The Longing for Equal Citizenship:

A Look at Social Stratification in Yemen

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)


Equal O servants of Allah we are equal

No one is born free while the other born a slave

Ghazal al-Maqdeshia1

Yemen’s social class and hierarchy, like that of some other neighboring  societies, dates back to ancient times. Up until the second half of the twentieth century, Yemen had an established system that had not undergone any significant changes. Islam came with a call for equality between races – black and white, Arab and non-Arab were declared equal without differentiation except that of good deeds and contribution to the public good. In the Quran, differences among people are described as a diversity that invites acquaintance, recognition and solidarity.

However, there are other references in Islam, both explicit and vague, that imply a preference for a certain ethnicity and lineage. These implications later caused theological differences between the various sects of Islam, especially among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites. The Sunnis, for example, believe in the nobility of the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad (Āl al-Bayt), despite the differences in the interpretation of the meaning of ‘Āl’ (descendants of the Prophet). There has been no coherent political theory in this regard aside from theoretical references to the precedence of the Quraysh tribe, and to date this precedence remains confined to a spiritual dimension. Imam Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi (d. 1277 AD), a Shafi’ite imam, believed that the family of the Prophet Mohammad includes all Muslims; whereas the Kharijites believed that every pious Muslim, regardless of his lineage, is an extension of the Prophet’s family. This belief was supported by some Sunni and Zaidi scholars, such as  the Yemeni  Zaidi Imam Salih ibn Mahdi al-Maqbali (d. 1696 AD). The Shiites believed in a hierarchy that grants importance and preference to Āl al-Bayt, a belief that later led to the name Shia: that is, the belief that descendants of the Prophet are superior and entitled to political leadership. In Yemen, the influence of various Islamic sects across different historical periods – Shafi’i, Zaidi and Ismaili – has had a clear impact on how Yemenis perceive and position themselves in this lineage. Many conflicts that the country witnessed over the years were the result of these cultural perceptions and their economic and social causes.

Traditional social  stratification  in Yemen

Artwork by Ahad al-Hadrami

The system of social stratification  in Yemen, whose effects remain today, divides people into several ranks based on occupation and lineage. In the case of lineage, it also carries a spiritual weight and earthly value that is carried into the afterlife. In his book A Journey in Old and New Yemeni Poetry, Yemeni writer and poet Abdullah al-Bardouni (d. 1999) describes five social classes in the northern regions of Yemen: sayyids, who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammad; qadis, a class learned in Islamic law and theology, with old aristocratic lineage and interconnections with wealthy merchants; tribes, the class at the heart of this social hierarchy, considered by some to be its axis and driving force as historically tribes have been the protectors of various classes, the fighters, and many of them claim to belong to Qahtan, the ancestral figure of Yemenis; then small farmers, small traders and soldiers; and finally, the mazainin, a  class of shoe makers, barbers and butchers.2

In southern Yemen, if we take Hadramout as an example, people are divided into several social groups that are similar to those in upper northern Yemen. There is a class of sayyids, the husaynis, who are descendants of the Abu Alawi family, and the Sheikhs, an old religious group, tribes, and a class based on occupations such as farm boys, plowers and Akhdam,3 among others.4 The south also has a class of traders and a hadhr, or urban class. In other areas, such as Shabwa  a low class calledQarawana derogatory title that refers to a settled class of low-status occupations. In some southern and central regions, there are other terms used to refer to this class including kharz, shahth, and howek,5 among others. Those belonging to this social class of low-status occupations suffer from discrimination, and families of tribes and sayyids refuse to intermarry with male descendants, although permitting marriage to females.

The class division in Yemen is mainly based on social function. Sayyids, qadis and sheikhs carry a religious and judicial role, while tribes, the core of the hierarchal system, are the class who protect other classes. This role was more prominent in the past, before the spread of arms on a larger scale and before the expansion of cities and the migration of the rural population towards urban areas. Social classes based on occupations are diverse, for example: grooming and therapeutic services, such as barbers and cupping therapists; recreational services, such as mizmar players; craftworkers, such as blacksmiths and carpenters; and small trade activities, such as selling vegetables. Tribes unique position in this system is due to the power of what Ibn Khaldun refers to as asabiyyah, a term that describes the concept of social solidarity within tribes. Tribes grant the right to settle and to receive protection. In the pre-Republic era, it was the tribes that granted the right to protection to sayyids, qadis and sheikhs in Yemen, across holy cities in the south, which are known as the Hwat (the plural term for Hawta), and in the north as Hijar (the plural  of Hijra). Tribes are also the class who protected and granted the right to work to the low-status occupational classes.

