GENDER: Meanings, Uses, and Discourses in Post-Unification Yemen [Archives:2000/25/Culture]

June 19 2000

Dr.Margot Badran
“Humankind. We have created you male and female, nations and tribes, so that you may know one another. The most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. God has full knowledge and its acquainted with all things.”Qur’an: 49:13
There has been an enormous misunderstanding of the concept of gender in Yemen. Some of this emanates from genuine unfamiliarity with the term and its meaning, while much of it appears more willful. Gender connotes the cultural construction of man and woman (or masculinity and femininity) as distinct from the biological categories of male and female (or sex). Most simply put, sex is a biological category and gender is a cultural category. Gender is an analytical tool enabling us to probe deeply our everyday practices as women and as men within the context of our religion, culture, and history. Some have not simply misunderstood gender but they have perverted its meanings and uses. Some have politicized gender.

There are many things to clarify and correct about gender, about the fundamental meaning of gender, and its uses and discourses in Yemen. This is the intention of my paper. I shall do the following in my presentation:
1) Identify three discourses of gender in Yemen today.
2) Examine the origins of gender as a new concept and analytical tool in the West and in Arab societies.
3) Look at the challenges concerning gender terminology in Arabic.
4) Discuss the contradictory fate of gender in Yemen.

Three discourses of gender in Yemen
Explicit gender discourses are a phenomenon of post-unification Yemen. There are three discourses of gender currently discernable in Yemen: the state discourse, the academic discourse, and a demonizing discourse. The state discourse is the discourse of development and democracy. It is a normative and applied discourse grounded in the fundamental law of the land. The academic discourse is a discourse of intellectual or scientific inquiry and analysis. The demonizing discourse is a discourse of deceit and fabrication fanned in the popular press and the street. It is a manipulative discourse, playing on notions of endangered culture, morality, and identity. Although three gender discourses can be detected in Yemen today, they are not impermeable. Indeed, these three discourses of gender intersect and impinge upon each other in a multitude of ways. Our focus on the three discourses of gender reveals ways the narratives and projects of the state and civil society blur, sometimes re-enforcing each other, sometimes undermining each other.
There is a missing discourse of gender and Islam, a thoughtful and questioning discourse produced by religiously trained scholars, devout Muslims, and concerned others engaged in the quest for knowledge. The sites of this discourse are universities, research centers, scholarly publications and the media around the world, as well as on the internet. It is a discourse with a vast literature in many languages.
I shall now discuss the first two discourses of gender: the state discourse of development and democracy, and the academic or analytical discourse. Later in my presentation I shall examine the third discourse, the demonizing gender discourse. As a historian I shall place my discussion within a time frame so that we may see the precise moments and contexts in which the discourses of gender have emerged in Yemen.

The state discourse of development and democracy
The state discourse of development and democracy surfaced with the unification of Yemen with the creation of the draft of a new gender-egalitarian constitution in 1990. The Constitution of 1990 declared (in Art. 2) that Islam is the religion of the state and (in Art. 3) that the shar’ia the main source of legislation. Art. 27 affirmed: “All citizens are equal before the law. They are equal in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination between them based on sex, color, ethnic origin, language, occupation, social status or religion.” In 1991 a referendum in which both women and men took part was held approving the Constitution. In 1994 the Constitution was amended to read: “Islam is the source of legislation” (rather than “the main source of legislation). The explicit guarantee that “There shall be no discrimination between them based on sex, color, ethnic origin, language, occupation, social status or religion,” was deleted.
In 1993 when the Republic of Yemen conducted the first national election, again both female and male citizens participated. There was considerable attention paid by the state, political parties, and male and female citizens to encouraging women to vote. There was less attention given to encouraging women to run as candidates, however. Indeed only two women were elected to parliament. During elections the discourse on gender and democracy was highly visible and strongly applauded in the local and international media. Two years later, in 1995, women judges and public prosecutors were confirmed as a result of the first judicial movement (al-haraka al-qada’iyya) since unification.
Meanwhile, a National Preparatory Committee was created by the government (republican decree 251) to prepare for the Fourth United Nations conference on Women to be held in Beijing in 1995. The Committee was charged to elaborate a national position on gender issues. A fundamental concern was how the constitutional guarantees for democracy and basic human rights could be implemented for all citizens, male and female alike. Following the Beijing conference the National Women’s Committee was created by cabinet decree with the mandate to formulate national gender policy, with a special focus on women’s development. During the decade of the 90s gender focal points were created in various government ministries. The state has amply demonstrated its awareness of the gendered dimensions of development. This is evident in its development strategies and projects in the areas of health, education, and poverty alleviation, for example. Yemen has also accepted millions of dollars from United Nations agencies and bi-lateral donors, and international NGOs for gender development programs may of which are in effect, as we speak.

