The challenge for Yemen’s women [Archives:2005/884/Reportage]

October 10 2005

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Society is changing and in modern times Yemen has faced many challenges. To traditional sensibilities these changes often appear as deviations from a moral antiquity, when society was pure and women knew their place.

However, women consistently illustrate their intelligence, vivacity, determination and competence in raising families, educating children and generally providing the bedrock of society. Recently, women have taken on more roles, as professionals and decision makers. These predictable innovations have predictably outraged a retarded male culture of machismo, which found self definition in the disentitlement of women. Indeed, traditional male gender roles were highly dependant upon the assumption of female inferiority and incapacity as women were reduced to illegitimate and incomplete failures of a male ideal. When women resist these gender stereotypes, it naturally calls into question what it means to be male, in other words, the legitimacy of a dependant identity.

Much of the tension in contemporary Yemeni gender relations originates in a fundamental contradiction. The modernization of society will necessarily transform the role of women, their expectations and ambitions, (what they will be satisfied with), but what will it do to Yemen's men? To allow women to change, men are forced to renegotiate their roles, something most Yemeni males' are loathe to consider. But to contain women in traditional roles either involves social disenfranchisement or oppression, two things which would relegate Yemen to the dark ages. Not only would this deprive the country of 52% of it's human capital, but such draconian sexual relations are difficult to justify in the modern world.

Its not surprising that sexual relations in Yemen are going through substantial trauma as the nation becomes increasingly open to the west and the world. Nor is Yemen's experience unique. Every country entering the modern world has gone through generations of sexual combat, as women were integrated, rejected, limited, disenfranchised and empowered by their respective society's. But there was a clear winner in this social arm wrestle. We might retrospectively say it was all of us, as the involvement of women in our societies, businesses, governments and space programs attest. There is no rational reason for their exclusion. Perhaps the men of Yemen should consider what they are losing by excluding women, before they think of what they are losing by their inclusion.