Yemeni women spend their leisure time in a private world of their own [Archives:2008/1172/Culture]

July 14 2008

Mariam Saleh
For the Yemen Times

For Yemeni women, leisure time has become a daily activity restricted to spending time chewing qat together.

Leisure time has significant meaning for women's lives and the marginalization they face in Yemeni society, which leads them to spend time in their own gatherings, which include weddings and childbirth ceremonies, banquets and both public and private gatherings during which women discuss their social life.

Such gatherings reflect the prevailing social relationships in Yemen, the most outstanding of which is the separation of women and men at their respective activities. For this report, we met many women who talked about their leisure time and the tricks they sometimes do at such events.

Exchanging experiences

Housewife Samah Al-Shara'abi notes that there are three groups of Yemeni women interested in spending their leisure time in gatherings: housewives who are illiterate or have only limited education, educated women and those who are simply informative.

At such sessions, women often drift away from discussing important and beneficial issues; however, some Yemeni women still give a positive value to such sessions, represented in their opinions of establishing and maintaining social relationships.

Such gatherings also are considered a means to exchange experiences about social and economic topics, as well as recipes and business.

Crowded sessions

One female university student from Sana'a says leisure time sessions, which start from 3 p.m. until about 6 p.m., are an important feature of daily life in Sana'a. At these gatherings, only old women wear the traditional sitara cloth, while young women prefer wearing the new styles of sharshaf and abaya (women's clothing worn when outside).

The student says that in the past, leisure time gatherings were restricted to married women only, as such sessions would be held for certain occasions such as weddings and childbirth ceremonies, adding that women qat chewers were rare at these events. However, nowadays, single girls and teens also attend these sessions and chew qat.

Such gatherings typically are crowded, particularly in cities. Private gatherings also have spread recently, attended by both married and young women and even little girls in order to chew qat regularly. The number of women at these sessions can be as many as 15, all of whom know each other well.

Not only do these gatherings cost money for qat, the women also spend a lot of money on clothes and jewelry that they wear to these sessions because they want to show their friends – at both private and public sessions – that they have nice clothes and gold.

Men's views

Men complain a lot about women spending their leisure time outside the home because it creates problems at home due to their absence. For example, Khalid Al-Amin says he's obliged to care for the children when his wife goes out to attend al-qailah (a qat chew) with her friends.

“It may be important for women to go out for entertainment and spend their leisure time, but not every day. Two or three days a week is enough,” he says, pointing out that when his wife goes out, he finds it difficult to take care of the children and do the housework instead of his wife.

Al-Amin also believes such leisurely gatherings for women are negative because women do nothing beneficial; rather, they gossip about others while leaving their children at home subjected to many risks, such as electrical wires and gas lines, aside from fighting with each other.

A'isa Al-Khalidi reveals that Hodeidah men refuse to care for the children when their mothers are out for leisure time, which they call nashrah, because the men themselves are busy chewing qat with their friends. As a result, women are obliged to take their children with them to their leisure gatherings, thereby creating a lot of fuss at the host's house.

“Just imagine how the situation is at the host's house as a result of the children constantly playing and quarreling,” Al-Khalidi wondered.

“Women's gatherings often involve smoking shisha and cigarettes, which pose many health problems for children,” he notes, adding, “Such women – some of whom are even educated – don't appreciate their responsibilities because they're focused on having a nice time with their peers and pay little attention to their children.”

Salem Al-Hutbi maintains that he spends most of his money on qat for his wife, who usually attends qat gatherings with her friends, while he himself doesn't chew qat.

“Because I never chew, I don't know anything about the various qualities of qat or even their names,” he explains, “However, I have to go to the market every day to buy qat for my wife, who never misses a single qat session in all of the neighborhoods she knows.”

Sociologist and Aden University researcher Mohammed Al-Mutawakkil believes women's leisure gatherings have both advantages and disadvantages, depending on the context of the session.

“Some women leave their children at home every day to attend these gatherings. Some seize upon these events to sell various products, while others attend simply to show off the jewelry and splendid clothing that their husbands buy them,” Al-Mutawakkil explains, noting that such gatherings can be made beneficial through certain activities.

For instance, “Some educated women could attend these sessions to educate other women about certain issues. They also could deliver religious lectures and lessons to teach women their rights and duties, as well as how to participate in political life, as stipulated in the [Yemeni] Constitution, especially given that many women have either a limited education or are illiterate and therefore, are in need of such information.”

Al-Mutawakkil adds that Yemeni women also could seize upon these gatherings in order to become educated on how to improve their income and how to be more socially active. He concludes that Yemen's educated women are to be blamed because they are capable of raising their fellow women's awareness and making such leisure time gatherings a source of education, as well as entertainment.

Jokes and playful tricks

On the other hand, women's leisure gatherings also are a time for fun, laughing and sometimes embarrassing tricks. Um Mahmoud recounted an event that occurred while she was at a gathering with her neighborhood friends.

“I was talking with my friend at the session when a 'man' suddenly opened the door and entered the room where the women were sitting. All of the women were embarrassed and tried to escape, lest this 'man' might see them because when women are away from men, they uncover their faces and hair and remove the usually black abayas they wear outside,” she explained.

Um Mahmoud continued, “During this mess, the women broke many things in the sitting room during their attempted escape from this 'man.' In the end, we discovered that the one who created this embarrassing and fearful situation wasn't a man at all, but the host's daughter, who wanted to play a trick on us!”

Psychologist Samia Al-Jundi says women play such tricks, considering them a vent through which they can escape life's pressures and difficulties they face either at home or at work.

“Men tend to talk with each other during qat sessions about a variety of topics. They have their own atmosphere and so do women, who have their own ways of entertaining and spending time together. Women like to create humor through tricks in order to laugh and enjoy the time,” Al-Jundi explains.

However, she says such pranks shouldn't exceed their limits or be repeated at every session because some older women have diseases such as heart problems and can't tolerate such pranks.

Mixed gatherings

Nowadays, such leisure time gatherings aren't only restricted to women. Among the social changes in Yemeni society, a new form of leisure session has surfaced that's a mixture of the two sexes – men and women – gathering in the same room, particularly in Sana'a. Those attending these sessions tend toward modernization, which the rest of the world is experiencing.

Still, such gatherings are for only some Yemenis, possibly because it's against societal norms and traditions. Most attendees of these sessions are educated, including social activists and sometimes Arab and foreign personalities, who are invited to attend the session and discuss certain issues. Such sessions sometimes also include a singer or some other addition.