Women's Lib, the Southern Way: Reflections from the Past Decades

Susanne Dahlgren
University of Helsinki

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

Literacy class organised in the Ma'alla Women's Club of the Aden Branch

of the General Union of Yemeni Women (GUYW) (1989).

In the heat of July sometime in the early 1980s, I participated in Abyan in a student camp organised by the then South Yemeni Youth Association (ASHEED). We were some twenty young students from various countries and had assembled to construct houses together with young boys from various parts of the governorate. It was the summer of one of the most devastating floods in recent history: bridges, houses, cattle and people had been swept out to sea. One evening, a public meeting was convened in the open-air cinema in Zingibar. Some five hundred people attended. The organisers from the local branch of ASHEED asked me, the only female participant in the camp of some one hundred participants, to make a speech in which I would discuss women's role in society. While preparing for the camp in previous months, their attempts to involve local young women had proven futile; women at that time were not participating in such public events. When I climbed up the stage and looked down at the audience, I realised that I was the only woman present in the large hall. Nevertheless, in proceeding to urge families to allow their daughters to continue their studies at the university level and to take a job outside the home, my contribution was received with appreciation.

When I returned to Abyan ten years later, in the early 1990s, many women were participating in working life and politics, and seemed to have an active role in society. Tahrir al-mar'a politics and women's lib, which the authorities had sincerely promoted in the early 1980s had seemingly gained support at least among part of the population. But if people had changed by 1990s, so had the authorities. Women's liberation was no more the issue. Southern authorities were now more occupied with making forays into the bureaucracy of the new post-unification capital.

Factory workers in National Cigarette Factory in Ma'alla (1989).

While promoting the women's welfare has never been easy in the southern countryside, the Yemeni Women's Union still has tried its best. In 1989, I was taken to a women's wedding party in the remote town of al-Hauta in Shabwa by a local women's activist. We climbed up to fourth floor of the affluent looking tall house and entered a large mafraj. Present were some thirty women and children with gold glittering in their hands and chests as part of their colourful outfits. Dunia, the women's activist, told me that in this area it was extremely difficult to work among women and promote even the most basic issues such as public health care and literacy. Women were not supposed to move unnecessarily outside their homes; even peeping out from a window could have had fatal consequences. The richer the family, the more women are controlled, Dunia explained to me.

The local women's union had tailored its activities to meet the circumstances. In the midst of the women's celebration, Dunia suddenly stood up and with a loud voice started to address the wedding guests. She explained that a new health clinic was going to be opened soon, and that women should visit the clinic if they had any health problems, particularly if they were expecting a child. Later on Dunia told me that maternal mortality is alarmingly high in the area, and that customary practice dissuaded people from taking women to public clinics. It was unclear to me how the women present at the wedding responded to her call. It seemed to me that the bride, however, a 14-year old girl sitting in panic in one of the corners of the room, showed no apprehension on the urgency of the matter.

If promoting women's welfare in Shabwa was difficult, Aden has naturally always been quite different. In the late 1980s, Women's Union neighbourhood clubs engaged in activities ranging from literacy classes and public meetings on issues relating to women's rights, to health education and sports. Volleyball, in particular, was popular among girls in secondary schools. Some students reached the national level and travelled to other Arab countries to participate in championship tournaments. During that time, the Ministry of Youth and Sports supported female athletes and provided coaches for the most talented among them. In the women's clubs, however, the most popular activity seemed to be sewing classes. In talking to women who participated in these classes, most of them housewives and schoolgirls of different ages, I was told that women were learning skills that were useful in finding a job.

Health education class held in the al-Mansoura Club of the Aden Branch of the GUYW (1991).

The early 1990s witnessed changes in the agenda and scope of activities in the Women's Unions. This was a period in which women's roles in public space were being challenged, and new veiling practices were spreading around Aden. In 1991, I participated in a public meeting, attended by some fifty participants, in which the issue of Islam and the veil was debated. A professor of Islamic studies at Aden University, a senior figure, introduced the topic with moderate interpretations of Islamic prescriptions. A heated debate then followed, some supporting the professor's vision that Islam does not require women to wear the hijab, and others disagreeing with him. Still when investigating the nature of the outfit among young women during that period, I found out that most women called the dress that looked like a hijab simply mandil and balto, a headscarf and overcoat. Many of them emphasized that the distinctions between these terms were very important. The religious meaning of hijab was reserved for those who combined the new outfit with heightened religious sentiments. Such distinction is hardly surprising, given that some 99 % of women in Aden adapted this covering dress over the course of the 1990s. In the rhetoric of the Women's Union, the issue of dress was now addressed in ways that reflected the changing atmosphere. In al-Mahra, I met the local leader of the Women's Union in the early 1990s, who told me that the veil was not an issue; the most important thing was that women maintain their right to work, study, and have access to health care. As the decade was reaching its conclusion, such basic rights were no longer self-evident accomplishments.

The decade of the 1990s brought many women's (and men's) initiatives and activities in competition with the Women's Union in Aden. The Union experienced setbacks in some fields of activity, such as sports, and lost many of its local clubhouses, a result of the government's measures to return property to previous owners. Nevertheless, the Union gained new ground in other ways. A foreign sponsor appeared and reorganised the Union. A model kindergarten on the lower floor of the Union's office was also furnished. And computer courses emerged alongside literacy and sewing classes.

By the end of the 1990s, the new topic of discussion, shared by all women's organisations, human rights groups and intellectual debaters, had become violence against the woman. This issue was elaborated interestingly in the course of preparations for local elections which were to begin in early 2001. In January, both the Union and the Women's National Committee organised several training courses in Aden for women on participation in the elections. In one of the meetings, I observed participants playing role games in order to rehearse anticipated debates that would take place in homes. Such games were organized on the premise that violence against women takes place when male family members try to prevent women from casting their votes, or try to force women to choose male candidates. As Yemeni official figures show, women's participation in elections has slowly but steadily increased during the past decade. Women's organisations have certainly played a major role in promoting political awareness among women.

Since its foundation in 1968, the Yemeni Women's Union has been accused of being either a government mouthpiece (during the PDRY) or being weak and inefficient (during the post-unification era). Still, when I recall all the times in which I have followed activists and met with women who have been engaged by its activities I can only admire the talent and skill of those who have planned and executed the Union's work. How often such women found the right ways to push forward their cause. Women's activities tend to be all too easily elided from official and non-official histories, and their role belittled when viewed from above or from a Western feminist perspective. The 'half the society' certainly deserves its proper place in the nation's written memory.

Election training course organised by the National Women's Committee, Aden Branch
as preparations for the last local elections. Here the women participate in a
role play to rehearse possible enmities in homes against female family
members who want to participate in the elections (January 2001).

Search Site

Search Library Collection