Yemeni Voices: Women Tell Their Stories

Marta Paluch, ed.
(Sana'a, Yemen: The British Council, Yemen, 2001). ISBN: 0 86355 468 7
Reviewed by Janine A. Clark, Department of Political Science, University of Guelph, Canada.

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

Marta Paluch's Yemeni Voices: Women TellTheir Stories is, exactly as the title promises, a heartfelt andpersonal introduction to the women of Yemen as told through their ownwords and stories. While working as an English teacher in Yemen inthe late 1990s, Paluch was privileged to teach a class of 'key women'&endash; a select group of leading women in Yemeni society seeking toimprove their English. It was from her experiences teaching thisclass and the close friendships she developed with the women in itthat Paluch was inspired to write this book. Beginning withinterviews with these women, Paluch then expanded her quest andultimately interviewed women in all fields of life from throughoutYemen. The book is clearly a labour of love and Paluch's enthusiasmfor the project and her respect and admiration for Yemeni women areevident throughout the book.

The book begins with an introduction to thehistory of Yemen in order that the uninitiated may place the lifehistories into context. It is then divided into six sections: lifestories, education, health, rural development, urban poverty, andpolitics and the women's movement. Each section contains threepersonal testimonies by women working in the respective field. Theonly exception is the first section which comprises three generalpersonal narratives. Each section furthermore begins with anintroduction of the subject matter at hand. For example, the sectionon education first provides an overview of the education system inYemen, issues related to illiteracy, and the situation of womenbefore it delves into the women's individual stories. Eachindividual life story is also prefaced with a brief introduction asto how Paluch met the woman and her experiences either ininterviewing the woman or as her friend. The book concludes withbrief commentaries by the women concerning their experiences workingon the book

Yemeni Voices: Women Tell TheirStories is therefore an introduction both to the personalstruggles facing Yemeni women and to the social, economic andpolitical challenges facing Yemen. As Paluch notes, the women arenot typical or representative of Yemeni women generally, since theybelong to an educated minority. However, despite this, the reader isintroduced to women from a variety of backgrounds who share, with allYemeni women, a determination to forge their own path in a societythat is not always ready to accept them. We therefore meet Khadija,a midwife, who tells of her frustrations and confrontations with maledoctors who often neither respect nor consult female health careworkers. We also learn of Khawla's difficulties, as one of unitedYemen's very first female Ministers of Parliament, in being grantedthe opportunity to speak in Parliament as she was regularly ignoredby the Speaker in favour of male MPs. As a student at SanaaUniversity's Empirical Research and Women's Studies Centre, Antelak'sstory grants the reader insight into the political assaults on theCentre and its efforts to remain open. The reader furthermore readsof the personal sacrifices and struggles each women experiences athome. As a young girl, Aysha went to school behind her father'sback. Husnia divorces her husband when he refuses to allow her towork outside of the home. Separated from their families, many of thewomen also suffer intense loneliness in pursuit of their educationsand training.

The book is a very enjoyable read for anyoneinterested in issues concerning women and development in the MiddleEast and particularly Yemen. In terms of the classroom, the bookwould be a good supplementary text for any undergraduate course onpolitics, anthropology, development and women in the Middle Eastand/or Third World. The book furthermore provides a rich antidote toOrientalist stereotypes of women often prevalent in the literature. Many of the women, for example, have the strong support of theirbrothers and fathers in their pursuit of an education and careerwhile at the same time opposing their mother's wishes that they getmarried. Most importantly, the optimism of these women, as realagents of change, is a pervasive and refreshing element of thebook.

The book does suffer from some typing andgrammatical errors. In addition, the book would have benefited fromgreater detail in its historical introduction to the book as a wholeand in some of the introductions to the individual sections. For thereader with no knowledge of Yemen, these overviews -- in the author'seffort to be succinct -- are at points slightly superficial and, as aresult, confusing. The book further could benefit from an in-depthconclusion. Despite these weaknesses, the book is a valuable andpioneering addition to the classroom, providing very real, personalinsights into Yemeni women and society.

[To purchase copies of the book, contactthe British Council in Yemen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ]

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