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"The chaste woman takes her chastity wherever she goes"

Discourses on Gender, Marriage and Work in Pre- and Post-Unification Aden
Susanne Dahlgren

Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

femme, genre, réunification

Keywords :

gender, women, unity

Géographique :

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Texte intégral

The collapse of Aden

1This paper traces public discourses on women in a socially turbulent period of time in Aden. Aden was the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) until May 1990, when the PDRY and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) unified to form the new Republic of Yemen with capital in San’a. This unification, long aspired to by all Yemenis, turned to be a tragedy for Aden as the city became marginalised and was left to decline. Adeni people soon lost their enthusiasm about the unity and became disillusioned about the future. In the anomaly of conflicting developments, people started to long for earlier stability and the focus was redirected at the family as a source of permanence, and hence at women, on whose shoulders the success or failure of the family was thought to rest.

2As a consequence of  the unification, the former PDRY administration merged with the Northern Yemeni one and physically moved to San’a, the new capital. Adeni ministries became ‘Aden branches’ of the respective Ministry, running the same errands as earlier but without budgetary powers i. Large part of the administrative elite moved to new positions in San’a. Aden, formerly the nation’s capital,  was deliberately transformed into a district centre, and people had the feeling that nobody cared about them anymore. Public construction ceased entirely and lack of maintenance accelerated the image of a dying post-colony. Salaries were raised, but inflation made the living expenses so high that everybody except the  well-off people could hardly afford basic necessities anymore. The administration in Sana’a had difficulties in running fiscal matters and in many fields employees did not get their salaries for months. People became increasingly frustrated. Strikes and anti-government demonstrations became daily news. To add the misery, the Gulf crisis and civil wars in the African horn pushed  thousands of returnees and refugees to Aden and increased the already high unemployment rate and the mass of people with no meaningful thing to do. The miserable conditions of the refugee camps aggravated the image of Aden as a place with no future.

3More than that, people complained about the local conditions. Looting, robbery and kidnappings spread to Aden, earlier basically unknown occurences. Women moving outside home were suddenly expected to cover their hair and, preferably, be in the presence of a male escort. Any woman who deviated from the new pattern of behaviour was abused in the streets. As one woman explained the new atmosphere to me: ”Suddenly we are explained, that we, the women, are a source of threat to society”. All in all, the quiet and secure atmosphere of the earlier days was gone.

4In Aden, after the unification the concept of ‘woman’ became increasingly a source of controversy, like in so many other parts of the Muslim world, in times of economic and social turbulence ii. A lively debate on ‘the role of the woman in family and society’ and on ‘the pros and cons of women’s education’ flourished in various fora. Women in the erstwhile North Yemen became challenged by the public images of their Southern sisters, as did women in the former South Yemen.

5In this article, I will investigate public discourses on gender prevailing in Aden at the turn of the 1990s and discuss them to the background of practical terms of living of some Adeni womeniii. I will argue that in pre- and post-unification Aden, there existed three dominant discourses on gender and not just two - those of ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’- as it is usually maintained in Western media iv. These discourses are here referred to by names ‘customs and traditions’ (adat wa taqâlîd),   ‘religion’ (dîn) and ‘revolution’ (thawra), concepts that people use  when discussing moral questions and matters of behaviour.

6The argument of three discourses on gender bears consequences not only to the study of gender in Aden in particular, but to the study of the PDRY in general. While Aden was capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), it was described in terms of  revolutionary changes. Thus the PDRY was characterised as a ‘Marxist state’ (Kostiner 1996:7), ‘building socialism’ (Lackner 1985:1) and having gone through ‘radical transformations’ (Molyneux 1982:v). However, from a gender perspective, these characterisations are far from accurate. Based on my field data, I will argue that the revolutionary ideology did become an influential discourse on gender and family alongside with the two preceding discourses, namely the customary discourse and the religious one, but it did not replace them, as the above literature presents it. This is certainly not surprising since the revolution had only 22 years (1967-1990) to emerge as a relevant option, while the two others have had hundreds of years of tradition to prove.

7In order to show the differences between the three discourses let us see what kind of woman ideals they maintain.

