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|Urban and rural Yemeni women often complain about gender inequality and the injustices they face in a male-dominated society. All legal systems in Yemen – State, Islamic and Tribal Customary Law – assume women’s dependence on their male kin. Women’s mobility and public voice have been increasingly restricted by imported conservative ideologies that have spread though the media and school curricula. The current conflict further limits women’s security. Yet, Yemeni women’s assertiveness and active political and economic participation have captured the attention of international observers because these contradict assumptions of Arab and Muslim women’s “victimization.” |
This paper, based on long-term field research and consulting experience in Yemen, suggests that a variety of cultural and economic factors empower Yemeni women despite formal gender inequality. These include a high local valuation of children and motherhood, women’s control over their property, and strong sanctions against physical assault on women (until the current conflict, “honor killing” was virtually unknown, and domestic violence was very rare.) Gender roles for men and women differ from the dominant ones in the West and in some ways favor women’s empowerment. Men in Yemen and much of the Arab Region are culturally responsible for maintaining community cohesion. Thus, mediation and modesty in male leaders is valued over the Western ideal of a confrontational “abstract individual” (described by Joan Scott) who dominates the “public sphere.” Much political discourse and policy is formulated within the home, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, arguably in domestic spaces controlled by women. Women in Yemen routinely participate in all levels of dispute mediation. Rural villages, in which the majority of the population resides, are not gender-segregated and, until the early years of this century, rural men and women danced together at weddings and other celebrations. This paper does not argue that gender equality exists in Yemen, but that local norms open up important spaces that promote women’s agency as they contradict stereotypical assumptions.