Women & Gender

From Selling Bread and Roses to Real Estate and Firearms

Yemeni Women’s New Ventures

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Gendered division of labor is not a fixed matter in all societies, since it is subject to social construction, which shifts according to historically contingent contexts that are governed by many factors, such as the fluctuation of political ideology and economic and social conditions. Other factors include class division and geographical differences between rural and urban areas. Yemen is similar to other societies in which political and social changes are not necessarily subject to a linear and fixed path. Indeed, the extent of women’s participation in the Yemeni public sphere, in its various manifestations, and the extent to which society accepts their varying forms of existence has not always proceeded according to a uniform linear pattern. This is reflected in the professions of women, whose interest in such jobs and whose acceptance by society varies drastically from one period to another.

The first part of this article reviews the experiences of Yemeni women who have since 2014 moved towards jobs that were not women-dominated professions during the two decades preceding the war. Ironically, we used to find women occupying these same jobs in the mid-1990s and earlier. The second part of the article highlights the experiences of women who recently entered professions that were, for the most part, the preserve of men in most periods of Yemen’s contemporary history.

Women in the popular labor market: Difficulties and harassment

The Yemen Labor Force Survey 2013–2014, conducted by the International Labor Organization in partnership with the Yemeni Ministry of Planning’s Central Bureau of Statistics, indicates that out of 293,000 working Yemeni women surveyed, one third work in the private and public formal sector. About half work in the informal sector in areas such as agriculture: working with livestock, poultry and dairy. From this, we can say that Yemeni society is accustomed to women working in informal sectors. For example, Yemenis in different regions have been accustomed for decades to seeing women on the side of the road and in popular markets selling different types of Yemeni bread, such as muluj, lahoh and kidem, alongside fresh eggs, flowers and bunches of aromatic herbs. These daily products are a source of income for women who work in the informal sector in cities and the countryside. Thus, it is well known that this type of work is not considered unusual for women unlike other examples that we will mention later

A case from Sana’a

Maryam, a woman in her fifties, lost her husband and son after they joined the fighting, like many other men. She suddenly found herself in charge of providing for her five children and her three orphaned grandchildren. Maryam, who had never previously worked outside the home, started making lahoh early every morning, and then selling it in the market at noon. At first, she chose one of the most popular markets, which is full of meat, vegetable, qat and fresh baked goods stalls in the center of the capital, Sana’a, in the al-Qaa region. However, she was subjected to a lot of harassment from disgruntled women at the market who feared the new competition. She was thus forced to move to another market in the Safia area, with fewer customers and less income. Speaking about her woes, Maryam explains that selling lahoh has become unprofitable, and the meager income it generates does not meet her family’s needs, especially in light of the continuous rise in the price of corn and other ingredients used to make lahoh. This is in addition to the fact it has become very difficult to find domestic gas cylinders on a regular basis or at reasonable prices, leaving citizens with no choice but to buy them on the black market at exorbitant prices that most cannot afford. Maryam also told us about how she suffered from society’s scornful view of women peddling their products in the popular markets, and the discrimination she faced when she began working. Some of her neighbors even stopped visiting or inviting her to their special events.

Artwork by Shatha Al-Towai

A case from Aden

Women from many age groups, educational levels and governorates face harassment while working outdoors, for example running stalls. Mona, a twenty-something woman from Aden governorate, spoke to us about her experience after the end of the armed battles in the governorate in the summer of 2015, when she left no stone unturned in her job hunt. After failing to find work in the corporate world, she decided not to give up and opened a stall on the sidewalk opposite one of the shops in the Crater area, to sell jewelry and handicrafts to the women passing by in the market. Mona says that she is exposed to obstacles and harassment during her work, like many women and girls in this conservative society.