Table 1. Female ideals

Official representation(everyday discourse)

 Activities and practices (limitations and resources)

‘Custom’ (adat wa taqâlîd) ”Women have no ‘aql (5)v

Women need to be protected "The Chaste woman does not frequently leave her house"; women should not act in professions which require rational judgement

Veiling and seclusion; calling women with bad names; prestige system; male guardianship; giving birth to sons

“Religion’ (dîn) “Woman can gain ‘aql through learning but her basic task is to serve her family”

There are clearly marked areas where women are supposed to limit their activities; woman should study to become a good Muslim an Mother

Religious and general education; work in certain fields; martyrdom through motherhood; segregation of sexes

“Revolution’ (thawra) “Everyone can gain ‘aql through learning”

Women should participate side by side with men on building society; women and men are equal in marriage; everybody’s duty is to study; women’s libera tion (tahrîr al-mar’a)

Education and work outside home; career; Family law, marriage counselling (6)vi

8As can be seen in the above table, the Customary and Religious discourses stand for quite different female ideals and thus these two should not be mixed. The Religious discourse bears elements of modernisation and ideas of individual responsibility. About 95 per cent of Adenis are Sunni Muslims of shaf’i school and practice their religion each in a personal way. The religious discourse referred here is the Islamic da’wa (call) that became popular especially among the young generation in late 1980s. Its gender concept is based on the idea that the woman like the man, is a subject capable of individual agency. In contrast to that, the Customary ideology presents the woman partly as a passive heathen with no will of her own, and partly as a source of danger whose activities need to be supervised and controlled. The Revolutionary discourse, in contrast to both of these two, addresses women with the same terms as the man as a citizen of the (imaginedvii) Yemeni nation.

Contextualizing the ‘new woman’

9One of the basic differences between these three gender discourses has to do with the question whether if and to what extent the woman is a ‘rational being’ (‘aqilah), that is, if the man can trust her and remain confident even when she is out of sight. This question has further consequences to the freedom of the woman, both what comes to physical mobility and to the right to make decisions on matters requiring rationalisationviii.

10adat wa taqâlîd , the ‘customs and traditions’, is locally considered as the ‘Yemeni way of life’ and the ‘way of the ancestors’, as well as The tradition, which  predates from the centuries preceding Islam. The focus of this discourse is the male genealogy and the idea of a shared male honour, which acts as a pattern or map organising all social relations. In itself the honour concept  does not say anything directly about women, who are considered to belong under the protection of a particular male member of the family (usra) ix. Thus women are presented from the point of view of male agency, not as subjects on their own right. This state of affairs is explained by the argument that women lack ‘aql and thus are not ‘rational’ beings capable of proper comportment (adab) without male (or senior) supervision.

11The active Islamic discourse in Aden, understood locally as the religion, deviates from the above ideas on woman in a decisive way. As stated earlier, this religion bears marks of modernisation, and advocates a separate role for women in society. What distinguishes ‘religion’ from ‘customs’, is that the former presents the woman as an actor and addresses her directly. According to the religious discourse, women have a particular role in society which is different from that of men, but which provides the woman an equal opportunity to improve herself and become a good Muslim. Woman’s basic role as a mother is this particular way addressed to her x.

12Revolutionary discourse presents the woman in contrast to the two previous ones as a partner to the man in participating in ‘building the society’, equal in rights and duties. Thus everybody should be given the chance to ‘improve him/herself’ (rattâ) and to ‘acquire knowledge’ (yutawwir min ma’arifi), whether rich or poor, woman or man, socially low or high. This particular politics in regard to women, part of the revolutionary programme of the post-independence government, was called ‘women’s liberation’ (tahrir al-mar’a). On the side of allocating women new resources, the aims of this policy was to transform the male-female relations inside the family and to promote higher respect of women in everyday discourse, earlier patterned by disparaging remarks and misogyny. The revolutionary discourse, too,  is a discourse of modernity, but with a different approach from the religious-modern discourse, which did not allow women equally unrestricted agency with the man xi.

13How are these gender ideals discussed in everyday life ? To elaborate on the dynamics of the three gender discourses, I will examine an op-ed (opposite editorial) piece written by a reader called Arwa Mohammed in the official al-Thawra daily, in Winter 1991. She expresses her views in a lively debate involving both  male and female readers on the pros and cons of marrying an educated woman. This is what she writes:

”I find it depressing to know that such opinions are held by our Yemeni youth. It seems many of those men who responded to the debate have condemned educated women without justification.

Many Yemeni men seem to think the oriental man is governed by customs, traditions and religion. But what about the oriental woman ? By what is she governed ? The oriental woman and the Yemeni woman in particular is governed by religion before she is governed by tradition.

Marriage should be considered an arrangement in which two people become one and not a system of master and a slave, as I have observed in many families.

