Women face adversity when challenging the norms and traditions of their society – in any society. In Yemen, women who do not wear the hijab and abaya face many difficulties, despite the presence of many notable female figures in the public sphere who have removed the hijab. These are women who have insisted on participating in the public sphere, side-by-side with men, and have been influential in women’s rights to self-determination and free expression. Still, society continues to collectively scrutinize this sizable demographic. The rising tide of fundamentalism in religion has emphasized a unilateral interpretation of religious texts, practicing a symbolic, and perhaps material, violence against women.
Conceptions of propriety and honor in women’s dress, and the system of religious discourse with its emphasis on rituals and absolutes, have dominated society’s view of women. In recent decades, this value system has dominated both rural and urban areas, despite the country’s diverse fashions and social values. As a result, Yemeni society has applied an immense collective and popular pressure on women who have decided to remove the hijab or refuse to wear the abaya in public, deterring many others from making the same decision. The many women who take off their hijab as soon as they leave the country can attest to this.
M.F. is a Yemeni woman currently living in a European country. She wore the hijab when she lived in Yemen, even though she neither believed in the practice, nor understood its purpose. Consequently, she decided to remove the hijab as soon as she left the country.
She began wearing the hijab in the seventh grade, but only as a matter of social convention; the male and female Islamic Studies teachers emphasized the importance of the hijab as a part of the religion. She notes that society pressures women and girls to wear the hijab under the threat of eternal damnation, adding: “I still remember one time when a part of my classmate’s hair was exposed; the teacher, admonishing her, said she would be hung by those hairs on the day of judgment.”
M.F. felt the hijab dispossessed her of a part of her freedom and humanity, by “deeming women to be pieces of candy – pure only if wrapped – or repeating the popular saying that ‘a woman’s crown is her hair, not her mind’”.
M.F.’s family did not oppose her decision to remove the hijab. However, her family advised her not to post pictures on social media, fearing the reaction of conservative Yemeni society to her decision. Currently, women who refuse to wear the hijab face challenges and discrimination, especially from religious and tribal sections of Yemeni society. “I feel more free, more human, more confidant after removing the hijab”, she says, “communicating with people in the European society I live in has become easier, lifting all barriers”.
Twenty-six year old Hanadi Ahmed has lived in a European country for the past seven years. Ahmed says she wore the hijab since childhood. Watching her older sisters, whom she admired, wear hijabs, with their many colors and designs, convinced her to wear one too. However, she chose to remove it a short while after leaving Yemen. The hijab was a part of her identity and a symbol of her relationship with God; nonetheless, a period of doubt and self-reflection persuaded her to end the relationship.
Ahmed explains that living for seven years in a European country has pushed her to waver between faith and doubt, adding: “I spent a long time questioning the necessity of wearing the hijab, its importance and relation to my identity, and why a woman’s honor and self-respect are tied to a piece of cloth.”
Ahmed finally came to the conclusion that the hijab was not essential to her identity and removed it. She states: “I’m a Yemeni to the bone and very proud of it, and I don’t need the hijab to symbolize the depth of my relationship with God, because my relationship with Him is sacred and private – I don’t need symbols and I don’t need to please society.”
She elaborates that it is not easy for a woman to remove the hijab in Yemen, pointing out that, under the current conditions in the country, it would not only cost her reputation but also her life: “The concept of honor is still tied to the hijab, especially among conservative families.”
The abaya and niqab: Familial normalization and institutional indoctrination
The abaya and niqab were only recently introduced to Yemen by its Gulf neighbors. In fact, before its introduction, rural women in the North and South of Yemen were free to move in public spaces without the abaya and niqab. Now, it is considered a social norm, where families impose the hijab, niqab and abaya on girls at a young age.
In the South, the Family Law issued on 1 January 1974 played an important role in providing women with the freedom to choose how they dress. However, in the closing decades of the last century and the beginning of the current one, religion has played a wider role in society, and religious practices have become institutionalized. For example, the abaya has become a formal part of the school uniform.
Fatma, who is 35 years of age, lives in Cairo. In school, she first wore the hijab, then the niqab. After graduating university in 2003, she moved to an Arab country with her family, where she decided to remove the hijab. According to Fatma, the country they moved to was relatively more liberal.
