Lagging Behind: The Sociology of Paternalism and its hold on Yemeni Society

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Yemen’s ancient civilizations were widely recognized and were always significant. Historians recall the distinctive culture, kingdoms, and myths. Its early writing system leaves stories of a society that thrived under strong governance, had a nomadic culture, and fought many wars during the rise and fall of successive kingdoms and religious systems.

Despite Yemen being an important and influential society in ancient history, the effects of this legacy in modern times are almost nonexistent. It is as if that civilizational reach was interrupted, or plunged into the shifting sands of transformation. Endowed with this rich heritage, modern Yemen inhabits this civilization through its ancient names and features, carved in faces and valleys.

This discontinuity between our ancestral heritage and the present needs to be studied and explored. It is important to understand what was once a thriving and influential civilization but is now a declining and dispersed society, to understand the causes and effects, to grasp the dimensions of this gap. In an age of rapid progress, Yemeni people lag behind on development and cultural relevance. It is surprising that societies today, thousands of years after the ancient societies of Yemen, are advancing with prosperity and progress, while Yemeni society is at its lowest in all aspects of life. The entirety of Yemen’s historical and cultural legacy is hardly visible in its present – it is a paradox.

Taking this contradiction as a starting point, we will look at the sociology of contemporary society and the mindset that allows this state of underdevelopment to continue to dominate and hinder its potential for progress. These hindrances may not have existed in ancient times, as earlier societies were more progressive on certain issues, such as their attitudes towards women, state power, and law.

Perhaps what Yemeni society suffers the most from today – aside from political, economic and environmental factors – is the result of how it manages its relations and modes of behavior, which affect other societal factors.

Mainly, I would like to focus on paternalism, which plays an important role in holding a society back, and leads to certain social and cultural outcomes. The emphasis here is more on father–son relationships rather than father–daughter relationships, since that includes an additional gender specific dynamic that falls under the wider structure of patriarchy.

Fathers Disobedience[1]

This dialectical relationship can be traced back to early tribal laws, which paved the way for the belief that sons are nothing more than gifts to their fathers, and that they should serve them till their death. The rights or presence of children exist only within the limits of their father’s needs. As a result, male children grow up without independent personalities or agency, as if the cycle of their lives runs in this sequence: Fathers bear sons who serve them till their death, their sons repeat the same with their offspring, all while ignoring the role of the nurturing father. The father who should take care of his child until he is ready to go into the world on his own, and who also prepares him to take his responsibilities towards his children and so on.

This theory and practice has fed conflicts, domestic migration, and tribal presence, which calls for men in large numbers to fight and takes pride in bearing male children. This pride in bearing many male children is still a feature of Arab societies in general and Yemeni society in particular, despite the changing conditions of life, and the difficulty of meeting the requirements of raising children today. Besides tribal influence, some religious concepts that were misinterpreted or taken out of their broader context have also fed into this view. There are many examples from Hadith, such as, “You and your wealth belong to your father” (Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal 11/503). Although this Hadith is weak and does not constitute a Prophet order or juristic principle, but rather an urge or encouragement to treat fathers with obedience and care, it still contributes to this belief. In response to this Hadith, al-Imam al-Shafi’i writes, “It is not proven, when Allah commanded the amount of inheritance of a father from his son, his share was equal to other heirs, if not less. This means that his son has the right to his wealth without his father” (al-Risala 468). The distribution of inheritance among the heirs in the event of the death of the son challenges the paternalistic belief that the father retains ownership and control over the wealth of his son.

Besides Hadith, the Holy Quran addresses both parents by holding them responsible for the care of children, and in return children are required to recognize and appreciate this care, rather than turn into caregivers themselves in order to receive their parents blessing. In the verse, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small” (Surat al-Isra 24), ‘bringing up’ means providing full emotional and material care. It includes nurturing children’s development and growth without harshness or cruelty as it is commonly said. The verse also attributes the blessing to the children, who voice their prayer for mercy on their parents in appreciation of the care they were offered. However, in Yemeni society the opposite happens, children are expected to care for their parents in order to receive their blessing. In the well-known Hadith, “or a virtuous descendant who prays for him” (Sahih Muslim 1631), who is praying for whom? Both the Quranic verse and Hadith imply that parents should fear the neglect of their children and care for them in order to gain their blessing and prayers and not vice versa.

Nevertheless, society’s paternalistic mentality interprets these texts in a way that reinforces its own principles and sanctifies its position and power through these willful misinterpretations. This selective reading serves to minimize its duties towards children, and ignores any other religious texts that advocate for children’s right to care and nurturing.

