When cultural norms undermine tribal rules [Archives:2007/1099/Reportage]

November 1 2007

By: Al-Miqdad Dahesh Mojalli
In Yemen's rural areas, where 75 percent of Yemen's 21 million population live, tribal sheikhs hold sway more than the government. They follow their own rules to solve citizens' problems, although a constitution and law govern the nation. Al-Miqdad Dahesh Mojalli interviews a prominent tribal sheikh.

Sheikh Mohsen Bin Mohsen Al-Neni, 31, is the tribal leader of Bani Siham, one of seven tribes in Khawlan. With 20 villages, Bani Siham has the largest population of Khawlan tribes.

Despite the negative aspects of tribal norms, Al-Neni says they contribute to a large extent in solving social problems. In arbitration (tahkeem), which is when an individual or group attacks or commits a wrongdoing against another individual or group, the aggressors go to those attacked and authorize them to issue a verdict about the aggression and put down weapons or vehicles as a guarantee to execute the verdict.

Sheikh Al-Neni considers tahkeem the best and fastest way to stop problems and prevent bloodshed. “If a murder occurs in a certain tribe, people won't wait for the police to come to investigate; rather, they'll take revenge soon. However, tahkeem will stop them, even if 10 people have been killed, because they know that they are now authorized to make the decision. So, tribal norms are organized very well and have rules for all aspects of life,” Al-Neni states.

The main job of sheikhs in Yemen is to solve citizens' problems. Quarreling parties sometimes go to sheikhs to solve their problems, but in the case of wars waged between different tribes or among those of the same tribe, sheikhs themselves go to those involved to try to solve the problem.

In such case, the two quarreling sides write up a mashru'a, an authorization for one or more sheikhs to solve the problem. When writing the mashru'a, the quarreling parties either must mention agreeing in advance about the sheikh's verdict or they have the option to appeal.

To ensure that the two parties will execute the sheikh's verdict, the sheikh requests adal. Adal can be several parts: expensive weapons, vehicles or even money that the quarreling parties leave with the sheikh in order to ensure that the two sides will execute the sheikh's verdict. If both or one of the parties attempts to elude, the sheikh takes part of the adal – or all of it, if necessary – to execute the verdict, taking into consideration that the adal must be at the volume of compensation for the defect.

When issuing the ruling, the sheikh can't mediate and request the victim party to abandon part of the ruling, unless he [the sheikh] does so himself. “When we issue a ruling, we never ask the offender party to abandon any part of the ruling. If we did that, it would mean that we would contradict ourselves. Other people can do that, but not us. We may mediate before issuing the ruling, but not afterward.”

According to Sheikh Al-Neni, tribal norms resemble the judiciary system in some aspects, whereby sheikhs represent the primary court and if either quarreling party feels that the verdict isn't impartial, he may go to another sheikh as an appeal authority. However, such sheikhs must be more sophisticated and have much knowledge about tribal norms and affairs.

In order to be sure that his verdicts are right and to avoid any mistake against anyone, every sheikh has consultants in tribal affairs. “Sheikhs usually have consultants because it's difficult for them to know all of the tribal norms in detail. We sometimes face very complicated issues that happen rarely. Consequently, when making a decision, we consult our consultants in order not to issue a wrong ruling,” Sheikh Al-Neni explains.

In Yemen, the constitution and all laws on varying issues are derived from the Qur'an, but some tribal norms are an exception; for example, those concerning murder and inheritance, whereupon many rural residents deprive their female relatives of their rightful inheritance.

Often if they do agree to give them their fortunes, they oblige the women to take money instead of land or other assets.

Further, if a man kills a woman, he won't be executed, although this contradicts both the law and morals of Islam.

“Nothing is perfect in this world,” Al-Neni admits, “You'll find errors everywhere and we confess that these two rules are real defects in tribal norms. However, I try to do my best in order not to be sinful before Allah when I issue a ruling.

For example, he explains, “When I judge a murder case, I know that according to tribal norms, I can't order the killing of a man for a woman, so I negotiate with the woman's relatives to see if they'll accept blood money. If they accept, then I issue the verdict; if not, I send the two parties to court.”

A security role

In return for helping the Yemeni state maintain security and stability throughout the nation, sheikhs receive salaries, allowances and vehicles. “In the past, sheikhs used to take 25 percent of [the sum of] zakat, but nowadays, we have salaries and other allowances instead,” Al-Neni clarifies.

In addition to being sheikhs and receiving salaries and allowances, sheikhs have positions in the Yemeni army, although they don't serve. “I receive YR 23,000 from the Tribal Affairs Authority and YR 40,000 from the army because I'm a lieutenant colonel,” Al-Neni states.

