This is an OPINION page. [Archives:1997/41/Focus]

October 13 1997

Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! Discrimination Against Muwalladeen CAN YEMEN OVERCOME THIS EVIL?
By: Shakib Mansoor Al-Maqtari
The constitution and laws of the Republic of Yemen call for non discrimination as one of the manifestations of our adherence to human rights. However, that is more on paper than in reality. Our society suffers from many forms of discrimination, sometimes infringing on basic rights of groups and individuals. One case in point is the continued discrimination against Yemenis born of Yemeni fathers and African mothers – the so-called muwalladeen. The discrimination here is racist, because there are other muwalladeen (born unto European or other mothers) who do not suffer the same discrimination. So, there is nee d for action to uphold the law, and to penalize any deviant behavior. The first step in my mind would be for the government offices themselves – such as police stations, identity card and registration offices, investigation/interrogation bureaus, etc., to start abiding by the law. More education and public awareness may be a long-term course of action. This is not a dream. Many countries have succeeded in reconciling some inherent bias with the more noble consideration of equality and non discrimination among citizens. There must be respect for and protection of individual citizens or group, regardless of color, where he/she was born or hails from, sex, age, political affiliation, etc. A good exampl e for this is the Sultanate of Oman, where a large contingency of Omanis born in East Africa have been assimilated and integrated, and even given high-ranking positions in government, according to their qualifications. Here in Yemen, the former PDRY (South Yemen) was less discriminatory. But since the re-unification of the country, the more backward values, attitudes and laws of the north (as far as this issue is concerned) have now prevailed all over the land.
For a country that is striving to be more democratic, tolerance of differences is a key element. When there is visible official discrimination, it becomes hard to believe that officials who have racist beliefs can really be democratic leaders. Our leaders, in their democratization drive, have yet to address this matter which touches the lives of one million Yemenis. No official has ever denounced the discrimination to which the muwalladeen are exposed on a daily basis. Only when we as Yemenis are all treated and protected equally in the political, social, cultural and economic activities of state can we begin to achieve a harmonious and meaningful community. Muwalladin are not an ethnic group or a different religious or linguistic identity. They are simply the children of Yemeni immigrants. It is, of course, common knowledge that Yemenis have been immigrating to different lands, either to flee oppression at home or in search of better economic opportunities. As a result, we have come into being. The troublesome factor in our predicament is that we muwalladeen suffer doubly from discrimination. We suffer both in the country of our birthplace as well as in the country of our forefathers. For the muwalladeen, the unequal treatment and lack of protection against racism and discrimination is a sign that they do not fully belong here. They do not enjoy their full rights as citizens. This is especially problematic when the discrimination is almost officially sanctioned. At least it is not punishable by law, and this makes us poor souls spend many a sleepless night. But, it is not just a psychological factor. There is an economic cost to this. There is discrimination in employment opportunities. There is the cost of completing government paperwork to get identity cards, passports, etc. Let me use an example. Assume a family wants to enroll a kid in school. The father’s identity card is required. If that is not available, and the father belongs to the muwalladeen lot, then there is trouble. The muwalladeen cannot get their identity cards like other Yemenis. They have to go through a special process, which is both time-consuming and costly. They have to get a court decision to confirm that they are Yemeni. Before that, the person who wants the ID has too go back to the village of origin of his/her father. There he/she has to find relatives who will testify they are related to them. They also have to prove they own property. This has enabled many people to blackmail the muwalladeen. The muwalladeen are extorted and are reduced to a state of subordination demanding them to swallow the nonsensical demands of a racist system in the name of law. The issue of the muwalladeen does not concern just them. It concerns all decent Yemenis who believe in equality among human beings. It is the concern of a system which wants to become part of the world of the 21st century. It is, in fact, the concern of all human beings as we are talking about basic human rights which are indivisible. Many of the human rights organizations and institutes – locally and internationally – have focused on political rights. This is fine, but should they not address the more prevalent legal and social discrimination to which a large segment of the Yemeni population is exposed. The embassies and international companies working in Yemen have first hand information about the segregation and discrimination to which dark-colored Yemenis are exposed. The issue is neither limited nor hidden. I believe it should be addressed with courage and vision, both of which seem to be lacking at this time. The media has also shied away from this issue. Except for the Yemen Times, which has touched on the issue from time to time. This discrimination will hurt the case of a modernizing Yemen and democracy by letting this shameful practice linger on. Therefore, any person who works for Yemen’s modernization and democratization should help the nation rid itself of this scar. Towards that objective, I would like to suggest: 1. Senior people in authority to speak out against discrimination against muwalladeen, or against any other person or group, for that matter. I call on President Saleh to mention the issue in one of his many speeches. 2. The official and private media should be encouraged to mount a campaign to raise awareness among the public. Articles can be written by legal experts, and the television and radio stations can arrange talks shows and interviews on the subject. 3. Any government official who is proven to practise illegal discrimination should be penalized and the case/s should be used as an example to alert others. There are many violations against the rights of the muwalladeen. 4. The muwalladeen must get together to organize themselves in order to protect their own. They can form an association to which democratic leaders, community elders, and senior government officials can be invited as members. This should be the beginning of better bargaining for their rights whenever there are elections or other democratic activities. Many muwalladeen hold senior positions in the government and the military. Of course, they are well-known, although they try to hide this fact, because of the discrimination. The fact that so many senior muwalladeen are forced to hide their background is in itself a torment for them. It is a major sacrifice. We as a nation and society are getting ready to move into the 21st century. It would be a major enhancement of our collective well-being and moral standing if we can address this issue. It is neither impossible nor costly. There are no power-blocks against correcting the situation. All it takes is to agree to address the problem. I have a dream. Thousands of other muwalladeen have the same dream. We all dream of the day when we will not looked down on. We are a productive and patriotic segment of society. The contribution of the muwalladeen in defending the revolution and unity of the nation are well-documented. The contribution of the muwalladeen in the professional field, in the literary world, and in the economic development of Yemen are all well-known. It is time this country recognized this contribution, and it is time for rehabilitation. Is it too much to ask to be equal to other members of society? This issue is going to be one of the tests to which our community is put. If we succeed, there is hope for more noble achievements.
Mr. Maqtari hails from Taiz. He was born in Ethiopia.