Mediating Social Hierarchies in Yemen’s Highlands

By Najwa Adra
Submitted to Session P4124 (Turmoil and Tolerance: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen, 2015 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Thirty years ago, social science researchers on their way to Yemen read about a social and occupational hierarchy composed of three major endogamous groups: a religious elite, tribes (qabā’il) forming a majority in the middle, and an amalgam of low status service providers. This and similar social hierarchies continue to exist in many parts of Yemen. Yet the social relevance of these distinctions has eroded, only to be replaced in the past 20 years with a new class system based on wealth rather than descent.

Even in the 1970s, however, historic social and occupational hierarchies in the central and northern highlands were mediated by egalitarian propensities originating in Yemeni tribalism, Zaydi doctrine, and land ownership characterized by small holdings distributed among the rural population. Behavior across status boundaries did not conform to the expected norms of hierarchical systems. People from various status groups ate and socialized together, shared houses, and participated as equals in community-wide celebrations. More recently, and in a development that parallels and challenges the formation of new urban classes, rural tribes have expanded their understanding of tribal identity to include previously excluded groups. Based on the author’s field research and published sources on the subject, this paper will explore the various levels of mediation of historic and current hierarchies in Yemen. It will argue that an underlying egalitarian heritage has helped fuel the nation-wide demonstrations of 2011 as well as current political developments.