Social equality in the post-colonial and post- Imamate states

In the south, colonial rule acted on maintaining traditional and religious customs. British colonialists maintained the traditional structure of society as it was. Throughout their rule, they maintained relations and cooperated with sultans across the south and with some Alawite families in Hadramout. After independence, President Salim Rabi Ali (assassinated in 1978) and his socialist comrades played a prominent role in establishing social equality among people. The Yemeni Socialist Party state abolished the names of families, deprived the bourgeois classes of leadership positions, and allowed marginalized and oppressed groups to rise to the top of the social ladder in a radical move that was unprecedented in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the north, President Ibrahim al-Hamdi (assassinated in 1977), a member of the September Revolutionaries, had an ambition, accompanied by serious efforts, to build a state that treated Yemenis with impartiality to ensure their dignity and equality before the law. Al-Hamdi encouraged the building of associations, cooperatives and institutions on the one hand, and reduced the influence of tribal leaders on the other. Eventually, it was this move that led to his assassination in Sana’a. At the outset, the idea of ​​a republic in the north was based on equality and openness: equality between different classes of people and bridging the gap between rural and urban regions. It called for openness to the times and an elimination of inequality among people on the basis of race or descent.

Artwork by Ahad al-Hadrami

Overthrowing the achievements of the revolutionary and anti-colonial generation

The overthrowing of the revolutionary and anti-colonial generation’s achievements, which helped shape a modern Yemen free of racial, class and regional discrimination, began after the assassination of  President al-Hamdi in the north, and following the 1986 and 1994 wars in the south.

The death of President al-Hamdi was followed by the rise of a conservative tribal regime. Although its media and rhetoric highlighted the goals of the September Revolution, it continued to create and strengthen the class of tribal leaders across different regions in the country, giving particular importance to the northern tribes of upper Yemen. These tribes were meant to form a solid shield that would protect the system from collapsing should revolutions or coups occur. The victory of the regime in the 1994 war strengthened this approach, and tribal culture proliferated across the country.

In the south, some sultans returned to the country after unification in 1990, demanding a return of what the Socialist Party had confiscated and nationalized. Villages, towns and urban neighborhoods had sheikhs and local neighborhood chiefs, even in areas that were predominantly occupied by commercial, agricultural or fishing communities. The sayyids opened Sufi houses to solidify their distinctive religious positions. Since then, the social ladder turned again, and those who practiced low-status occupations returned to their oppressed social status after they had occupied other positions as civil workers or leaders in the socialist state apparatus. The tribes refrained from intermarriage with these classes, as in earlier times. Some members of these classes turned towards Salafism with the hope of finding a form of equality that would restore their dignity, or a recognition of their role as religious leaders or imams in mosques. The desire for equality was one of the main driving forces of Salafism in the south following unification.

In an atmosphere filled with tribal rhetoric, many books that praise the virtues of tribes and their genealogy have appeared. Among them books recounting the virtue of the tribe of Yafi, the prominence of Hamdan and Madhaj, and the history of Maafir. In this same atmosphere, the Houthi movement emerged in the north, calling for the revival of Zaidism, which includes discriminatory political and theological aspects. The movement developed within a cycle of wars, in the absence of the state’s role in economic and cultural development, its continued exploitation of tribal rivalries in the north, and in the promotion of Salafi Islam in Zaidi areas. The regime’s goal was to create and sustain those crises and disputes to remain the de facto power. The process succeeded up until the 2011 revolution, which, through successive developments, unearthed all the social and political grievances which the regime had buried under the false guise of democracy and modernity.

The ideology of distinguishing Hashimis from others in the Houthi movement did not become clear until after the movement gained control over large areas of Yemen in late 2014. The Houthis assigned many civil, military and even academic positions to Hashimi families. This continues to irritate many citizens and serves as proof to the claims that the Houthi movement is based on discrimination and holds historical vengeance against an equality driven republic. Despite that, the republican regime did not have a problem with the Hanafi-Zaidi jurisprudence component or the Mu’tazili-oriented Zaidi component. In fact, Zaidi scholars were often hosted on television and radio and were published in books, such as the main Zaidi book Matn al-Azhar l’  by Imam Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Murtada. Yemeni intellectuals continued to be proud of Yemen’s Mu’tazili heritage. The republican regime mainly ruled out the undemocratic political component of the Zaidi doctrine, which calls for the restriction of leadership to Hashemites. Beyond that, following multi-party legislation in the early stages of Yemeni unity in 1990, Zaidi scholars themselves issued a document dismissing the political grounds of the Imamate. According to this document, an Imamate rule no longer stands in modern times, and an Imam today is a name limited to those who lead the prayers only. However, what Yemen is witnessing today in the areas under Houthi control reminds Yemenis of the pre-Republic era, when some segments of the Hashemite population had more privileges than other social groups who mayhave different religious convictions particulary Suni Zaidis and Shafis. This is perhaps the essence of the internal conflict in Yemen, a struggle for equality and justice.

