11
Aug
08

Marriages in Yemen-revisited

Recently on the news in the KSA and in other parts of the Gulf there have been renewed reports on child weddings and the push to ban such practices.

I despair of it ever happening in Yemen because of what the institution of marriage means to the average Yemeni; not that I know all the Yemeni to begin with- but by those that I know and have been introduced to they don’t vary very much off the mark for me not to think they are the average thought processors. Their idea of marriage is based it seems on title- the man is married and that gives him a voice somewhere. The woman is married and that makes her more human. She, by virtue of being married, can now produce something- children and that puts her a step above her unmarried sisters.

A married woman has the right to wear her gold if she has any; has the ability to have children without getting stoned; can wear makeup at social gatherings and her best clothes instead of being sat in the background away from everyone- but at the same time is no longer part of her nuclear family since she goes to live at her husband’s house and becomes part of that workforce. Because in many ways she is also an unpaid maid if the household has more than one daughter in law- and if she is the only one she is also an unpaid maid. She has no say outside of her bedroom; and inside that bedroom well things are not up for discussion exactly- that would depend on how much influence her mother in law has on her married son.-And what kind of person the husband is on his own without the crutch of friends and family members to bolster him.

I have seen the best and the worst of these marriages and the weddings leading up to it. The expensive lavish weddings that are truly fronts for business mergers or plain robbery for the father or uncle who arranges the whole thing. Rarely does the woman financially benefit from these transactions. Haven’t met one yet. I have seen the weddings of teenagers who have been brainwashed into thinking they are in love- what ever that means to them- with their future husbands that they have not met or seen if only from afar; or have grown up with and still think it was like when they were tots who shared the sandbox. These women say they are in bliss but have no idea what the hell they are talking about.

Then comes the realization that all is not well in the neighborhood when the women start showing up with black eyes, busted lips; weepy eyes or don’t show up at all. Like in one case where the husband locked her into the house and left for another city for days without any food. Without any food because it is the men that do all the shopping. Or the woman who was told by her mother in law on a Friday that she could not take a shower because her husband did not sleep with her – he preferred to stay up all night with his friends and cousins in the majalis playing chess and smoking cigarettes. I got that little tid bit from my sister in law who was comparing me to the rest of her world. I was scandalized; she just shrugged her shoulders and said the famous here-is-where-we-stop-the-discussion-line “All Yemeni do it”.

If I hear that line again I will scream!

There is absolutely no sense in that country I think; for all they have been on the map for thousands of years they have little to show for it now; because lack of education has eaten up their brains and their memories; leaving a collective mishmash of inanities that boggles the mind of a saner person. And their ways are enough to make you Majnoon honestly.

They are hospitable but with an edge; so they can boast of how they had to take care of you; as if you were a beggar. They offer to help to keep you dependent on them so they can boast of how much they rule your life. I met very few people who actually were honest to goodness good, solid people whose only interest was to be of service.

And it is this convoluted society that daily marries countless of children; uneducated youths and grown men (grown because they couldn’t afford it before) to totally clueless girls and teens. The ones that are educated are the old maids- unsuitable for marriage because even the educated men don’t want to marry them- now how crazy is that.

It is a country where in the 21st Century people are still debated not only if an educated woman should be married or not; but if women should be educated or not in the first place. I only met a handful of women who could sign their names; few could read from the Qur’an if asked. But they knew a lot of the verses by heart. Allahu allam

Imagine a world where perfectly educated men- though that can be debated- truly think marrying their counterpart in education is not a good thing? Well the reality is that in Yemen men are playing both gender roles. The only thing they don’t do is cook and clean! but everything else seems to be in their purview. They are the ones that buy everything for the house- the furniture, the curtains, the rugs, the clothes, the food. The women seem only to receive what is given and cook and clean it. In some houses the only pristine and well made out place is the men’s majalis; while the rest of the house is upside down or near ruin. In some houses the bedrooms are well done and in others there is no bed just a cabinet and a mattress on the floor. Some kitchens are well equipped because the men have more money and others are hovels where women squat on the floor with make shift implements for pots and pans.

I know that my upbringing is completely different from theirs but the difference from other Arab countries is so marked I am wondering what happened to Arabia Felix in the past one hundred or two hundred years to leave them so far behind their other Arab counterparts.

