The image of women in Yemeni proverbs [Archives:2007/1032/Culture]

March 12 2007

Nisreen Shadad
There are many Yemeni proverbs about the position of women. Most give women inferior status and very few give them self-esteem. This series aims to discuss Yemeni society's projection about women's status, as well as how cultural and social factors affect mechanisms that perpetuate women's under-representation in managing and controlling power levers.

Since Yemen is an Islamic country and Islam plays a vital role in shaping its people's perspectives, it's essential to gauge to what extent Islam affects their understanding about the status of women. Most important is how Yemenis interpret the religion to justify their individual interests.

This week proverb:

“Al-mara ma laha illa al-beit aw al-qabr.”

“A woman has no place except the home or the grave.”

“As I understand it, what's meant in this proverb is that a woman will be safer when she's among her family and in her home. I don't think this proverb is encouraging Yemenis to prevent women from learning; however, Yemeni men sometimes use it to oppress women and prevent them from studying or working,” CD shop employee Ahmed Al-Buhairi says.

Stationery store employee Musa Mohammed Ali disagrees with this proverb and those who use it because he says they apply it out of ignorance of women's rights. “Here in Yemen, we see loads of women studying and working without any problem because they have the right to learn as well as work,” he adds.

“I have two daughters. Both of them studied and now they are working. Since the girls go out modestly, saving their honor and dignity, why should we prevent them?” tailor, Al-Shamyri. said.

However, fellow tailor Hassan Hamoud Al-Shihari agrees with this proverb completely, saying, “Women have no place except to stay at home or be buried in the grave. I have four wives, nine daughters and 11 sons. I allowed my daughters to finish high school, but I don't let them work because it's shameful in our traditions and customs.”

He continues, “Learning is obligatory in Islam and women can go to work as well. However, in our tribe, it's shameful to allow them to work. For me, I stress that the woman's job is in the kitchen and educating her children. I have no problem when girls excel and are better than boys, but their home must come first.”

Al-Shihari adds, “Many Yemenis implement this proverb because they are against girls' education, even if they are provided a safe situation in which to study (such as studying at a women's university). However, some actually are against coeducation and once girls are provided a good situation in which to study, they encourage them to go to school.”

Iman University student Wafa' says, “In Islam, a woman can study or work, but she must be modest in both her dress and her behavior. This isn't only for women, but men also are ordered to be modest in both behavior and dress.”

“The point I'd like to make is that women mustn't destroy their homes or children at the expense of building society. The home is of the whole building (society), so we as women need to be interested in educating healthy members of our own family who are able to lead society. If every woman can raise healthy and erudite youths, our nation will be something different,” she says.

Honey store employee Ali Al-Maliki says, “Women can go and work, but they should be modest and follow Islamic instructions. However, I don't want my daughter to attend university because there are many boys who try to mislead girls. I can't have peace in my heart about sending my daughter to such a place.”

Arhab University teacher Fawzia Yahya notes, “Nothing can prevent women from working, but they should find a job that helps them balance between their home and their job.”

Housewife Taghreed Mohammed Abdu comments, “This proverb is applied in my village and others around my village in Dhamar. It's shameful for girls to go to be educated. For those who do struggle to go to school, people begin rumors about her and consider her an impolite girl. The situation is so different here in Sana'a because women are freer and their parents encourage them to study and work.”

School deputy Huda Al-Dubai says, “Regarding a woman's right to seek employment, it first should be stated that Islam regards her role in society as mother and wife to be her most sacred and essential one. Maids and babysitters can't possibly take a mother's place as educator of an upright, complex-free and carefully reared child. Such a noble and vital role, which largely shapes the future of nations, can't be regarded as 'idleness.'

“However, there's no Islamic decree forbidding women from seeking employment whenever there's a necessity for it. Moreover, there's no restriction on benefiting from women's exceptional talents in any field,” she concludes.

The previous issue's proverb, “A woman's opinion is worth seven crises,” originally was, “Your opinion is worth seven crises.” The word 'woman' intervened in this proverb and circulated among Yemenis in such a way.

As written in Ismail Al-Akwa'a's book, “Yemeni Proverbs,” the story behind this proverb is as follows:

A man was sitting at home with his wife when he suddenly heard sounds. Guessing that it might be a thief in his house, he decided to play a trick on him. So he said to his wife loudly, “When I was young, I used to steal. One day, as I was I entering a rich man's home, he discovered me, so I ran up to the roof and he ran after me.

“Luckily, I saw a drainpipe, so I hung onto it. The homeowner looked for me, but his search was in vain. He thought I had left the house, so he went back inside his home peacefully. Afterward, I returned to his house and stole many precious things.”

Upon hearing this story, the thief decided to apply such a plan when the homeowner discovered him so he would lose neither his life nor his money. The homeowner told his wife that he was hearing some sounds; therefore, he was going to check the rooms to see what was there.

The thief ran to the roof to hide and hung onto a drainpipe, but fell unexpectedly. Hearing the sound of his fall, the homeowner looked out at the thief from a window and asked, “Do you have any broken bones?” The thief replied, “Your opinion is worth seven crises.” It means the homeowner's opinion causes the thief's fall, so in the thief's point of view such opinion doesn't help him to steal money, but to reveal his existence.