In Yemen one often hears the hypothesis that as men migrate abroad in search of work, women move into male economic and political roles, at least within the household. The assumption is that women take over production tasks and decisionmaking which have always been the responsibility of men. While this may well be happening in some communities in Yemen, the evidence in one village of Ta‘izz province, in the southern part of the country, suggests that the domestic effects of migration might not be simply to “fill the vacuum” created by the absence of men. [1]

The village, in the Hujariyya district, has a population of 632 persons in 92 households. It is situated on gently rolling hills at an elevation of about 2,000 meters, about half an hour’s walk from the town of Turba, the district capital. Multi-storied stone houses are densely situated on stony outcroppings. The surrounding agricultural lands in the summer months give the area a lush, green appearance. For much of the year however, the harshly arid, barren brown terraces are relieved only with the green of occasional acacia trees. Village men congregate, at the local mosque, the one public structure in the village, and women can be seen at the wells, in front of several small shops, chatting on their doorsteps or at work in the fields.

The Village Agricultural Economy

Conservative estimates put the resident population of Yemen in 1977 at approximately 5 million. [2] Most Yemenis (78 percent) live in small highland communities of less than 500 inhabitants, whose economic base is rain-fed agriculture. In terms of natural resources, this community is comparatively poorer than other highland communities. It has infertile clay-like soils and the rains are highly variable from one year to another, averaging only about 400 mm (16 inches) in a good year. Instead of being able to produce a wide range of cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, coffee or qat, as is common in more favored areas, agricultural production is limited to drought-resistant sorghum, millet and cowpeas. [3]

In contrast to the richer agricultural regions of Yemen, this community has had little enduring variation in the size of land holdings. Some comparatively large private estates were established in the 1930s, but these amounted to no more than 10 hectares. With subsequent divisions due to inheritance, the largest privately owned holdings are now no more than one hectare. Until recently these evenly distributed small holdings were worked predominantly by unpaid household labor. For village households, the most important economic ratio is labor to land. Each household passes through its own development cycle of expansion, the aging of children and adults, the incorporation of daughters-in-law and, finally, segmentation. Labor availability depends on the stage of development a household is presently in, as well as the health status of its members. At some stage a household might have to contract out some of its lands to sharecroppers. At other times, it might take lands in. At peak periods, there exists reciprocal labor exchange in households with physically strong young and middle-aged women. Households here also hire low status workers from other communities for specific tasks, like threshing.

The point here is that agricultural production in this community occurs predominantly on privately owned lands, and both size of land worked and amounts of production vary with changes in the composition of the household. There appear to be few distinctions between households which are owner-cultivators and those which are sharecroppers. Through time most households are both. This has been the case elsewhere in the Yemeni highlands. [4]

The work of women and children on the rain-fed agricultural lands of this community is continuous over an annual cycle. They engage in numerous tasks to prepare the soils during the dry winter months. They predominate in sowing during May, and in thinning, weeding and the gathering of animal fodder during the summer months. They harvest the sorghum, millet and cowpeas by hand. They help thresh and winnow the grain, and finally they are responsible for cleaning and storing it. In addition to these agricultural tasks, women are responsible for recurring daily activities in the home such as caring for children, fetching water and fuel, processing and preparing food and cleaning the house and washing clothes.

Men are important in agricultural production at the peak periods of plowing in the spring and threshing after harvest in the autumn. Four men in the village have pairs of oxen and plows, and they plow all lands on a custom service basis. From this division of labor in agricultural production, it is clear that a few men can keep the system functioning so long as their labor is complemented by the continuous labor of many women and children. Thus, the absence of men per se has not had a serious effect on agricultural production in the community.


Until 1918 this part of Yemen, the Hujariyya district, was governed by the Ottoman Turks and formed, in fact, the southern tip of the empire. The event that most influenced the economy of the region for over a hundred years was the British colonization of Aden, to the south. Shortly after the British captured the port of Aden in 1839, political and economic links were forged with the hinterland.

