Part II [Archives:1997/45/Reportage]

November 10 1997

Women and Islamic Activism in Yemen
By: Janine A. Clark, University of New Hampshire (This article published in ‘Yemen Update’ No. 39, 1997)
A second aspect of Islamic activism in Yemen, one not restricted solely to the Islah party, is the afternoon nadwa. The nadwa, as I translated the term, is a Quranic study group. Throughout Sana’a, pious women gather on a weekly or biweekly basis to read the Quran and discuss passages. In some cases, for example, a speaker (female, of course) is brought in to give a lecture. In others, women read passages from an Islamic scholars’ writings. The nadwa forms an important part of women’s informal networks. These Quranic study groups provide religious solace and guidance, an education in reading and in Islam, an emotional outlet, a social life outside of the home, and a support group for the women who attend them. They furthermore form an important link in the transmission of knowledge and education from female religious scholars to the next generation. Within the home they do not generally involve politics but focus rather on how to apply Islam in one’s daily life – how to be a better Muslim. A more formal and political type of nadwa is found at universities where they are very popular. Women from Hizb al-Islah will come to the dorms, for example, and organize a nadwa on a regular or semi-regular basis. Special study groups are organized in honor of specific events and often draw in large numbers. As stated above, not all the women involved in a university nadwa or even in recruiting and canvassing for Islah belong to the party. While many are very active on behalf of the party, they are not all official members. Many women either distrust politics or feel the political work is not appropriate for them, even if it is for an Islamic party. Other women equate religious devotion and the fulfillment of religious duties so closely to the party activities, that they see no need to be a member. There is no denying however, that for the active recruiters on campus, regardless of how they view their own activities, the majority have a political agenda. Islah has more subtle influence in the nadwa of the home. Here women from all political persuasions gather for religious purposes. After the religious discussions, during the social ‘segment’ of the nadwa, an Islahi woman may quietly approach another and suggest she join her at different nadwas. At the second nadwa, she may be introduced to a social group which is more openly in support of Islah. This process may also happen quite naturally on its own. The third stream of Islamist women’s activism is the Islah Charitable Society. This society is a humanitarian, non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in March 1990. It is the most successful NGO helping the poor in Yemen. While the word Islah is in its title, the society is technically independent from the party. However, the memberships and supporters do overlap. In Sana’a, the society’s three women’s committees raise funds and offer, for example, day care centers, classes for children and sewing lessons. The women also organize food, clothing and other necessities for needy groups. As with the party, the women conduct parallel activities like the men from within their own committees. They organize their own events, raise their own, funds, and distribute monies and items. They run most of their activities independently, although some events are run jointly with the men. Furthermore, they make it clear that they are striving for greater independence from ‘the men’, in the sense of being relatively financially independent from the Society at large, in order to ensure that their priorities are recognized and realized. The women’s committee is generally regarded as a charity group for well-off women. Some of them are related to prominent men in both Yemen and in Hizb al-Islah. Yet, once again, many of these women do not belong to the party. As stated earlier, for many of these women, working for the society is a way to fulfill a religious duty, gain a strong feeling of self-worth, and leave the household. The society is furthermore appealing to women because it is not tarnished with a negative image as politics and political parties are. As a consequence, a woman’s success in the field of charity does not draw negative reactions. Charity work – as for many of these women is a full-time job – a means for women to fulfill themselves and not break the bounds of tradition. In Sana’a therefore, we find over-lapping networks of women’s circles. Women professors and students and their social, religious, political, and family circles overlap at school, university, at lectures, in mosques, at Quranic study groups, social occasions, at the Islah Charitable Society, party meetings and activities, and at work.Through informal and formal means, Islahi female supporters are able to access and recruit women at all the above gatherings. The majority Islahi women are not politically-minded in terms of having overt political goals and strategies. Women’s roles in the party are predominantly social and educational, and many women see their activities are religious in nature. At the same time, however, these activities are an effective means and a technique of political socialization. Even if Islahi women do not succeed in overcoming women’s resistance to party politics and gain new members immediately, activists or voters, at the very minimum they create an atmosphere conducive to Islahi values. The overlapping nature of Islamist and Islamic women’s networks in Sana’a not only provides an easy route of mobilization, but an all-encompassing environment in which Islamic values and deeds reinforce each other and the Islah party – even if many of the women performing these activities are not in the party and/or may not agree with its politics or platform. On the whole, Islahi men exploit the important value of the women to the overall success of the party and grant them very little in return. The majority of women have either internalized partiarchical supremacy – even while acting or expressing views, such as those concerning issues like marriage, age, polygamy and anti-birth control . Only a small number of women quietly challenge the party patriarchy. Islamist and Islamic women’s networks do provide, however, what Margot Badran refers to as a “‘feminist’ function”. Working for the party or society not only gives women greater independence and autonomy, confidence to argue a position contrary to her family’s base on Islam, but also practical skills in organizing, managing, recruiting, fund-raising, and accounting. These activities give women a sense of worth and self-satisfaction. In this sense, women’s lives are improved with very real and important experiences. This function even occurs in the nadwa conducted in the home – girls who are students are encouraged to lead discussion groups and give lectures. Women in and ‘around’ Islah are thus contributing to goals that women activists of all types in Yemen share. The impact of Islahi women in Yemeni society is being felt by the social and economic changes they are making to the daily lives of some women. Despite their worthy successes, however, Islahi women are helping to bring to power a political party that does not uphold or pursue rights to which a growing number of Islahi women themselves quietly feel they are entitled according to Islam.