Credit: Halliday, F, MERIP reports No. 81, 1979 – South Yemeni women voting for the first time in November 1977

Taḥrīr al Mar’a – Feminism and Patriarchy in the PDRY

History and culture

Sat, 06-05-2023 02:22 PM, Aden

Fatimah Johnson (South24)

Taḥrīr al Mar’a – the emancipation of women. This was the official name given to a 1968 policy pursued by the National Liberation Front (NLF) who had assumed post-colonial control over South Yemen when it was constituted as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Dedication to Marxism–Leninism was professed by the NLF at its fourth Congress in 1968 which incorporated the full emancipation of women. To discuss the South Yemeni woman, even historically, is fraught with difficulty. Many of the major studies of Yemeni women are confined to North Yemen and other ethnographic work has gone unpublished. In addition, attempts of serious analysis of ideology (those of patriarchy and sexual modesty), of feminist methodology and of the relationship between women’s studies and men’s studies were normally eschewed in favor of presenting degrees of power and individualism in secluded female spaces outside of the public sphere (Abu-Lughod, 1990 as cited in Carapico, 1996). This has undergone a process of correction since the 1990s though the tendency to more often than not write about gender in relation to Yemen in a way that is subjective and unsystematic remains (Carapico, 1996). 

The invisibility of the historic South Yemeni woman is undeniably a result of a number of factors such as general sexism against Arab women particularly where it intersects with racism (in respect of Western stereotypical attitudes) and residual political hostility against a nation that overthrew the paternalism of British rule and sided with a key enemy of not just the capitalist West but also of many states in the Middle East like Lebanon, the USSR. The historical South Yemeni woman deserves to be celebrated, to be better understood in a non-voyeuristic sense and to be analyzed with the awareness of the bias that usually afflicts gender studies. Further, the tumultuous changes for girls and women in the PDRY era are a landmark case for the wider Middle East (Lackner, 2022).  

The policy of Taḥrīr al Mar’a was fertilized in Aden which, because of its economic, strategic, political and cultural importance created conditions conducive to radical change. The founder of one of the first Arabic newspapers in Aden (Fatat al Jazira), Muḥammad ‛Alī Luqmān, published an influential book in 1932 called Why has the West Advanced? The book lamented what it saw as the “shameful position” of women. The criticism was that women in the East were trapped by men who limited them to sexual objectification only (Dahlgren, 2013). Fatat al Jazira itself had a section called Our Beautiful Half. The details about it betray a high degree of prejudiced chivalry by men towards women.  

In December 1977, researcher Maxine Molyneux conducted (with the assistance of a male interpreter fluent in Arabic and English) three semi-structured interviews with PDRY women. All three women were in the General Union of Yemeni Women (GUYW). The result is a substantial amount of fascinating qualitative data. Secondary analysis of this data recuperates the literal voice of PDRY women – their objective world views and their real life experiences. 

The first interview conducted by Molyneux was with Aida Yafai, an Adenite from a non-privileged background. She rose to become a member of the Central Committee of the NLF and Director of the General Secretary’s Office. Aida relates that the beginning of the emancipation of women in South Yemen underwent three stages (social, political, feminist) from the late 1940s onwards to the 1963 Radfan Uprising. By 1963, the NLF had roughly 300 female members. Aida states that the female membership was persecuted by their own families and by religious leaders in Aden for rejecting ideas about female seclusion and modesty. She testifies to the impressive range of activities partaken of by women: leading demonstrations, trade unionism, educational campaigns, smuggling documents/leaflets/armaments, in rural areas women bore guns and engaged British forces. She states there was a famous female military leader during the Uprising called Daara who was from Radfan and another called Hadiga al Haushabi who was killed. Interestingly, she reveals that rural women were freer then urban South Yemeni women because they did not have to wear a chador (a cloak associated with female practice of Islam) or a veil and that this freedom enabled them to become soldiers. She describes how feminist demands were given a lower priority in favor of concentrating on ending British rule. Once this was achieved and more importantly once the left of the NLF seized total power from the right on 22 June 1969 (the Corrective Move) major achievements occurred. A New Constitution in 1970 that afforded equal rights to women in law, education and family as well as sanctioning their participation in the highest legislative body, the Supreme People’s Council, the 1974 Family Law which benefitted women to such a high degree it became a source of national pride for the PDRY in the context of being surrounded by conservative Middle Eastern states (Dahlgren, 2013), Aida also refers to the establishment of nurseries, cooperatives, land distribution and literacy campaigns for women. The interview ends with Aida stating that until classical Marxist-Leninist economic goals are fully realized and regressive ideas held by men who are “trapped in underdeveloped thoughts” are eradicated “there will be no real equality with men” (Molyneux, 1979).  

