Civil Society

Yemen’s Muhamasheen: Centuries of Exclusion and Marginalization

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

“After passing away due to a car accident, the boy was rushed from the hospital emergency room to the nearby mosque and placed at the Mihrab so that people could pray for him, the funeral prayer after the Isha prayer. The Imam of the mosque, who was one of the political and tribal leaders and a member of the parliament, refused to pray for the boy’s soul. The Imam then ordered the boy’s body to be removed to the back of the mosque claiming that he is a servant [Khadem; plural Akhdam] who does not pray nor does the group (relatives of the child) that brought him to the mosque. The boy’s uncle was outraged and insisted on praying for the boy even on his own, denouncing the Imam’s actions saying that the servants whom he accused of not praying might have been the reason for his victory in the electoral district, and arguing that if it were a white drunk man, the community would still pray for him, let alone a twelve-year-old child, but the child is a dark-skinned servant.”[1]

“We are without a country, without a nationality, without rights. They only remember us around the elections’ time. My vote is worth a bag of rice.”[2]

“In 2013, when one of the Muhamasheen became romantically involved with a girl from the society in Jabal Habashy in Taiz, the homes of 60 families were demolished and they were expelled and displaced.”[3]

The diverse colors of windowpane glass in houses vary in the different regions of Yemen in a way that may suggest the presence of a social, cultural and demographic diversity of a country that has been affected by all the cultures that have passed through it during previous invasions and conquests. However, the truth is that those bright colorful reflections are nothing but mere reflections of the sun and have nothing to do with the social and political fragmentation of Yemeni society. Among those fragments are the marginalized Muhamasheen – humanely, socially and historically.

Artwork by Saad al-Shehabi

The issue of the Muhamasheen in Yemen does not occupy a significant place in literature, research and journalistic investigations, which from time to time shed light on an incident of societal bigotry or institutional discrimination against this group. But soon the incident is forgotten, without being followed by any serious efforts to tackle issues of abuse or lack of accountability and institutional and societal responsibility towards the historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion entrenched in society.

Who are the Muhamasheen?

The origins of this oppressed group are held in a mix of few facts and many myths. There are a number of historical narratives, some of which are transferred orally in popular circles, about the origins in Yemen of the Muhamasheen, who have dark skin and African features. There are those who claim that they are descendants from the army of Abyssinians who came to invade Yemen before Islam arrived, under the leadership of Abraha in the 6th century AD. They were defeated at the hands of Saif bin Dhi Yazan and his Persian allies, and some remained in Yemen, but they were ostracized and excluded as a response to the violations they had committed. Other accounts claim that they are the descendants of civilian groups that accompanied the Abyssinian occupants into Yemen and remained in the country. Despite the scarcity of historical facts documenting the origin of these people, some historians, such as AbdulRahman al-Hadhrami, believe that the ‘Akhdam’ (servants) are descendants of the Abyssinian rulers of the Najahid dynasty that ruled during the period 403–553 AH /1012–1158 AD.[4] The origins of its founder, Fatiq bin Najah, were Abyssinian. Muhammad AbdulRahim Jazim writes:

“All the slave ministers who ruled Zabid and their entourage are descendants of the leader (Fatiq bin Muhammad bin Jayash bin Najah), who was the last of the Najahid ‘slave-kings’ to rule Zabid. He died poisoned in the year 554 AH corresponding to 1159 AD. When Ali bin Mahdi Al-Ra’ini ended the state of Najahid minister-slaves, their descendants and the descendants of their entourage were dispersed in Wadi Zabid, so they were known in the beginning as (Fatiq’s slaves), and in later ages as (Akhdam).”[5]

The Muhamasheen, as referred to in modern human rights vocabulary, or ‘the Akhdam’, as they are commonly called in popular circles, are one of the isolated ethno-social groups at the bottom of the social ladder, having been stifled by social segregation for many centuries. They are characterized by ethnic African features, such as brown skin and curly hair. However, the most prominent characteristic of the group is the discrimination and social exclusion it has suffered for hundreds of years as a result of beliefs and myths that surround it. Imagination is intertwined with the reality of exclusion and ostracism in drawing an image of the group, and the dominant culture continues to tighten the social blockade on them. The Yemen report on the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination[6] affirms that the reason for the marginalization of this group is that it has been deprived throughout history of agricultural work and of the right to own land, which is the most important productive asset. Consequently, it was denied contribution to any decision-making process. Its members have specialized in services and lesser professions. The situation continued even after the revolution of 26 September 1962, when many members of this group were brought from Tihama and assigned municipal work (street cleaning).[7] Today, the Muhamasheen people represent the vast majority of municipality workers and work without permanent contracts, insurance, licenses or other rights.

