A Yemeni woman in a mountain village (UNDP)

Women in Yemen: Between Historical Position and War Obstacles


Sat, 02-12-2023 10:35 AM, Aden Time

While grandmothers in ancient Yemen and the post-Islam states had risen to power, their granddaughters now in the modern era suffer from marginalization, exclusion, and ineffective political participation. 

Bilqees AlAbdaly (South24) 

On December 16, 2019, ’Amnesty International‘ issued a report titled ’Yemen: One of the Worst Places in the World to be a Woman‘ [1]. In 2017, Yemen was listed as the worst place for women, according to some UN reports.[2] This is despite the fact that Yemen is considered a tribal community that resorts more to customary regulations than law. These traditional guidelines look at women as being the honor of the tribe that shouldn’t be touched. Moreover, women in Yemen are among the immune categories, protected by the power of their customary codes. This protection extends to include all who take refuge in the women even if they have feud issues. The traditional regulations criminalize attacking women as a “black shame” [3] that attracts public mobilization and strict penalties.[4] The punishment for assaulting women is known as “Al-Marboua”, which stipulates financial compensation worth the ‘diyya' (blood money) of four women if the attack [5] is unintentional. If the attack is intentional, other penalties are also imposed on the perpetrators, such as public denunciation

Historical leadership 

Some authors have written about the 11 queens who ruled ancient Yemen [6]. The most prominent among them is Queen Bilqees, daughter of the King of Sheba, Al-Hahdad bin Sharhabeel. She inherited the throne after the death of her father due to her wisdom and exceptional leadership skills. She was mentioned in the holy books without identifying her name. The Torah refers to her as ’Queen of Sheba‘ or ’Queen of Timna‘ (Queen of South) and says that she visited Prophet Suleiman and gave him expensive gifts. The Holy Quran identifies her as being “a woman [7] who has a great throne”. The opinions of historians and experts about Bilqees overlap between the story, myth, and history. Some say that the name of Bilqees [8] refers to a number of Yemeni queens who had ruled the Kingdom of Sheba. However, almost all of them describe their reigns as being “prosperous” and “strong”. They also link Bilqees to “cleverness” and “wisdom”.
President of the Change Horizons Forum in Yemen

Some historians consider Queen Sayeda bint Ahmed Al-Sulayhi (known as Arwa) one of the greatest rulers of the Sulayhid dynasty. She took power between 1085 and 1138 [9] after her husband fell ill. She had managed to expand the clout of her power and moved the capital to Jiblah (currently in Ibb Governorate) instead of Sanaa. She was known for her intelligence. She encouraged education, built schools, paved roads, and reduced taxes. Her reign was characterized by doctrinal tolerance and coexistence among different Islamic sects. Her name was mentioned in the kingdom’s mosques. People used to pray for her during the Friday sermons. Historians competed to enumerate her virtues. She was nicknamed “Little Bilqees”.

Between past and present

Yemeni history books boast about Queen Arwa as a very important proof of the historical status of Yemeni women. Other historians say that Queen Arwa wasn’t the only queen whose name was mentioned during Friday’s sermons. She was preceded by her aunt Queen Asmaa bint Shihab who ruled Yemen along with her husband King Al-Sulayhi in the 11th century. She used to attend public gatherings. Their names were mentioned together during Friday’s sermons across all mosques in Yemen. [10] During the Rasulid dynasty, Rasulid princesses were known for encouraging science. They surpassed the Rasulid kings regarding the number of schools they built. They constructed 34 schools while the kings established 20 schools over a span of more than 230 years, the age of the Rasulid Dynasty.[11]

Till now, the Queen Arwa Mosque still stands in Ibb, and its architectural features are still clear. It became a prominent religious and historical landmark. In Marib too, the throne of Queen Bilqees is among the most important historical Yemeni landmarks. Many schools, universities, streets, commercials shops, and major companies in Yemen were named after the prominent Yemeni queens. One of the most famous and common female names in Yemen is “Bilqees”. This symbolizes the most important period in Yemeni history that Yemeni men and women are proud of, and also denotes the eminent position these ancient rulers continue to occupy in the collective Yemeni consciousness. However, the status of Women in Yemen today is very different and doesn’t reflect the status enjoyed by the women in the earlier decades. This also doesn’t convey their status within the tribal traditional rules that emphasizes the sensitivity of dealing with women. This is contrary to the status of the Yemeni queens whose names were mentioned in the Friday sermons. Today, their granddaughters are attacked in the Friday sermons in an unprecedented strange act that goes against the customs and values of the Yemeni community. Additionally, on Friday platforms, some have called for the imposition of more restrictions on Yemeni women in all fields of life, especially the political one which is considered a historical heritage that has distinguished Yemeni women from their peers in many Arab countries for a long time. 

"Studying the status of women in South and North Yemen from a social perspective has become important in order to compare the historical role and position of women with the current realities ever since the conflict with the Houthis broke out in 2014".

On December 18, 2022, the first Yemeni government minus any female representation for the first time in 20 years was formed.[12] The political participation of women in Yemen has declined. More restrictions have been imposed on women’s free movement. Contrary to the customary tribal rules, men were arrested from their homes although they were under the protection of their women and young girls. Moreover, the personal belongings of women have been searched at security points in several areas. Due to the war, many security checkpoints stop vehicles and search everyone including women. There is a big decline in the number of females who work in the security sector.


The progress of a country is usually measured by the status and role of its women. The more women actively participate in governance and all walks of life, the more advanced the country is. While grandmothers in ancient Yemen and the post-Islam states had risen to power, their granddaughters now suffer from marginalization, exclusion, and ineffective political participation in the modern era.

In any case, the international reports related to women’s rights in Yemen may not be relied upon absolutely. Women realize the actual conditions they are experiencing. Violations today aren’t related to female rights as set out in the international agreements. The violations are related to customs and traditions and many local and national binding laws. Therefore, studying the status of women in South and North Yemen from a social perspective has become important in order to compare the historical role and position of women with the current realities ever since the conflict with the Houthis broke out in 2014. This should produce a series of long-term approaches that restore trust-building among political and religious parties on the one hand and women leaders on the other. This would open the way for their active political participation to regain the leadership role that Yemeni women have always enjoyed and guarantee their rights and freedoms as main actors in the political spectrum.

Bilqees Al Abdaly
President of the Change Horizons Forum in Yemen
An activist in the fields of gender, peace-building, local mediation, and women’s rights.
Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic.

Yemeni womenWomen in YemenOppressionHouthisEquityEqualityFeminismSouth YemenWar