“I grew up in a very conservative and religious environment”, she says. “Starting in elementary school, my mother would have me wear the hijab to get used to it. I was then forced to wear the hijab in the sixth grade.” Starting in the eighth grade, Fatma was made to wear the niqab by her father due to pressure from family and relatives. While she did not believe in the practice, she had to comply.
“I wore the niqab in the car and would take it off at school”, she says. “After a year I always wore it, but it didn’t bother me because my friends also wore it.” She continues: “I always wondered why we wore the hijab, and how women could enjoy their clothes and fashion under the abaya.”
When Fatma enrolled in university, she could not stand the idea of being unknown. “I have an independent personality, and was used to standing out among my peers at school”, she says. “That’s why I persuaded my father, and removed the hijab.”
Fatma was subject to the threats and harassment that most Yemeni women are exposed to when they decide to remove the hijab. Her decision to remove the hijab abroad created tensions with relatives, forcing her family to decrease their social circles to adapt to their new lifestyle.
After removing the hijab, Fatma and her family were subject to slander and criticism. “One time, a group picture taken at my wedding was leaked on to a Yemeni online forum”, she recounts. “As a result, my family and I were subject to cruel and disgusting slander.” Fatma attributes the attacks and criticism faced by women who remove the hijab to a “society which considers women to be mere objects and sexual tools, and does not recognize women’s active role in all domains”.
Fatma believes that the 2011 revolution has changed awareness among Yemeni youth, especially women. She believes it has encouraged women to break many taboos, work towards achieving their dreams, and reject obsolete traditions.
Despite many Yemeni women removing their hijabs upon leaving the country, they are still exposed to harassment and criticism by Yemenis living abroad.
R.M. is a Yemeni woman who does not wear the hijab, and is currently living in an Arab country. She left Yemen to pursue her studies, and has never worn the hijab. According to R.M., she was harassed in Yemen for not wearing the hijab, and continues to receive the same harassment from Yemenis in the country she lives in. “They think I’ve committed a grievous crime because I don’t wear the hijab”, she says. “What’s worse is that they think I’m an easy girl because I don’t wear the hijab.”
R.M. explains that she has never worn the hijab because she has never understood the purpose of covering one’s hair, and does not believe it to be a religious obligation. “I knew that society would belittle and disparage me whether or not I wore the hijab, because society only considers women’s bodies”, she says. “I faced many difficulties and harassments on a daily basis – on the street, at school, and from relatives – where I was looked upon as a woman that would spread sin.”
R.M. indicates that Yemenis on social media do not hesitate to harass and threaten activists who do not wear the hijab. Some ignore the content of women’s posts in social media and only criticize their appearance. According to R.M., Yemeni society overvalues appearance and cannot accept difference of opinion, adding, “If I were to visit Yemen, I wouldn’t dare go outside without the hijab”. “As I get older, my fear of society and its reaction to me, as a woman which it considers to be rebellious, increases”, she explains. “I, or my family and relatives, could be attacked physically or verbally.”
Bigger challenges and a ray of hope
Yemen is undergoing an armed conflict and an absence of the state, leading to the rise of extremist groups. Women who do not wear the hijab or abaya face increasing pressures when walking in the street.
Rana Jarhoum, who currently lives in Turkey and does not wear the hijab, says the current conditions in Yemen have made it harder for women to remove the hijab and abaya. “The Houthis in the North, and extremist groups in the South of Yemen systematically oppress women, journalists, students, and any independent-minded person who has differing ideals and perspective”, she explains. “This means that the corrupt political elites would never allow the creation of alternatives.”
According to Jarhoum, “The Yemeni woman that does not wear the hijab is comparable in courage to the fighter on the frontlines – the liberation of women’s dress in a patriarchal society is in itself a revolution”.
The women described in this article, in Yemen and elsewhere, represent a new social outlook growing under the surface. Once a more suitable political environment is present, Yemen will witness social and intellectual liberalization. A political environment characterized by political liberalism and devolution of powers from those who claim to be the guardians of society’s values and principles. Indisputable customs and traditions which are considered self-evident will be re-evaluated, including the issue of women’s dress and all that it symbolizes.