Do you think that when a woman leaves her home to shop or to go to work or visit a friend her virtue is at stake ? I believe it is impossible for a husband or brother to leave his job or school in order to escort his female relatives through the streets.

We Yemenis know good manners... The chaste woman who goes out takes her chastity wherever she goes.

Yemeni men, are you going to leave your jobs to act as an escort service ? If men are unwilling to disrupt their lives to adhere to this custom and our society persists in demanding that it continue, then no woman will be able to go outside of her home for any reason whatsoever.

I would like to add that we should not forget that we live in a society which is still conservative.

Marrying an educated female is not the problem many men believe it is. The difference educated women can make to our society is that the learned wife will raise a new generation of literate youth.”xii

14The above letter reflects the anxiety of educated working women in the early 1990s. Many young women in their marital age found the situation intolerable while on the one hand, proceeding education and on the other hand, pondering their chances in the marriage market. At that time, among the young generation in their marital age, the negotiation of gender rights and duties was experiencing a new active period. In Arwa Mohammed’s letter we can read  the disappointment the educated working women felt when men’s attitudes towards women seemed to take a U-turn and re-establish the views of pre-independence times, when women did not participate in education or working life but stayed at home taking care of the household.

15Arwa Mohammed’s letter mirrors the changed gender dynamics of the early 1990s. It speaks of the atmosphere after the unification when women’s presence outside the home was no more a natural part of everyday life but a question of controversy. Earlier women went to school, university, work,  shopping, visiting friends, or cinema and nobody made an issue of it. Women used public transportation (bas and taksi haqq rukkâb) without being advanced or subjected to harassment. In working places, it was considered normal that unrelated men and women worked in the same room. Consequently, after the unification, among other incidents, the case of a young woman who was kidnapped and abused raised feelings that women need to be protected whenever they leave the home.

16Phenomenon called ‘new veiling’ in many parts of the Middle Eastxiii, spread rapidly in Aden, too, at the turn of the 90sxiv. It was accompanied by a wave of attitudinal change in terms of what is proper behaviour for the woman, and whether and in whose company she should move outside the home. Negative attitudes towards women, bad words and unpleasant behaviour, common before the independence and discouraged in official rhetoric during the PDRY, gained ground again. In the streets, disparaging remarks were shouted at women who did not cover their hair. Sexual harassment and groping in public places made many women reconsider every time they had to go out. In the public discourse, it was presented that the woman  needed to be protected and her presence outside the home was to be carefully reconsidered by her family, not that those men’s behaviour who made women feel uncomfortable in the streets was to be criticised or corrected. In her letter, Arwa Mohammed is expressing her fear that men no more respect women, as they used to do only some years earlier. Consequently, the ‘new veiling’ in Aden should not be linked to the Islamic da’wa only, since only a small number of young people felt the callxv. Those who harassed women in the streets and tried to grope them were teen-age boys or younger children who used their opportunity in the state of anomaly and confusion.

The modern woman and other discourses

17Arwa Mohammed’s op-ed piece can be seen from another angle, too, as an illuminating example of how people use gender ideologies in arguing the conflicting social reality. Here she discusses the case of the modern woman, directing her words to the man and making rhetorical use of the religious framework. Her argument is that because the woman is governed by religion, she is trustworthy. She knows proper comportment and what chaste behaviour means, thus her going to work contains no danger to the man. In addition, she appeals to the ‘rationality’ argument; the educated woman has her chastity in her mind.

18She argues the case of the ‘new woman’, typical also to the revolutionary discourse, and indicates that modernity and religion are not incompatible; on the contrary, religion is made here to support modernity since it guarantees the chastity of the woman. The woman is dependable inasmuch as she has acquired education, which has ‘liberated her from ignorance’ and allowed her to ‘improve herself’, as the revolutionary discourse presents it. She contrasts the ‘customs and traditions’ to ‘religion’, and criticises men of being ”governed by customs and traditions” and only secondly by ‘religion’, whereas, as she puts it, the woman is ”governed by religion before she is governed by tradition”. ‘Religion’ surpasses here ‘tradition’ in virtue. Consequently, ‘the new woman’, i.e. the woman who takes part in society on the side of the man, is incompatible with ‘customs and traditions’ but not with ‘religion’.

