The Seventh Circle ……? [Archives:1998/43/Focus]

October 26 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

By:  Maria Handhal
        Women Report-Writing Course.
        The British Council, Sanaa.
“So lonely, abandoned, wrapped in grief
Was my existence in this holy land . . . ” (1993).

After the 1962 September Revolution, North Yemen emerged into the international arena after a long isolation imposed by the Imam. Its ties with the outside world were revived; and, in the framework of this process, Yemeni youths mostly males – started to travel abroad primarily for education. Some of them married foreign women and brought them to Yemen. For different reasons many such marriages turned out to be a difficult and painful experience for both partners especially for women.
This is a personal reflection on such marriages. It is not intended to be a generalization, nor is it suposed to pass value judgement. It is just a few thoughts on a personal experience.
Though in the opinion of Yemeni women, foreign wives enjoy more freedom and respect from their husband, the reality is quite different. Foreign women married to Yemenis are either deprived or oblivious of any rights they might have; and, therefore, they are easily subjected to different kinds of violence and discrimination.
The types of violence often practiced against foreign wives can be described as domestic violence – the main reason for female suicide all over the world. The rates of suicide attempts by foreign wives in Yemen would definitely be higher than for native women, if statistics were available. This happens because foreign wives live in constant depression, psychological instability and suffer from nostalgia.
In Yemen, there is a complex mechanism of tribal norms and traditional regulations (O’rf), which has the power to curb (read, to hide) domestic violence and spousal abuse. The husband is also worried about reprisal from the wife’s relatives. However, such effective methods of protection do not exist where a foreign wife is concerned. So, foreign wives remain totally at the mercy of their husbands. They can’t even count on compassion on the part of their husband’s relatives or on the support from the embassy of their country of origin. While the husbands’ families or neighbors can sometimes intervene if the abuse goes too far, the embassies are usually unwilling to get involved in such affairs.
Therefore, the rights and supposed freedoms of foreign women remain hostage to their husband’s will and authority. Foreign wives can’t even leave the country without their husbands’ consent, which is another kind of domestic violence. This makes a man feel that he is definitely superior and can exercise his power and do as he wishes.
In this situations, a woman is left on her own with her grief and despair. Only her friends who are in the same position will sympathize with her, though they are not able to help.
Many mixed marriages end up mixed-up. They lead to divorce, as the couple break-up. Even then, foreign wives are subjected to violence and discrimination. They have no right to any property after divorce (or they are just oblivious to this right, who knows?) and their children will usually stay in their fathers’ custody. Even, if the woman manages to escape to her native country with her children, people there are not likely to be kind to her and it goes without saying that her ex-husband won’t support her financially.
On the other hand, when a woman continues to live with her husband only for the sake of her children or because she has nowhere else to go, problems continue to build up and no solutions come into sight. Moreover, the Yemeni environment itself adds to the woman’s unhappiness, because she is usually not only unhappy in her private life, but has a limited social life.
In any case, often these women reache middle age with nothing but a broken heart, undermined health and psychological trauma. Almost each foreign wife feels that the strength needed to over-come stress is drained by everyday problems and her mental resources are exhausted without being replenished from outside. The intensity of these feelings changes from one woman to another, but certainly the general trend exists.
Having highlighted some of the main difficulties a foreign wife is likely to face in Yemen, I can continue the list and describe how foreign women’s rights are abused in the fields of employment, political life and even in every-day life. In all these spheres, foreign women are treated unjustly and have no clearly stated rights, only restrictions and discrimination.
Even if some rights reserved for foreign wives exist on paper, they either don’t know about them because of their poor knowledge of Arabic or the legal advice and service is unavailable. In short, all developments in mixed families depend on the personal traits and convictions of the husband. He is the lifeline to the wife he brought with him.
In light of the above-mentioned, it is clear that foreign wives in Yemen are practically an isolated group whose problems and troubles don’t go beyond their limited circle as the wider public is not interested in their fate or is oblivious to it. As everywhere, family problems are considered too private to be discussed in public and any violations are seen as involving only a group which is very small in number and therefore unimportant. And nobody realizes how wrong this attitude is.
Foreign women married to Yemeni men usually have a very good educational background. Thus they may wish to work for the benefit of this country, which has become their second motherland and where their children will live. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to apply their skills, and the laws of this country don’t encourage foreign wives’ activities equally as regular employees or at a grass-roots level. This is another negative experience awaiting foreign wives in response to their effort and good will.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I realise that the subject of this article is a very sensitive and controversial one. Until now there has been no thorough research or study covering the lot of foreign wives in Yemen. That is why this article is based on first-hand experience, personal observations and interviews with foreign wives from several countries, who have reached the same main conclusions. This situation of this group of women definitely needs urgent attention, even isf from a human rights point of view. They are vulnerable and unprotected.

The local Yemeni community also stands to benefit enormously if foreign wives are properly and fully integrated into general life, if at least to make use of their potential in the development of this country.