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Susanne Dahlgren, Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen

New York, Syracuse University Press, 2010, 371 pages
Eirik Hovden
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Susanne Dahlgren, Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2010, 371 pages, including appendixes and index, ISBN‑13 9780815632467.

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1Susanne Dahlgren has written a refreshing book about how family law and gender roles are understood and practiced in Aden, Yemen, from the British colonial period until 2001. Her main thesis is that actors use three different, yet interconnected normative frameworks (or ideologies, discourses) in order to understand and define themselves, and that they do so in an active and selective way, depending on the situation. These three normative frameworks are “custom”, “revolution” and “religion”. She calls the sum of these three “adab”, a term which she usually translates as “morality.” She claims to focus on “ordinary people” (p. 311) and how they relate to the norm systems, not activists or specialists. The result is a rich analysis which manages to present the diversity of gender-related norms, interpretations and behaviours, and how these have changed over time in the once cosmopolitan harbour city of Aden.

2S.  Dahlgren is an anthropologist who travelled to Aden in 1982 as a young student, and her present study is based on several field trips as a researcher and as a development consultant since that time. She has previously published several articles on gender issues and family law in Aden. The present book is drawing on her earlier works and contains a wealth of ethnographic information from 1988 until 2001. Her position in this research field is unique, due to her long term collection of data. Regrettably, the transliteration is at times deficient or absent.

3The book is made up of eight chapters. Chapter One explains the author’s first encounter with Aden and prepares the reader for the concept of “adab”. She claims that most previous work on gender and morality in the Middle East has used the lens of “honour and shame”, which she finds insufficient. According to her, “honour and shame” form a negative morality while her substitute concept, “adab”, is more positive and dynamic. It is somewhat problematic that she uses a wide range of English translations for “adab”: “morality”, “propriety”, and “comportment”. Later in the book she also uses: “conduct”, “virtue” and “akhlāq” (for “manners” p. 329, improperly transliterated “ahlaq p. 221 and 300) and “manners” (p. 269), “knowledge [about morality]” (p. 308), and “notion of delicacy, refinement and embodiment of virtue” (p. 315). Thus, it remains somewhat unclear what new can be seen through the analytical lens of “adab” since it is so wide. In other parts of the book and especially in Chapter Seven, which is a theory chapter, she clarifies some of this, but not fully.

4Chapter Two is a context chapter and explains the historical development of the ethnically diverse, complex and cosmopolitan harbour city of Aden. The author explains very well the three distinct periods in Adeni history and their effects on gender and family related issues. Aden was effectively ruled by Britain from 1839 until independence in 1967. Aden then became the capital of a socialist state (PDRY) and remained so until 1990, when North and South Yemen merged into the present day Republic of Yemen. During socialist rule, Islamic family law was still invoked and practiced. Socialist modernisation used a distinct new discourse with an emphasis on taḥrīr al-marʾa (“emancipation of the woman”) that was unique in Arabia. It could have been useful to know more about the nature of the socialist state and its power apparatus in order to better understand the forces behind this modernisation. There is no mention of the problematic aspects of the period.

5Chapter Three explains clearly the implementation of Islamic family law by the British. The courts in Aden were part of the British legal system under the Indian high court until 1937 when Aden was transferred to the Colonial Office. British judges consulted various manuals of Islamic law to find inspiration and legitimation for their decisions. The author convinces the reader, by analysing the text of several individual court decisions, that British judges were rather conservative in matters such as denying women divorce, or the right for them to choose their own husband. Only after 1960 were women allowed to do so, and by invoking the doctrines of the Hanafi law school. In this chapter the author seems well aware of the pitfalls of overemphasizing the ideal elements of law and she clearly states that she focuses on the British judges’ way of thinking and how this ended up having real consequences for the women in colonial Aden.

6Chapter Four is meant to describe the formation of new gender ideals during the socialist period and the subsequent regression to more traditional and conservative values that took place after unification in 1990. One of her main arguments is that women lost many rights when a new family law was passed in 1992, replacing the old PDRY family law from 1974. Parts of S.  Dahlgren’s argumentation are however problematic: she claims that a wife could only get a marriage dissolution (faskh) under the new 1992 family law for reasons “such as the husband’s prolonged absence” as referred to in §32 (p. 166) — perhaps she meant §52? There are however also other more relevant clauses in the 1992 law that the author could have quoted, such as the concept of karāhiyya (“hatred”) in §54. If karāhiyya is established by the judge, he can dissolve the marriage by ordering a alāq (divorce by repudiation), if negotiations between the parties fail. If the husband still refuses, the wife would have to return the mahr (marriage payment, dower) or give up her claim to it (in the 1974 law the mahr was supposed to be minimal). In these matters, the 1992 law is not that different from article 15 in the 1974 law (see the book’s appendix B, p. 326‑25). In any case, it may have been more interesting to know how the new law was applied in courts, and actually used and discussed by the informants, rather than providing a selective reading of the letter of the law. The author’s treatment of the 1992 law is too short compared to how important it is, since it is this law that is in effect in Yemen, including Aden. Elsewhere she argues that the 1974 family law was still partly followed, even after the 1992 law was passed, at least in its spirit (p. 162‑163). However, she fully convinces the reader that the general scope of the 1992 law (and the tradition it refers to) is far more conservative than its 1974 counterpart. Whereas the author mainly bases her arguments on actual court decisions in Chapter Three, the diversity of the sources she uses in Chapter Four leads to some inaccuracy in her argumentation. The exact connection between law and morality (adab) remains unclear, except that both inform each other. Nor does the author address women’s rights related to inheritance or welfare, two topics which could have been highly relevant concerning gender issues in Yemen.

7Chapter Five and Six both describe the biography of certain representative informants’ lives, along with their ideas, roles and agency in gender-related issues. These chapters are much less centred on legal matters thus creating a shift of focus, but the ethnographic material is very rich and it truly convinces the reader that analysing the wide variety of gender moralities in Aden necessitates theories that allow for diversity and agency, just as seen in the lives and words of the informants. S.  Dahlgren provides an excellent overview of the various discourses of morality and how they are conceptualized and expressed by corresponding behaviour and words (p. 219). By this way she also carefully integrates “religion” into her analysis.

8Chapter Seven is a theory chapter where the author again reviews earlier theoretical debates on structure versus agency and where she develops her theory further in the cognitive direction, looking at adab as knowledge that has to be learned.

9Chapter Eight is a useful short summary (seven pages) of the theoretical frameworks of the book, which, despite some minor critical points, is a strong contribution to ethnography of urban gender ideals and practices, also relevant for other larger cities in Yemen and the wider Middle East.

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Eirik Hovden, « Susanne Dahlgren, Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen  », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 11 novembre 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Eirik Hovden

Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW)

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