Though never coming under direct control of the British as part of the Aden Protectorate, the Hujariyya was economically part of the colony. As early as 1859, the Yemeni hinterland provided a market for British goods such as cotton fabric, candles, clocks, matches, spices, sugar, drugs and porcelain. In return, the hinterland provided the colony with coffee, beeswax and hides. [5]

The hinterland thus provided Aden with an export market, raw materials, and one more crucial resource: a seemingly endless supply of labor. In 1839 the population of Aden numbered 1,289. By 1946, just over 100 years later, the population reached 80,500. [6] Most of the thousands of workers in Aden came from the Yemeni hinterland and in particular from the Hugariyya district.

Until the early twentieth century, workers were employed mainly in the port. As Europe expanded its industrial base immediately following World War I, offices were set up in Aden to export labor to England, predominantly for British factories. [7] In this period Yemeni communities were established in Liverpool, Manchester, South Shields, Sheffield, Hull, Cardiff and London. And as transshipping via Aden increased in the mid-twentieth century, other Yemeni workers joined British vessels at Aden to work as stokers or donkeymen. [8]

The vast majority of hinterland Yemenis in Aden formed the lowest socioeconomic strata, working as petty shopkeepers, manual and semi-skilled workers. They stayed in Aden until the republican revolution of 1962 in Sanaa attracted some home. Another factor was disturbances against the British in the colony, which eventually led to independence in 1967 and forced others to seek their livelihood elsewhere.

The decade of the 1970s represents a new chapter in Yemeni migration. As the economies of the oil-producing countries of the Gulf expanded in the 1970s, the move there from Yemen was a relatively easy one. From 1974, as the North Yemeni economy itself expanded as a result of remittances, Yemenis had the option to move to Yemen’s cities and to establish themselves, particularly in construction and trade. [9]

The migration experience, as told today in the Hujariyya, reflects the picture just described. Labor migration began, according to village historians, immediately following World War I. They give two reasons for this migration: to take advantage of the improved economic opportunities in Aden colony and to avoid conscription into the army of the Zaydi Imam, who was expanding his hegemony into the area in the wake of the departing Turks. It is also likely that the level of agricultural production on village lands was not adequate to feed the village’s expanding population and to meet expanding consumption requirements, particularly with regard to cooking fuel, sugar, tea and clothes. [10]

Aden was less than a day’s journey away from the Hujariyya. This allowed many of the male migrants to return home at peak agricultural periods. A significant number who worked on ships or in Europe remained abroad for up to eight years at a time. From the 1940s on, many migrant workers took their sons to the colony to work and study at the same time and a very few — the more prosperous merchants — even took their families.


Migration to Aden allowed for only small capital accumulation. The situation changed dramatically in the mid-1970s. First, many village men migrated internally to Yemen’s cities, not abroad. [11] For many, weekend visits to the village were common. Second, financial returns on labor increased dramatically from 1974. For example, one of the skills that many young men from the village had learned in Aden was goldsmithing. They set themselves up in business in Sanaa, Ta‘izz and Hudayda, and were in a good position to capitalize on the remittances, since one important expenditure of remittances is gold, especially for the bridewealth payment. Other village men were equally successful financially in urban trade, dealing in imported foods and electrical appliances. Incomes were estimated in the thousands of dollars each month. The new apprentice in the gold trade would earn $1,000 minimum each month.

In the period of migration to Aden, remittances had been used only to a small extent to purchase land. Instead, they were used primarily to construct and expand dwellings. The household still relied heavily on agricultural production to meet its food needs. Remittances also allowed families to supplement income from agricultural production to enable them to consume imported foods, fuels and clothes.

In the recent decade, spending power from migrant remittances appears to be more unequally distributed than in the earlier period, and this has important implications for social life in the village. Although no household relies solely on agricultural production now, a rather large gap exists between the economic situation of the poor, the moderately well-off and the urban-based traders. These are distinctions made by the villagers themselves, and are determined by both income from agricultural production and wage employment outside the village.

The poorest members of the community control some small agricultural production but have little or only irregular financial support from migrant kin in the towns or abroad. They include several widows with young children, one family with a disabled male head and another where the male head of household is an alcoholic. In short, cash support from males is deficient. Moreover, many women in the poorest of these families are unable, because of illness or age, to sell their labor in the growing local wage labor market, and have become progressively impoverished as the necessity for cash increases. These households, which account for approximately 15 percent of all village households, may not even be able to cultivate their land if family labor and cash are in short supply.