The academic discourse of gender
While gender was becoming part of development policy, planning, and implementation in the newly unified Yemen, gender as an academic discourse was being institutionalized in the academy within the framework of women’s studies. The foundational date of the emergence of an academic discourse of gender was the year 1993 when the Women’s Studies Unit was created at University of Sana’a.
The Women’s Studies Unit was transformed into the empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center in 1996. The creation of the full-fledged center occurred after an elaborate and detailed process of planning was conducted in which the project of women’s studies as an important and much applauded cutting-edge discipline was carefully worked out between Sana’a University, the Women’s Study Unit, and the Embassy of the Netherlands, which provided generous financial support and assisted with technical inputs. The significant documentation of this institutionalization process attests to the significance attached to and care taken by all parties to create the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center.
Two years later on the occasion of the publication of the introductory issue of the Center’s Dirasat Niswayah Journal (October 1998), the Rector of the University, Abdul Aziz al-Maqalah wrote: “The appearance of the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center at Sana’a University constitutes a true beginning of objective scientific knowledge concerning the reality of women in our country and defining the problems of women which are rooted in the deterioration and decline which began with the fall of the Arab state and the tribulations of the Muslims.” Courses on gender theory and gender research methodologies, integral to the discipline of women’s studies, were developed as core courses in the curriculum. The Empirical Research of Women’s Studies Center hired its own faculty and also drew upon resources elsewhere in the University. Among those who taught courses in the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center were the Rector of the University and member of the Arabic Department, Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Maqalah, Dr. Hasan all-Ahdal, Vice-Rector of the University for Higher Studies and a member of the Faculty of Shariah and Qanun, Dr. Ahmad Sharaf al-Din, also a member of the Faculty of Shariah and Qanun and Dr. Bilqis al-Sharie, from the Faculty of Education, who was the first Yemeni to undertake an extensive study of gender. She employed gender methodology and theory in her doctoral dissertation presented at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States in 1992 titled: “Attitudes of Students at Sana’a University toward Gender Roles in the Republic of Yemen.” Ph. D. candidates at the Center were meanwhile being trained as future professors in the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center. Doctoral candidates Antelak al-Mutawakkal and Abd al-Karim Alauj, with first degrees respectively in Arabic literature and sociology had begun to teach the core course: Introduction to Women’s Studies and Gender Research Methodology.
Scholars from abroad were invited to teach on an occasional basis, such as, Professor Yumna Aid, a literary critic and specialist in Arabic literature in Beirut, and Professor Aziza al-Hibri, a specialist in Islamic law at the University of Richmond. Professor Suad Salih, a specialist in comparative fiqh and Dean of the Women’ College at al-Azhar University, had been approached to give courses during the academic year 1999-2000 and had expressed her willingness to come to Sana’a, but her potentially valuable contribution was lost after the crisis surrounding the Center. In the summer of 1997, the Center hosted a workshop on gender research methodology for Masters Degree students from the University of Sana’a and the University of Chicago, which as opened by the Rector of the University.
By the end of the 1990s, the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center had become an integral and intellectually lively part of Sana’a University, earning for the country and the university serious, if not uncontested, local applause, while attracting a more unqualified international recognition. The intersection of this local and international recognition was especially evident on the occasion of the visit to Center of the Netherlands Minister of Overseas Cooperation to the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies last spring where she gave an impromptu talk on the background of feminist activism and scholarship. Her evident enthusiasm was a source of inspiration to Center students and faculty. The Center was a compelling example of the mutually beneficial concerns of national development and academic work.
To be Continued next issue