GENDER: Meanings, Uses, and Discourses in Post-Unification Yemen [Archives:2000/26/Culture]

June 26 2000

Part 2 of 3

Dr. Margot Badran,

The emergence of gender as a new construct and analytical tool
The term gender as a new analytical category gained wide circulation in academia in the United States in the mid 1980s within women’s studies as this new discipline was maturing. Women’s studies had started to take shape as a new field of academic study in the late 1960s when movements for social justice and human liberation were underway. These included the feminist movement from which women’s studies most immediately emerged and the civil rights movement from which Black or African-American studies arose, as well as the anti-war movement (protesting the Vietnam war), and the national liberation movements in Africa and Asia, both of which were highly supported on US campuses.
Many women, myself included, who were feminists doing graduate studies in the 1970s chose to focus on some aspect of the study of women. The pioneers in the new discipline of women’s studies in the West included Arabs and Muslims who were doing graduate work abroad. Some graduate students focused on subjects relating to women in Islam and in Arab societies. The best known among the Arab women pioneering the study of women and gender (before the term itself existed) is Fatima Mernissi who took her PhD from Brandeis University in the 1970s. In 1977 she published her dissertation as a book entitled Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society which became a classic. I point to this to underscore that from the start women’s studies was not purely a “Western creation” but was a new field in which many scholars from different parts of the world played important roles. In my own case, as a student of Middle Eastern history at Oxford University, I researched the rise of the feminist movement in Egypt, a movement that articulated itself within the discourses of Islam and nationalism. In those days, we were struggling to find analytical concepts and tools to aid us in our new areas of intellectual investigation.
I remember very well Joan Scott’s landmark talk at the Conference of the American Historical Association in New York in 1985 titled: “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” which brought to the attention of the wider academic community the power and potential of the new theoretical concept gender that feminist scholars had been working to develop in the past several years. Gender as a new analytical concept helped us to recognize and explore the “cultural construction of distinctions built around the biological category of sex.” Or, put another way, to quote gender theoretician Linda Nicholson, scholars “came to view differences between women and men as having two dimensions: (1) the biological and (2) the social, with “sex” referring to the former, and “gender” referring to the latter.” She continued: “Differences of ‘gender’, however, or how societies elaborated these biological differences in terms of expectations, regarding behavior, were thought of as variable across cultures.”1 This was to stress that there are many ways gender is defined and acted out within diverse cultural and religious systems. (Linda Nicholson, “Gender,” in Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young, A Companion to Feminist Philosophy [Oxford; Blackwell, 1998], pp. 289-97.)
This new analytical concept constituted a major intellectual breakthrough. Through the lens of genderÑin combination with race, ethnicity, class, religion, and cultureÑwe could analyze women’s positionings and experience, and relationships between males and females. The new analytical construct of gender also enabled scholars to detect and articulate how focuses on questions of women often masked other debates and agendas. The new analytical concept ‘gender’ rapidly gained wide currency in academia and soon spread to the development community and to society at large. This, and the rapid diffusion of the term into other languages, was testimony to the relevance and resonance of the new construct ‘gender’.
By the end of the 1980s the term gender was being used in some Arab countries. During the 1990s gender had become an integral part of the scholarly and development vocabulary throughout the Arab world. Whereas the new construct ‘gender’ emerged within the context of the academic discipline of women’s studies in the West, ‘gender’ appeared in the Arab world mainly within the context of development work. The UN Decade for Women from 1975 to 1985 had focused international attention on the need to think specifically about women in developmentÑthat is to consider the different needs of females and males in the development process. The end of the Decade for Women coincided with the moment when the new term ‘gender’ was introduced into our analytic vocabulary. By the post-decade follow-up conference at Beijing ten years later, gender had become the central analytical and organizing construct of development. In the 1990s Arab governments, including Yemen as we have noted, were creating gender strategies, allocating funds for gender and development initiatives out of their national budgets, and were entering into crucial multi-lateral and bi-lateral agreements in support of gender and development projects.
