In some ways, Sumaya Albgal has had a pretty typical American life.
She was born and raised in California. She went to college and now studies law. But at 18, Albgal went to Yemen and got married.
To her it was a natural act based on her family's expectations. The daughter of immigrants from Yemen, she says she understood her “position as a Yemeni woman was ... you get married, and that’s kind of where life begins.”
Today, Albgal is 27. And while she accepted going to Yemen for an arranged marriage, she has resisted other customs. Take her pursuit of higher education. She was homeschooled for years, with her parents uncomfortable sending her to public schools.
But after having her son in 2005, she convinced her family to let her try community college. She had fulfilled her duty of "getting married and having children,” she says. And her family was open to going “off-the-road,” as she puts it, and letting her go to college.
After community college, Albgal headed to Berkeley. Now, she’s a second-year student at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, but she still doesn't know many Yemeni women in college. Part of it is the Yemeni community's small presence in the Bay Area, numbering about 5,000—the community is larger in places like Michigan.
A May 2013 study commissioned by the One Nation Bay Area Project says that the Yemeni community where Albgal lives is involved mostly in the inner-city liquor business and janitorial work. While surveying this small community is difficult, all Yemeni respondents said that they did not know anyone in their community who is a college graduate, even though half were second-generation Americans.
So, to help change things, Albgal joined AAYSP, or the American Association of Yemeni Scientists and Professionals. It’s a national group started by Yemeni Americans tired of their community being known as one of poorly educated shopkeepers and illiterate women. Albgal regularly visits families and holds women-only workshops about education opportunities. But it’s a challenge.
“Getting the female Yemeni community to attend these workshops and take this step has been really, really difficult,” Albgal says.
She knows the cultural barriers well: That Yemeni women, especially new moms, are expected to stay at home. She’s heard the chatter herself.
“You know, kind of the sly comments of 'what is that like? What time does she get home to take care of her family? Who makes dinner?' You know, things like that,” she says.
But Albgal has also had a chance to see just how far a Yemeni woman can go.
Recently, she helped host a talk in Berkeley by activist Tawakkul Karman, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for pushing for democracy in Yemen.
Albgal watched as Karman chanted a revolutionary Arabic poem, the one the activist used to rouse protesters on the streets of Yemen. At Berkeley, the crowd was mostly men, only a few women turned out. During her talk, Karman stressed the importance of education—for women.
“Yemeni women! Don’t disappear!” Karman said. “You will not be able to change the future without learning! You have to be in school and in college and I’m sure you’re smart and clever and you will achieve all of your goals.”
Albgal says it helps for the Yemeni immigrant community to see women like Karman speak. But she knows change comes slowly. Like in her own family, there is a strong expectation that women will marry first then, maybe, get educated.
Last spring, though, the local AAYSP chapter threw a high school graduation party—and it left Albgal pretty hopeful.
“Three hundred women were there!” Albgal says. “The audience was moved by these women in their graduation robes and so proud of their daughters and these Yemeni women, who still look like Yemeni women, but were achieving great levels of success. They’d like it to be a harmony, like, a let’s move towards change together. Let’s all agree that this is good for us.”
And, Albgal says, she's willing to move at whatever pace it takes to get there.
Hana Baba’s story was made possible by New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship.