Although still old-fashioned when compared with their Levantine or North African sisters, constrained by patriarchal social structures, and limited in their earning capacities, Yemeni women play at least a token role in contemporary political and economic life. They may well be the most “liberated,” though not the most privileged, women in the Arabian Peninsula. When looking at the civil rights and public participation of Yemeni women, it is important to note their different roles in the north, in the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), and in the south, in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). In North Yemen, the three decades after the 1962 overthrow of the Zaydi Shi‘i imam saw an increase in veiling and seclusion, as the emerging bourgeoisie sought to imitate the restrictively prim and proper lifestyles of the “ladies” of the old gentry of sayyid families. Although relatively liberal social legislation allowed such rights as pregnancy leave, voting, driving, travel, running for office and property ownership, and several women were prominent television broadcasters, in most northern cities and districts women covered their faces, left school early, and avoided public places. The prevailing ethic was that only dire economic necessity would drive women into markets, factories or offices. In the countryside, of course, women’s contribution to farming and herding was vital.
In South Yemen, by contrast, or at least in the formerly British port city of Aden, home to 40 percent of the PDRY’s population and the Arab world’s most genuinely Marxist regime, unveiled females represented roughly a third of all students, teachers, medical personnel, civil servants and factory workers. Women were also a visible minority among lawyers, judges, directors and administrators. As in the North Yemeni hinterland, however, small town and rural dress and behavior varied considerably by region. In distant Mahara, for instance, bare-faced tribeswomen were far more assertive than the demure housebound ladies of the Hadhrami towns.
Over protestations from the religious right, liberal and progressive women and men in the unified Republic of Yemen have managed to hold on to all the legal rights enjoyed by women under either previous regime. The resistance of many conservative shari‘a scholars to the notion of female judges was resolved with the appointment of one woman to the newly created 15-judge Supreme Court. Women have also retained or been appointed to positions including a deputy minister of information, a dean of education, department heads in education, health, social affairs and other ministries, and a few parliamentary seats. A recent survey found 2,000 professionally qualified women in education, health, communications, law, business and other fields.
As to urban fashion, the convenient barometer of social freedom, some compromises are evident. Several thousand Adeni women whose own or whose husband’s jobs have relocated them to the cooler, more conservative climate of Sanaa almost invariably don a scarf and cloak before leaving the house, while young Sanaani women from all classes are increasingly abandoning the “traditional” full veil in favor of this more modem look. Several popular new “coiffure” shops also show that fewer women now cover their heads indoors. Even women who wear veils now consider the bare-faced look as perfectly acceptable Islamic dress. By contrast, the distinctively Saudi-style veil, conspicuously marking women whose families were expelled from the kingdom in November 1990 on account of Yemen’s position in the Gulf war, strikes Sanaanis as stuffy and pretentious.
Neither the public positions of 2,000 professional women nor urban streetwear affects the lives of ordinary townswomen and their country cousins. Their concerns are more those of their families than of women per se: marriage and childbirth, and, increasingly in this year of economic calamity, the loss of migrants’ earnings, growing unemployment, high inflation, overburdened and underfinanced social services, and diminishing returns from traditional agriculture and crafts. Most are married young. While few are so tied into the medical health care system as to utilize gynecological birth control, improved emergency care and widespread immunization for childhood diseases have boosted fertility while reducing infant mortality. The result is that Yemen now boasts the world’s highest rate of natural population growth. Blocked by lack of education or capital from professional careers, blessed with eight children before her thirtieth birthday, and facing severe strain on the national economy, a typical Yemeni woman would readily trade the “status” of the veil for a steady cash income.