Our conversation had been going well until a massive glass light fixture thirty feet above our heads promptly exploded and burst into flames. Shards of glass fell to the floor, smashing to bits, and the whole room went black. A flurry of cries in Arabic arose followed by a stampede of people shrieking, “Are you okay?” And no, they were not concerned about me—their worry lay with the unimposing eighty-pound woman sitting across the table who was laughing. Laughing! As her staff scrambled to light candles and clean up the mess, she gestured at the smoldering ceiling and chuckled quietly, “This is part of the problem, you see.” The country was literally falling to pieces, and Dr. Raufa Hassan, Yemen’s most eminent activist, laughed. I gaped in amazement—after facing political and social obstacles, even death threats, for decades, she had almost been undone by a falling lamp caused by a routine blackout right before my very eyes. And yet, it all made perfect sense. To work for social change in a place like Yemen, one would most certainly require a sense of humor. And Raufa certainly had that. That summer, in 2009, I volunteered for Dr. Hassan while I was studying Arabic at the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies. Raufa—professor, journalist, activist, and founder of the Cultural and Development Programs Foundation—was a quiet heroine in Yemen’s political scene, but to me she was a rockstar. After researching Yemeni women’s organizations prior to my trip, I introduced myself via email with some trepidation and stopped by her office for a visit. I was struck by how graceful and tiny, yet forceful she seemed all at once as she walked in quietly to sit at the table. After she finished with some of the evening’s business, she turned to me and welcomed me warmly. Over tea we talked about her hilarious escapades living in a dormitory in France, her family’s roots in Old San´a, and her desire to work for change in Yemen. “I couldn’t just stay at home and do nothing,” she explained. “I had a responsibility to do something!” Later, I asked a friend how Yemeni male politicians reacted when Raufa walked into their office. Oh, she said, they act with deference. Believe me, they know that she commands serious respect.
Raufa did more than command respect from important players on the political scene, however. She got real things done. As she told me during one of our meetings, “I get tired of awareness. We need to move beyond ‘awareness’ and actually work for change.” Her organization registered thousands of women to vote, worked for cultural and ecological preservation in Socotra (Yemen’s “Galapagos Island” to the south), attempted to open a museum, and collaborated with European institutions to train female parliamentary candidates. The CDPF and Dr. Hassan have had a long history of bringing a variety of political groups together to promote issues of governmental transparency, accountability, and representation. You can read about more of her accomplishments here, on Afrah Nasser's blog. As Afrah recently reiterated in an email to me, Raufa was kind and brilliant. Everyone was captivated by her presence. We all wanted to be on Raufa's team.
When Raufa graciously invited me to work for her again this summer, I was over the moon, and I am devastated that I will not get the chance now. I learned today that she has passed away from an illness in Egypt, where she often received medical treatment from her brother, a doctor living in Cairo. Raufa worked tirelessly in the most literal sense, and her body suffered. Everyone here at the Yemen Peace Project sends their most sincere and heart-felt condolences to Raufa’s family, friends, and colleagues. That, along with the senseless deaths by security forces over the past week, seems almost too much to bear. But life doesn’t stop. I take heart in the fact that Raufa’s efforts have and will continue to give Yemen a better future. Media reports would make it as if people in Yemen just “woke up” and started working for change—Dr. Raufa Hassan’s legacy continues to prove them wrong.
(If anyone has specific information about where we can send our condolences, please email us at the addresses listed on our contacts page. Thank you, and يرحمها الله)