women of the world

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Living in a War Zone

Yousra Ishaq. Photo: Mohammed Al Mekhlafi

Women of the World is a series of snapshots of how women live, in honor of International Women’s Day. Yemen has been at war since 2014 when rebels from the north allied with the Yemeni military and forced the government into exile. Today, the nation is on the verge of partition, there is no coherent judicial system, and the situation on the ground is apocalyptic: 21 million people need aid, over 7 million are on the brink of famine, and the cholera outbreak is the deadliest in modern history. The Cut spoke with 30-year-old Yousra Ishaq, a film producer from Sana’a, about life as a woman in a war zone.

When the war started, it was a shock and we thought it would end after just a few weeks. But it continued, and it quickly sucked our life away. In every family there is pain — I lost one of my dear friends who was killed by a sniper. The war has also caused extreme poverty; people haven’t received their salaries, hospitals are full of the sick who are trying to get treatment. Medicine is ruined, disabled kids are suffering. At the start of the war we operated a mobile clinic for cerebral palsy kids, but most of the streets were blocked, so it was so hard to get to them.

Being a woman in Yemen means struggle, fighting, and hope. Because of the war, the most basic everyday tasks are difficult. I start my day hoping that I have fuel in my car, and even if I do, then I have to pray that I find a fuel station that is open so that I can get more. Then I have to pass by dozens of military checkpoints: Different political parties control different parts of the country, so when you travel you must stop so they can search your car for weapons or grenades or wanted persons. They usually don’t do much if they see a woman in the car because male officers want to protect female modesty, but we still have to stop. Once I was arrested by a gang of terrorists. When they saw the cameras I was using for my filmmaking projects they flipped out and kept us for a few hours. In a way, holding a camera is way more dangerous than holding a gun.

If I have enough gas, I’ll drive to my office, where the electricity will hopefully be turned on. When the war started, the electricity station was bombed and officials say it needs to be fixed by professionals who can’t enter Yemen because of the blockade. In 2015 we spent nine months without power, and it was a nightmare. We mixed boiled water with cold water and showered like we were in the dark ages and we had to find cafés with generators to charge our phones.

Everyone is suffering terribly from the war, and Yemeni women are suffering mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s important for people in the U.S. to understand that women in war have new priorities. War is awful but it builds strong women. There are so many stereotypes about Arab women, like that we wait for our husbands to make decisions for us. That’s just not true. The war has created new priorities: Women are taking responsibilities and society has started to trust us more. Even in the poorest areas, Yemeni women are very strong. Sometimes moms go and pull their sons out of the battlefields to stop them from fighting.

I hope a woman ends this war. Women want to heal, they don’t go to the frontlines to fight and kill. Women feel misery more deeply than men. Most of the social activists in Yemen are women. Women fight in ground clashes between parties. Women visit tribes, talk and try to find solutions. There are some women who deal with snipers every single day and I know they will never stop. Women fight air strikes. Air strikes are a nightmare — the sound of the missile flying above your head reaches the ground and then you hear the explosion and fighter jets hovering. When you hear the first sound of the missile, you don’t know if it will hit you and your family sitting next to you or if it will hit your friends in another home. I used to cope by watching Friends.

Maybe the hardest conversations I have had were with the victims of an air strike that hit a funeral and killed six women and two children. I talked to an old lady in her 60s who lost her eye. She was in so much pain, but all she cared about was her daughters and granddaughters. She didn’t ask where her eye was — she just wanted to know where they were. When I asked her why she said, “I won’t need both of my eyes if I lost my family.”

Yemen used to be ruled by queens. I hope one day this country goes back to normal, and we lead.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Living in a War Zone