In some Arab countries, and Yemen is one of them as just noted, gender emerged more or less simultaneously, within the context of development and academic women’s studies. From the 1990s women’s studies has been spreading in the Arab world as a new academic discipline. Women’s studies programs in Arab universities have typically had a strong gender and development focus. In this and other ways, women’s studies have consciously aimed to serve the wider society. The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World was founded at the Beirut College for Women in 1973. In Sudan the first women’s studies courses were taught at Ahfad, College in the late 1970s. Ahfad which since has become a university, now grants M.A. degrees in Women’s Studies. In the early 1980s a women’s studies program was established at the Women’s College of al-Azhar University. Bir Zeit University in Palestine created a women’s studies center in 1994 which is playing a role in national policy making and gender strategy in the new state. By the end of the 1990s, women’s studies programs were created at several Moroccan universities, including, the universities of Fez and Rabat. This is but a sample of women’s studies programs and centers in Arab countries.
Gender terminology in Arabic
Academicians and development specialists in Arab countries have been grappling with the challenges of gender terminology in Arabic. Scholars in the American academy of the 1980s, who sought a term to convey the notion of cultural construction of woman and man as distinct from the biological categories of female and male, appropriated a word that had been purely a grammatical term designating male, female, and neuter in language. The abbreviated Oxford Dictionary of 1960 defined gender as a “grammatical grouping of words (nouns and pronouns) into classes (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Finding a word for gender in other languages, western and non-western, alike, has likewise constituted a challenge. Deciding upon an appropriate term has often been more controversial than the idea itself.
While the term ‘gender’ is by now ubiquitous in the Arab world, there is still no consensus on gender terminology in Arabic. Two strategies have been adopted: l) arabization and 2) assimilation (as a loan word).
Arabization has been the generally preferred strategy in Egypt. The term gender entered the discourse mainly as a development-driven term. The term naw` al-jins (kind of sex) was initially employed. Development specialists, especially gender trainers working in the rural areas in Egypt in the early 1990s, told me that while people were quick to grasp the meaning of gender and its applications in development, they refused to use the term naw` al-jins, because it was ‘aib (shameful) to say the word jins in public in the mixed presence of women and men. For this reason and others, na`w al-jins was soon abbreviated to na`w, kind, sort, type, species or kind.
There are serious problems with both naw` al-jins and na`w. The term naw` al-jins seems to sustain the fusionÑor confusionÑof (biological) sex with (socially constructed) gender. And, as just noted, there are reasons of cultural propriety for not using the word jins. The word naw` is also inadequate. It does not imply connotations of the masculine or feminine that inhere in the word ‘gender’, which was adopted precisely because it did reflect the masculine and feminine as constructed categories, albeit originally with grammatical constructions of the masculine and feminine. There has been widespread dissatisfaction with both the term naw` al-jins and naw`. In some Arab countries there has also been an attempt to use the term al-jins al-ijtima’i, literally social sex, but this does not eliminate problems associated with the word jins and may suggest other unwanted implications.
For purists who insist on a purely Arabic term as culturally more appropriate, I would like to speak for a moment on what linguists tell us is the foreign origin of the word jins. They argue with strong evidence that the Arabic word jins is a loanword originating in the Greek term genos. The word jins does not appear in the Qur’an nor does it occur in classic fiqh. Linguists claim that originally jins was a grammatical term signifying male and female and if this is so then gender and jins both originally performed the same function. It appears that jins came to signify sex, as well as race, nation and more abstractly species, genus, category, etc. in modern times. The point I am trying to make here is that jins and jandar are both of foreign provenance and that Arabic is a rich and vital language able to accommodate new words, transforming them into Arabic, and accessing and refining their analytical power in the service of indigenous needs.
In Yemen, the noun gender has been widely appropriated into Arabic as a loanword. The word al-jandar migrated from the academic discipline of women’s studies into the mainstream language mainly as a result of the crisis that erupted around women’s studies last fall. Al-jandar has also been widely used in Yemen in development discourse. Arabic with its rich morphological structure easily accommodates the noun jandar from which the quadrilateral root j n d r can be derived. This illustrates the pattern noted above of how a foreign word is ingested into Arabic, that is, through the noun form. Women’s studies students on the campus at Sana’a University could be heard weaving the word al-jandar seamlessly into the flow of their everyday Arabic. However, an unfamiliar loanword can be more easily demonized in popular discourse than an Arabic word such as naw`. I shall examine the spread of al-jandar in the demonizing discourse of gender in Yemen later.
