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Q&A Yemeni Women and Changes in Public Space Over Time: An Interview with Helen Lackner

Helen Lackner is one of the foremost scholars focused on the history of the conflict in Yemen. A renowned and prolific author, she lived and worked in Yemen for more than 15 years, working on social aspects of rural development. Currently a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center, Lackner sat down to detail observable changes to women’s daily lives and dress since the 1970s during her time in the country.

Sana’a Center (SC): You worked and traveled extensively in Yemen prior to unification in 1990. What was the focus of your work during that period?

Lackner: I lived in Yemen at different times and in different places between 1977 and 1990. In the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), known as South Yemen), I worked in various institutions in the education and cultural sectors, and I traveled widely throughout the country, interviewing people, observing, and collecting information for the book I later published on the PDRY.[1] In the Yemen Arabic Republic (YAR), known as North Yemen, I worked in various rural development projects in different governorates and, of course, spent time in the major cities. Prior to unification, the two states had different policies with respect to women, though daily life for women was fairly similar in rural areas, with more pronounced differences in the major cities.

SC: The PDRY was known to have more liberal gender policies than the YAR. What were your impressions of women in South Yemen at the time?

Lackner: In the late 1970s and 1980s, in Aden itself, during working hours, one came across many women employed in the education sector or in government offices, though rarely in senior positions. When I later worked at Aden University, it was clear there were definitely fewer women than men in the administration, although more women were employed in the health and education sectors. Aden University’s College of Education already had a majority of women students, and by the late 1980s a casual visitor would justifiably have been misled into thinking that it was a women’s institution, given how few male students were seen there.

In the mornings, at work, women wore ‘western’ style clothing, including a head covering, while students wore uniforms. The only women wearing chadors in the early hours of the day were those working as helpers in the home, or employed in other lower-status activities. In the afternoons, by contrast, most women usually wore deras, a loose-fitted cotton voile garment that Adeni women commonly wear as a house dress, or at formal events such as wedding parties. Women of all social groups and statuses wore the chador outdoors. Deras had to be covered by something more discreet when in public places. The chador might need some explanation. Now commonly worn in Iran, the chador is a large black garment worn over the head and shoulders, with one half far longer than the other, and is now hardly present in Yemen. I do not recall seeing either baltos or the now standard abayas in the 1970s or early 1980s in Aden itself.

SC: Outside of Aden, what was your impression of rural life in the former PDRY?

Lackner: In the smaller towns, and in Hadramawt in particular, far fewer women worked in offices, even in educational and medical establishments. The status of women remained far more conservative; my recollection of Mukalla, for instance, is that all women I saw there in public spaces wore chadors and even covered their faces. I particularly remember visiting a girls’ secondary school in Al-Shihr, probably in 1980, where all the students wore black cloaks, complemented by the niqab. While this is a completely standard practice today, it was the first time I was faced with a room full of young women completely covered in black, whose features were not visible. In that period, in rural areas, women working in agriculture were a common sight. Hadramawt was the only area where I saw them wearing black full-body coverings; in the Wadi Hadramawt region they also wore the still common pointed hats over their black head scarves and niqab.

SC: What were your impressions of women in the YAR?

Lackner: In Sana’a, in the 1980s, there were far fewer women in offices than in Aden. Many women working in Sana’a had spent their early years in Aden where they had been educated, often to the university level. Then, the standard clothing for public spaces for professional women, Yemeni and foreign alike, was a ‘Western’ raincoat with a headscarf. Like today’s abayas, the coat was worn at all times outside the home. These came in a wide range of colors; mine were sent by friends in Europe who wondered why on earth I needed so many raincoats while in Yemen! Other Sana’ani women wore a black shirshaf, composed of a pleated long skirt and cape, or sitaras, which come in blue and red patterns, the former being considered more ‘modern’ and ‘fashionable,’ and the latter more ‘traditional,’ with rural associations. I don’t remember when the overcoats went out of fashion and the baltos and abayas replaced them; I think by the mid-1990s the shift had been completed.

SC: What shifts did you witness in other rural areas, such as in Yemen’s highlands?

Lackner: In the mid-and highlands, whether in the PDRY or the YAR, rural women did not wear black cloaks of any variety. In most places, their outfits were colorful and included multicolored headdresses, often ‘cushion’ shaped to serve as supports for the water and other items women carried on their heads to the fields, or home, or wherever they were going. In regions where it was cold, most wore long-sleeved dresses gathered at the waist with wide skirts to mid-calf length over trousers with embroidered sections above the ankles. These were worn whether working in the fields, collecting water and firewood, caring for livestock, or indeed anything else. Differences between rural and urban wear, as well as representing status, were noticeable. I vividly remember giving a lift to a village woman who wanted to visit Radaa when I worked in Al-Bayda governorate — when we left the village she was wearing a bright dress and headscarf. By the time we reached town, she had covered these with a full-length black outfit and her face was completely concealed. I would not have recognized her in the street. The situation changed over time. With the strengthening of Islamist education, as well as the increase in the number of vehicles going through people’s villages, women and girls started wearing baltos and more head and face coverings when going to work the fields or collect water, as the likelihood of crossing paths with unknown and unrelated males grew.

Other than clothing, women’s work and activities, particularly in rural areas, have changed less over time than one might expect. Women at the time, however, actively participated in building their own houses, as well as those of friends and neighbors through collective community initiatives. Then as now, women work in the fields doing all kinds of agricultural work, including activities which are officially defined as ‘men’s’ work, such as plowing. Water collection work has decreased where projects have improved the supply. For others, the task has become even more onerous as water sources dry up and are further away. Although gas has become the norm for cooking, when people can’t find or afford it, women go on long and difficult trips searching for firewood in an environment where there are fewer and fewer bushes or other suitable combustible items.

SC: You were working in Yemen at a very interesting time politically. What were the hopes of Yemenis expressed to you during the period of unification?

While unification was the dream of millions of Yemenis throughout the country, some of their hopes and expectations were crushed almost immediately. The two that stand out most obviously in the memory of those of us who lived through that period concern legislation on women’s rights and regulations on the use of qat. Yemenis throughout the country had hoped that the systems prevailing in the PDRY would apply throughout the Republic of Yemen, limiting qat chewing to weekends and holidays, and empowering women with far greater rights and authority in public and private spheres. What happened was the opposite: qat remained unregulated throughout Yemen and the 1992 Family Law, based on conservative interpretations of Sharia, was imposed in the southern governorates, where women formerly had broader rights.

SC: Thank you for sharing these reflections with us.

Lackner: The above recollections of women’s lives are certainly sketchy and are neither a comprehensive picture nor a full analysis of the situation, something which I have partly done elsewhere in recent decades.[2] I wanted, however, to illustrate some of the wide range of different situations that existed during these decades. I hope these brief sketches encourage others to add their own memories to help build a more comprehensive picture of the complexities, varieties, and subtleties of the reality of women’s public lives and activities in Yemen over time and in different parts of the country. I’d like to end with two important points to remember. First, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when thinking about women’s social and economic circumstances. Second, people’s position in the social hierarchy must be taken into consideration and this is true for women too: for instance, Muhamasheen women’s lifestyles are vastly different from those of sada women, as the most extreme case.

  1. Helen Lackner, “PDR Yemen, Outpost of Socialist Development in Arabia,” Ithaca Press, London, 1985
  2. Nabil Khoury and Valentine Moghadam, eds., “Gender and Development in the Arab World,” Zed Books, London, 1995, Chapter 5, pp. 71-97. Also, see recent books by Helen Lackner.
Program/Project: The Yemen Review