19Her approach gives a good example of how ‘the woman question’ is discussed in Aden. In making her point she uses the three major gender discourses, mentioning two of them by name. It is evident that Arwa Mohammed speaks from within the revolutionary discourse with an emphasis on equity and that the two other discourses are viewed from that perspective. Thus her piece constructs a hierarchy where she gives preference to the revolutionary discourse, uses religion to support her understanding of the ‘modern woman’ and places custom after them. This way her op-ed piece provides an example how the three discourses on gender exist side by side. It is particularly interesting that people distinguish between ‘custom’ and ‘religion’ in a manner that implies that the former still needs to be elevated by Islam.

Ideologies and practical terms

20Arwa Mohammed’s views echo the experiences of women who spent their youth in the politically active times following the independence from British colonialism in 1967. Many women of her generation, from all social categories, followed the call of the revolution to participate ‘on the side of the man’ in building society, and acquired education and took a job, first time in history in a large scalexvi. For many, working outside the home was an economic imperative, but for some who had the chance to acquire higher education, it was a personal challenge to promote a career. The obstacles women faced in pursuing their careers were both attitudinal and had to do with the problem of how to organise child care and household chores. Their conflicting expectations came from the fact that on the one hand, the state was calling women to participate in the labour force and to ‘improve themselves’ (ratta) through education, and on the other hand, they were expected to take care of the household and bring up the children.

21How did women experience this situation and what consequences did the new circumstances have for their relationships at home ? Let us see how these conflicting demands influenced the life of some working women. Here are the stories of two women who work in the same factory but in different positions and whose motivations to take up paid employment were different. The first one is a professional woman with higher education, whom we can call here Ibtisam. The second one, ‘Aziza’, is a production line worker with primary education and on-the-job-training. Ibtisam took the job with the idea of making a professional career while Aziza needed work in terms of survival.

22Ibtisam, a woman in her mid thirties, works as the chief accountant in the factory administration. After completing her BA in Aden University she spent three months looking for a job suitable for her qualifications. She married rather late, when she was already 30, not because she chose to postpone marrying but because circumstances made it that way. At that time her husband-to-be worked in the same department in lower position, but later he moved to work in another place. After the marriage, they  lived in her mother’s house with her five brothers and three sisters. Her father had divorced her mother and taken a younger wife and had left the house to his old family. After the birth of Ibtisam’s first daughter, she finally could move to a flat of her own. Now she has three daughters after having delivered twins. She does not mind not having a son, but, she says, maybe in the future. Her husband insists in having a boy.

23Ibtisam’s salary is higher than her husband’s, because she has a higher degree. This, she says, is not a problem to her husband. In her work place, men don’t make an issue of a female chief. She makes 108 dinars a monthxvii, and supports her mother, too. Her position is higher than her husband’s in the labour market, but at home, she is the one  who takes care of all household chores. She gets up at 5.30 a.m. every workday morning, prepares breakfast and bakes khobz for his and her own work meals. She feeds the children and then takes them either to her mother’s or her husband’s mother’s home. Her husband gets up one hour later. She starts working at 7 a.m. and finishes at 3 p.m.. Then she hurries to take the children home, prepares lunch and cleans the flat. For the rest of the afternoon she is busy with the children’s needs. Meanwhile, her husband relaxes. By about 6 p.m. she has completed all the household duties and is able to devote herself entirely to her children. On Friday’s, the only resting day of the week, she washes laundry. Her husband takes care of all the shopping but refuses to do anything else, even though she has repeatedly tried to convince him to do more.  - Men are used to getting everything done for them. They just follow the way their fathers and grandfathers had it, Ibtisam complains to me. In the future she hopes her daughters will help at home and she will be able to have time of her own. Perhaps she will again start driving, something she had to give up after marrying.

24After independence, not only upper and middle strata women used the chance to obtain education and take a job. Many lower strata women, too, decided to try the new roles advocated to women in revolution and made a break in the centuries-old way of women’s life, in the town  confined inside four walls. For socially lower women a job was an economic imperative, but still they considered the mere possibility to join wage work as an important right, which only revolution had given to women. And there were those, too, a small minority, whose husbands did do something at home to ease the burden of the wife, thus supporting her in her attempts to have both a career and children. Aziza, a production line worker in the same factory as Ibtisam,  is one of them. She came to the factory eight years earlier when she was only 20. Aziza had completed primary school and thus had the qualifications as a literate person to do factory work. She married two years later a co-worker. Her husband still works in the same factory as an operator but in different shift so that they can both take care of their two young daughters. Due to the arrangement, the couple meets only at night when the other’s shift ends normally at 11 p.m. and on Thursdays at 9 p.m., and, of course, on Fridays. Aziza lives in her husband’s parents’ house, where his younger brother lives, too. Aziza’s mother-in-law, the only female in the house with her, does not participate in the household duties. Aziza’s husband takes care of the children while she works, but everything else is on Aziza’s shoulders.