Meanwhile it is instructive to note that the lack of consensus on gender terminology within the Arabic-speaking world is reflected in the United Nations, where Arabic is one of the official languages. A look at a UN handbook of gender terms in Arabic illustrates the prevailing confusion. The vacillation between al-jandar and naw` is reflected in the title of part one: Al-JandarÑAl-Naw` Al-Ijtima`i (literally, social kind). Gender, however, in the list of terms appears simply as jandar. Yet, gender awareness (or consciousness) is al-wa`i bil-naw` (a kind of awareness). Gender goals are ahdaf al-jandar. Gender blindness is al-`ami al-naw`i (a kind of blindness). Gender impacts is athar al-jandar. Gender analysis is al-tahlil al-naw`. One of the odder terms is al-musawwa bain al-naw l`iterally equality between the kind which intends to signify gender equality.
The third and final part of the paper will appear next week.
Learning about Women’s Qat Sessions
Part I in a series
D. Abdallah A.
Gender-based distinction prevails in Yemeni society in many institutions and social events. The gender factor often interferes in the routine of the daily life of Yemenis. The common qat-chewing sessions held daily in the afternoon is a case in point. Seldom does a woman attend men’s assembly or vice versa, except in rare cases such as family sessions or the “Akhdam”1 class sessions.
Until recently, qat chewing was practiced only by men and only by those from certain social classes. The chewing of qat by Yemeni women, which started less than three decades ago, is considered a relatively recent phenomenon when compared to the men’s long history with qat. This is mentioned by Al-Wai’y, in his book “The History of Yemen”: “Women, in their own sessions, drink coffee from the time they enter their sessions until they return to their homes. Also, on many days, Al-Nashadah, a certain type of female singer, attends such sessions, where she recites common odes and may preach. Al-Nashadah would attend all events of joy and sorrow. Afterwards, all women go back home around dusk before prayer time”.2 This is still common in the neighborhoods of the old city of Sana’a, especially among elderly women.
According to the findings of a study conducted 20 years ago, only 5% of adult Yemeni women chewed qat on a regular basis.3 This percentage has risen substantially during the past years due to the socio-economic transitions witnessed by the Yemeni community. These transitions have directly and indirectly contributed to the spread of qat chewing among women and the rise of new types of women’s sessions, mainly intended for chewing qat.
The traditional women’s sessions, known as ‘Tafrita”, were and are convened without qat chewing. This fact distinguishes such sessions from the men’s, in which the qat is the most essential part. With the socio-economic transitions that Yemeni society has witnessed, especially in the late 1970s, qat chewing spread among women within the “Tafrita” sessions and began to compete with food stuffs, such as cake, coffee and sweets, usually consumed by women in their traditional sessions. In a study carried out by Sana’a University in 1981, it was found that “the qat-chewing sessions had become more frequent and common than ever, as compared to the twenty previous years. Until recently, the “Tafrita” sessions were restricted to the very wealthy families, and it was not common for a woman to chew qat, especially if she was a member of the middle or low social class.4
Women’s attendance at the “Tafrita” sessions was almost always associated with certain occasions such as a birth, a wedding or a death. The opportunity to chew may be the main motivation behind the exaggerated extension of women-related occasions. On birthday celebrations, women continue visiting the mother for forty consecutive days. In the event of a death, the mourning visits continue for thirteen days. Attending such occasions was restricted only to married women, except for two days in which girls were allowed to participate in wedding celebration. The attendance of unmarried women at such events as a birth or death was forbidden by their parents or guardians.
There are different classifications of women’s qat sessions, based on socio-economic level (wealthy/poor, Sadah/public), social milieu (urban/rural), social occasions (wedding, circumscion, travel situations), geographical location, and specific features (Sana’ani, Adeni, Thihami, etc) and other such factors. However, here for analytical reasons, we shall introduce a different way of stratification.
Types of Women’s Qat Sessions
It may seem that women’s sessions in Yemen in general, and in Sana’a in particular, are very similar and have no major differences between them. In fact, there are numerous types of qat sessions, as is the case with the men’s sessions. Women’s sessions may be classified into two main types. One type is the open qat sessions. In Sana’a, these are known mainly as the “Tafrita”, and they are usually held for a certain occasion and involve a large number of women. These sessions usually have their own special qualities and rites. The second type we may describe as the “closed” qat sessions. These are made up of a small groups of selected people, restricted to a limited number of close workmates, school colleagues or relatives. This latter type, which is the most recent, is usually held for non-specific occasion.
