In 2011, giant posters of women appeared on billboards, taxis, and buses across Yemen. Some wore colorful hijabs, leaving their faces uncovered, while others wore black niqabs, revealing only their eyes. All flashed giant smiles as they held thumbs up signs with dark purple ink staining the tips of their fingers.
The billboards were part of a United Nations education campaign to support voting referendums in Yemen’s upcoming presidential elections, and to encourage all Yemenis, especially women, to engage with the political process. “Everyone was expecting a new Yemen,” Nisma Mansoor, a Yemeni women’s rights activist, told me as we sat in her father’s home near the once-thriving waterfront of the southern port city of Aden.
But within months, the women’s hopeful smiles had been destroyed—slashed through with angry black markings. It was an early sign of unrest in Yemen that foretold an imminent reversal of the progress that women’s rights activists had made leading up to Yemen’s 2012 presidential election. “Then war came,” Mansoor said, “and everything collapsed.”