25After the unification, the factory adopted new working hours. Morning shift became one hour shorter and the afternoon shift ends already at 9 p.m. But otherwise, things turned into worse. Aziza explains that after the unification life became more difficult. Money is not enough. Her salary was doubled into Yemeni dinars (YD) 130 whereas the husband’s pay increased to YD 200. That was, however, little help since prices went up, too, and for example the price of a tin of milk powder increased six times. Everything was suddenly available but beyond reach.

26- Earlier it was easier to shop, now everything is so expensive, she says. Due to the changed atmosphere in the streets, Aziza has started to wear a shaidor (black cloak) over her work costume when moving from home to work. All other visits outside the home she has limited to a minimum. She explains: ”When I hear about the horrible things that happen to women and what youngsters shout at us in the streets, I no more feel like going out. Earlier I used to go to cinema but these days I only watch videos at home”. Aziza’s moving outside home and work has become a problem because she has chosen not to cover her hair. ”I am responsible for my children and that’s why I cannot risk my life”, she says.

27Ibtisam’s and Aziza’s stories tell about the problems working women have. The very fact of women having a job is not so much questioned, as economic considerations often require so. But this is not all. Based on my observations in various working places round the town during the two years I spent in Aden,xviii I can conclude that during the PDRY, the idea of women working on the side of the man in similar positions was rather well received in the working life. The only group of women who complained of negative attitudes among their male co-workers were civil and electric engineers on a big construction site.xix - Men should learn new ideas, they said.

28If equality and gender partnership was well received in the working life, in many homes the situation was quite the opposite. In the homes there was seldom equality between husband and wife, or as one highly educated woman once described the situation to me: ”These men talk of democracy in society, but in their homes, there is no democracy at all”. The worst situation tends to be with women who live in a nuclear family household and whose female relatives are not easily within reach. After the working day, they just work a second shift at home.

Daughters of the ‘daughters of revolution’

29The ideas of gender partnership in working life and education were rather well received among the people who experienced the revolution and placed high hopes on it. However, daughters of these women have more often embraced the ideas of their respective grandmothers rather than those of their mothers. Having spent their childhood with their grand mothers while their mothers worked, this is not surprising. In another factory I met a 24 year old unmarried woman, ‘Zahra’, who since graduating from university had worked as a production line supervisor. Her only wish for the future was to get married and to become a housewife. After establishing a family it will be no more possible to work, since ”the Yemeni man does not help at home”, as she said. When asked why, she reasoned: ”because he is a man”. Zahra had four years of university studies behind her, and altogether she had spent 16 years in education. She was from a wealthy family and did not have to get a qualified profession for economic reasons. Her father earned well as a merchant with businesses also abroad. This fact, however, had not stopped Zahra’s mother from making a professional career. The mother had recently retired from the position of a school principal. The mother’s example had certainly had an influence in Zahra in her pursuing higher education, but the daughter did not necessarily share her ideas of ‘the new Yemeni woman’, as the tahrir al-mar’a-policy of the government was called - or perhaps she saw it simply in terms of  a double burden.

30Definitely Zahra’s and her peers’ attitudes on gender roles can be partly explained with the observations they have made at home. Many women seemed to think that the Yemeni man had not changed in the same way as the woman, who had taken new roles and embraced new thoughts. This despite the fact that sometimes one could meet families where it was the husband who wanted his wife to go out and acquire education but she refused. While Zahra’s mother’s generation can be said to have successfully ‘invaded’ the labour market, they were not as fortunate in changing the man. In 1988, women formed 36 per cent of the registered employed labour force in Aden.xx About one third of them worked in professional positions with high qualifications. However, the young generation spoke as if they had simply given up in trying to change the man. But even this is not the whole story.

