Gender trouble at 'immoral' centre

A women's studies centre at Yemen's Sana'a University has been forced to drop the word "gender" from much of its literature as the price of continuing its activities.

Conservative Islamists were critical of the university's Empirical Research and Women's Studies Centre for staging the International Women's Studies Challenges for the 21st Century conference in November 1999. The conference bore the slogan "emancipation of women" and used the controversial word "gender", leading to attacks on the faculty by religious leaders.

Sermons in mosques across the country called for the closing of the centre, stating that "gender" did not exist in Arabic, that the faculty was "immoral" and that the centre was "an evil conspiracy to undermine the family". The Yemeni government closed the centre and its director, Raoofa Hassan, left Yemen for the Netherlands.

Nadna Younis, executive secretary of the centre, said: "According to their definition, the word 'gender' meant allowing homosexuality and lesbian relationships. They closed us down but we were allowed to open again in March, with a new name, the Women's Studies Centre."

The new centre offers diploma courses only, and six of the nine original teaching staff have been replaced. The future of the centre's masters programme is under question. Some 100 masters students are in limbo, waiting for the university council to decide if they can continue their studies.

"They've stopped all of our open academic activities," Ms Younis said. "Dr Hassan was very active - she invited important figures from all over the world to speak here and we would always hold discussions afterwards. But we do not have guest speakers anymore."

The word "gender" has not been dropped completely from the curriculum, although the new board of the faculty demanded that some references to it be cut from the faculty's literature The centre had made a name for itself as the most active in women's research in a country that has an illiteracy rate of 80 per cent for women.

Sultana Aljeham, a non-governmental organisation worker, said:

"There are so many difficulties facing women in Yemen today, and it will be a long time before Yemenis really understand what gender is all about. I'm not optimistic about the future of women's studies here after everything that's happened at the university."

The centre has been sponsored by development funds from the Netherlands for the past four years. But the contract is up for renewal in August and doubt hangs over future funding.

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