Members of this group were more fortunate in southern Yemen during the rule of the Socialist Party after the uprising of municipal workers in the early 1970s, where the slogan was ‘Salmine Koddam Koddam … Salmine Mahnash Akhdam’ (Salmeen, forward, forward… Salmeen, we’re not servants), in a reference and appeal to President Salem Rabi Ali, who died in 1978.[8] Indeed, some laws and procedures have been issued to combat discrimination, integrate this group in society and in the state apparatus, and enact penalties against those who practice bigotry, where the use of the word Khadem was considered a crime punishable by law.[9] However, these measures and laws have faded away with the unification of Yemen, especially since 1994. Although the constitution of the unified state stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law, to this day there are no procedures or laws that would address social discrimination against the Muhamasheen, in particular, and criminalize the ostracization, assault, and physical or moral violence against them.

The majority of Yemeni society coexists with the Muhamasheen group or ‘Akhdam’ as if they were in a parallel world that does not collide with theirs, a coexistence based upon social alienation, as the marginalized people do not mix with other classes of society in social and religious events, do not marry with them, and do not engage in public or private political and social activities. The Muhamasheen group practices its rituals, its festivities and mourning, away from the rest of Yemeni society. Moreover, Muhamasheen children do not attend schools or universities except in rare cases, when they are able to survive the practices of bullying and exclusion of the other students. Many timid initiatives of the state and civil society have failed in integrating younger members of the group into public education and in society at large.

The Muhamasheen people often take up on city outskirts, vacant lands or highway side paths close to markets as neighborhoods and housing sites. Their gatherings consist of huts made of tin, plastic tarpaulins and worn-out fabrics that lack the basic necessities of a decent human life and lack all amenities such as electricity, water and sanitation. They often get washed away by heavy rains. The state may bulldoze the homes if they get in the way of public projects. The Muhamasheen live throughout Yemen, especially in the suburbs of major cities, where some sustenance and daily wages can be secured – in Sana’a, Aden, Taiz, Ibb, Hodeidah, Hajjah, Lahj, Dhamar, Shabwah and Marib.

Artwork by Saad al-Shehabi

You are an enemy… because you are different

Coast residents are blessed with a desirable tan and many Yemenis have a dark complexion, and there are no problems of discrimination. However, dark brown skin associated with the different facial features of the slum dwellers and their different lifestyle, emphasized the assumed correlation of black skin color and lack of hygiene, and cemented the connection between skin color and practices of exclusion and discrimination. It has become socially common to reprimand children and encourage them to be clean by comparing them to the Muhamasheen (“dirty as a Khadem”) or making similar comparisons in cases of bad or violent behavior, in spite of the peaceful nature of the Muhamasheen and their patience in the face of constant racial discrimination. The Muhamasheen communities are called ‘Mahwa’ in Arabic, which means doghouse. Folklore abounds with many discriminatory popular examples that highlight the levels of racism, such as “He who sits with the servant, regrets it”, “If the dog eats off of your plate, wash it, and if the servant eats off of it, break it”. In spite of the dog’s association in Muslim religious culture with impurity, which requires heavy purification, the servant in this proverb is considered even more impure, emphasizing unjustified communal bigotry.

Yemeni society weaves myths about the Muhamasheen that entrench practices of racial discrimination, that become justified by myths about the daily, religious and moral practices of this oppressed group. For example, there is a claim that the Muhamasheen people eat their dead because they do not follow public burial rituals and ceremonies. Many opinion leaders in society do not even take the trouble to refute such outrageous allegations to spread a culture of respect and equality. By way of explanation, one of the Muhamasheen people explained simply that they do not have the money to pay for proper burial ceremonies and for graves. Therefore, they often bury their dead silently, hidden in the darkness of the night, in a hurry.