31Marriage and getting children tended to be the number one aim of life among most of the young women I met, irrespective of the social background. This is certainly not very surprising since these are after all women of age when they are expected to marry. But what was noteworthy was the rigour these young women had when convincing their surroundings that they will be good housewives despite the fact that they have received education and job qualifications. It was not only young women of wealthy families that had these aspirations. As a 22 year old illiterate woman, ‘Noor’, who lived in a shanty in the Northern part of the town, expressed her wishes for the future: ”I want to get married and have children”. This was her main goal in life albeit the fact that she had two failed marriages behind. The first one ended when she had a miscarriage after having been beaten up by her husband. The second marriage ended in similar circumstances only one month after consummation. Noor still maintained her faith on marriage and the family, even that her parents had separated and her sister, too, was divorced. In a similar vein, a 18 year old woman, ‘Nabila’, who had completed primary education and only recently started working as a typist, expressed her wishes for the future: ”I want to become an ideal mother and an excellent housekeeper”. Her mother worked in the same factory in the production line, and Nabila, too, had had to take a job to support the family. Working outside home was an economic imperative for both of them and Nabila did not place high hopes on it. She had, instead, put all her expectations for a better life in getting a husband who could support her.

32When we look at these young women’s aspirations to the background of the anticipations they faced, it is perhaps no more surprising why they reacted differently from what their mothers used to do to the options available for women in society. The ‘traditional’ expectations emerged again in early 1990s. Woman’s place was supposed to be at home serving her husband and raising sons. The appeal in these values might be in the clearly defined place it allocates women without any role conflicts: she carries main responsibility of bringing up the children and in a nuclear family household, she is the mistress of home. After independence, this ‘traditional’ ideal for woman was challenged when the new rulers launched the call for women to join the labour market and take an active role in society. In this light Noor and Nabila, two young women who placed their future hopes in marriage, represent a choice in favour of an old type of solution where other choices might exist, too.

”Relationship between the Ministry of Interior and Ministry for Foreign Affairs”

33All of the young women discussed above had started to wear the costume that had spread rapidly in late 1980s in Aden among the young generation. They were wearing a robe called balto (‘overcoat’), and covered their hair and neck with a scarf that most of the women called mandil (head scarf) and some higab (‘the Islamic dress’). These women had a strong believe in that it is the woman with whom the family either flourishes or falls down, and that children will suffer if the latter happens. Since ”the man is a man”, the woman has to give up her own will and concentrate her efforts ”in building a happy family” and ”raising a new generation for the Yemeni society”. This attitude gained increasing popularity among young people during the post-unification transitional period, when economic and physical insecurity lead people to look for other pillars of stability than the declining structures of society in the anomaly of augmented disillusionment.

34Let us then see how these ‘old-new’ expectations on young women in their marital age were discussed among the young people. In Autumn 1991 I met first-year university students and asked them to write an essay on ideal marriagexxi These were young people in their early twenties, most of whom were unmarried and still not having a future spouse in sight. Many seemed to think of marriage as ‘an Islamic system’, sometimes regulated by ‘customs and traditions’, too. Nobody mentioned the Family Law (Law no 1 of 1974), still valid at that time in the South, which had established marriage as ”a contract between a man and a woman who are equal in rights and duties”, as it was proclaimed in the law textxxii, but one female student described the union in similar terms.

35Rather typically, a female student wrote: ”When girl becomes a wife her life changes. She knows her duties since they are taught to her. She should be the foundation of the family. The girl in Arab society is created to found a happy family.” In describing the conjugal life, the student wrote: ”Yemeni husbands prefer their wives not to be employed. I think this is not ignorance but an instinct in Arab men. Yemeni men want their wives to obey all their orders even if she can’t, without any discussion. Generally he wants her to do everything in the house, cleaning, washing, taking care of children, etc. This is our customs and traditions.” She motivates the relationship she describes with the idea of complementarity: ”The woman in Arab society seems oppressed, but this is a wrong theory. As the woman has many important duties, the man also has another duties which maybe more difficult”. ”The most important thing is to get strong youth to serve his country”, she concluded. According to her, ”our Islamic religion gives clear and serious instructions” for marriage. In most of the students’ essays, this was a common way to discuss gender roles: since everything is regulated by religion or customs and traditions, both unchangeable, the possibility to influence the gender expectations is without the individual’s reach. The main thing, after all, is to ”found a happy family”, as it was maintained.

36Some students made critical remarks, too. One woman described first in detail what kind of husband she would like to choose, and then added that ”in present circumstances, my dreams look very difficult to be fulfilled”. This is because ”we live in a Moslem society that has special customs which do not permit boys to mix with girls”. Another female student wrote: ”Our religion ‘Islam’ is very strict in treating husbands and refuse to give the wives any kind of freedom, for example, wife can’t go out or receive anyone (even her mother) in her house unless she informs her husband. It instructed wife to be a slave and servant for her husband. Although we are proud of our Islam’s instructions, I think woman must be treated as a humane being and husbands must take and exchange opinions with her because most women are cleverer and wiser than men.” This woman is critical of the prevailing gender roles in marriage: marriage tends to be a relationship where things are not always as they should be.

