Beyond Borders

Yemen is not a kind place for women

2011-02-04 07:51

Yazeed Kamaldien

Third world holes have generally been my scene since I stuck my feet to the global road. One comes to expect power cuts and drinking bottled water instead of the luxury of opening a tap for clean water back home in South Africa. The variables though are the cultural slaps that shake your comfort zone.

Yemen hasn’t merely left me shaken though since landing here in late November 2010. It is rocking my sensibilities.

There have been headline grabbing public protests, bombs in the city, al-Qaeda attacks in parts of the country and a general sense of degradation marked by that little kid who pissed on the pavement one morning.

To date I’ve been living only in the capital city Sana'a and the first thing that hits you is that 90% of the women that you come across in public spaces are dressed from head to toe in black. Even their faces are masked with a black veil. I’ve been doing some journalism work this side at a local newspaper and at the office there have also been women wearing the black face veil. The scary thing is that sometimes you think you’re talking to Mariam but then it ends up being Fatima. I suppose sooner or later one gets to know the difference.

Speaking to 'black objects'

Not all women are fully covered though. Some of them, especially younger women, don't wear black cloaks and face veils. They dress in all sorts of clothes that would seem modest and fairly normal to an outsider and their faces are not covered at all. One of the young women that I got to know wears her black face veil only in public but in the office she removes it.

Having a conversation with a "black object" - because that’s what they look like - is an "other" worldly experience. You just never know what the "black object" is really thinking because you see no facial expressions and you don't make a human connection. You're speaking to an over-sized post box. And that's not attempting to insult the culture of another people. It's expressing the reality of an experience most foreigners have once here.

Some Yemenis that I have spoken to have told me that women cover up their bodies and faces because, according to their version of Islam, men who are not related to the women should not see their faces.

Funny thing is, Islam is a global religion and this sort of dress code is implemented in very few countries - Yemen and Saudi Arabia being the top two. How then is this ignored by the rest of the global Muslim community? The truth is it’s a cultural hangover from days gone by.

It’s also indicative of how badly women are treated in Yemen. In this sense, on the surface, they seem to be simply viewed as objects. It is known that Yemen has had the worst score card in the world in terms of gender equality and women’s rights.

How things have changed

One of the journalists at the local newspaper where I’ve done some work recently wrote an article about a 21-year-old woman named Rania Al-Aitary who was jailed because she wanted to marry a man that her father didn’t approve of.

The reason her father didn’t approve of this man was that his forefathers were butchers - viewed as a lower class in a societal still based on tribal pride and influence. When Rania was eventually set free from jail she was allegedly forced to marry a man that he father chose for her. Maybe he thought she’d learn to love the guy.

One could write novels about the injustices against women in this ancient land that was once actually ruled by the famous Queen of Sheba. How drastically and damagingly things have changed.

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