The Myth of Oppressed Yemeni Females [Archives:1999/31/Culture]

August 2 1999

Dr. Azza Muhammed Abdo Ghanem
Professor of Psychology
The other day, I took some foreign females to a Yemen wedding. They were so astonished by the luxury and euphoria of it all. Women irrespective of their age – young and old – or their status – rich and poor – or their looks – pretty or ordinary – were so exquisitely dressed with beautiful dresses and gold jewelry it was hardly possible to envisage them as an oppressed group. Some of them carried bundles of expensive Qat and a hubbly bubbly and was driven by a male family member who would call later to return her home. This evinced clearly care and respect on the part of male partners whether it was a husband or father. This picture repeats itself in all quarters with all women wearing the latest fashions – perhaps the rich with greater extravagance.
It was rather paradoxical but most becoming that nations called for democracy a few weeks ago, stressing female freedom and participation as well as pluralism from the heights of Sana’a. Yemen has enjoyed three female rulers long before Western democracies. Bilqis the Queen of Sheba ruled long before Islam, established a well known civilization and irrigation dams (and it is said married King Sulaiman later). The remains of that empire can still be seen in Marib and God knows how much is hidden under the buried town. Asma bint Shihab was the wife of king Ali Al-Sulaihi and his right hand. She was renowned for her literary ability and eloquence as well as knowledge of jurisprudence.
She was imprisoned after her husband’s assassination by Alahwal but managed to get her son to rescue her 8 months later and returned with him to help rule Yemen for many years from Sanaa.
Sayede Arwa Al Sulaihi ruled for almost 40 years before and after her husband’s death. She was educated by Asma bint Shihab – her mother in law – and was well known for her intelligence and wisdom. The country flourished economically due to her rule with Jibla as her choice for the throne. So around 1000 years ago first Asma then Arwa sowed the seeds fro female respect and participation which we are told in contemporary times is of paramount importance.
But it was Islam in its teachings that outlined the quality rules. It is reiterated in the holy Quran how men and women are equally responsible in duties, obligations, punishment, and rights long before any other religion or ideology ventured into such issues. So 1400 years ago, Islam stipulated the rules in a most intricate and detailed system. Distortions that have cropped up were due to ignorance, the interference of social mores and customs and the meddling of some of those who implement with other intentions.
There are so many issues that were clearly specified as landmarks of equality for women e.q. personal ownership of property, choice of a leader, choice of a husband – long before women of other religious were allowed to do so.
Yet all that the west can see is that female rights have been usurped by the right of the male to take more than one wife – which was an exception and not a general rule. We forget how many murders of spouses would have been avoided, and how many adulteress would have been prevented.
This is not the place to discuss the details of such issues, but it is the intention of this article to dispel the myth and the misconceptions that women in Yemen have no rights, no power, no freedom etc. They do have a lot. However the problem is that the marital contract sets duties and rights for each partner-complementary rather than identical. Just because these differ from the status quo or expectations or baseline of the newly born democracies it does not mean that they are fallations or inferior. It is simply a different equation. You have to accept it with all its paraphernalia and stop patronizing others.
Women in Yemen had political rights to vote long before many other democracies. There has been a positive change of attitude even to active participation in decision making and executive positions. The recent election of a doctor of medicine to the highest executive committee of the GPC party by a wide majority is such a positive sign. Another development is the soon to be first female ambassador to a European country, a highly intellectual female who has been a deputy minister for some time. Another academic female started a private university on her own. We have had female deans of faculties t the universities. We have a female study center at the university. We have had nearly 26 females in the foreign core. We have over 100 female members of staff at Sana’a University alone i.e. 12% of the total. We enjoyed coeducation since 1970 at all our universities. Women get equal pay in all spheres of the public sector.
So on both the official level and the personal stance, females have a great deal of power in spite of the fact that we have not been able to solve the illiteracy problem of over 70% of females in Yemen. There are many issues that need to be clarified in future papers, issues that are used to stretch to gap and exaggerate the gender differences e.g. inheritance, divorce rights, polygamy, the right as a witness, the veil, decision making-management and responsibility.
But there are actively the most practical and common sense explanations for all exceptions and idiosyncrasies that run parallel to general rules. An intransigent law would create difficulty for special cases and the beauty of Islam is that it is a whole system of life and not only of beliefs.
To close let us just look at some of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (P) that convey the following meaning:
Precedence of the mother over children: your mother, your mother, your mother, then your father.
Preference of girls: your best offspring are girls. It is best to start your family with a daughter. Who ever supports needy girl shall end in heaven. If you buy a gift for the children start with the daughters.