37Among the 34 students who wrote about their views on marriage, the six participating men considered marriage simply as a duty and complained about the high wedding and dowry (mahr) expenses. One male student summarised: ”Islamic religion limited the rights and duties of husband and wife. Man always expands, woman always takes care of the house and everyone do this willingly, so man is always the head of the family”. A female student used a popular metaphor in describing the gender roles in marriage: ”We compare their (husband and wife’s - sd) life with Ministry of Interior and Foreign Affairs. The wife is like the Ministry of Interior because she takes care of her house work and her sons”.

38Views on gender roles in marriage did not differ between female and male students. The hierarchy of man above woman was explained in reference either to religion or to customs, which both were seen as unchangeable and evident. Female students tended to see that relationship problematic, but it was anyhow taken as the best option if the main goal was achieved: that of building a happy family and raising a new generation for the Yemeni nation. This hierarchy, however, is not based on valuing ‘men’s duties’ over ‘women’s duties’, since both are seen equally important. The problem some of the female students addresses has more to do on unequal understanding of man’s and woman’s agency, when the former tends to supersede the latter without rational justification. In addition to that, the woman has contradicting expectations which the man does not have making her role more conflict laden.

39In the above students’ essays, marriage was discussed in terms of gender roles and ideals. This is not surprising, since most of the participating students were unmarried and without practical experiences of the reality in marriage. However, the ideal roles of  husband and wife were perceived more as obligations than avenues of fulfilment. Larger concerns, such as ‘founding a happy family’ and ‘getting strong youth to serve his country’ were placed in front of personal aspirations. Or rather, the female students seemed to have submitted to the idea that it was the woman’s duty to place her own aspirations aside since the man was not expected to do so.

The customs and traditions

40Earlier in this paper, we have discussed the life and expectations of young women and women in their adulthood. Naturally these two do not form any distinct generation groups but rather present different viewpoints to gender matters from their different position vis-à-vis marriage and work, two central fields of cross-sex encounter. Still, the dominating discourse on gender prevalent in respective group’s youth, the time when they start their adult life, has been different. One is a discourse of gender equity (‘woman on the side of man’) and the other is a discourse of gender complementarity (‘women’s duties’ and ‘men’s duties’ complement each other).  Third group of women whose practical terms of life I want to discuss here are elder women, the mothers of the ‘generation of revolution’, who spent their youth during the colonial time. Let us see what kind of gender ideal dominated in their youth.

41During the colonial period, Aden remained a typical dependency of a colonising centre with little, if any, ‘development’ efforts that would involve whole the population, women and less well-off people in particular. Adeni male residents, that is, the colonisers and their Indian aids together with Adeni born male population, formed the privileged people, who had the right to vote and hold political or administrative offices in Aden. The labour market composed basically of immigrant workers from countryside and North Yemen, and people who came from East African countries without a permanent residency in the colony. Few women worked, and many of them were non-Adenis according to the official criteria, and were involved in street hawking, industrial and cleaning work and domestic servicesxxiii.

42Women’s life was very little touched by the colonisers’ way of living. The leisure living style, and perhaps also boredom, of the British military and administrative personnel’s wives with tea parties, exclusive clubs, bridge evenings and colonial receptions constituted a separate world to the lives of the local women. The British usually had nothing to do with local women,xxiv except the few missionaries who tried to enter Adeni women’s homes. Elderly women who remember the times of occupation, feel rather indifferent about the British, since they did not really know them.

43Life changed little during the colonial period for these women. There were few schools for (elite) girls to attend and the British did little to ‘modernise’ the colony outside what was vital for the management of the military presence. Consequently, such matters as family relations were left outside the colonial administration (25)xxv. But even independence and social changes that followed it, made little difference to women whose life was confined inside four walls. In like manner, these women tended to view the changes brought about by the unification simply in terms of high prises, nothing else changed in their lives. Among the older generation women, even today, some never go out. Naturally it does not mean that they don’t have a social life and meet people. But among the younger women, this fact raises amusement.