In this Hujariyya community, to be “average” in an economic sense means having a household income based on steady remittances. Three quarters of the village households fall into this class. Most migrants regularly send amounts deemed a necessary minimum for maintenance. In 1977, this figure ranged between $200 and $450 per month. These amounts were surprisingly standardized. A migrant might work two or even three jobs to meet the growing expectations of the kin in the village. The migrant would save considerably more than this figure, which he would bring home in a lump sum on his next visit. In addition, an average household is likely to meet part of its diet from local agricultural production, poultry and dairying.

The new elite represents approximately 10 percent of the village’s 92 households. Beginning in 1977, this group, the urban-based traders, began to move their families to the cities of Yemen where they, as individuals, were already living and working. At the same time, however, they began to construct new-styled, lavishly decorated bungalows in the village as “holiday homes.”

Among this group, the importance of agricultural production in the household economy is minimal. Trade and religious expertise have taken its place. Many of this group sold their lands in the 1960s to establish themselves in business. Their remaining lands are viewed, at best, as real estate commodities. Social ties based on present or former relations with the land, however, are important in newly defined economic relationships in urban areas. One’s most trusted colleagues in urban commercial activities are co-villagers. Several marriages have been arranged from within this group, one way to solidify these relationships. During their regular visits to the village the traders play important legal and mediation roles, in part because they represent the best educated men of the community in matters of religion and law. They stress the strictest interpretations of the Qur’an and shari‘a. In many ways, the group has set the new style and the tone of life in the village.

The new elite also provide the yardstick on which to measure consumption. Not only are their houses lavish but so is their hospitality when they reside in the village. They consume expensive meats, qat and imported foods. They have color televisions and videos. When they need medical treatment, they travel to Cairo or London. Their women wear expensive clothes and a dazzling amount of gold.

The Position of Women

In one symbolic sense, land and women in the village have always represented security to village men as they travel all over the globe in search of a livelihood. Together, productive land and able-bodied women working on the land have meant that if opportunities abroad fail, one could always return to the village and find shelter, food and a well-established network of social relations. Of late, though, as the relative importance of remitted earnings has risen in comparison to the value of agricultural production in the overall household economy, security issues have become less of a concern. In the rush to acquire cash needed to live by today’s standards, agriculture has become significantly marginalized, its future even threatened due to poor maintenance.

Two things are important to note about agriculture in this community: 1) the constraints of the natural environment are severe, and the highly variable rainfalls and poor quality soil make agricultural innovations unprofitable and therefore unlikely at present; 2) the combined high cost of production (due to general inflation, including the services of the village plowmen) and the low price of imported cereals have made even the production of traditional drought-resistant cereal crops an unattractive proposition. Animal raising, particularly of dairy cows, is directly related to cereal production; feed is prohibitively expensive and a household with no access to green fodder and stalks from its own fields is unlikely to keep large animals. In the present circumstances, the poorest lands are going out of production and production on better lands is being subsidized by remittances. Ironically, only those who are tied into regular flow of remittances can afford to cultivate their lands.

What does the decline of agriculture mean to the position of women in the community? In the past, the labor of women was the backbone of the rural economy. Women produced for home consumption. Little, if any, of the grain produced on village lands was bartered or marketed. In the early period of migration, the small amounts of remittances were used to purchase goods not produced locally. Women played key economic roles; their power and authority were considerable, though not formally recognized.

Women and Classes

In the last decade, three classes have emerged in the community. In each, women have different work situations. Among the impoverished group who have not migrated successfully, those women who are fit enough must work in the community for wages. They carry water and work in construction, hauling stones. They help other village women clean out their animal quarters, and work as day laborers during the peak agricultural periods. Several also work as healers — one as a midwife, another specialized in cautery and another specialized in massage. In short, they serve the women in the community who can pay cash for their services.

The middle class, the majority of households in the village, are fortunate to have an abundance of cash and labor, particularly female labor. Remittances have helped lighten some of their workload. They now mill their grains for a small fee at the mechanized mill in the village. Many of the foods they eat are cooked on Butagaz, so fetching firewood is a task of a bygone era. Their roles in agriculture remain as before, with plowing and threshing hired out. At peak periods it is common for women to work on each other’s lands on a reciprocal basis.

