Mon, 13 Mar 2000

Women of Yemen still denied their basic rights

By Solita Sarwono

YEMEN (JP): "Give me your camera!" yelled a Yemeni when he saw the writer taking pictures of men selling oranges on the road side. Before he could reach our taxi, we drove away.

Taking pictures of women is strictly forbidden, even though are completely covered with black robe and black veil, only showing their eyes. While most robes are black, in some tribes women wear robes of colorful floral prints, while their faces are covered by black veils.

There are also women, who wear an extra veil to cover their eyes. This outer veil is not-so-thick, allowing them to see through it.

A smaller number of women only cover their hair with a scarf (black or colorful) showing their face but covering their neck. Some even wear makeup.

"If you take pictures of a woman, her husband will kill you as it means stealing his property", explained the taxi driver.

Indeed, almost all men aged 10 years and older (especially in the rural areas) wear a dagger tied on the waist by a colorful traditionally embroidered belt. The size and quality of the dagger differs according to social status and size. There are also men carrying Kalashnikov rifles on their backs in addition to the traditional dagger.

The men usually wear white robes and when it is cold they put a jacket or suit coat over the robe. They cover their heads with black and white or red and white checkered scarves, protecting the hair from dust and strong sunshine.

This traditional costume is more popular in North Yemen than South Yemen.

A woman is the husband's property. This is a view still held by the majority of the Yemeni people, including the women themselves. When leaving the house, a woman must cover her body and face to protect her from men's harassment.

A woman must obey her husband. A woman must do all household work, may not leave home without the company of a male relative and must stop her school or work when she gets married. This results in a high illiteracy rate (85 percent in rural and 46 percent in urban areas); much higher than men (35 percent in rural and 16 percent in urban).

Women occupy only 28 percent of elementary school and 15 percent of secondary school population, despite the compulsory education for both sexes aged 6 - 15 years. A woman must give the husband many children and raise them.

Birth control is taboo. This results in large families (an average of 7.7 children per woman) and high death rates among women and children. The average life expectancy for women is 48 years and 47 for men.

A woman must accept her husband taking second, third and fourth wives since divorcees (and widows) have few chances to earn a livelihood. These are a few examples of rules limiting women's mobility, which are believed to be the law of Islam.

These beliefs still prevail even among the better-educated and more cosmopolitan groups. In Sana'a, the capital city located in North Yemen, most women still wear black robes and veils. Almost all of the female university students wear black robes too, half of them cover their faces.

But if you look closer, you'll see that under the black robe they often wear blue jeans and high-heeled shoes or boots. Women of the elite take off their scarves and wear sexy and see-through dresses when they are at home and out of the sight of strangers.

Boutiques in the Trade Center of Sana'a sell numerous sexy dresses, too sexy for most Indonesian urban women. Yemeni women who wear these dresses will not mind their pictures taken.

They view rules limiting women's social mobility as misinterpretations of Islam. Nevertheless, they cannot deviate from social norms unless they do not mind being scolded by their relatives and friends.

Consequently, when they are returning home from abroad and the plane is approaching Sana'a airport, these women wear black robes to cover their mini skirts and sleeveless sexy blouses and cover their modern hairstyle with traditional scarves.

Strong stereotyping

Many female engineers do not get jobs for which they are qualified as the male employer feels ashamed or uncomfortable to hire women. Stereotyping of (men-women) roles is very strong. Although many husbands allow their wives to work to generate income, most of them do not want to help their wives with housework and family care.

Highly educated men often feel intimidated by the success of their wives. This has made them forbid their wives to work full time or to pursue their careers, citing the importance of being a good mother as an excuse.

Men continue to enjoy the power, status, position and privileges in society and the respect of the women and children.

Yemeni men have the habit of chewing qat - leaves of a narcotic plant that can create addiction. Everyday after lunch men chew qat.

They put the leaves one by one in their mouth and chew them without swallowing. The chewed leaves are then stored in the inner side of one of the cheeks, forming a ball. An hour or two later they spit it out.