44‘Arwa’, a woman in her fifties, is one of those who never goes out. But as she herself explains, that is because she has so much to do in the house and she never has time to go out and make visits. She is a widow, a mother of eight children who are already grown up. Her husband, whom she married when she was 13,  had died some years ago at the age of 55. Both were born in the same village in Abyan, a tribal area some hundred kilometres Northeast from Aden. Daughter of a fellah and a housewife, she moved to Aden after her wedding where her husband had taken a job as a driver. This was during the mid-50s, when the struggle against the colonisers had started. While living in the town, Arwa’s social contacts remained the same as earlier when she lived in the village. Relatives and neighbours from home visited her, some of them living in Aden, too. Even her daughters had married men originating from her home village. Life went on and when the society outside her home changed, it barely brought anything new to her life. As she herself put it, ”nothing changed after independence”.

45Presently, Arwa lives in a bloc of flats built by the British in late 1950s for their own employees, and shares a flat of two bedrooms, a big living room and a kitchen with the families of her two married  daughters and one unmarried daughter, altogether 10 people. Her daughters are at home and share the household chores. One of her grandsons is mentally retarded and stays most of the time at home. Arwa gets up at 6 a.m. every morning and after praying prepares breakfast. Then she goes back to sleep, and gets up to start cooking lunch for the family around 11 in the noon. After lunch she takes a nap and spends the rest of the afternoon and evening watching television. When the late night daily Arabic series ends in television, she goes to bed. She complains about lack of free time and that she can never go out. But nobody stops her, she has become accustomed to her life inside four walls.

46In my field data of more than 300 women which I gathered during my two year’s stay in Aden, Arwa represents a rather typical elder woman with roots in the countryside. She moved to the urban town after marrying a man with similar background and kept her social networks from the home village. The focus of her life is home, but the physical limits of her flat do not constitute her boundaries, even though she never leaves the place.

47Arwa’s life inside four walls constitutes a different story to the other women discussed earlier in this paper. In her childhood, her father arranged her marriage with a relative and after the wedding her life continued the same way as earlier, this time under another man’s custody. In a ‘customary’ marriage like hers, her husband was the breadwinner and she was the domestic housekeeper. During their marriage, the spouses met basically during meal times and nights only. Her husband had his own life outside the home with his work and social networks. To add his role as an outsider in his own home, as men often complain they are, he used to chew his qat (26)xxvi  in other men’s houses. In a marriage like theirs, the man is placed above the woman with the rationalisation that he is the responsible representative of the (male) family line and that he is the breadwinner. Part of the rationalisation comes from the understanding that the woman is not capable to act as a responsible adult on the basis of being born as a woman. This misogynist ideology questions women’s reason and agency, and places her on the same category as young children, who are not expected to know or care how to behave. Thus the only safe place to ‘keep’ her is confined inside four walls. From a woman’s perspective, however, this might be exactly what she wants: when staying most of her life in the secure atmosphere of home she no longer knows how to constitute a presence outside it.


48In this paper, I have argued that in Aden, gender is discussed in reference to three major discourses, locally called ‘customs and traditions’, ‘religion’ and ‘revolution’. Thus for instance marriage is discussed in terms of what ‘our religion says’, and ‘this is our customs and traditions’. This does not mean that the three discourse frames would represent the talk on marriage, but that these are the tools people use in negotiating the reality.

49Gender equality, promoted in the revolution, which in 23 years of time gained space in public life, i.e. in situations and places where unrelated men and women meet, gave way after the unification to other concepts of ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Demands on patronising care and responsibility over women re-emerged. Woman’s ‘basic role’ as mother was again highlighted. Especially young unmarried women found this role appealing, but others felt that the idealised mother had little to do with the everyday hardships of ordinary women, divided by economic and social injustices.

50In this paper, women’s lives have been discussed with the background of respective dominant gender ideologies. The notion of generation was introduced as an analytical tool on the one hand, in order to link individual women’s lives to their respective historical background, and on the other hand, to mirror women’s aspirations to the background of currently dominating gender ideologies and expectations directed at them. Thus the idea was not to suggest that Adeni women can be divided into neat ‘generations’, but rather to point out how women construct their lives in relationship to prevailing social imperatives, ideologies included.

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 Following the civil war in 1994 which resulted in Northern military occupation of  the South, Aden Ministries were turned into district offices with similar duties as any districts and thus the transformation of Aden from a former capital into a district centre was completed.

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Susanne Dahlgren, « "The chaste woman takes her chastity wherever she goes" », Chroniques yéménites [En ligne], 6-7 | 1999, mis en ligne le 30 août 2007, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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