A few magazines of what the outside world, Arab or otherwise, is doing for their homes brought tears to my sister in law.. She stated that now she could rest easier knowing that her married friends were not really any better off than her because all they had were cleaner, well painted walls and a few more cushions than in her house!!!! It gave her more self confidence in a way, for which I am eternally grateful; but it hurt to know how others belittled her her status of unmarried maiden because they perceived having more than she- a title of married.

And when it came to outings, that is where your world gets rocked- most outings are not family based. The husband rarely if ever takes the wife anywhere by herself. This of course is because you have to have a marriage passport to take your wife alone anywhere and most people don’t have proper documentation to get a passport. So by default  outings are limited. But what is interesting is that if there is an outing for example, you are taken to another city and the women stay in the house of the family member they have arrived at while the men go out to explore and visit in the city. So what is the point in that? But the women see it as an opportunity to visit other women they would not normally see. In the case where the outing is to an amusement park you see all the women together lorded over by the mother in law and maybe one of the younger sons who is unmarried, as the mahram.

Speaking of which, those younger brats can do a number on the daily existence of women in their very own houses. Imagine not being able to wash clothes or yourself because the young lord refuses to go to the corner store to get you soap. That happened to me and I tell you it was an interesting day. I had to call my husband to have him call the young brat to order him to get me the soap because if I didn’t wash the ruined thobes quickly everyone, including my husband would have pink thobes for the next day. Why pink?… well my sister in law didn’t want me to work; I was newly married at the time and all and she wanted to show off to the women how important she was to me by doing all the chores. But in all of the washing, communal as it was, one very flighty and dimmed witted woman of the house put a red scarf into the rinse wash and it bled on all the thobes. When it came to light my husband was furious, as he should be, because now he had no thobes to wear to go to the divan and that meant he had to go in -Oh my God- Jeans to the divan an unheard of faux pas! I told them I could fix it, get me tide, Clorox and hot water and don’t let the thobes dry out- They argued with me that the thobes were ruined and what the heck let them wear it as they were. I know my husband wouldn’t go for that. I insisted. The young lord available refused to buy the tide and Clorox; I got furious, called my husband and told him what the options were- didn’t demand because I knew if I worded it properly my husband would be furious for the both of us. I got my tide and Clorox.

The next thing was to convince the women that if we boiled the thobes in hot water with the tide and Clorox we could take out the dye successfully. They called my majnoonah, just like an American to think they know everything, etc. Well I got my way any way and lo and behold the thobes were boiled and out came the dye! The thobes were hung inside out at my demand on the clothes line I insisted be erected in the sun away from any dirt or garbage and by the end of the afternoon we had pristine, sparkling white thobes for everyone to wear the next day!

A small triumph for the Moor! Scored!

The other thing that is interesting is that the women at the last minute do everything. There is no planning; just yelling of Yalla, halla and all of the sudden there is a flurry of motion. Some of the motion is misdirected and goes around in circles; the other is executed in some semblance of order. But if you are not careful you can get swept away in the chaos. One interesting case was seeing that everyday at a particular time the men brought in the Qat they were going to take to the divan for their daily chew into the house to be washed and carefully dried. Its a disgusting and addictive habit if you ask me. And about an hour later all the men would demand of their wives their pristine thobes and their Qat. Some would shower and put on all their regalia of Thobe, Jambia, sandals or shoes with their scarves about their shoulders or wrapped around their heads all nicely perfumed. Others would just throw the thobe on and make a run for the car.

The women, I noticed, would all wait for each command instead of planning it all out and having it ready ahead of time- so they looked like chickens without heads rushing in and out of their rooms getting every article needed as it was needed instead of laying it all out. Me, brought up a planner and precise executioner of my duties in whatever I was doing be it home, school, work or leisure; did the opposite; when I saw the Qat arrive I would go to my room and lay out the full regalia for my husband; all I had to do was pass him the towel as he headed for the shower, since he is fastidious as am I about cleanliness and order. My husband would always be the first man ready; pristine and absolutely gorgeous looking, if I may say so; sitting at the wheel yelling at everyone to hurry up!!!! While everyone else was scrambling. that left me time to leisurely get my clothes and makeup ready for my own outing with the women; or the arrival of females guests. and since I wear saris Tibetan style and not the traditional Yemeni robes; or the Western pieces they put together, I am by default a crowd caller. Everyone wants to know how much they cost, how they are put on, and why is it that I can wear them and they can’t. They see them on the occasional Bollywood movie they catch on TV or video the younger sons bring. And they are fascinated with the whole regalia that goes with the saris; and me, well I have to admit I have my own way of putting my American Moorish self above the rest. I can play the game.

