SANAA, Yemen — Hundreds of Yemeni women on Wednesday set fire to traditional female veils to protest the government’s brutal crackdown against the country’s popular uprising, as overnight clashes in the capital and another city killed 25 people, officials said.
In the capital Sanaa, the women spread a black cloth across a main street and threw their full-body veils, known as makrama, onto a pile, sprayed it with oil and set it ablaze. As the flames rose, they chanted: “Who protects Yemeni women from the crimes of the thugs?”
The women in Yemen have taken a key role in the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s authoritarian rule that erupted in March, inspired by other Arab revolutions. Their role came into the limelight earlier in October, when Yemeni woman activist Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two Liberian women, for their struggle for women’s rights.
Wednesday’s protest, however, was not related to women’s rights or issues surrounding the Islamic veils — rather, the act of women burning their clothing is a symbolic Bedouin tribal gesture signifying an appeal for help to tribesmen, in this case to stop the attacks on the protesters.
The women who burned clothing in the capital were wearing traditional veils at the time, many covered in black from head to toe.
The women’s protest came as clashes have intensified between Saleh’s forces and renegade fighters who have sided with the protesters and the opposition in demands that the president step down.
Medical and local officials said up to 25 civilians, tribal fighters and government soldiers died overnight in Sanaa and the city of Taiz despite a cease-fire announcement by Saleh late Tuesday. Scores of others were wounded.
A medical official said seven tribal fighters were among those killed in Sanaa’s Hassaba district. Another medical official said four residents and nine soldiers also died in the fighting there.
Government forces also shelled houses in Taiz — a hotbed of anti-Saleh protests — killing five people, including four members of one family, a local official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Saleh has clung to power in the face of more than eight months of massive near-daily protests against his rule.
As they burned their veils, Yemeni women activists handed out leaflets appealing for help and protection.
“This is a plea from the free women of Yemen; here we burn our makrama in front of the world to witness the bloody massacres carried by the tyrant Saleh,” the leaflets read.
Across town, a group of women supporters of Saleh marched Wednesday up to the U.N. office to voice their opposition to international pressure on the president to step down. The women entered the U.N. building to hand in their protest note.
During a meeting with the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday, Saleh offered to sign a U.S. and Gulf Arab-backed power transfer deal that gives him immunity from prosecution if he steps down.
The meeting with U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein was Saleh’s first since he returned last month from Saudi Arabia, where he was treated after an attack on his presidential compound in June left him badly wounded.
Saleh has repeatedly backed out of the deal at the last minute and the opposition has dismissed his latest offer.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed disappointment over lack of progress, despite Saleh’s pledge to sign the power transfer accord.
“We said that the proof would be in the pudding,” Nuland said. “We haven’t yet tasted a good pudding.”