The third gender
“Although I am a woman, I was invited with my husband to join the men when we were invited into a private home. I was invited to eat with men, chew qat and smoke with them and was allowed into their «mufraj», which was off limits for the women of the house, at least while foreigners were present,” she said.
When she asked why she was invited to attend men’s sessions while other women in the household were not, a Yemeni man told her: “There are three sexes: men, women and foreign women.”
This man meant it. The «third gender» referred to women who were treated like a man because they were foreign women. They were given the privilege of being a part of the men’s discussions and the men’s “superior” environment where intellectual talk happens and decisions are made.
Sarah said that it appeared that since she had an education and global exposure, it was ok for her to be present with the men. But she felt that for her too there was a condition - she had to be with her husband.
“I don’t think I would have been treated in this inclusive way had I been on my own. I don’t know what the situation in Yemen is like today or whether the Yemeni male community would invite a foreign woman to enter their spaces if she were by herself,” Sarah said.
She fondly remembers a time when she was following her husband and their host up the long twisted stairs of a private home when, at the second floor, she felt a hand from between curtains pull her into another space meant for the ladies. That was the only time she got to spend with Yemeni women.
“Although we could not really communicate in either Arabic or English, I enjoyed spending time with the women and girls. We used sign language around subjects like beauty, hair styles, clothing, and they decorated my hands with henna. When I rejoined my husband he complained: ‘Why am I not allowed to meet the women of the household?’ I told him jokingly: In Yemen there are three genders, not four!”
Foreign women in Yemen
Western governments’ travel advice to Yemen warns women visiting Yemen to dress modestly and respect local gender norms which largely separates men from women.
On a travel advice site, Amy from the USA said that when she travelled to Yemen, sometimes she wore the black sharshaf or overall cover and wore a veil to go with it. “It feels a bit mysterious and it is a good way to blend in,” she said. She advised women that in order not to offend and to get more respect, it is enough to cover their hair with a scarf and wear loose long dresses with leggings underneath.
In her blog, Louise Hallman who was in Yemen in 2006, says that western woman are able to transcend somewhat the social barriers imposed on men and women in Yemeni society.
“This is indeed the general feeling amongst many foreign women in Yemen, but there are of course exceptions,” she wrote.
Louise posted an article on her blog in 2009 on western women in Yemen, giving an example of how western a woman who - unlike a western man - are not confined to the male realm of the cultural divide. Emily Allardyce, who has been living in Yemen for the last nine years is able to move between these divides. She considers this to be a “privilege”.
“Yemeni men seem to like working with foreign women. We can drive and go anywhere alone without trouble,” says Emily.
Another example from Emily’s blog was from Louisa Glenn, who during her time as an American student in Yemen, didn’t experience as great a feeling of ‘privilege’ as Emily.
“Being Western on top of being female added to the feeling that I was an object of curiosity,” said Louisa. Whilst she was able to chew qat – a locally grown plant that acts as a mild amphetamine – in male company and even attend male wedding parties, Louisa felt this was possible, not only because she was Western, but because she had a male Yemeni escort accompanying her.
Many of her activities when in Yemen – travelling alone, eating in the ‘public’ (usually male-only) sections of restaurants and even laughing in the street – were frowned upon by her male chaperone.
Ultimately, even if she has to restrict her behavior somewhat, the Western woman is in a position of privilege in Yemeni society. Only she, and not her male counter-part, can move between the social groups, even if it is with a chaperone on occasion.
The power relation
Yemeni men control the women of their society and impose their standards upon them. Because Yemen is a male dominated society, men define what is and what is not acceptable behavior. Foreign women, however, are outside the men’s control zone simply by being foreign. This is why they get some of the privileges they do. Yemeni men have to accept them as they are, and invite them into their own culture, especially if the foreign women has a husband or a male companion.
In contrast, Yemeni women - because of the gender power relations - remain under the control of men and their version of what is culturally or socially acceptable and what is not. However, with the progress of the women’s movement in Yemen, some women have been able to break the power model and turn the balance in their favor through economic, political or even social means.
For example, women who hold a significant position in the government such as minister are treated very differently and are inevitably invited to be part of the traditionally male domain. Successful businesswomen have also been able to break the gender barrier, and there are some rare instances of Yemeni women who were able to turn the power balance in the social sphere and become more at par or even above men. Examples of this are female community leaders in some rural areas such as Shabwa governorate, which is known for its strong women. Some women who were able to win elections and become members of local councils have been challenging men from their areas.
British Journalist Rachel Cooke has written about Yemeni female-male power relations, and her personal experiences when she visited Yemen in 2008. She commented on this in her article for The Guardian: Is this the worst place on earth to be a woman?
“In Yemen... an absence of citizenship rights for women horribly combines with crushing poverty to create a society in which women are not only the property of men, unable to leave the house without the permission of a male relative and vulnerable to arbitrary arrest on the street even once they have it, but are also likely to be illiterate, to be married before they reach puberty, and to die in childbirth.”
The problem of Yemeni men-women relations as described by Cooke is with the power balance: “Male power is total, and not only in politics (one woman MP out of 301 members, 35 women represented in local councils out of 6,000). A woman cannot, for instance, marry without the permission of a male relative; if she has no father, she must ask her brother, or a cousin and so on until, if she has no male relatives at all, she must turn to a judge. Women are regularly the victims of arbitrary arrests, picked up for ‘immoral acts’ such as adultery, smoking or eating in a restaurant with a ‘boyfriend’. It is not only the police who can make such arrests; power is invested in all kinds of men from the minister of the interior to local neighborhood chiefs, even coastguards.”
Therefore, women have to work much harder than men to prove themselves and to force men to take them seriously. This is because they are not starting from the same level, they are coming from below ground zero.
Many female activists in Yemen are currently demanding a 15 percent quota system for women in decision making positions in order to create some women’s presence in power. However, they agree that the way to women’s empowerment in Yemen is through education and economic independence. We can work on some urgent remedies such as a quota system in decision making positions but without working on long term education and economic empowerment nothing else will make the required change.