So I do myself up everyday like a Rani. My husband happens to love seeing me in saris so I luck out. They are sexy and always give a woman that very feminine look and feel. And because I have the time and am not being rushed about I enjoy it even more- small pleasures. While my counterparts end up having to take their makeup to the location where the women will meet and apply it there; or in their chaos end up not wearing what they would like. There is nothing like a plan I would tell them; but they didn’t get it.

Because I would see them day in and out do the exact same thing; toiling the hard way. But what do I know I am an American- we don’t know anything but working outside and wearing skimpy clothes all the time…as if…

But in the end I know these marriages are missing the component that I share with my husband; companionship; some semblance of equality (while I am at work I am my own person a director in my own right; at home it changes slightly but I know how to manage it well enough) and I can share with him outings on our own because we got what most don’t -documentation of our marriage and the passport that gives us the freedom to go from Sana’a to Aden without anyone hanging on to us as mahram; or people stopping us to question our relation. I met a woman whose husband is well off who had never even been taken to the park with her husband. Oh she had gone to the park numerous times; with her mother in law- but never on her own with her husband. After meeting me she was demanding in no uncertain terms that she be taken to the park by him and him alone! Another cried like a baby because she had never been taken to any of the trips her husband had made to Aden or Mukalla- so she had never seen the sea. In fact her only outings were from her house to her brother in law’s house or her own family’s house.

What kind of marriage is that, when you don’t share with your husband much of anything?! Where marriage really means you are now married to your mother in law. My own was a little deflated when my husband had to take his unmarried aunt to the doctors in Taiz and she said well yes go; but you can leave me your wife- and my husband, bless his soul, said absolutely not- where I go, my wife goes. Of course, I took the opportunity to take my unmarried sister in law because that meant she would be able to travel to a town she had not been to and see the sights- we do a lot of sight seeing. And she also served as part mediator and intercessor with the other women of the households we would go to. If we were going to hotels and stuff I didn’t take her because it meant only us two were going; but otherwise I tried to make sure she went on those family visits. I need the girl to have exposure and learn new things.

But Marriages in Yemen are indeed not what most suppose a regular marriage entails. The children are reared haphazardly- usually they are left to their own devices- and the mothers are clueless about what the boys do when they leave the house to go play or work when older. The fathers know nothing about their daughters unless they make it their business, which I think seems to be a rare occasion- unless its time to marry them off at the age the father suddenly thinks is necessary.

One three-year old disappeared from the house for about four hours; none saw him leave- incredible! He had followed his sister to school!

Another 6 or 7 year old I had to slap away from the pot she intended to throw down to the floor full of boiling rice because she was angry. You see her mother had been remarried and she did not live with her; she had been left behind with her grandmother. The deal was the mother would be the second or third wife of a man who already had 5 sons, couldn’t take her own two children and the grandmother would get x amount of money. Well the children were devastated and angry- not only that when the mother returned from her “honeymoon” and 8 weeks pregnant from the other house she didn’t want anything to do with her children. I had thought it was her being a heartless B; but my sister in law said that that was the usual reaction. Even in her family when her grandmother had remarried her own mother had been abandoned and left to grow up motherless and fatherless; while her new siblings were smothered in love by their mother!

I guess you get the picture. Where is the love. respect and consideration? Where is the planning of proper education for both men and women to enter this very difficult social institution called marriage? In Yemen it is not part of the vocabulary, paraphernalia or whathaveyou of what constitutes marriage.

I for one give Thanks to Allah SWT that because I brought tons more into the marriage than was even thought possible I have a better, though not necessarily smooth marriage. But its a Hell of a lot better than the many examples I saw file before me! We are friends, companions, and try to compliment each other in every way…I think what Allah SWT and what the Prophet SAW dictated for us.

Ya Yemeni when will you come out of the darkness into the light?

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1 Response to “Marriages in Yemen-revisited”


  1. 1 basbousa
    August 14, 2008 at 8:49 am

    I read it all, and it was really fascinating, plus a bit sad.
    You write really good, though. It was fascinating to read.


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