The second interview was with Aisha Mohsen, the daughter of a Yemeni migrant in Britain and President of the GUYW. She relates that the main goal of the GUYW as a mass NLF organization was to bring women into the sphere of economic production and that the GUYW began to operate at a national level after its conference in Seiyun in 1974. She asserts that South Yemeni women were always more radical than the men and that more women became active once the revolution spread deeper into the rural areas after 1971. The NLF ran campaigns to counter misogyny with the NLF itself and throughout South Yemen. She explains that the method used to bring women into economic production was through the use of technical training centers that ran courses for up to one year. Women would be taught how to be mechanics for cars, tractors etc. and they would also receive military, literacy, musical and handicraft instruction plus political and cultural education. She refers to the centers as an “experiment” and relays that some centers were forcibly closed or suspended by families on the grounds of “tradition”. Aisha also elucidates further on the activities of the GUYW and how it encouraged female economic production by providing capital for emerging factories and by owning a stake in them. She informs that in 1977 the membership of the GUYW was 14,296 with a membership fee of 100 or 50 fils. Members were gained via the efforts of GUYW social workers. The majority of the members were between 20 and 30 years of age and Aisha states that their “hopes lie with the children of the revolution”. Aisha opines that some women at that time were reluctant to join the GUYW or the trade unions or the NLF because previously all women had been “completely excluded from political life” and were therefore nervous to take on new roles. In regards to female veiling and wearing of the chador, she informs that both were disappearing by themselves as a result of social development. Importantly she believed that the veil and the chador were not in contradiction to feminism. The interview ends with Aisha denying the validity of western feminist claims that men collude in and benefit from the oppression of women: “Men and women are oppressed by the capitalist classes so they should join in their struggle against these forces” (Molyneux, 1979).      

The last interview was with Noor Ba’abad, who was Head of Cultural and Information Affairs as well as being on the Executive Committee of the GUYW. Noor recounts how the NLF launched an anti-veil campaign in 1972 and that one of the most popular slogans amongst South Yemeni women had been an anti-veil slogan. She explains that the NLF ceased the campaign because it believed that objective processes alone would “destroy the veil” and that the 1972 demonstrations were sufficient to break the myth of obligatory female modesty. After 1972 khaki uniforms were introduced for women in offices and factories and Noor mentions that coats were being worn by women instead of the chador. Noor asserts that the most important question for the GUYW was literacy and economic liberation, with Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State being sine qua non for the GUYW. Molyneux raises the issue of clitoridectomy (widely seen now as a human rights violation) and Noor confirms that whilst there was no law against it, she saw it as a “degrading custom for girls” in decline in South Yemen. Noor however, declines to condemn male circumcision as mutilation. Asked about female prostitution, Noor states that the problem was originated by British rule in ports like Aden and Mukalla. She states that the PDRY Government “discovered the class basis for prostitution” (a lack of alternative non-exploitative work) and have therefore provided this. The answer to the complete emancipation of women is to make women participate in social life which in turn would convince them of their better role in society according to Noor. The South Yemeni state is credited with abolishing “the existence of women as a special stratum”. Noor reports that the GUYW were highly involved in carrying out ideological activities via the dissemination of information programmes, courses, radio, television, newspapers, mimeographed papers, posters, political and social lectures. At the end of the interview, Noor avers that the aims of the women’s liberation movement in the West and the feminist movement in South Yemen “are the same” (Molyneux, 1979).

