Despite few options for Yemeni women, Abeer Abdullah has forged a career in journalism centered on both devastation and everyday survival
Abeer Abdullah has been reporting on Yemen since 2015. Despite the country's war and limited options for women, she has found ways to focus on everyday hardship and the country's most vulnerable citizens, namely women and children.
When she was growing up in Yemen, Abeer Abdullah recalls, her mother once handed her a garlic pestle to play with. It may have been an unusual gesture, but soon, Abeer came upon the idea to pretend it was a microphone, and she brought it to school so that she could stage interviews with her classmates.
Born in the United Arab Emirates, Abeer Abdullah moved with her family to Yemen when she was 12. Schooling was expensive, and her family believed girls should work in the household or on farms. After her parents separated, her mother was forced to move back in with her parents, while Abeer lived with her father. Abeer’s mother’s lack of education - not to mention Yemen’s stringent rules against women’s independence - struck Abeer, though young, as somehow wrong.
But the garlic press game sticks with her because, as she sees it, from then on, the dice were cast: taken together - her mother’s circumstances, Yemen’s complex and persistent social restrictions, and living in a country perpetually at war and impoverished - inspired Abeer to think how she might do better and make a difference. Specifically, she wondered how to give a voice to those suffering from the war or social injustice. A simple game with a makeshift microphone, she said, led her to imagine life as a journalist, inquiring of others why the world is as it is.
"I had this sense that my mother was being punished such that she could not do more with her life," said Abeer, who is 33 years old. "And this framed my understanding of injustice and women’s rights."
Not being educated herself, Abeer’s mother pushed for educating her daughter. Abeer’s father finally relented.
"He allowed me to go to school and later to university, but he wanted me to be either a teacher or a doctor. I didn’t like either option, so I opted for business administration," explained Abeer.
Still, working as a journalist remained in her mind. Then, after her father’s death, she switched her studies to radio and broadcast journalism. But in 2015, with war in Yemen, she had to stop attending school. She retreated to her village for a few weeks, then went back to the family’s home in Taizz.
Rather than feeling aggrieved or discouraged, Abeer found that she could still chronicle what she saw around her: the everyday trials of Yemeni navigating war threats and shortages, and women helping neighbors and caring for their children, how pregnant women managed amid both fighting and pandemic, and on survival in a displacement camp, as well as the unique challenges facing African refugees in Yemen. She paid attention to outcasts, the so-called "Akhdam," an ethnic group marginalized because of their dark skin.
She grew curious as to why it was that women prisoners, once they completed their sentences, were kept behind bars if a family member did not retrieve them upon their release. When she asked a prison director, he told her the law was simply the law. Unsatisfied, she asked Ministry of Justice officials, who responded that in fact there is no such law. Returning to the prison director with this, he threatened to sue her.
Yet Abeer was undeterred. Eventually, Sanaa TV hired her to report from her hometown, Taizz. She would also work at a radio station in Ibb, midway between Sanaa and Taizz, searching for stories that steered clear of politics and instead gave readers and viewers a sense of average citizens surviving distress and, in some ways, thriving.
At first blush, her choice of profession – above all in Yemen – implies extreme danger, and in truth, there is lethal risk inherent in her work. But Abeer clarifies that, significantly, she is less interested in shifting politics. Rather, she is more drawn to reporting on those who are suffering from war and injustice, on the daily indignities and hardships the Yemeni endure. She seeks out women and children who are in fact the country’s most vulnerable. Through it all, she says her objective is to remain impartial, open yet skeptical – a challenge in itself as she witnesses misery and oppression.
"And yet if I see someone in crisis, I have to report that," she said. "I’m careful. I’ve learned to be braver. I talk with sources about what is possible, and I wait to hear what is important to them, what should be reported. But mostly, I feel it is bitter when horrible things happen, and no one is there to report it."
Although she usually does not wear a niqab, Abeer does so when she is on assignment, pretending to be one of the local women. She wears protective gear. She’s learned a lot on the job, such as to use her mobile phone for filming because doing so with a camera and crew could provoke violence.
Travel for women is dangerous, so she always has someone with her when she’s on the road. "Every time I travel for work, I write or call my mother and tell her that if I do not come home, to please forgive me," she said.
In describing her call to journalism and the day-to-day work, Abdullah strikes an impressive figure, although she retains modesty with both a matter-of-fact and sympathetic demeanor. She is also quick to talk about the support and guidance she has received in learning and improving her craft, including DW Akademie training since 2021 and especially its Frauenblicke project.
'Frauenblicke', a DW Akademie program with support from Germany's Foreign Ministry, roughly translates as ‘Women’s Perspectives,’ helps young women journalists in Yemen both general and advanced professional training so that they can investigate and report on society, economics and politics.
'Frauenblicke', which roughly translates as 'Women’s Perspectives' and is supported by Germany’s Foreign Ministry, offers young women journalists in Yemen and Iraq both general and advanced professional training so that they can investigate and report on social, economic and political topics relevant to women in their countries, pushing women’s voices to the front. (The program will include Sudan later this year.) Typically, women journalists in these countries work in the shadow of their male counterparts, if they are allowed to work at all.
Three groups of women in Yemen – in Aden, Taizz and online – have participated in the training, and Abdullah worked as a trainer in both Aden and Taizz. In turn, she also contributed reporting to Deutsche Welle.
"I’m not just grateful that I can report for local media but also to be able to broaden my work and skills," she says. "I had to advance my own skills and in just six months of training, I improved my writing and increased my vocabulary. It also increased my wish to complete my studies, which had been interrupted by the war." She is now completing her master’s degree, focusing on data journalism.
Abeer Abdullah, standing to the right, background, has trained other Yemeni women in journalism through the Frauenblicke project.
Ultimately, she added, "I was just glad that I had this work that I’d been dreaming so long of doing."
She also feels lucky to have fallen in with generous and skillful mentors, including a TV editor who encouraged her to "stay independent, don’t side with any political party, and stay focused on humanitarian issues," she said. "I don’t want to let down the people I’m reporting on and I want to tell the world their stories."