Longing for equal citizenship

Those who followed the Yemeni press in the 1990s and the first ten years of this century would observe that the term ‘equal citizenship’ was a central and key term in the writings of Yemeni intellectuals and journalists. In the cultural scene, in theatre as well as in novels and poems, inequality and racial discrimination emerge as clear subjects that hinder the realization of the dream of equal citizenship.

The term mowaten (citizen) and Mwatanah(citizenship)  in Arabic is derived from the word watan (homeland) and not from the city, as in some other languages. A homeland is a place of equality that is made available to all who live there. The word itself carries the essence and power to give Yemenis the sense that they have the right to their homeland in all its geography, history, resources and protection. This  explains the significance of this word for contemporary Yemeni intellectuals.


    1. Ghazal al-Maqdishia is a 19th century Yemeni poet from the Ans region in Dhamar Governorate. She belonged to a social class called Abna al-khams, a class similar to the rank of mazaina or Muzininin in the north. Ghazal was beautiful and brave, and since her youth she was opposed to class tradition in her society, and stood against those who oppress women. Abdulaziz al-Maqaleh wrote about Ghazal in his book Dialectical Poetry in Yemen (Dar al-Awda, Beirut, 1986, pp. 415–422).
    2. Abdullah al-Bardouni, A Journey in Old and New Yemeni Poetry (Dar Al-Awda Beirut, 1978, p. 328).
    3. Sheikhs in the south, also called fuqaha, or jurists, are an old religious group which scholars date back to pre-Islam. Among them are  Al al-Amoudi,  Al Baabad, AlBahuromz,  Al al-Musaybali,  AlBamakhrama and others. This class experienced rivalry with the sayyids in the religious leadership of Hadramout, but they merged into one entity with the establishment of the Hadhrami Sufi order by Sayyid Mohammed bin Ali Baalawi (d. 1232 AD) and Sheikh Said bin Issa al-Amoudi (d. 1250 AD). See Kramah Bamu’min,  Thoughts and Society in Hadhramout (Dar al-Taysir, Sana’a, 245, p.245).
    4. Subyan in Hadramout is  a social class with African origins. They mostly provide services at weddings and other events and may serve specific families in exchange for gratuities. The Hirthan perform agricultural services, whereas the Akhdam are a marginalized social class with African origins living in different parts of Yemen and in segregated neighborhoods. In 2015, UNICEF estimated that marginalized black Yemenis, who mainly live in shantytowns on the outskirts of cities, amount to about 10 percent of the population, or 2.6 million. See Rashed, A. (July 08, 2015 ), Yemen’s Marginalized Children Caught in the Middle of Conflict. Unicef. Retrieved on 24.03.2019 from: In Hadramout there are other classes, such as: al-Zu’afa, a class of peasants who work in agriculture and do not bear arms, and the al-Masakin, the craftsmen and fishermen, and the qarar, the urban class that resides in rural areas. In Abyan and Lahj there are also al-Hujur, a  low class of Yemenis of African descent.
    5. Lackner, H. (2017 ), ‘Hadhramaut Social Structure Agriculture and Migration’, in: Brehony, N. (Ed.), Hadhramout and its Diaspora: Yemeni Politics, Identity and Migration. (London: IB Tauris) pp.67-84, p. 68.
    6. These terms and labels are frequently used in the central areas of Abyan, Al-Bayda, Yafi and some areas in Shabwa. People within these classes work in providing services at weddings and birth celebrations. Their tasks include accompanying the bride to the groom’s house and cooking and preparing the wedding feast for the guests from the higher classes, such as tribe members and sayyids. They marry within the same class and are not accepted by other classes.
    7. The tribal sheikhs were not an independent class; they were chosen from certain families based on the consensus of the tribe, and the sheikh was the first among equals. In the past three decades, the political regime worked on creating a class of sheikhs across the regions of Yemen, and even appointed a sheikh for Yemeni sheikhs, a precedent that Yemenis have never known throughout their history. One of the classes that the political system, during the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, sought to create was a class of Ulama. Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani was instrumental in perpetuating the existence of a religious class called Ulama, which in turn created its own organizational institution called the Association of Yemeni Ulama.



Farid Hussein is a researcher into the cultural history of Yemen.

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