Artwork by Shatha al-Towai

The point here is not to call for children’s disobedience, but rather to draw attention to the codes and laws, and the nature of life that commands parents to provide full care for their children. They are responsible for their upbringing, and should treat them with tenderness and compassion so that they can carry out their responsibilities towards the next generation. In return, parents have a right to their children’s obedience, respect, and appreciation, but not in a way that is disruptive to their life or turns them into mere servants under their command. This cultural pattern, which is contrary to the nature of life, as well as religious commands, is embedded in paternalistic societies that believe children are meant to serve their parents.

History reveals that in early Islamic society this theory was a source of controversy. In his last Hajj, Khalifa Omar ibn al-Khattab recalled his childhood in Mecca. During his final speech, he spoke about his father, “.. communication was cruel and harsh. He would exhaust me if I listened and punish me if I disobeyed” (al-Kamel 3/161). The fact that the most just caliph in Islamic history felt the need to speak about his childhood towards the end of his life proves that the behavior of parents accompany a child throughout his adult life, and that Omar ibn al-Khattab felt strongly about this injustice.

The ongoing debate about parental duties towards children is perhaps the reason many Arab sayings address this issue. One old proverb says, “Play tenderly with your children through their first seven years, teach them discipline through the next seven, and befriend them through the following seven, and then let them find their way in the world.”* Another Hadith says, “To teach one’s child good behavior and discipline is a better deed than an everyday offering to the poor” (Fayd al-Qadir  5/257). The more parents love their children, the more children love them in return, and treat them with empathy and compassion. Al-Ahnaf ibn Qays once told Muawiya, “They are the fruit of our hearts and our backbones. We are the ground they walk on and the shade they shelter in. Through children we reach all that is honorable, if they are angry, calm them, if they ask, give. In return, they will give you their affection and offer their immense love. Do not burden them, or else lead them to wish your death, hate to be near, and leave your life” (Al-Danyouri: Al-Mujalasa wa Jawaher Al-Ilm 3/484).

These parental values have been part of Yemeni society at large, as we often find that the father’s relationship with his children is based on these values. Most fathers consider that their duties are confined to feeding and clothing their children, according to their ability or desire to provide, and to marry them according to their wishes and conditions. More recently, providing an education has been considered a necessity imposed by today’s reality, or sometimes motivated by the fear of being judged. Education is understood as a mean to reach better job opportunities in the future, and is often considered a necessity not for the sake of education itself or personal growth. In fact, many parents remain reluctant and perceive it as a necessary evil that will have no role in the lives of their children who, like their fathers, are expected to lead a life full of hard labor and hardships, embroiled in regional conflicts and war.

Many fathers, and even children, are unaware that one of the primary tasks in parenting is to prepare children to care for their future children. On the part of the father, this requires tenderness, care and not denying his child’s needs. Children should feel that this care is their right and not an act of charity. Isn’t he the father? However, the dominant culture in Yemeni society emphasizes the child’s duty to obey his father without question, yet the father has no duty to his child, even if the father denied his child’s rights, he is not to blame or at fault.

This debate may seem unusual. How can we talk about parents disobeying their children? However, in reality, the disobedience of parents causes even greater harm. The failure of parents to fulfill their responsibilities produces a generation that is without moral guidance, will, or education, leading a passive life, unable to take agency or responsibility for themselves or the generation after them.

What arises when one considers the relationship between these paternalistic patterns and the current state of Yemeni society? What role do these dynamics play in the cycle of underdevelopment? It would not be an exaggeration to say that these kinds of relationships between parents and their offspring have hindered our ability to advance and progress as a society. Successive generations have not been able to break free from tribal duties, struggles, and battles. Every effort is invested in meeting strict customs and traditions, and any attempt to stray beyond that is frowned upon and considered a departure from societal values. This includes pursuing or investing in education, where illiteracy still reigns, in a world where education is an important pillar of society and key to progress.

Paternalism confines every emerging generation to a narrow path. Freedom is restricted to parental will and talents are ignored unless they fit their mold. We can imagine a whole generation that remains estranged from the evolving world around it, because it depends on the perception of an earlier generation that is unequipped for what the world is today. Life changes across generations, if not at every moment, and its needs change. In his book, al-Shahrastani quotes Socrates as saying, “Do not force your children to follow your footsteps, they are born in a time other than your own” (Al-Milal wa al-Nihal 2/144).

Parents also control the fate of the younger generation on important issues such as marriage, who submit in fear of their disapproval. There is no denial that until today marriage in Yemen is subject to the conditions of the father, regardless of the wishes of the to-be-married son. This is common even among educated and progressive families.

It goes without saying that marriage between two parties that do not have the full desire to be together is to force a partnership that only leads to problems, and produces yet another generation that is negatively affected by these arrangements. However, according to paternalistic society structures, parents control the fate of their children and may deprive them of many rights as a way to establish their dominance and authority. This is not done out of spite or malice, but in the belief that they know what is in the best interests of their sons, as a popular proverb says, “a day older is a year wiser”.

