Women in Aden: A Beautiful Past, A Forsaken Present, and A Promising Future

Aden is as it always has been: endowed with beautiful castles and reservoirs, embraced by mountains and gulfs. Generation after generation, its residents become accustomed to its scorching summers, even as the benefits of modern technology have aided them in coping with the sweltering heat.

However, the Adeni woman has been forced to step backward, away from the path towards the future, made to abandon several decades of progress. The women walking in Aden’s sweltering daylight heat will tell you more than the hundreds of studies and books on the failure of women’s progress in Aden, and throughout Yemen. At noon, when the sun is at its fiercest and the temperature exceeds 40 degrees Celsius, you will encounter anonymous figures shrouded in black from head to toe. A solid mass, moving along the pavement. Only when the mass comes near you, or on the rare occasion it introduces itself to you, will you realize: This might be Fawziya or Khadija!

Thirty or so years ago, this woman walked on the same pavement, under the same sun, unencumbered, confident, her identity shown – not suffocating under a black tent. She wore a white, red or blue blouse, in pants or a skirt. Unique in her human and aesthetic expression, but also signaling her age, affiliations, occupation and tastes. She possessed freedom of movement and claimed equal ownership of the space she inhabited. You could see her returning from school, university or perhaps the national theatre. She could be walking to a police academy, or one of the many military and civilian institutions which contained an equal share of men and women in its ranks.

Today, her movement is restricted and her space is limited. She is either returning from the market carrying grocery bags or going to visit family.

Journalist Weam Sorori, commenting on the change in women’s lives, states: “It is subject to the shifts in political and social power controlling the situation in Aden.”

There is no doubt that the country’s cultural, economic and political circumstances play a part in women’s progress. They dictate how conservative or liberal her verbalized thoughts are, and how much of her rights she is able to retain.

The women of the South, especially those of Aden, were known to have been liberated from traditional norms, and had gained opportunities due to social and intellectual liberalization. Between 1974 and 1990, women were given full rights to actively participate in all walks of life: as doctors, engineers, teachers, soldiers, officers, athletes and judges. Despite efforts to liberalize the North of Yemen during that time, women’s situation would not progress due to the traditional system and its tribal, military and religious dimensions.

 Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem 

Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem 

The role of socialist state legislation and policy in empowering women

Sorori notes that, despite a British colonial policy which did not interfere with tradition and religion, colonization was one of the main catalysts to women’s rise and advancement. It forced diverse societies and cultures to interact with one another, encouraging openness to different ways of life. Furthermore, the rise of the Socialist Party to power (1970–1990) came with strict policy and legislation towards liberalization. It allowed women to gain a better social status than ever before or after.

According to Alice Najashi, an English teacher, “There was a state which protected and enforced women’s rights”. Najashi adds that any attempt to compare her generation to her mothers’ would be unfair; the legislative and executive branches of government empowered women to utilize their intellectual and practical abilities to become intellectually and economically productive.

There is no doubt that the family law, passed on January 1974, played an essential role in upholding the rights and freedoms of families – and women in particular. This law included freedom-preserving legislation, including the right to choose how to dress, compulsory education, implementing a minimum age to marry, an alimony law, a monogamy law, and other laws which preserved her rights and dignity.

The law also guaranteed women’s right to participate in the political process, thus playing an active role in a civil and liberal society. Women attained high ranks and made great strides compared to their peers in the Arabian Peninsula.

Women were given equality and opportunities in productive and decision-making roles. In the Arabian Peninsula, the first female deputy minister, first female dean of an economics department, first female television anchor, first female radio announcer, first female editor-in-chief, first female judge, and first female civilian pilot were products of that socialist era. Women even played a role in the military, playing a leading role in both struggle and self-sacrifice; we might remember the martyr Khadija al-Hawshabia and the struggling Da’ra.

It is important to remember that Aden was home to the first Arab Women’s Movement in the Arabian Peninsula. The first female protest against domestic violence took place in Aden in 1951.

 Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

Educated mother, illiterate daughter

Current-day Aden is witness to a sad phenomenon – educated mothers and illiterate daughters. A large percentage of women in Aden are illiterate, unemployed, devoid of will, and actively imposing a recently imported exclusionary and fundamentalist doctrine on their daughters. Among those is the belief that the abaya is compulsory. Today, the black abaya, hijab, and niqab are the standard by which religious commitment and modesty are measured. While these might have been part of old or imported traditions, they have now become a religious obligation. Women’s ability to move outside the home has become extremely restricted. Over the past two decades, the abaya has become an institutionally imposed official uniform, starting with the implementation of the abaya as a part of the officially mandated school uniform for girls.

According to Najashi, her mother would tell her of a time when girls were not only obligated to learn but also encouraged to play sports and have hobbies. The state was careful to provide specialized institutions, and an environment, to encourage such activities among girls. Women accomplished a great deal, and gained many medals in various local and international championships. Now, however, illiteracy has become widespread among girls and hobbies are composed of material or trivial pursuits. Sports are sinful activities, the work of the devil. Ignorance is widespread, and social media has replaced everything meaningful or productive.

