollment rates, with the goal of finding classroom seats for 95 percent of Yemeni girls by 2015. The ministry estimates that 4,500 new female teachers are necessary to carry out the program.
Primary school attendance among women is, in fact, on the rise. The girls’ primary school completion rate rose from 33 percent in 2001 to 53 percent in 2011, according to the education ministry.
In a recent ranking of Yemen’s top high school students, women dominated the literature category and held around two-thirds of the spots in science and English. Female students comprise around 35 percent of total students in secondary schools.
But to some observers, the execution of the strategy to boost female education has been lackluster. In its 2012 annual report, Unesco reported that Yemen wouldn’t achieve gender equality in educational opportunities until after 2025.
Still, Yemeni girls have more role models today for success.
In 2011, Yemeni journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Amira Al-Sharif, a photographer born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Yemen, has gained international attention for her work with Unicef and Oxfam International.
“Yemeni woman should have the iron will to complete her education,” says Mariam Al-Joufi, vice president of the Gender Development Research and Studies Center at the University of Sana’a.
Al-Joufi was appointed as an instructor in the university after she won top marks in her legal course. If Yemen wants to secure the benefits of a 21st Century society and economy, she said, the country needs to include more girls in its educational system.
“We are in a transitional phase where it is no longer possible for woman to be in the back row,” she says. “Real change must include women. Otherwise, there will be no change.”