Women in shops and restaurants

At the greengrocer’s

While it is true that women who sell products in busy markets suffer from harassment and discrimination despite having worked in those spaces for many years before the war, other women now also face the same situation. Iman confronted the harsh war conditions and opened a greengrocery in the wealthy Haddah neighborhood in Sana’a. In contrast to the crowded popular market stalls that are managed by women for a limited time, greengroceries are mostly managed by men, and so it is very rare to see a woman own a fruit and vegetable shop in the capital or in most governorates. Iman, who is forty years old, says, “I was not afraid of embarking on a journey that is considered the preserve of men and is danger-laden because of society’s views. I was able to achieve financial stability with the support of my daughters and my friends”.

At the restaurant

People may recall seeing women working in restaurants in some Yemeni governorates in the 1970s and 1980s. However, this sight became extremely rare in the 1990s, but reappeared during the war. Fatima, a twenty-year-old waitress, has worked in restaurants in the governorates of Sana’a and Aden, where she has encountered endless harassment. She began working in a famous restaurant in Aden and was forced to leave her job due to the unstable security situation, which prompted her to move to Sana’a. Fatima says, “While serving food to people, especially men, in one of the largest restaurants in Sana’a, they looked at me with compassion, as if I were a beggar. However, as days went by, I got accustomed to this and it no longer bothers me as much, since I do honest work to earn a decent living”.

Yemeni women and the police force: Between the state’s vision and society’s perception

The entry of women into the police force, like their entry into other areas of the public sector, was less controversial in South Yemen for many years, until the end of the 1980s. This reflected the policy of the socialist state, which adopted a progressive vision of women and encouraged their presence in the public sphere. In addition to the state’s establishment of mass women’s organizations that acted as catalysts for women’s political participation, literacy and vocational programs as well as the protection of women from domestic violence, the socialist state also enacted and applied the 1974 Family Law, which was one of the most progressive laws in the region. The law treated women as autonomous entities in personal matters such as marriage and divorce among other aspects in a way that freed women to a great degree from patriarchal dominance over their lives.

 As for North Yemen, the situation was different. The entry of women into the police force was rejected both socially and at the level of state policies. However, the situation changed at the turn of the millennium when the state supported the entry of women into the police and security corps, and the first batch of women graduated from the Police Academy in 2002. Society, for the most part, viewed women’s work in the police with suspicion, placing them in the category of women whose moral behavior was questioned. Since the beginning of the war, the vast majority of female police officers have ceased their work in the public sector for many reasons. Since the beginning of the war, the radical transformations of the political climate have impacted many state institutions, including the police sector that has become less welcoming towards policewomen. Furthermore, around four years of unpaid salaries for public servants in many Yemeni governorates as well as the general deterioration of the security situation have made many families refuse to allow their daughters to work in the police force.

The trend towards private security companies

Due to these circumstances, many female police officers have turned to the private security companies that offer their services to companies, weddings and various other events. In this regard, Kholoud, a police officer who was forced to work for a private security company, complains about such companies’ exploitation of working conditions, imposing long working hours for a small wage. In the same context, Amal confirms that she quit working for a private security company that was depriving her of her most basic rights. She believes that neither the ruling authorities nor the traditional society, with its conservative view of women working in the police and security services, defends the rights of female employees in this sector.

Entering unusual fields

Many women we spoke with said that the current war has affected their standard of living, especially in light of the loss of income for public sector employees, due to the interruption of government salaries for nearly four years. In addition, the decrease in male employment has resulted in an increase in the economic burden on most Yemeni families. A study titled ‘No Future for Yemen Without Women and Girls’, published by CARE and Oxfam in 2016, indicated that women who did not work outside the home before the war had entered the labor market to support their families after men left for the battlefronts or lost their jobs. This has altered gender roles considerably, and may establish acceptance of new roles for women that continues after the war and contributes to gender equality. However, there is another trend that calls into question whether the shifting of gender roles during the war period is evidence of a long-term radical change in the way Yemeni society views the division of labor between women and men. In ‘Enhancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security’, research conducted by the Yemen Polling Center in cooperation with the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient and Saferworld in 2017, we find that the analysis tends to be skeptic about the potential of these shifts in gender roles. The analysis warns against assuming that such shifts can lead to tangible gender equality on the long term as they may merely be practical coping mechanisms to temporarily deal with the harsh socio-economic realities of war.