Defense and coping mechanisms: Delayed assimilation

With the Muhamasheen’s sense of inferiority and exclusion, there are alternative coping strategies that they adopted centuries ago: self-isolation and retrenchment and rejecting any attempts, albeit rare, by civil society to assimilate them, integrate their children into schools, or provide temporary assistance. There were some small efforts made by the state before 2010 that were not at all commensurate with the size of the historical exclusion of this group, its population size, and its geographical spread.

Among these efforts were allocating the group some seats in the universities of Sana’a and Taiz, in addition to building housing for them, and allotting health centers for them in Sana’a, in which treatment is provided free of charge, which happened in 2010. There was also political and legal support for the creation of the National Union for the Marginalized in 2007.

Other strategies consist of invoking religious or historical identities by some of the more educated Muhamasheen to compensate for the feeling of inferiority. Hence, the Organization for Defending the Black Liberals emerged under the leadership of al-Qirai in 2005, a philosopher of the Muhamasheen and the godfather and founder of the Ahfad Bilal movement[10] before it was recently utilized politically. There was also the Akhdam Allah movement by Numan al-Hudhaifi, which was an attempt to flirt with the political and military emergence of the Houthis in early 2014. Another strategy consisted in retreating to the glorious past,[11] such as attempts by activists to invoke the glory of the Najahid state in the 12th century AD when it was holding on to the reins of government: ‘We have ruled Yemen’.[12] However, this did not get public traction except through protests that took place in 2013 as a result of killings and attacks on Muhamasheen individuals in the city of Taiz, as well as through Facebook pages for a number of activists. These protests became organized in Freedom Square in Taiz, where during Friday prayers that took place in the street there were banners held and sermons given that refused the label Muhamasheen and called for adherence to the word ‘Akhdam’, because it highlights the suffering of the group. “Most of the Yemeni society is marginalized, calling us Muhamasheen (marginalized) will dilute our cause.”[13]

Artwork by Saad al-Shehabi

The free individual or Homo Sacer

The strategies did not succeed in effecting real change in the lives of the Muhamasheen or in changing social perceptions or the oppression from which they suffer. Analysts who tackled the subject put the blame on the Muhamasheen themselves for refusing to change. Some individuals among the group confirm this, as they do not want to abide by behaviors and regulations outside their capacity which would limit their freedom to live the way they wish to live; and so, they do not expend real efforts on  changing their situation and do not make the state and society seek this change or accept it. These analysts use the example of ‘the city of light’ that was supposed to host the Muhamasheen in Sana’a, as some members of the group preferred to sell their home with the excuse that it lacks amenities like water, electricity and sanitation. At the same time, activists among the group stated that the city is one of the ways to further isolate them from the rest of society. Activists that I have met also indicated that there is a general tendency among the majority of the Muhamasheen to not change their behavior, which compels some of them to leave Muhamasheen gatherings and move to urban neighborhoods (Harat) in order to live differently, especially as a number of them came back from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war in 1990.[14]

It is possible that some Muhamasheens’ inability to assimilate is caused by their clinging to unrestrained freedom, even at the cost of discrimination and violation, in a life that is free from restriction but that permits the violation of rights. Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life (La vie nue or Zoe) signifies that life is about staying alive without further higher expectations. Embedded in the concept of bare life is the concept of Homo Sacer.[15] We can find in the sayings of one of the Muhamasheen what could shed light on this concept, as he says

“I do not want to be developed, or a Khadem (servant), or a tribesman. Now, nobody blames me, if I drink, they call me a Khadem, if I beg they call me a Khadem, no one blames me, but if I was a respectable person, they would all come after me. I am living like this; the most important thing is that I am living”.[16]

However, this image, held firm by some, reaffirms discriminatory beliefs that permit the violation of Muhamasheen rights, beliefs such as the Muhamasheen do not abide by social and religious rules. One proverb that legitimizes violations and harassment indicates these racist practices: ‘the female servant is the treat of her master’. There is a common – although unfounded – belief that the women are free and available for exploitation as they engage in relations unshackled by religion. This belief is further strengthened by the fact that women can enter men’s gatherings to beg or ask for Qat, and they can be found in markets and in the street, which is against social norms that put a limit on the presence of women in public places.