“Women have too many rights, and I will personally take care that the situation will be corrected” (Dahlgren, 2010). These chilling words were uttered by a leading member of the PDRY judiciary in November 1989. These words signify what became a reversal of the relative radicalism of the post-colonial era in favour of a return to blatant misogyny toward women by men and the re-inculcation in the minds of women that they are inferior as well as the re-inculcation of dependency habits by women toward men. This dual reversal and re-inculcation was cemented by the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 which made the introduction of the 1992 Personal Status Law possible. Anthropologist, Susanne Dahlgren, describes the 1992 law, which replaced the 1974 Family Law, as a “catastrophe” for women’s rights (Dahlgren, 2010). An attempt to explain the attitude cited above by male PDRY ruling elites towards the female population was given by Radhia Ihsanullah (a South Yemeni feminist of the pre independence period) in April 1992 in the newspaper 14 Uktubr: “There are conservative forces who want to return [all] Yemen to the times of the Imamate. They see a threat in the liberated, educated and self-confident woman to those women, who still live subordinated in some parts of the country” (14 Uktubr as cited in Dahlgren, 2010). Assuming this is the reason, it does not of course explain why women in the PDRY abandoned the goal of full emancipation.

Several sources strongly suggest that the abandonment of the full emancipation of women came about because of inadequacies of state policy, the tenacity of traditional values informed by the Shafi’i variant of Islam and the hypocritical refusal of other self-proclaimed radical states in the Middle East to support the PDRY economically. Although PDRY labour laws guaranteed women could be economically active, a severe shortage of accessible nurseries meant exhausting morning and afternoon trips between work for women with young children, those children who had to remain with relatives resident in distant locations (Dahlgren, 2010). As of 1984 only one-fifth of the PDRY’s economically active population was comprised of women (Molyneux, 1989). Fred Halliday describes how radio stations from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia castigated the 1974 Family Law as oppositional to “true” Islam (Halliday, 1979). Halliday further notes that the oil producing countries who also self-defined as radical like the PDRY (Libya, Iraq, Algeria) could have provided crude oil for the Aden refinery at below market value. However, they chose to ignore the PDRY’s real need for economic support and thus made it more likely that the socialist orientated state influenced by Lenin, Mao and Guevara would one day be extinguished (Halliday, 1979).  

The feminist revolution in the PDRY was much undone by the consequences of the 1990 unification: “The unification provided a perfect framework to readjust male-female power constellations” (Dahlgren, 2010). Closer analysis reveals that it took place within the context of two ideologies (patriarchy and sexual modesty) diametrically opposed to feminism and was thus frustrated. On certain views, the 1974 Family Law appears to be a liberatory piece of legislation in respect of women. However, its particular regulation that the dower (mahr) be limited to 100 dinars worked against some women as it meant they lost the guarantee of what was effectively a protected substantial savings fund for their exclusive use should the marriage be terminated (Dahlgren, 2013). A less expensive marriage was more likely to favour a man and increase male access to female bodies. The ideology of sexual modesty was not destroyed either in the PDRY. This is exemplified by the fact that there was no debate or acceptance of any kind of female sexual expression outside of heterosexual monogamy (Molyneux, 1979). On fair assessment, it is safe to conclude that the emancipation of women in the PDRY was tragically left incomplete.

Fatimah Johnson 

London-based journalist 


CARAPICO, SHEILA (1996), ‘Gender and Status Inequalities in Yemen: Honour, Economics, and Politics’ in Valentine M. Moghadam (ed.), Patriarchy and Development: Women's Positions at the End of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press). 

LACKNER, HELEN (2022), ‘Yemen’s Socialist Experiment Was a Political Landmark for the Arab World’ in

DAHLGREN, SUSANNE (2013), ‘Revisiting the Issue of Women's Rights in Southern Yemen’ in Arabian Humanities online.

MOLYNEUX, MAXINE (1979) ‘Women and Revolution in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen’ in Feminist Review (London: Sage Publications, Ltd). 

DAHLGREN, SUSANNE (2010) ‘Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen’ in Miriam Cooke, Simona Sharoni, Suad Joseph (eds.), Gender, Culture, and Politics in the Middle East (New York: Syracuse University Press). 

MOLYNEUX, MAXINE (1989) ‘Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism’ in Marilyn Blatt Young, Rayna Rapp, Sonia Kruks (eds.), New Feminist Library (New York: Monthly Review Press). 

HALLIDAY, FRED (1979) ‘Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution: Socialism in the South’ in Judith Tucker, Joe Stork, Jim Paul, Joan Mandell, Philip Khoury, Peter Johnson, Lynne Barbee (eds.), Middle East Research and Information Project Inc (Washington, D.C.: MERIP). 

South YemenAdenPDRYSouthern heritageFeminismGUYWNLFMarxism–LeninismWomen