Yemeni women deprived of family inheritance [Archives:2006/951/Reportage]

June 1 2006

By: Arwa Al-Anesi

While no laws forbid women from having their inheritance, the majority of Yemeni women, especially in rural areas, do not know about or are neglected in their inheritance and property. Without justification, fathers, brothers and husbands usually administrate women's properties, deciding what and when they must give women.

In the countryside, tribal laws and customs have supplanted Yemen's inheritance laws, which are based on Islam. Tribal rulers make agreements depriving women from inheriting their rights. Women belonging to these tribes are urged to follow the tribe's law, which ignores them and limits inheritance to men.

In most circumstances, the majority of Yemeni women don't have any official documents proving their inheritance property; therefore, they can't appeal to the judiciary because they don't know what their property is. In numerous cases, male inheritors force women to sell them their inheritance share at very low prices. If women refuse to do so, male inheritors often deny all women's property rights.

“My mother sold much of her land to her brothers' children at cheap prices. She knows it's worth 10 times what she received, but she preferred to get something instead of losing everything,” said a 48-year-old Sana'a woman wishing to remain anonymous.

Women often have what's necessary to prove and take their property from inheritors, but unfortunately, judicial procedures usually take years before citizens see justice. Therefore, women prefer not to resort to the courts, believing they'll lose more than what they have, as well as cut all relations with their families.

According to a 2003 Ministry of Justice report, the total number of documented inheritance division cases in 17 governorates was 2,208. It showed that Hajja, Ibb and Taiz had the largest share of cases, while Al-Beidha and Al-Mahara had the least. Meanwhile, in a working paper presented at the December 2005 Arab World Women's Rights conference in Sana'a, Dr. Ramzea Al-Eryani claimed that the number of women deprived of their inheritance rights in Yemen was approximately 1.27 million.

The practice of depriving Yemeni women of their inheritance rights has been observed since long ago. Famed Yemeni Islamic scholar Imam Mohammed bin Ali Al-Shokani (1758-1834) mentioned the issue in his writings more than 170 years ago. He nullified citizens' behavior in his era, which employed many indirect methods to cheat Islamic Shariah (law).

Al-Shokani forbade common Yemeni practices of his time, such as mentioning most of the estate to the sons' children as a gift, making a vow to God by giving sons and their children most of the property and endowing all property to sons' progeny.

From his position as a judge, Al-Shokani found that in most cases, citizens were just doing it to deprive women of their inheritance rights. Therefore, he forbade such behavior if done with the intention of depriving women of their inheritance rights.

However, without their daughters' knowledge, some rich families employ unjust methods to deprive them of their full inheritance. Intending to avoid new partners in the future, fathers mention all of the property to their sons before dying, thereby depriving women rights bestowed upon them by law and by God.

Ironically, the situation has reached a point where many rich families prevent their daughters from marrying to protect family properties from being transferred to another family.

“My family refused to marry me because they don't want our money to go outside the family,” said 80-year-old Fatima Abdullah, a single woman who owned millions of dollars “Now I don't have a husband or children to administrate my money. Today my brothers' children use my money as they want. I hope they give me some of my property to build a mosque or help the poor,” she added.

Many cases like Abdullah's are witnessed nationwide, as culture plays a key role in such occurrences and oppresses women in society.

On the other hand, many women inheriting family property and wealth tend to live in very bad financial situations because of unfair inheritors. In certain parts of Yemen, citizens believe that a woman loses all of her family inheritance rights after she marries.

“My bad financial situation forced me to accept work as a servant to provide for my children,” said 40-year-old Nabila Ahmed, who claims to have been deprived of her late father's riches. “My father was a rich and important general. He owned four large houses, but my two brothers refused to give me anything from his property. They even refused to let me live with my children at one of my father's houses,” she added dejectedly.

Yemeni customs force women to abandon their inheritance in order to maintain good relations with their families. Nearly all Yemeni women grow up with the concept of respecting men and it's considered shameful for a woman to ask the men about her inheritance. Women always should be grateful to the men for their generosity when giving her some of her inheritance and she is not allowed to request the remainder. For this reason, most court cases today relate to women's inheritance. As expected, children usually begin asking about their mother's inheritance and property after she dies.

Fatima Mohammed, 70, from Sana'a, still retains many official documents declaring her mother's inheritance rights. The 96-year-old documents show that the dead mother inherited much land in Sana'a worth hundreds of millions today. Sorrowfully, her mother's cousins sold most of the land without her knowledge.

“My mother's cousins denied all of her property rights after she passed away, exploiting the fact that I don't have any children or brothers or sisters who would ask about her property. They took everything and told me that I don't need the money because I don't have children. I wish I could recover some money to allow somebody to perform the Hajj for my mother, who died at a very young age.

“Since I reached 70, I don't care about my mother's money because I can't use it now. What satisfies me is that I began to see God's punishment on my mother's cousins.”

From a religious viewpoint, Islamic Shariah clearly mentions the issue of women's inheritance and punishment imposed on those keeping women from their God-given rights from their parents and family. “Men shall have a share in what parents and kinfolk leave behind and women shall have a share in what parents and kinfolk leave behind.” (Qur'an 4:7)

It's stated again in another Qur'anic verse: “Those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, eat up a Fire into their own bodies: they will soon be enduring a blazing Fire!” (Qur'an 4:10)