'Together, women will become even stronger'

Leena Al-Mujaheed, founder of the Yemeni Refugee Women Association in Malaysia, calls on fellow women to break free of restrictive traditions.

Portrait of Leena Al-Mujaheed
© YRWA/Osama Shadad

As a Yemeni woman and as a single mother, life has taught me how to be strong. 

I now live in Kuala Lumpur, but I was born in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1995. I grew up in a very closed community where the expectation was that girls would just get married. I was married at the age of 16 and had my daughter when I was only 18. 

I dreamed of continuing my education and going to university. Thankfully my parents were unusually supportive of my ambitions. They felt guilty that I was married at such an early age and allowed me to go back to my studies and to enrol for a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, it’s always hard to study or work while taking care of a baby. It soon became even harder for me once the war started in Yemen. The fighting came very close to my university, as there were army barracks nearby. There were so many difficulties. But I carried on, I kept studying, and I graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Sciences degree with “high excellence”. I was so happy that I had arrived at that point, but the situation was so hard. 

One night, our house was severely damaged in a midnight bombing raid; I remember there were eight missiles. We were at home and sheltered in the kitchen. I thank God that we are still alive. We then fully realized that the situation was not safe, and that I had to leave Yemen so that my daughter could grow up in safety. We fled and arrived in Malaysia in early 2018. 

I feel very comfortable and safe here in Malaysia. However, soon after arriving here, I realized that there wasn’t specific support for Yemeni refugee women, and that they were facing many challenges alone. I therefore decided to set up an organization to fill this gap. With the help of UNHCR and NGOs, I founded the Yemeni Refugee Women Association (YRWA). Through my association, we work with women who are refugees and asylum-seekers. We help the women and advocate on their behalf; we act as their voice. I try to use my skills to help these fellow women refugees as many of them have limited education. 

Leena Al-Mujaheed at the Parliament of Malaysia, where she spoke about the health and protection issues facing refugee women and children in Malaysia.  © YRWA/Osama Shadad

It is the most important for women to know their rights – in fact, just to know that they have rights. We run awareness raising programmes for women on their rights, including dealing with sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). We also organize language courses. When refugee women can learn to speak basic English or Malay, it becomes easier for them to get help at hospitals and NGOs, to make ends meet, and to become part of the community here in Malaysia. 

Our traditions don’t encourage women to work outside the home, but the challenges since the war in Yemen have led many women to step up to help provide for their families. That is how men have come to know that women can also do things for the family outside and become an active member in the community, instead of just waiting at home.

As women, we cannot allow restrictive traditions to control us. We don’t want to be constrained by these traditions, and in a way, we have no choice. We need to break traditions to keep fighting in this life. I am happy to see examples of this in the refugee community. Refugee women are becoming independent; they are becoming stronger. 

“As women, we cannot allow restrictive traditions to control us.”

There are some women here who, just a year before, were “weak”: they had no education, no language skills, and couldn’t advocate for themselves. You should see them now: they have learned English, they know how to protect themselves and how to seek help, and some have even created small online businesses from their homes. In fact, many of the Yemeni women here are doing this kind of informal work to help their families. This is opening the door to self-reliance and empowerment for refugee women; it is just the first step.

That is why through my organization, I’m also focusing on empowering women through livelihood opportunities. I have learned in life that when a woman is educated and economically independent, she becomes stronger, is able to better avoid exploitation of all kinds, and in turn can raise an educated generation who are able to rely on themselves. I have been criticized many times for “pushing women to become independent”, of exposing them to “dangers”, of encouraging them to be out of their husbands’ control. This is wrong – in fact, one of my aims is to help men and women to be supportive of each other.

I choose to ignore these voices and to keep going. I can see hope in the eyes of the women who we support and empower. I’m sharing my experience of becoming strong and independent as it has changed my life for the better. This is what continues to push me to support Yemeni women in my community to follow the same path. We support each other; we give one another strength, and together, women will become even stronger.