The working class work while chewing qat. Vendors bring their merchandise and sell it to shop keepers in the market or bazaar. Shop keeping is exclusively for men. Bus and taxi drivers call passengers with cheeks swollen with qat. When these men speak, one often sees the chewed green leaves between their teeth or coming out of their mouth.

Wealthy men take a break in the afternoon and goes to special rooms for qat chewing sessions. Mattresses are placed on the floor and along the walls. Men conduct business and talk politics while reclining on the mattresses, pillows and movable armrests. Sometimes men lay their head on these armrests and take a nap. The sessions last one to two hours each day.

Qat sessions are a social function for men. No women are allowed.

Like wearing a dagger, qat-chewing is a symbol of manhood. When a boy has entered manhood (11-12 years old) he may start to chew qat. This habit, however, is a burden to the family economy.

A man can consume qat (not of a high quality) ranging from 200 to 1,000 Yemeni riyal per day (160 riyal = US$1). Compared to the monthly income of middle class families of 12,000 - 15,000 riyal, this amount is huge. The rich can spend as much as 10,000 ryal per day on qat.

Although qat does not affect the users as much as alcohol or other drugs, it hurts the family income and hence their welfare.

Separate lives

Although bound in marriage, men and women live separate lives. Wedding ceremonies are celebrated separately. The bride invites her female relatives and friends to the feast at her parents' home, while at the same time the bridegroom is having a party with his male friends and relatives at his home. The big day is celebrated not only with food but also with music and dancing.

The women dance the belly dancing and have fun with each other. The men are also have fun. By the end of the evening, when the party is over, the bridegroom comes to his bride's home. Most probably this would be his first chance to see the face of his wife.

Most marriages are arranged by the family. The man gets information about the physical appearance of his future wife from his mother and sisters who have visited this girl at home and seen her face.

After being married, husbands seldom stay home with their family or discuss family matters with their wives. They come home to eat, rest and sleep. Men, however, have close relationships with other men in the village and at work.

The qat chewing session serves as a means to maintain social contact and solidarity among men. To develop a sense of manliness, boys in rural areas are separated from their mothers at the age of six. They no longer sleep with the mother and they follow the father to the market or the field.

Women, especially in rural areas, are bound to the home. They spend most of the day doing work in the house or working around the house.

Some very traditional men do not even allow their wives to go to the market to buy food. If they do go somewhere, their husband or a male relative will accompany them. Only on Friday afternoon women are allowed to do shopping.

Jewelry shops do good business on Fridays, as women like to buy gold. Small girls do not cover their hair and face and city girls dress in western fashion.

Nonetheless, as soon as a girl reaches maturity (gets the first menstruation) she has to wear a robe and cover her hair (and face). It is normal for a girl to get married at the age of 15 and give birth to the first child one year later.

This teenage pregnancy and poor access to health services often leads to health problems and infant death (infant mortality in Yemen is one of the highest in the world). City women tend to postpone marriage until they have completed university education.

Lacking support

Unlike men's social grouping, women's groups and social activities are scarce. Therefore social support among women is lacking as well. Only in the last few years have some women activists initiated organizations for women, like Women Union and Family Care Association.

Yet, if one goes to the villages up on the dusty, rocky mountains of Yemen, one does not see the impact of the work of these women's organizations. Looking at a heavily veiled woman herding sheep among the dry and dusty rocks, one tends to think that time in rural Yemen has stopped in the tenth century.

Yemeni women still have a long, long way to go to enjoy the privileges men have. It is true that the Yemeni law provides equal opportunity for education and employment to both men and women. But reality remains: women are being severely deprived from their rights.

To break through the barrier and bring changes, women must be empowered, gaining support and cooperation not only from the men, but also from women who prefer to hold on to the status quo that provides them with feelings of safety.

The writer is a public health consultant and gender specialist residing in Holland, assigned to provide gender training in two universities in Yemen.