Analytical research on the occupations of women in recent years, especially those with which society is unfamiliar, is still very scarce in Yemen. Nevertheless, it is possible to suggest a hypothesis that the harsh war conditions have contributed to women taking on jobs that Yemenis consider unusual for them.

Artwork by Shatha Al-Towai

The real estate market

Hoda, a 30-year-old woman from al-Mahwit governorate, was a teacher in a private school in Sana’a until 2017. As the country’s economic situation deteriorated as a result of the ongoing war, Hoda found herself unemployed after the school closed its doors due to financial problems. Thus began the search for another profession that would generate enough income to pay rent on the apartment where she lived with her husband and their three children. Hoda supports her family alone as her husband was paralyzed because of a stroke. She tells us that she did not give up, selling ready-made clothes to women who attended weddings and birth events in her neighborhood. However, she was the target of gossip: “Women used to call me ‘dallala’ (intermediary), which is a derogatory term for women working in this profession. Since this term bothered my children and my husband, and selling clothes in event halls was not profitable, I decided to search for another profession.” When Hoda heard that the real estate sector in Sana’a was in constant growth despite the war, she saw an opportunity to work as a real estate broker. She was able to earn hundreds of thousands of riyals instead of the little that she used to get for selling clothes or the salary she earned as a teacher, which was no more than 60,000 riyals a month (equivalent to US$100). Hoda assures us that she is proud of her work in real estate, even though she faces difficulties and harassment from men who own real estate companies as they consider women as intruders in a field which they consider should be limited to men.

Selling firearms

Samah is a young woman who was displaced with her family from Taiz governorate after fighting intensified. Her experience is particularly interesting. After her displaced family struggled to find decent living conditions, she decided to start selling firearms, such as guns and Kalashnikovs to men and women. Samah says that she started working in this field through one of her neighbors in the capital, Sana’a, and that the income from selling weapons is sufficient to support her family. However, this profession is fraught with dangers. “At first, I sold the weapons that my neighbor provided to women by communicating with them on social media, and she used to give me a commission. Once I achieved success, I started selling weapons independently after buying them at an affordable price and making a reasonable profit. Even though I work secretly, some men harass me. This worries my family who object to this work, despite our need for an income source to help us overcome our difficult financial conditions after we lost all our savings due to forced displacement.”

Conclusion: A need for further research

Perhaps the cases presented in this article contribute to underlining a deeper understanding of the motives, drivers and conditions of women’s positions in the labor force. In this context, the following crucial questions can be posed to inspire further research on the matter: Does the work of women in these professions result from temporary wartime conditions, or are they choices stemming from their own desires, with the current economic conditions as nothing but a stimulus that has contributed to making those ‘liberating’ desires see the light? Will the work of women in these professions change the stereotype that has reduced the role of women to specific fields and areas based on the socially constructed gendered division of labor in the collective consciousness of Yemeni society over past decades? Is the entry of women into the public sphere in this way, which may have, prior to the war, been considered an exclusive male space, a temporary matter caused by the war, and will it end with the end of war? Or will it permanently expand the extent of women’s participation in public life alongside men?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the use of quantitative and qualitative research to study these new manifestations of the work of Yemeni women in the public sphere will help us better understand the nonlinear social transformations in the country during the last two decades especially in regards to the shifts in the gendered division of labor that impact the political and socio-economic situation in Yemen. Based on this article, we can conclude that Yemeni women working in various professions face great difficulties; but more and more women are emerging day after day compared with the years before the war. Apparently, the professional experiences that the women have shared with us have given them some relative independence, economic self-empowerment and a sense of confidence that they can save themselves and their families from the throes of crisis that the country is experiencing.

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Alaaddin Al-shalali

صحفي مستقل ومنتج ومقدم برامج. الشلالي حاصل على درجة البكالوريوس في الإعلام ، والعديد من الدبلومات في الصحافة والعلاقات العامة وكذلك الإنتاج التلفزيوني والإذاعي والإخراج.

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