The historical city of Marib in Yemen is mostly known for being a tribal city where the state’s laws barely apply. The name of the city has most recently been associated with Al-Qaeda, terrorism and revenge killing. The untold story is the role of women in this society.The stereotype of women in Marib is that they are tough and armed. Yet there are no female sheikhs to judge between opponents or play a mediating role in political or social crises. However, women can still take the lead in times of war.
“It’s the best time for woman when there is a war between their tribe and other tribes. As the men are busy fighting, sometimes there are dangers so women have to take the lead and manage daily life. No opponent will harm them or even talk to them because of the great respect women have in our community,” explained Yasmeen Al-Qadhi, the first female journalist in Marib.
Some tribes train their daughters in how to use weapons for self-defense. Hajwa Hassen, a women in her fifties, has her own Kalashnikov. She was living with her husband in a conflict zone that witnessed several months of shooting between opposing tribes. Hajwa had to learn how to use the weapon to protect her family and land in the absence of her husband. As the tribe’s men don’t treat women as opponents, they never attacked her while her husband was away. On some dark nights, when strange cars passed through their land, Hajwa would fire warning shots into the sky. When the strangers saw that it was a woman shooting, they would leave.
When women travel far from their house they carry weapons. “Marib is the safest place for women. They never worried about harassment, as it’s a tribal place, and everybody knows each other. So everyone avoids this situation,” said Yasmeen.
The interaction between women and men in Marib is simpler than in the big cities, as everybody knows each other. Even strangers are treated as guests. So women are allowed to receive men at home and welcome them in the absence of their husbands. While in the capital it is seen as shameful for a women to accept a ride in a private car, it’s not the same in Marib. Women do accept rides with people they know or even those they don’t, though sometimes it’s a silent ride.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a noticeable change in the way women are regarded in Marib. Development NGOs have run programs targeting women in the governorates of Marib, Shabwa and Al-Jawf. Many of the programs are focused on leadership skills, and in involving women in anti-terrorism roles through educating their families. Whilst many girls in these areas attend primary school, they still do not often get the chance to continue their education further.
In the early 1980s, Sheikh Ali Al-Qadhi defied the norm of his local society and allowed his daughters to continue their education past primary school level. His daughters became the first four girls to continue their education in Marib. Many in the area accused Al-Qadhi of acting in a shameless manner for allowing his daughters to become educated. Three of the daughters were forbidden to study beyond the fourth grade, but one, Layla Al-Qadhi was allowed to continue.
At the time there was no high schools in her district, so Layla travelled to Sana’a to continue her high school education. After that she went to Sana’a University and graduated in history. She returned to Marib to become head of a school there, and also head of the department for women in the ruling General People’s Congress. The sheikh and locals donated money to have a school built in the district so that no other girl would have to stop their studies for lack of a local school to go to.
Sheikh Al-Qadhi now has 16 daughters. Some of them have masters degrees, some are politically active. Two of his daughters have established a training and development association to help their district’s women to become decision makers. Previously Al-Qadhi’s daughters were looked upon in anger as breaking with local traditions, but now they are well known for their education and have become role models in Marib. When the daughters get married, the marriage contract has a condition that the husband allows their wife to continue her education. Two are married, and are studying for their masters degrees abroad without their husbands.