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Woman wants to lead Yemen

| Saturday, May 5, 2012, 2:17 a.m.

SAN'A, Yemen -- Sumaya Raja waited to drop her political bombshell until the close of a conference of Arab women activists here.

In a reflection of the conference theme, "From Words to Deeds," she declared her candidacy for president of Yemen in September's election.

"I thought, 'This moment will not come again.' This is a unique opportunity to take part in the development of our country," she said. "Women in Yemen not only give birth to presidents, they sweep, they farm, they teach, and they want to become president."

Raja is the first female presidential candidate in this conservative, tribal land on the Arabian Peninsula's southwest tip. It's one of the world's poorest nations, with a high illiteracy rate and a reputation for kidnapped foreigners.

It's a place the National Rifle Association might be pleased to call home, with 60 million guns -- three for every man, woman and child.

It's also a land of architecturally stunning mountaintop villages, where stone houses decorated in white-gypsum friezes resemble a gingerbread wonderland.

In October 2000, al-Qaida attacked the USS Cole in a Yemeni port, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Since then, and especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the country has become a stalwart U.S. ally under its longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemenis pride themselves on their nascent democracy, the anchor of U.S. policy in the region. But many of them want more reforms.

With local banks foreclosing and political or financial scandals continually unfolding, conversations here quickly turn to the issue of corruption.

"Graft, bribery and other forms of thievery pervade the system at all levels of a steep-sided pyramid of patronage," said Robert Burrows, a Yemen expert and author of a chapter on the country in the book, "Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa."

Into this steps Raja.

Daughter of a 'visionary'

A brown-eyed woman of 51, she carries herself with the ease and style of a middle-aged French actress. Fluent in Arabic, English and French, educated in Yemen and America, she sees herself as uniquely positioned to raise awareness of her country's corrupt institutions.

"We need to do more for our children," she said. "The presidency, judiciary and the parliament -- these three cannot be run as a conglomerate anymore."

Political strategist Abdulghani Aliryani said he joined her campaign "because of its significance in breaking barriers and challenging conventions that stand as a major obstacle to the economic, social and political development" of their country.

Raja grew up in the southwest highland city of Taiz, in a progressive family of seven children. She and her three sisters were the first women to appear in public without the traditional black veils.

"My father was a visionary," she said. "We broke many taboos by going out unveiled."

Women here remain largely segregated, particularly in larger cities. Less than 30 percent can read, and women-only parties or weddings are typical. They swish through the old city of San'a in ankle-lenSan'agth black robes, hair, face and often even the eyes covered. A popular myth holds that only a dozen women go veil-less.

"There are two different worlds in everything, in our social life and in our work," said human-rights activist Amal Bushra. She blames it on "a conservative Islamist discourse."

The Islamic hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, holds that each Muslim should learn to swim, to ride horses and to shoot arrows; Raja's father believed that included his daughters.

When men asked to marry them, he replied that Islam requires a woman's consent. "They would be so scared, they would run away," she said, laughing. "We missed out on some prominent marriages."

'The face of Yemen'

At age 14, she followed her sisters to the United States to study, first at a North Carolina high school, then as a political science major at Southwest Missouri State, and later as a broadcast journalism major at the University of Kansas.

"My father always said, 'You are the face of Yemen. Your behavior good or bad represents Yemen,'" she said.

In the late '70s, she and her sister, Jamila, a strong-willed, dark-eyed beauty, were among the first female TV newscasters in Yemen.

"They were really heroes -- they were educated, and the very conservative women in the old city adored them," said Sheila Carapico, a Yemeni expert and political-science professor at the University of Richmond.

Raja's career took her to England, to consult for the BBC and Channel 4. More recently she lived in Paris, raising two children and running the Yemen-French Forum, which she created after the Sept. 11 attacks because, "as the mother of two half-Yemeni children, I needed to ... explain who we, the Yemenis, are."

Meeting with government ministers and intellectuals in Paris, she began to grasp Yemen's problems. Following her divorce, she returned to Yemen and embraced the historic role of being its first female presidential candidate.

"Sumaya is truly independent, both in the political and personal sense. She and her sisters were pioneers in education and the workplace," said Aliryani, her political strategist. "Sumaya was always driven to climb yet another mountain, for herself, her daughter, her sisters and her people."

'It's a brave step'

Just north of the capital, in Shibam, a village known for a lively market and mountain caves, Raja seeks out a restaurant and hotel owned by a woman. Seated on cushions lining a rectangular room, she eats salta, a hot peppery stew, and outlines her vision.

Before Yemen opened itself to the world in the late 1960s, she said, waste was unknown, and sugar was its only import. Pointing out the cleverly designed stone architecture of Yemeni homes, hand-built hundreds of years ago, she said, "We were poor but self-sufficient. Now we are richer, but we can't feed ourselves."

Yemenis must learn to live with their environment, she said, while reaching for the good things of modern life. "Let's stick to our healthier habits and take from the West the best -- the education and technology. We are not a backward people."

Yemenis are proud of their history, including two great queens. Sheba, the more legendary, is mentioned in the Bible and the Quran. Hotels, restaurants and stores pay homage to both women.

Raja says her candidacy is possible in this conservative country because of "the history of the queens (and) the women working in the fields."

Even so, her political battle will be difficult. Experts here expect President Saleh to reverse his decision not to seek re-election. If he does, many predict he will win.

But the novelty of Raja's campaign may garner more attention than other candidates. At a recent female-only party, women greeted her as "Ya, raisa!" -- "Oh, president!"

"We have to support her," said Huria Mashour, who edits a monthly newspaper. "She has broken the taboo. Not just for women, but for men who are afraid to do that."

Dr. Saadaldeen Talib, a former Yemeni parliamentarian, says Raja's years abroad and political obscurity may hurt. Her marriage to and divorce from a foreigner may be liabilities, too.

"It's a brave step," said Talib, a program manager for the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute's Yemen office.

But Carapico, the American professor, thinks "Yemeni women and men alike (may) take some pride" in Raja's campaign. Yemenis like to distinguish themselves from Saudi Arabia, where women are only starting to vote in elections, she said. "There is also a greater chance that she makes the elections more fun to talk about, more fun to watch, more fun to participate in."

The first test comes in June, when parliament nominates candidates. Raja must win five percent of that vote. Strategist Aliryani predicts political freshness will keep her above "the entangled web ... that so often traps veteran politicians."

More important, he said, "she is more qualified than the other candidates to shout out loud that the emperor has no clothes."

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