Among the very wealthy, women are no longer visibly productive in any kind of work outside the walls of their houses. [12] If members of the households own agricultural lands, they are either contracted out to sharecroppers or worked solely at peak periods by hired laborers, to the detriment of crop yields. The careful land preparation and continuous weeding traditionally done by women are now not done at all.

This growing economic differentiation among village households is one effect of the migration of men in this community. In households where men earn high salaries in urban areas or abroad, women are pulled out of their traditional roles in agricultural production.

Some observers in Egypt have argued that women there gain in self-confidence in the absence of their husbands and move into male decision-making roles. [13] For average and wealthy households here — 85 percent of the total in this village in Yemen — this is not the case. Women are rarely left “unprotected”: If a man leaves his wife and children to migrate, he is likely to find a male kinsman or neighbor who can stand in for him on matters of day-to-day household management. No major decisions on investment are made in his absence. He sends a minimum amount each month for maintenance and brings a larger lump sum home on his return. The major realignment of power with regard to expenditure of household income has not been women gaining from men but rather younger men (the migrants) gaining compared to the men of the senior generation.

A more salient point is the realignment of power among families. In the Hujariyya, the household and local economies have been interacting with and reacting to the world system for over a hundred years. In the process, the household economy has changed, and so too have values and expectations. Growing impoverishment and the accumulation of wealth at both ends of the economic spectrum are now quite visible. Classes are developing which never existed, most clearly perceptible in the behavior of their women. With the rise of a new elite, new attitudes toward life style and consumption have been defined. In the first instance, new attitudes directly challenge the value put on the traditional work roles of women. The desired state is one of leisure, where one can maintain white skin and soft hands as city women do. Women following this line, moreover, should have time for more feminine pursuits like interior decorating, sewing and more elaborate cooking.

The value attached to leisure and home-bound activities coincides with values associating greater religiosity with the seclusion of women. Throughout history there has been an inverse relationship between the productive roles of women and their seclusion. [14] Segregation and seclusion have been more pronounced among women of the leisured urban upper classes. In Margot Badran’s words, “While Islam does not create patterns of segregation and seclusion, it is used to justify them.”

Here new patterns of seclusion and segregation are emerging among the new class of households who can afford to pay labor to replace the traditionally unpaid work of women of the household. For example, one of the wealthiest goldsmiths in the village insisted that his wife wear long white robes and scarves, such as women wear on the hajj. She never went out of doors — unusual in a small community where women are actively visible. Yet this woman is held up by men and women of the elite as exemplary. She is served by the poorest women, who built her house, fetch her water and provide her other services.

Other women remain skeptical and have an ambivalent attitude toward the new styles of seclusion and dependence proffered in the name of Islam. One went so far as to exclaim, “This isn’t religion, it’s mud!” There is no doubt that leisure has a high value among women who have never known it, and to them seclusion does have desirable connotations of privilege, urbanity and class distinction. Still, mobility is freedom and ordinary social intercourse in and around the village provides ample opportunity to be entertained and informed about what is happening in the world.

These observations capture Yemeni society during an economic boom time in 1977 and 1978. By 1983, there was evidence that the Yemeni economy had reached a peak. Migrant remittances have leveled off and their real value has decreased. The temporary affluence that has catapulted Yemen’s commercial class into economic prominence is unlikely to be sustainable over the long term. The elite described here do not number among the wealthiest of Yemen’s commercial class. In a recession it is likely that traders at this level would face seriously declining business and possibly would not survive. This class displaying flamboyant new consumption patterns would simply not have the means to continue current levels of spending. Moreover, many of the items currently on the market — such as imported foods — would not be available. Would the women of the elite be forced to leave their lives of leisure and seclusion, and return to cultivating their land and caring for their animals? Would economic necessity erode the seclusion only recently attained? What would be the plight of the currently disadvantaged women? At this point, one thing can be said. The decade of affluence in Yemen facilitated, and was indeed facilitated by, an intensification of the relationship between the village and the city — economically, politically and socially. One effect of this process in this Hujariyya community has been the education of the new generation, some to university level, and a push toward professional employment. Thus, even with the prospect of a failing national economy, the trend is set toward education, employment and urban living. These would be the basis of social and economic differentiation at the village level, and women would remain symbols of this differentiation.


