The image of women in Yemeni proverbs [Archives:2007/1034/Culture]

March 19 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:

Bint al-usul khair min al-mal wa al-mahsul.

A woman of noble origin is better than money or yield.

The explanation of this proverb depends on the meaning of usul, as some define it as righteousness, while others consider it lineage. In “Yemeni Proverbs,” author Ismail Al-Akwa'a says usul is a woman's noble lineage. Yemenis most often quote this proverb when someone wishes to propose.

Sayeeda Al-ansi, a housewife, observes, “This proverb somehow is right, particularly if the woman is of noble descent, no matter of she's rich or poor. Everything is based on education. A good family plays a vital role in raising good sons and daughters; therefore, we care a lot about the environment in which a woman lives.

“In Islam, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said women become engaged for four reasons: for their money, their beauty, their noble lineage or their righteousness. However, as the prophet recommended, a righteous woman is the best,” she explains.

Al-Ansi believes such proverbs can create discrimination between those of noble origins, the Usul (who include the Saadah, also called those from the Prophet Mohammed's lineage, and the tribes or qabayel), and the Muzaayinah (those whose families, their fathers and grandfathers, are barbers, butchers, radish sellers, etc.). “In Yemen, some jobs are unacceptable in our society, so those who work in these types of jobs, their family and tribe stands against them and belittles them,” she explains.

“Several years ago, a woman in my family married. After the marriage, her family discovered that her husband was a muziyyin. The whole tribe was against their marriage, threatening both her and her father that if the marriage continued, the whole tribe would disavow them. However, if she divorced, they were ready to pay the expenses he may lose,” Al-Anisi recounted.

She continued, “The problem was that the man was good and his wife was fond of him. Her father was confused about whether to stand with his tribe and thereby support such social discrimination or stand with his daughter and her husband, especially because he was a good man.”

Tutor Umm Yousef Yahya criticizes the discrimination to which such a proverb may contribute. “As Muslims, how can we accept such discrimination between the Usul and the Muzaayinah, when one of the prophet's hadiths assures: 'The best among you are those best in character.' This involves not only words, but actions.”

She points out, “One of the prophet's companions, Abu Thar Al-Ghifari, once was quarreling with a Negro. In anger, Al-Ghifari said to the man, 'O, you son of a black woman!' When the prophet heard such a word, he was embarrassed and said, 'Do you taunt his mother? You're an ignorant man!'”

She continued, “In another narration, the prophet said, 'You exceed your limitation. The son of a white woman is no better than the son of a black woman, unless he's more righteous.' Al-Ghifari felt the great sin he had committed, so he laid his cheek on the sand and said to the Negro, 'Come and trample on my cheek.'

“Such behavior shows how much we must respect the other, no matter who he is or to which family he belongs. We are equal and the main thing differentiating us before Allah is our morality,” she concluded.

Teacher Muluk Al-Bakri says, “Noble lineage affects a woman's education, but a righteous woman is who excels in the end and she's the one the prophet recommended men marry. However, Yemeni men mostly prefer to marry a beautiful woman, even if that's at the expense of her righteousness.”

Iman Recording employee Murad Ghassan says, “As I understand it, usul means righteousness. A righteous woman is the greatest blessing in this life because she knows very well the meaning of life and the purpose of our creation. She understands that this life is nothing; therefore, she's not seeking materialistic things.”

He adds, “Such a woman is much better than money or yield because material things are temporary and will wither with time. They can never bring happiness or comfort to a man's heart. However, a righteous woman, whether she's a daughter, a wife or a mother, brings happiness and comfort to the entire home.”

Umm Yahya comments that a righteous woman is the pillar, cornerstone and foundation of the Muslim family, as the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said, “This world is just temporary conveniences, so the best comfort in this world is a righteous woman.” (authentic hadith by Sahih Muslim)

“A Muslim man and woman who understand their religion's teachings have wise standards. When choosing their partners, they don't concern themselves just with good looks, high status, a luxurious lifestyle or any of the other things usually attracting men and women. Rather, they both look at the level of their partner's religious commitment, as well as his or her attitude and behavior, because these are the pillars for a successful marriage and the best features in a husband or wife,” she points out.

“The Muslim family is the strongest component of an Islamic society wherein its members are productive and constructive, helping and encouraging one another to be good and righteous, and competing with one another in good works,” Umm Yahya concludes.

Nawal Al-Thur, a teacher at Al-Nahdha School opines, “This proverb is right because the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) recommended men marry a righteous woman.”

Samah Al-Thahbani, a receptionist at Al-Fatah Foundation, observes, “Usul has two meanings: a righteous woman, as Yemenis usually understand it, or one whose family aren't barbers, butchers or radish sellers. Although such people have good characteristics, Yemeni society still belittles them and refuses to be related to them by marriage.

“It's correct that such people [Muzaayinah] share common bad characteristics, but this isn't because they are originally bad; rather, it's because society looks at them this way that they are bad. I've dealt with many women who are muziyyin, and when asked the reason for their unacceptable and immoral characteristics, they respond that 'Society ostracizes us, so that we have become as they said,'” she explained.

“Although we are Muslims and Islam vehemently criticizes such racism, people still create such societal barriers. Many people ascribe this type of racism to the imamate period,” Al-Thahbani added.

Numerous Yemeni women agreed with this proverb if usul means righteousness; however, most disagreed when the term is used to create social discrimination. Men like honey store employee Abdulrahman Al-Shamari also agree with the proverb. “I agree with this proverb but only when usul means righteousness.”

Stationery store employee Abu Mohammed, who refused to give his last name, agreed with proverb, saying, “We shouldn't marry from the Muzaayinah. Whoever marries a woman who is muziyyin, his family and tribe will stand against him.”

Arhab University professor Hala Sharym says this proverb isn't applied a lot, while fellow professor Rukaya Sharaf Al-Deen agrees with her, noting that people aren't looking at a woman's righteousness.