Posted on July 22, 2011 - by mira
Marriage in traditional societies is not a personal choice but chiefly a social transaction. Most marital arrangements in Yemen resemble business transactions between the groom and his family or tribe on the one hand, and the bride’s father and his family or tribe on the other. Brides, like traded goods, rarely have a say in the matter. Usually, when or if a bride’s consent is sought, she delivers a dutiful silent response, as is expected of her.
Some women are slowly, quietly pushing the envelope. Change happens at a snail’s pace in this country, and women don’t want to create waves. They could easily be labeled; they could easily be discredited as Western pawns and anti-Islam. Many of my female students were surprisingly outspoken and bold in class. The many women who work in human rights organizations are brave and persistent. They challenge the status quo sometimes, but they are also patient. They employ a careful balance of evolution and revolution.
But does marriage have anything to do with love in Yemen?
“Love comes after marriage,” the more religious male students would say. “We don’t approve of dating or meeting before marriage. Just look at America, where people get married for love. They have the highest divorce rates. Marriages in Yemen are happier.”
I am often skeptical when I hear such simplistic answers. For one, just as people get married and get divorced for many different reasons, they also don’t get divorced for many different reasons, even when they’re in unhappy marriages.
Amal was a case in point. Instead of growing love, her husband had grown colder and more distant, and spent more and more time at work than with her. He’d told her to wait on starting a family until their financial situation improved. She was studying English to fill the void in her life while waiting for her husband to save money, while waiting for him to give her more attention. There was an undercurrent of boredom about her, of the dull passing of time.
One day, Amal found out that her husband had a second mobile phone that she didn’t know about. Incredulous, she justified it as being for his contacts at work. Her husband’s days away from home she thought were business trips.
But then he messed up. He left his phone at home. It rang; she picked up. A woman’s voice came through the waves. The two women listened to each other in shock. Each claimed to be his wife.
How could she have missed the signs? What could she do?
Amal confronted him. She left to her parents’ house, but there was nothing they could do. She had to go back. It wasn’t as if he’d committed adultery; it wasn’t as if he’d been abusive or was depriving her of anything. They forced her to go back.
“All these years,” Amal told me. “He wouldn’t even let me have children. What was I to him this whole time?”
Of course, not all marriages in Yemen are unhappy like Amal’s, just as not all marriages that begin with love end in divorce.
In class, Amal maintained a tougher front.
“I need love!” she had cried that day in class. She needed attention, she wanted to provoke.
Her outburst was unusual for a Yemeni woman in a public place. But English classrooms are a safe environment for women to freely express themselves, to challenge men, society and other women, to vent their frustrations. Out there, it’s a Yemeni man’s world.
In here, they’re free-thinking, respected and valued individuals on par with men.
Still, Amal’s outburst was extreme even for an English classroom. Maybe it was the sense of security allowed by the anonymity of the veil. Behind the veil, a woman could be no one and anyone, or she could be herself.
Though I’m not Muslim, I debated arguments for and against the veil throughout my time in Yemen, both in my head and with Yemenis. I’d think of Amal and other women and try to imagine what their world was like, “under cover”.
I will never truly know, I must admit. But I did try to come close, and one day stood peering back at myself in an alien mask.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them. What is your reaction to Amal’s story? What is your impression of Yemen?
Leave a Reply
Here's your chance to speak.