[1] This paper was first presented at the Department of Anthropology at Stockholm University and has been revised thanks to the critical comments of N. Adra, A. Bani Ghazi, Fatma Khafagy, Cynthia Nelson and L. Taylor.
[2] Hans Steffen, “La Demographic de la Republique Arabe du Yemen,” in P. Bonnenfant, ed., La Peninsule Arabique d’Aujhourd’hui (Aix-en-Provence: Centre d’Etudes et Recherches sur l’Orient Arabe Contemporain, 1982), p. 104. There is considerable disagreement on the size of Yemen’s resident and migrant populations. For a critical assessment of the sources, see Nader Fergany, The Affluent Years Are Over: Emigration and Development in the Yemen Arab Republic (Geneva: Working Paper, Migration for Employment Project, ILO, 1980), pp. 4-5.
[3] Data were collected on this village during two years of anthropological fieldwork in 1977-1978. For a review of the effects of migration in other agricultural zones in Yemen, see N. Adra, “The Impact of Male Migration on Women’s Roles in Agriculture in the Yemen Arab Republic” (Rome: FAO, 1983).
[4] Thomas Gerholm, Market, Mosque and Mafraj: Social Inequality in a Yemeni Town (Stockholm: University of Stockholm, 1977), p. 63; and Daniel Varisco, “The Adaptive Dynamics of Water Allocation in al-Ahjur, Yemen Arab Republic,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1982, p. 39.
[5] R. J. Gavin, Aden Under British Rule, 1839-1967 (London: Hurst, 1975), pp. 51, 64, 119; Robert Playfair, A History of Arabia Felix or Yemen (St. Leonard’s: Ad Orientation, 1970/1859), p. 34; and Richard Tutwiler and Sheila Carapico, Yemeni Agriculture and Economic Change: Case Studies of Two Highland Regions (Sanaa: American Institute for Yemeni Studies, 1981), pp. 36-42.
[6] Gavin, p. 329.
[7] Interview with Ahmad Muhammad Nu‘man, former leader, Free Yemeni Movement and YAR prime minister, Cairo, October 1982.
[8] Badr Dahya, “Yemenis in Britain: An Arab Migrant Community,” Race 6/3 (1965), p. 180; and R. B. Serjeant, “Yemeni Arabs in Britain,” The Geographical Magazine 17/4 (1944), p. 143. Yemeni emigration to the United States appears to be a much later phenomenon. See Nabeel Abraham, “Detroit’s Yemeni Workers,” MERIP Reports 57 (May 1977), p. 6.
[9] Quoting from the Yemen government’s 1978 Statistical Yearbook, Hans Steffen shows that private money transfers in 1971 were 237 million riyals. In 1971 they increased by a factor of 19 to 4.561 million riyals. In 1971, per capita domestic product was 74 Yemeni riyals and per capita remittances 54 YR. By 1977, per capita domestic product reached 414 riyals but was less than half the per capita remittances of 938 riyals. Steffen, p. 104. Fergany, quoting from Central Bank of Yemen statistics, shows that between 1971 and 1977, the fastest growing sector of the economy was trade (750 percent increase). At the same time, however, agricultural production, particularly for cereal crops, declined. The national output of cereals in 1979, 887,000 tons, was less than a decade earlier when 1,150,000 tons of cereal production were recorded. Fergany, pp. 15, 17.
[10] John Swanson makes the point that while emigration had a negative effect on the macro-economy of Yemen, it allowed individual households to raise their standard of living through improved consumption. Data presented below questions how generalizable this assumption is. See John Swanson, Emigration and Economic Development: The Case of the Yemen Arab Republic (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979.
[11] During the time of the census conducted in the village in summer 1977, 23 percent of adult males were abroad, 48 percent were living and working in Yemen’s cities, and 29 percent were in the village.
[12] See also Martha Mundy, “Agricultural Development in the Yemeni Tihama: The Past Ten Years,” unpublished paper presented at Exeter University, 1983.
[13] H. Khattab and S. El-Deif, Impact of Male Labor Migration on the Structure of the Family and the Roles of Women (Giza, Egypt: The Population Council, 1982.
[14] Margot Badran, “Women and Production in the Middle East and North Africa,” Trends in History 57/3 (1983), pp. 59-60.

How to cite this article:

Cynthia Myntti "Yemeni Workers Abroad," Middle East Report 124 (June 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This