Gender Inequalities in Yemen 

It would be extremely difficult to approach the topic of gender inequalities in Yemen without putting the topic in perspective by placing it in a cultural context. The greatest honor for women in Yemen consists of feminine seclusion while the greatest shame is attached to market activity. To truly understand gender dynamics in Yemen, it is necessary to go back to the nineteenth century and have a rapid glimpse at the Yemeni hierarchical society.  In the nineteenth century, Yemen was partitioned when the British colonized the Arabian Peninsula (Southwest of Yemen), while the North remained in the Ottoman sphere of influence until World War I and stayed independent afterwards under the governance of a Zaydi imam.

Within North Yemen, there are three major geo-cultural regions: the northern highlands, the southern uplands and the Tihama, the Red Sea coastal plain. In the South, colonial capitalism and post-revolutionary socialism affected the city of Aden and the nearby agricultural region of Lahej most directly while the more tribal eastern mountains remained quite isolated.

Yemen’s northern highlands remain predominantly Shiite while in comparison the rest of the country is mostly Sunnite.

The ethnographic literature described a tripartite status hierarchy consisting of the tribes, the religious aristocracy considered the elite group, and the ‘service’ groups at the bottom of the social ladder. Like ascribed status categories in most cultures, membership in each group was based on lineage maintained thanks to the practice of endogamy, where you marry within your caste or social group only. The distinctions among these groups were more of status inequalities rather than class divisions, as the three groups’ status and roles were interdependent.

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 Gender is the second major source of inequality in Yemen. It is a source of inequality because of gender per se; yet, the inequality becomes even greater depending on your status on the social ladder. For instance the veiled women enjoyed a further privilege not opened to any other women: schooling. Within the Sayyid families, claiming to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad, or the Qadi families, the magistrates, literate women trained their daughters and nieces and taught them to read the Quran, practiced calligraphy or even sometimes trained them in herbology.

On another hand and on the downside of the hierarchical ladder, the Al-Akhdam women (‘the untouchables’, part of the minority social class) were the least constrained and the least privileged. Al-Akhdam women possessed neither land nor status; yet, they wielded more economic power than the aristocratic women or their tribal peers. The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) has been a separate state from 1962, until the imamate fell; until May 22nd 1990, when the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and the Yemen Arab Republic were unified, creating the Republic of Yemen.

The unification brought together two territories which had developed different political lines and had distinct legal frameworks. Ali Abdullah Saleh, formerly the leader of the YAR, was declared President of the new state, while Sana’a, the capital city of the former YAR, became the capital of the Republic. Despite Saleh’s attempts to stabilize and unify the country’s different factions and tribes; the country continuously faced successive waves of political unrest, with the group “Ansar Allah” – also known as the “Houthis”, challenging the country’s political stability.

President Saleh resigned in 2012. Whilst the transition from the Saleh regime to the elected government of President Hadi initially appeared to be a success, instability prevailed in both the North and the South. This instability led to a sharp deterioration in the political situation in late 2014, and the eventual takeover of the capital by Houthi forces in early 2015. The country has since been embroiled in armed conflict, with the involvement of multiple international and domestic state and non-state actors fragmenting the country and fomenting one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The conflict has exacerbated the patterns of inequality, disadvantage and discrimination faced by certain groups in Yemen. Women in Yemen have historically been placed at a disadvantage in the midst of a highly patriarchal society. In the early twentieth century, some families became influential on the political scene.

One family was the Ismā‘īlī (a branch of Shia Islam) family of Luqmān. Originally from the northern area of Yemen called Ḥamdān, the family had fled to India in the eighteenth century, escaping Zaydī oppression, and from there came to Aden, in the nineteenth century where the patriarch of the family Ibrahim Luqmān established successful businesses. In 1940, Ibrahim Luqmān founded one of the first Arabiclanguage newspapers in Aden, Fatāt alJazīra. The newspaper devoted regular pages to women in a section called “Our beautiful half”. These pages presented matters of advancement in women’s position along with useful advice on child care and household chores. Progress included emulating the British educational system and the limited roles for women as allowed by the colonial empire. These roles included the professions of teacher and nurse and welfare activities among the colony’s poor. After the withdrawal of British colonial rule from the Southern part of Yemen in 1967, women’s rights became one of the priorities on the agenda of the newly independent country. Following the independence, women’s rights were actively promoted by the Women’s League, which in 1968 took the name General Union of Yemeni Women (GUYW).

The policy of taḥrīr almar’a or women’s emancipation was a result of the antiimperialist and “progressive” policies of the National Liberation Front, which took over after the British left. The first attempt to achieve legislation after the proclaimed independence was the Zinjibār Circular in 1971, unofficially issued by the local authorities in the province of Abyān some 50 kilometres east of Aden. The Zinjibār Circular was issued because local people had become impatient with the slow process of issuing new legislation in the capital Aden. The circular limited polygamy to cases of illness of the wife, her infertility or infidelity. The Zinjibār circular paved the way to drafting a national legislation. In 1974, with the promulgation of the first statutory law on family affairs: ‘Code no. 1 of 1974 in connection with the family’, women’s rights were inscribed in the region for the first time.

Family law came to be known as the most progressist family law in the entire Arab world at the time. This legislation is remembered by history as the Women’s Law as it was widely seen as a law enabling Yemeni women to establish a precedent in gaining their rights. This tremendous step forward unfortunately did not last long. Indeed, once the PDRY joined the YAR in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen, the former country’s progressive law was soon to be replaced by a Personal Status Code, based on women’s impaired legal capacity.

The Republic of Yemen has undergone several legal reforms in relation to family affairs, starting with the enactment of the Personal Status Law (PSL) in 1992 (qānūn alaḥwāl alshakhṣiya, Law no. 20 of 1992). This law was amended in 1998 and 1999. In debates surrounding the PSL, some concerns about the compatibility of the provisions with Sharia law including marital age and ‘bayt alṭā‘a’ (the term literally means “the house of obedience”, and came to be understood as a symbol of enforcing obedience of a wife to her husband) have been raised. In looking at Yemen, it is vital to take into account a normative pluralistic approach. While the state law on family affairs attempts to include a statutory perspective on the relationship between men and women; it has to compete with other non-legal forms of normative ordering, such as customary practices or traditions (called customary law or ‘urf’) and also Islam as a moral system [3].

In the 1992 law, the marital age for both boys and girls was decreed as fifteen. This is in accordance with provisions in the northern Yemeni family code (Law no. 3 of 1978), in which the legal age for boys is fifteen; for girls it states: “It is not permitted to be alone with her or to marry her or to penetrate her unless she has reached the age of sixteen and she is able to sustain intercourse” [4]. This provision was changed in 1999 when the law was amended in the parliament. The amendment gives authority to a guardian of a young girl under the age of 16 years old to marry her off. The 1992 law was the catalyzer of greater gender inequalities in Yemen.

The current conflict in Yemen, which began in 2015, has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. As of March 2017, 18.8 million people are in need of humanitarian support, and 10.3 million are in acute need. During emergencies, for instance the current conflict taking place in Yemen, women and girls become more vulnerable as basic services collapse and livelihoods diminish.

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Gender Inequalities in Yemen . (2021, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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