Because sheikhs have a strong effect upon citizens, the state sometimes authorizes them to solve problems, withdrawing a case from prosecution or the police station. Al-Neni believes sheikhs solve problems more quickly than the state, pointing out that “If citizens go to court, they need at least two years to reach a solution, whereas with us, it takes two months at the most.”

Some Yemeni sheikhs have prisons and if the quarreling parties don't accept the sheikh's ruling or decision, he can imprison them in his rather than the state's prison. “I don't have a prison. In our tribe, we never imprison our people because we're capable of solving any problem. In my opinion, only weak sheikhs resort to having a prison and when I say weak, I mean weak in knowledge about [tribal] norms and provisions,” Al-Neni asserts.

Although many say sheikhs are one of the main factors in corruption in Yemen, Al-Neni rebuts this, maintaining that sheikhs serve the state and help spread security and stability throughout the country.

Because of their effect upon people, the Yemeni state depends on sheikhs completely during elections to direct citizens' voting, but Al-Neni denies this claim. “Sheikhs can't oblige anyone to vote for him or for his preferred candidate because people are free to choose whomever they want. I will admit that we influence citizens in the presidential elections, but not parliamentary or local elections,” he states.

Al-Neni notes that while customs and traditions may differ among tribes, they all have the same norms because such norms are considered like a constitution for all tribes in the northern and eastern districts of Yemen. He points out that tribal norms differ in southern and western Yemen due to British occupation and the early spread of education in those areas.

Tribal norms weakening

Regarding the strength of the effect of tribal norms, Al-Neni says they are becoming weaker over time as a result of civilization and the spread of education throughout Yemen. “There's a big change in norms and traditions, both for individual tribes as well as for all tribes, as a result of civilization and the spread of education,” he comments.

Al-Neni doesn't like the changes in tribal norms because he maintains that tribal Yemenis neither have civilized completely, nor have they kept the norms and traditions as they were in the past. “I want to tell you that, despite their weaknesses, tribal norms and traditions are the best thing in this country, but this doesn't mean I'm against civilization. The problem is that we don't know what we want because nowadays, people neither abide by customs and norms, nor do they adhere to civilization.

“Some say they take the best from both civilization and tribal norms, but unfortunately, that's not true because I find that most people adopt the bad from both civilization and tribalism.In the past, tribal norms had a very strong influence. For example, a man's word was enough to make him fulfill his promise, but nowadays, people don't stick to their word,” Al-Neni observes.

Regarding the role of tribal norms in protecting women, Al-Neni believes such norms care more about women than men; for example, according to tribal norms, punishment for aggression against a woman is many times that of the punishment for the same aggression against a man.

“According to our norms, it's a huge shame to attack or hurt a woman, for which the punishment for certain aggressions against women may be four, 11 or even 44 times that for such acts against a man. A man may be attacked or hurt, but it isn't as shameful as it is against a woman,” the sheikh explains.

However, he adds, “Despite this, I admit that some tribal norms stand against some women's rights, such as those regarding inheritance.”

Sheikh selection

Since tribal regimes are hereditary, after a sheikh's death, his son becomes the next sheikh, but only by approval of the people. “Although tribal regimes are hereditary, this doesn't mean a sheikh's son can be the next sheikh if he isn't sufficiently qualified for it,” Al-Neni explains, “People can change the sheikh if there's evidence of violations against him.

“Additionally, if there's a sophisticated man in the tribe with a good knowledge about tribal affairs, people can appoint him as sheikh. Regarding a sheikh's age, I think he must be at least 35 when appointed,” Al-Neni remarks.

According to him, tribal sheikhs are not like anyone else. If they wrongdoings , the punishment will be four times harsher; likewise, if any individual or group commits a wrongdoing against them, that punishment also will be four times harsher.

Sheikh Al-Neni is married and the father of a son and five daughters. After completing secondary school in his village of Beit Al-Neni in 1986, he enrolled in the history department at Sana'a University's Faculty of Arts in 1998, but dropped out during his third year after his father's death and subsequently was appointed as his tribe's sheikh.

On a normal day, Al-Neni awakens around 5 a.m., prays and reads the Qur'an until breakfast at 7:00. He spends most of the day in his village, so after breakfast, he either visits his lands or takes his children for a picnic. At around 11, he reads and then goes to the mosque.

Following lunch at 1:30, he sits and chews qat with some villagers. He returns to the mosque at 6 p.m. and then stays up with his family until about 10 p.m., when he goes to bed.