"Killing me is a ticket to heaven for them"

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The uprisings of the Arab Spring have brought new freedoms to many, but not to all. Some topics remain taboo and speaking out can still be dangerous. In our Heroes of Free Speech series, a portrait of Yemeni activist Bushra Almaqtari. 

Judith Spiegel in Taiz

She orders a Nescafé, a mango juice and a packet of Kamaran lights, Yemen’s version of Marlboro light. Lighting one, Bushra Almaqtari (31) laughs and says: “Kafira!” The word means infidel, and reader, writer and journalist Bushra is referring to herself. Around her neck hangs a pendant of Che Guevara. “Also kafira”. 

Irony seems to be her defence against the reality that part of Yemeni society does look upon her as an infidel. As such, the ulema – the country's self-declared religious leaders – have issued a fatwa against her, in which she is accused of apostasy. 

Bushra Almaqtari is a fierce opponent of the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. She is divorced, has no children and is from Taiz, Yemen’s intellectual centre. It is where the country’s uprising began and it is the city Bushra loves. So just what did this tiny 1.60 metre tall woman do to earn herself a death sentence?

“They just picked a few words and sentences from an article I wrote.” Those words said that God seemed to be absent in Khidar, a village where her fellow Taizis were badly treated during a 260 kilometre-long march from their city to the capital, Sana’a, in December 2011. 

The Islam of death
Later she tried to explain that she did not mean that God doesn’t exist in general, just that she questioned his presence on that day at that moment. But her explanation fell on deaf ears. In principle, a fatwa will stay in place forever, unless withdrawn by the ulema. 

“They use the fatwa for political reasons, because they don’t like what I write about them,” says Bushra. She may have been against Saleh, but she is certainly no fan of Islah, the Islamic opposition party, either. Islah includes both moderates and hardliners such as Sheik Abdul Majeed Al Zindani, a prominent member of the ulema. "His Islam is the Islam of death," she says. 

No support
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Tawakel Karman, founder of the organisation Women Journalists without Chains is also a supporter of Islah. Of all Yemenis, this ‘mother of the revolution’ could surely be expected to stand up against the fatwa. But, says Bushra: "Nothing, she said absolutely nothing about this fatwa or any other important issues for that matter".  

In general Bushra is unhappy with the attention her case has received in Yemen. She complains that people are more concerned about getting their daily dose of qat than with freedom of expression."When someone’s Facebook page is closed in Egypt, everybody goes crazy. Here nobody cares."

Ticket to heaven
The Yemen Times – one of the few papers that did write about the issue – says that the fatwa is an open invitation for extremists to kill Bushra. "Of course I am afraid”, she says. “I used to sleep in a different house every night. I cannot walk in the streets anymore.” The face-covering niqab could come in handy here, but Bushra refuses to wear one. 

Shortly after the fatwa was issued, she was beaten by women in Change Square, the centre of Taiz uprising, and 85 imams organised a march to her house where they threatened her family. "For them, to kill me is a ticket to heaven." She smiles again.  And then sighs: "Nobody listens to Bach or Mozart in this country; the only thing we hear is violence."

Too much
Her opinions are too extreme for many people. Fellow-activists against the regime are often Islahis and see her as an enemy rather than a comrade. Independent protesters do not always feel comfortable with her either. For them, she is too much of a feminist, too radical and maybe not pious enough for their taste. Again the laugh: "I am a Muslim, until this very day."

Meanwhile, a small group of boys and girls has gathered around the table where Bushra is having her Nescafé and cigarette. For them, she is a local hero. They want to be photographed with her. “In Taiz there are not so many hardliners,” she says. But she avoids Sana’a. “Too many salafis over there”. She smiles.