Don’t fall in love in Yemen

Published on 14 March 2013 in Report Abdurrahman Shamlan (author) Abdurrahman Shamlan

Girls and boys often live very separate lives, beginning with separation in school classrooms. (Al-Shorfa)

Girls and boys often live very separate lives, beginning with separation in school classrooms. (Al-Shorfa)

Love hurts, especially in Yemen, where the majority of Yemeni people continue regarding relationships between single men and women as shameful and disgraceful. For them, real and honorable love comes after marriage, not before.

However, love may eventually conquer all, as witnessed by this year’s boom of sales of red roses and other gifts to male and female youths in midtown Sana’a this past Valentine’s Day, exchanging gifts in a secretive manner. Such forms of revolt against social restrictions on love are increasingly being heard of in Yemeni society, albeit with disdain.

Young lovers face a difficult path. Unlike many neighboring countries where restrictions on relationships between young men and women have been relatively eased, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are still highly conservative. Relationships outside the framework of marriage are seen as “prohibited.”

Instead, tribal, traditional and religious restraints still prevent many young Yemenis from expressing or revealing their love. However, some youths are challenging these restrictions, even though doing so invites trouble.

In Yemen’s ultra-conservative society, girls are not even allowed to talk with strangers who are potential suitors except when buying from a male shopkeeper or asking for directions or other information.

Girls study in segregated schools in Yemen and have segregated sections in restaurants. Public universities are mixed, offering a chance to mingle, but many private universities have separate campuses for girls.

The ultra-conservative view towards love makes affairs of the heart difficult for single men seeking a wife. “Love [outside marriage] in Yemen is socially associated with shame. Generally speaking, Yemeni people disapprove of love even though it’s pure and true, and consider it to be out of the norm,” journalist Adnan Rajeh, 27, told The Media Line. “The culture of shame attached to love has built a solid wall between the youths of both sexes.”

Rajeh’s love for a girl has been blocked by her family, although the pair are still in contact and convinced one day they will marry. He says their mutual love has gone on “for years” and that they used to meet, chat on Faceook and speak by phone.

“When I went to her dad to propose, he rejected me and asked how I knew his daughter. After finding out about our completely 'impure' relationship, he confiscated her mobile phone and and banned her from Internet access." The young woman has been grounded and when she goes somewhere, her father gets somebody to accompany her to ensure she does not meet him, Rajeh said.

The two remain in contact but spend most of the time commiserating and cursing their luck, although they strongly believe one day they will overcome obstacles facing their love.

Telecommunication company worker Abdusalam Shaker, 26, fell in love with a college classmate but said he couldn’t reveal his feelings due to social constraints and out of fear the girl he loves might therefore reject him.

Shaker brought his older sister to college to speak freely with his beloved and tell her that he planned to seek her hand and his intentions were completely honorable. But despite his belief she was in love with him, the girl denied any knowledge of him, saying she didn’t even recognize his name.

“But even if she was really in love with me it’s understandable for a Yemeni girl to deny it because of restrictions and for fear her reputation may be hurt,” he said.

Accountant Abdulrahman Saleh, 28, didn’t fare much better. “I was once in a real love relationship with my neighbor but her family got in the way. Her father and brothers beat me up and have gone so far as to prevent me from walking in front of their house, and if I do I get into trouble.”

When the girl’s father heard about their meetings and phone conversations, he confiscated her phone and grounded her, Saleh said. “Two years ago she married one of her rich relatives. Our relationship has completely ended, but her image still sometimes haunts my mind even though I’m married now,” he told The Media Line.

With that relationship dashed, he heeded his parents’ advice and married a girl from his village “without even getting to see my wife’s face before the marriage,” he said. He relied on his mother’s and sisters’ belief that the girl was “beautiful and respectable” and says he now believes his wife is “the best woman in the entire world.”

The girls suffer more than the guys from these social constraints on love, parents believing that they bring shame on their families if they have any relationship with guys. Having been in love before even minimizes their chances of making a good match.

Men ask about potential partners, not wanting to marry girls who’ve had any prior love relationship. All men refuse to marry a girl who’s lost her virginity due to the great social value attached to it.

But while some youths complain of these ultra-conservative traditions, others consider them to be good and say they should be maintained.

“Falling in love is uncontrollable, therefore it must be guarded by Islamic teachings,” Iscander Al-Mameri, 27, told The Media Line. “We should not imitate the Westerners who have no rules governing their relationships.”

Mohammed Ali, 24, agreed with Al-Mameri that the conservative Yemeni culture is beneficial and helps avoid adultery. Wearing traditional Yemeni clothes, including a jambia (a dagger with a short curved lade worn on a belt), the bearded Ali said, “There is nothing called love before marriage and this concept – love – was brought to our society by the Western movies and series with the aim of damaging our culture and erasing our identity…We should maintain our traditions in the face of such Western campaigns targeting our culture.”

Speaking to Yemeni girls about love proved difficult, and most refused to comment on the subject. One girl, wearing a scarf around her head, at first happily agreed to talk with The Media Line, but then rejected speaking about love and told this reporter to behave himself.

University student Yasmin Mohammed told The Media Line, “We were raised to respect our traditions and never to think about silly things like love.” Her friend Mona Ali, however, dressed completely in black and with her face veiled, said; “I’m in love with a guy and most of the girls are but they are too shy to discuss that. But although I’m in love, I draw a line at certain things. For example, I will refuse to meet the person I’m in love with or exchange gifts with him because I can’t let my family down.”

One result of the ultraconservative society’s views on love and marriage is parents marrying off their daughters as early as age 10 or 12.

“The conservative culture of Yemeni society and the fear of the girls falling in love and besmirching the family’s reputation is one reason that pushes some parents to marry their daughters off at a young age,” Abdulbaki Shamson, professor of political sociology at Sana’a University, told The Media Line, an opinion Rajeh, Al-Mameri, Shaker and Saleh shared.

A 2007 study by the International Center for Research showed Yemen ranks 13th out of the 20 worst countries in terms of the prevalence of early marriages, with 48 percent of Yemeni women married before 18.

Early marriage has a detrimental effect on the child, the family and society at large,” Shamson said. “The girls are affected physically and psychologically. The developing body of the young girl is not ready yet to get married and deliver babies. Many young wives die while giving birth.” They are also too young to be able to raise children and take care of her family and household, he added.

The early marriages hurt Yemen’s economy and developments by depriving the girls, half the population, from getting education or working, “making half of society unproductive and a burden, and increasing the population growth,” Shamson said. The social belief that marriage, rather than education, secures the girls’ future also leads to the early marriages, along with lack of awareness of the dangers of such marriages and the high illiteracy rate.

Such marriages continue to pose a huge challenge to the government, with some religious and political forces fiercely opposed to setting a minimum age for marriage.

Under pressure from international and local human rights groups, the former regime sent a draft law in 2009 to parliament for approval setting that age at 17. However it failed to pass through parliament, with religious and tribal figures arguing setting a minimum age for marriage goes against Islamic teachings.

Shamson blamed the weakness of human rights and civil society organizations, adding their lack of a comprehensive strategy to get it approved was the main reason for the law not passing.

“A comprehensive civil campaign should mainly target the masses by raising awareness among them about the dangers of early marriage and if we succeed in having the people on our side, we can easily force MPs and the government to determine a minimum age for marriage,” he concluded.

However, analyst Hassan Al-Haifi, 63, told The Media Line, “Misguided religious teachings by religious mentors who have unfortunately adopted an almost heretical understanding of Islam were the biggest obstacle to passing the draft law.”

Republished with permission from The Media Line