Many younger people are forced by their families to make choices about their interests, studies, or social life. Some end up being pushed in directions they don’t want to go in. Often they pursue certain fields of study or careers just because their parents want them to, and of course this affects their performance and production. In the end they lack passion for what they do throughout their lives, which negatively affects their productivity and the development of society as whole.

On a wider scale, this authority is not limited to private family relations, but expands to a broader collective guardianship. The sheikh of the tribe is a leading father figure whom everyone should listen to, but not be heard by. He has the final say, and life in the tribe goes according to his passion and desire. The destiny of all members of the tribe are dictated from the narrow perspective of one man’s worldview. Likewise, fathers in their own households have the final say. At home, they dictate what is right or wrong, without room for discussion or dissent. In reality, the family’s destiny is at the whim of one man, whether his decisions lead them to a good life or bring trouble to the whole family. The same pattern occurs with the cleric at his mosque, the head of an institution, and the owner of land. What all these structures have in common is that they follow the logic of a paternalistic authority where the opinions and agency of other individuals are sidelined.

Artwork by Shatha al-Towai

This unilateral approach disrupts the life cycle of society, its progress and advancement. If everyday relationships were based on the fact that each individual has rights and duties, fathers would remain respected as caregivers who facilitate the way for the younger generation to embark on life, not restrict them. In return, sons would appreciate and respect their fathers and make sure not to neglect them. Even at an economic level, these kind of societal structures hinder production and growth. Fathers cling to their line of work, business or source of income and pressure their children to follow their footsteps. There is little encouragement or help provided to pursue other jobs on their own, instead he wants them under his wing, which limits their development and restricts their future opportunities.

Paternal authority often extends throughout a son’s life even after he gets married himself, and sometimes lives in the same house with his parents. In this setting, neither father nor son are able to live their lives independently. The son is unable to build his family independently on his own, nor is the father able to rest and put his energy into other matters. Instead, the big house turns into a theater of daily conflicts and family problems. No one is given space to act freely and they do not build a stronger family bond or solidarity as parents claim. In fact it creates more obstacles for society as a result of daily problems at home or within the tribe. Conflicts arise due to the various constraints and lack of privacy. Individual and collective issues converge so that popular practices of conflict resolution have become a daily norm and official part of life in the community. This cycle is encouraged by the lifestyle of the community itself, and is the consequence of a low sense of productivity and a general preoccupation with societal norms. The greater the grip of customs and traditions, the greater the problems within a family grow. Family and tribal councils organize daily reconciliation meetings between adversaries. The custom itself turned into a behavior that, on the one hand, reaffirms the paternal authority of those who need to make decisions and solve problems, and on the other hand, produces individuals who resort to this authority to solve their problems.

If we compare the problems of Yemeni society, with all its systems of customs and popular laws, we find that its problems outweigh those of non-paternalistic societies. These problems are produced by these norms and not vice versa. Societies with less social entanglement and more open relational structures have less societal problems.

The perception of fathers towards their offspring in Arab culture in general, and in Yemen in particular, leads to a kind of permanent state of tension and creates a relationship that does not thrive. If there was more openness, the relationship would enjoy stronger bonds built on trust and respect. In harsh relationship dynamics children turn away from their parents, resort to alternative spaces, and lose mental stability, which is needed to build a happy and healthy generation.

There are studies that indicate that in some cases children who were not raised by their parents achieved more in their lives and were more successful than those who were raised by paternalistic fathers throughout their lives. This makes us wonder, do such outcomes prove that being raised under these structures is more restricting than supportive?

It is not far-fetched to say that much of the social damage that occurs and hinders Yemeni society is a result of this paternalistic culture. This damage as a whole produces a weakened society that is not free and is constrained on many levels, because of a structure built on domination. The consequences of this authority are certainly visible in many aspects of society. This does not mean that Western societies are better, or that their fragile family relations, as we claim, are the model we strive for. Certainly, every society has its issues, but there are laws that protect children, and the right of every child to paternal care that does not hinder his life. Has this law made Western societies perfect? Of course not. On the one hand, there is an absence of respect and reverence that we hold for elders. On the other hand, we lack the kind of individual freedom, care and agency they apply in raising children. What if both these approaches could converge?

Our faith and culture encourages a healthy and thriving relationship between parents and their children. Fathers are meant to nurture and take care of their offspring. If this core value is upheld, our society will surely change for the better. If that happens, it is likely that many secondary concepts that fall under this framework, and contribute to the larger cycle of conflict and underdevelopment, will also change.

Remember, as the American Indian proverb says, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children!”



Dr. Fares al-Beel: is a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.



* This proverb exists in different forms.

[1] The article is focused on the father as the dominant authority in Yemeni society, while the role of the mother, although the father’s partner in responsibility, is hidden, or under the authority of the father as well.

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Fares al-Beel

a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.

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