Social media has become another tool to exclude and degrade women, as can be seen in the many comments and jokes meant to belittle women’s humanity and her right to live a free and dignified life. Enforcing strict gender roles, consumerism and domestication have become the main domains of women; participation in research and discussion of modern science has become difficult, forcing women into an ignorance of other cultures. She is now restricted to kitchen recipes and lessons on how to apply makeup.

While today’s girls are illiterate or near-illiterate, their mothers and grandmothers were able to eradicate illiteracy. In that era, the General Union of Women received an honorable mention in the Pahlavi Krupskaya prize by UNESCO, for their achievements in eradicating illiteracy among women.

Economic decline and poverty have become widespread among families in Aden, having a negative effect on both sexes. It has also resulted in widespread illiteracy. Parents now neglect to educate their daughters, resulting in an Adeni society where more than half the girls are uneducated. In addition, early marriage has created a generation of uneducated women. When young uneducated girls marry, they give birth to a generation of girls on whom they instill values of exclusion and marginalization, creating women who do not realize the full potential of their womanhood.

Urban migration and its effect on the Adeni culture

After the 1994 war, women lost their jobs as the factories and institutions that employed them were shut. The Adeni woman became shackled by new values and traditions which prevented her from participating in the work force and other aspects of social life. The Adeni woman – once seen as elegant, cosmopolitan and educated – is now ever more confined by patriarchal norms. All for the sake of social conventions and religious values. The politicized men of religion, and organizations, are most to blame in passing fundamentalist fatwas for political purposes.

Intisar al-Alawi, President of the We Are All Aden Alliance, explains that the women of Aden were greatly affected by the cultural changes that came after the summer war of 1994. This culture regards women as shameful burdens; her voice is shameful, her work is sinful, and her education or participation in the community would endanger her main role as a mother. Only a few families have held on to the liberal culture of the 1970s, while the rest of society has been influenced by the invading fundamentalist culture. Men, as patriarchs of their households, have taken it upon themselves to impose this invading culture on girls, who have been deprived an education and freedom of expression. In this environment, women no longer carry out civic activities in their communities, as they had done in the seventies.

 Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

Internal migration from northern and central governorates has had a significant role in instilling traditionalist values, which differed greatly from Aden’s cosmopolitan culture. When comparing this migration with the migrations in the colonial and post-colonial era, immigrants of previous migrations would integrate into the urban melting pot of Aden. However, the recent migration has brought in a shame-based culture and rural traditions, which restrict the freedom of women and exclude them from participating in their societies. Certain foreign practices have become widespread with this new way of life: discrimination between men and women, neglecting girls’ education, imposing the burqua, early marriage, and the perception of women as inferior, especially in mixed-sex spaces. The few women who walk in public without a male companion, reveal their face, or do not wear the hijab face harassment and intimidation. More recently, women who dare break social conventions are threatened with death.

Hala Yaseen Sidou, a law student, states:

“In the seventies, women in Aden had full rights and freedoms – you could dress in diverse but modest clothes and no one would take second glance. Now, women wear the baggy hijab and niqab, and are still exposed to indecent stares and harassment. In the past, women played an important role in all domains, had opportunities to study here or abroad, and had job opportunities in all fields undeterred by the meager resources. Now, despite living in the twenty-first century, the women of Aden face deteriorating conditions.”

Sidou adds that the current generation of women, who did not live in that golden age, wonder what their circumstances would be like had the legislative and executive branches continued on the path of liberalization, along with the benefits that would have been brought about by technology and advancement. “Surely,” she says, “we would be among those most civilized Arab states”.

However, Sidou feels that the young women of Aden possess an advantage despite the challenges they face. They lead many local organizations that serve their community, and raise awareness on many important social issues, such as the importance of education, the dangers of early marriage, promoting health education, and other issues neglected by government bodies. In civil society organizations, women have found a space to exist, apart from traditional family values and a patriarchal government that works against women’s struggle for freedom and dignity.

 Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

Archival photos courtesy of Hassan Qaseem

A ray of hope

The women of Aden still struggle against the discrimination imposed upon them since 1994. They have been forced to abide by traditions that belittle them and their social and political roles. Their suffering has been exacerbated by the current war (2015–2017). However, the Adeni woman continues to prove her existence and continues to struggle to regain her glory. Despite the institutional and social shackles imposed upon her, the Adeni woman will continue to participate in constructive social work

under any circumstances. With only scarce resources available to her she will carve out a space through volunteer work and active participation in civil society, in order to self-actualize and benefit others. It is not strange that the Adeni woman is at the forefront of active civil resistance against the forces of exclusion. The Adeni woman has struggled side-by-side with men against all odds, as she did during the October Revolution, protecting personal freedoms and protecting her nation.

In short, the Adeni woman needs a revolution in order to prove her existence once again. An effective, balanced and impactful feminist presence can initiate a paradigm shift. The feminist struggle is a battle for all of society, as the state of women in a society is a measure of its progress and development. There is a need to study women’s liberalization during the socialist era impartially and objectively, in order to benefit from it and create a new reality where women gain their full rights. She can then become unburdened by the shackles imposed upon her for more than two decades under oppressive economic and political circumstances.