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Maxine Molyneux on ‘Women in a Socialist Yemen’

Maxine Molyneux on ‘Women in a Socialist Yemen’


“I was just fascinated by the challenge of
what was different and what was specific, but also where were the continuities? And that’s why I was terribly interested,
intellectually, in these State Socialist countries because, they asked for answers to a whole
range of questions both in development theory and in gender theory, and so, for me, that
was the interesting thing. Why was Yemen interesting? Because here was a Middle Eastern country
with exactly the same policies that were played out in the Soviet Union, and yet look at the
difference in the effects, look at the difference in the culture, look at the difference in
the whole political processes at work. So it was that comparative lens, I think,
that’s always been a very compelling part of my intellectual interest. What did you feel about the position of women
in Yemen? Well, it was, of course, highly marked by
class and status. So you could see that the most impoverished,
the most badly-treated women were also the “Akhdam” class, who were almost a caste
– ex-slaves who had come originally from Sudan, and who were, in some ways, regarded as almost
an untouchable class: so there were parallels there with India. But in general the position of women in a
country like Yemen was pretty poor in terms of rights and choices, and ability to occupy
a place in the world of their own making. So it clearly was one of the most challenging
contexts, I think, to do research on gender issues. Yemen, in general, of course, has some of
the worst human development indicators on women, and you have very early marriages,
you have high rates of infant mortality, female mortality and morbidity and so on. And here was a country in the South, that
for colonial reasons was somewhat separate, had been governed somewhat separately, and
which had a Socialist Party trying to make a difference. So it was fascinating to see if it did, to
what extent it did. What was it doing? How effective was what it was doing – against
this cultural background? Now, of course, you can’t easily compare North
and South [Yemen] because the North was never colonised, the South was… The British trained nurses, and had brought
women into certain kind of skilled work, and that did make a difference compared to the
North. So it was interesting thinking about that
colonial legacy and the impact of a Socialist Party trying to introduce a new family law,
new forms of justice, encouraging girls into education and so on, but with the backdrop
of a very patriarchal society. So did you make recommendations? Oh yes. Yes. What sort of things? Gosh, I’ve got to dig out that report, but
it would be, I guess, to encourage women’s skill training, the usual package of improvements
within industry, but also more widely in society, and also to pick out some of the things that
were working better as a result of government intervention. I think it was odd, because in the UN Decade
for Women, they would fix on a country or a region to do these regional reports, or
these country case studies, so the Yemen was selected for evaluation, to look at whether
progress for women was happening, so my report was really part of that UN Decade for Women
reckoning, even though it was quite early on, but that was where the funding came from
for this kind of thing. I think you said that your original interest
was partly because it was Muslim as well as Socialist. Is that right? Well, it is certainly very interesting, partly
because I was very impressed by reading about Soviet Central Asia, and how Lenin had sought
to transform Soviet Central Asia by liberating women. There’s a wonderful book called The Surrogate
Proletariat, where women were seen as a kind of substitute for a proletariat in societies
that had no proletariat. I was really interested in this idea, and
had thought a lot about Central Asia, and, indeed, later went to Afghanistan and to Central
Asia – Uzbekistan on one occasion, thanks to Essex University supporting my trip! So I was interested in that sort of encounter
between a modernising Socialist State, and a Muslim society, and so, yes, Yemen was interesting,
as was Afghanistan, and also Iraq actually, yes. How far did you feel that really fundamental
changes in belief were needed to help women to be able to fulfil themselves? I thought it was absolutely essential, and
probably one of the most difficult things to achieve, but the only real vehicle for
that could be education in a society which then had very little access to public media. But customs and attitudes, as we all know,
are much more deeply ingrained, especially when fortified by religious belief that is
very strong. The degree to which Aden was different helps
to explain why some progress here was made, because Aden being a port was more open, you
had actually – in the sixties – a kind of Socialist trades union movement, so there
were forces of transformational change already taking place prior to the advent of the Yemeni
Socialist Party. Plus the role of Arab Nationalism was quite
strong in this time, and that was, itself, a modernising force. I mean, the first Nationalist constitutions
in the Arab world gave women equal rights – at least in theory – they transformed
parts of the family law, and that was a kind of secularising Nationalism. It wasn’t fully secularising, but it had some
secular elements to it. So all of those influences prepared the way
in Aden, at least with some progress, for women – not so much outside, not in the
hinterlands. Not in the countryside, no. No. Although I must say, the first time I went
to Yemen in ’77, they did have a national literacy programme, they got the Akhdam women
organised into schools and educated them. They did things. I mean, you could see that girls were going
to school, even up in the Hadramaut region, which was a lovely mountainous area in Yemen. But when I went back in 1984 and visited some
of the same areas, the girls had been taken out of school. Partly this was because of the Saudi influence. The Yemeni [men] had gone to Saudi Arabia
to work, had come back, and had taken their wives out of the fields and put them in the
home and had veiled them when they went out. So there was a real cultural change that happened
– retrograde, in my view – that took place in that intervening period, as a result of
the influence of Saudi Arabia, and the experience of the migrants in Saudi Arabia. And was violence against women an issue? Well, it was an issue, but it was not talked
about. I mean, violence took the form of revenge
killings or honour killings of women. On my second trip – I was on a mission for
the UN, to look at the health and the health conditions of women, I had with me a woman
who worked in the Ministry of Health, who was a very talented woman, and her life story
was astonishing. She had educated herself, borrowing books
from her father. She belonged to one of the very powerful – there
are two big Hadrami families, big clans – she belonged to one of them, a powerful family. She actually ran away to Aden when she was
in her teens, was educated in a Nursing School that the British ran. The parents took out a death warrant on her,
to have her killed for disobeying orders. She was only saved by a son of the other Hadrami
family offering to marry her. So it gives you a flavour of just how difficult
even high born women could find life in those days, and until recently, there were, yes,
quite a lot of honour killings. So, yes, it’s clearly a very big issue. Much worse in the North, or was much worse
in the North, where you had the practice of young girls being married off to very old
men, and if they said no, they’d even be put in prison. Some cases I got involved in the North were
about that. So yes, a harsh society for women, to say
the least.”

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