The same social culture that stands in the way of assimilating the Muhamasheen prevents them from having the right to own property or tools of production. Some Yemenis go as far as holding the servants responsible for their imposed social isolation and their inability to assimilate after centuries have passed. As a response, al-Qirai insists that social violence against the Muhamasheen is historical, and that the dominant social class prohibits them from owning land or production tools and holds them in an ethical and professional framework that prevents them from improving or changing their reality.

Political and social mobilization hampered by Yemen’s situation

An outline of political and social action that aimed to affect the Muhamasheen came out of the political momentum and mobilization of the election in 2010. This was given a further push by the 2011 uprising and the attempts that followed it to include all social and political components in a National Dialogue in 2013-2014. This gave Muhamasheen activists hope for salvation. However, the National Dialogue only included one representative for the group, Noman al-Hudhaifi, the president of the National Union for the Marginalized. This insufficient representation came after continuous protest and pressure from the group. The glimpse of hope in achieving real and active citizenship diminished with the persistence of the ongoing war that further fragmented social and political structures in an unprecedented manner. The concepts of citizenship and rights became tools for different political actors to achieve gains in the conflict.

The pillars of true citizenship will only be built through a social contract and ethical standards that are set by society, for all class social groups, with fairness and justice based on ethical capital, instead of a traditional conception of citizenship that relies on rights and duties as the basis for political and social membership in a socio-political context that is ridden with unjust practices.[17] Any political mobilization or action on behalf of the Muhamasheen will only succeed if the ethical standards, structures, and institutional environment for fair social citizenship are furnished.

[1] A 2014 interview conducted by the author with Noman al-Hudhaifi, president of the National Union for the Marginalized at the time, the uncle of the boy in the anecdote.

[2] Qatmat Roz: a 5 kg rice bag.

[3] Interviews conducted with activists from the Muhamasheen group in 2014 in Taiz. The story has been published, documenting the assaults that targeted the group. See:

[4] Noman al Hakami (2014). A study funded by the EU and DIA organization. The president of the National Union for the Marginalized Noman al Hudhaifi believes that there is a historical marginalization process that started with the dissolution of the Najahid state in the 12th century as per this paper by the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies: The Historic and Systematic Marginalization of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community.

[5]   ارتفاع الدولة المؤيدية: جباية بلاد اليمن في عهد السلطان الملك المؤيد داود بن يوسف الرسولي المتوفي سنة 721 هـ / 1321 م / تحقيق محمد عبد الرحيم جازم. تأليف : مؤلف مجهول، المعهد الفرنسي للآثار والعلوم الاجتماعية : المعهد الألماني للآثار، 2008م الفصل الأول، هامش رقم 39.

[6] International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Yemen report:

[7] Interview with Mohammed al Qirai president of the Yemen Organization for Defending the Black Liberals in 2014.

[8] Interview with Mohammed al Qirai president of the Yemen Organization for Defending the Black Liberals in 2014.

[9]  “Akhdam in Yemen”,Noman al Hakami (2010). A study funded by the EU and DIA organization.

[10] Mohammed al-Qirai, a prominent politician from the Muhamasheen group, was a member of the central committee of the Yemeni Socialist Party until 2008, a permanent member of the GPC, and a member of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee formed by the Houthis in Sana’a before he recently resigned.

[11] Mustafa Hijazi. Introduction to human psychology of the oppressed.

[12] Interview with al-Qirai.

[13] Interview with Noman al-Hudhaifi, president of the National Union for the Marginalized, 2014.

[14] Interviews conducted with activists from Taiz, Sana’a and Hodeidah . 2014.

[15] A roman concept borrowed by Agamben from Latin: it describes a person that may be killed by anybody without punishment. It comes from Agamben’s book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Arabic translation by Abdul Aziz Al Ayadi. 2017. Dar al Jamal.)

[16] An interview with an activist from al Muhamasheen group in Taiz 2014, this quote comes in an attempt to explain why some members of the group refuse to assimilate.

[17] Ibid.

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Sabria al-Thawr

A university lecturer and researcher in the fields of development, humanitarian work, and gender studies, with studies and research papers published in the academic and developmental fields.

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