1- Open Sessions: “Tafrita”
This type of women’s session differs from one city area to another. In Sana’a, it is named the “Tafrita”. In Aden and Ta’iz, it is named “Qailah” which is derived from the words “Maqial or the Qailoulah”, meaning dissemination – whether it is news exchanged by women or the showing off of the latest fashions and jewelry women have.
“Tafrita” is the common name which most scholars, both Yemenis and non-Yemenis have talked about. The scholar Karla Makhlouf pointed out “the study of this word’s origin is a complicated task. Some believe, especially the public, that this word is associated with wasting of time which women spend in such sessions”.5 It seems that the word was derived from the stem “Farata”, meaning to waste. Another meaning of the stem is to commit a slip of the tongue, leave people behind, or outrun somebody towards water. In addition, the same stem may mean to be extravagant at something. However, “Furta” is a noun meaning gong out and progressing.6
Usually, a “Tafrita” is organized for a certain social occasion such as a birth, marriage, death, religious festival, or the return from a journey. It may also be held merely to meet relatives and friends. Such sessions are regarded basically, as rest time for women, particularly for Sana’anis. It is almost the only event during which women try to spend some time for rest, self-realization and escaping the domination of men. Due to the rarity of the occurrence of public events, other entertainment and cultural occasions, where women can rest and use their leisure time, and since cinema and theater are mostly restricted to men, usually women are confined to staying at home watching TV or going out for the “Tafrita”.
When there is a men’s qat-chewing session in a certain house, women choose to go to another house where there are no men. In some houses, there is more than one place designated for qat-chewing. In this case, women occupy the “Diwan” while the men occupy the “Mafraj” or vice versa, depending on the number of people chewing and the size of the rooms.
Usually, only married women or those who were previously married participate in the “Tafrita” sessions, except for the wedding parties or on the occasion of death, which unmarried girls, including those of adolescent age, can attend.
Usually, at the beginning of the “Tafrita” session, women exchange the community’s news, women-related news in particular.
Qat is not a basic element in such sessions, as it is at both the men’ s sessions and at the modern type of women’s sessions. In fact, it is almost secondary, and supplementary to the other activities. According to estimations made by an American scholar, Kennedy, 40-60% of women attending “Tafrita” sessions actually chew qat at these sessions.7
Qat consumption by women is low, in general, when compared to that of the average qat chewing men. Most women at “Tafrita” sessions drink Yemeni coffee (Qishr), tea with nuts, or tea sweets or cakes, while such items are undesirable at men’s assemblies.
This type of women’s session is distinguished by the fact that most of the participants do not smoke cigarettes, and prefer the water pipe, known as a “Mada’ah”. This is mainly because smoking cigarettes is still viewed as an embarrassment and as a socially unacceptable behavior for women under the prevailing value system, especially for the Sana’ani community.
On many occasions, the “Tafrita” sessions may be permeated with singing, dancing and religious chants, depending on the occasion. When the occasion is one of mourning, the “Nashadah” (chant-reciting women) is called to recite the Holy Quran and religious chants. In the case of a joyful occasion, a singer is called in and the sessions become very crowded.
In Karla Makhlouf’s description of a “Tafrita” session, she states that “merely upon entering one of these women’s sessions, one is amazed and taken aback by the colorful & embroidered fashions, the abundance of expensive jewelry, the odor of the frankincense, and fragrance of the large variety of perfumes which is mixed with the smell of smoke emitted by the water pipes which are set in the middle the “Diwan”, and the noise of bilateral chats mixed with music.”8
The social characteristics of “Tafrita” are that these reinforce intimacy, equality and gathering, rather than distinction and estrangement.
The women’s “Tafrita” sessions do not compare with men’s sessions in terms of deep contemplation, thinking, debate, and the different mental states caused by the physiological and psychological effects of qat-chewing, which causes the debates to be conducted on more than one serious topic. Often, the singer or chant-reciting woman spends most of the time singing, reciting chants or the Holy Quran, and praising the Prophet Mohammed, “may peace by upon him.”
Thus, qat is only a marginal element for women and a session can be held without it, which is not the case with men’s sessions.
The time for the sunset call to prayer (Salat Al-Maghrib) is considered the end of the session in many of the women’s “Tafrita” sessions and women seldom extend their sessions beyond this prayer.
To be continued next issue
(*References will be available on the final part