By Jihan Anwar
In a social system in which men are viewed – by law and per tradition – as superior, a woman will be expected to obey and seek the approval of male guardians throughout her life. According to numerous studies, this type of cultural setting can typically set the stage for the abuse of women by male partners and/or family members. Such is the case in Yemen.
This hierarchical relationship between men and women is instilled and seen as acceptable since childhood, particularly in the household and at school. Every female is expected to submit to the orders of a husband, a father or a brother. Male figures are culturally endowed with the right to decide matters for females, whether these matters concern an education, marriage or career.
Such a dynamic endows men with a great deal of power, a power which can be used to violate women’s basic rights with impunity.
Marginalized, low income and rural women have been reported as being the most vulnerable to domestic violence. Considering that a majority of the population is distributed among rural areas – where the income of the average Yemeni is below $2 per day, often accompanied by illiteracy and unemployment – suggested that women in such circumstances are particularly vulnerable to domestic abuse.
According to the study ‘Violence Against Women in Yemen’, which was conducted by the International Review of Victimology, husbands were most often the perpetrators of violence against women. Fathers and brothers came in second and third, with strangers representing only a small percentage.
Domestic violence is generally considered a gender-specific crime, with males the abusers and females the victims. Though violence may be used by women, it is usually reported as self-defense rather than the result of a will to dominate others.
Walid Barhoon, a UNDP Gender Advisor, stated that domestic violence is common in Yemen, despite the absence of accurate monitoring tools and data.
In a 2012 Interior Ministry report, it was noted that the number of women arrested for killing their husbands had seen a sudden increase. About 50 women between the ages of 25 to 50 were arrested the previous year and domestic violence was identified as one of the major motives for the crimes.
It has also been perceived, as a generality, that domestic violence incidents go underreported. It’s seen as rare for women to file complaints against their husbands, and especially when they have a low level of education and have no means to earn an independent income.
According to a National Women’s Committee (NWC) study, only 5% of women who were the victims of domestic violence proceeded to report the incidents to the police. This can be attributed to several factors.
To begin with, very few Yemeni women are fully aware of their rights; meanwhile, even less are familiar with what can be fairly considered domestic violence. Complicating the matter, various forms of verbal and physical abuse, as well as restrictions on freedom, are regarded as aspects of Yemen’s cultural heritage and customs.
Amal Abdulqader, a Project Manager at the Soul for Development NGO, remarked that when females were prevented from attending school in Hajjah governorate, for example, rebellion or refusal to abide by this restriction weren’t even considered as responses. In rural areas in particular, it has been an accepted and established norm that following the 5th grade in school, girls were expected to stay at home, either to help with housework or to prepare to get married.
Moreover, forms of violence or abuse in certain situations are viewed as being deserved consequences.
According to the Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa (SWMENA) study, domestic violence, as conveyed by a sample of Yemeni women and men, was most likely to follow “the wife doing or saying something wrong that merits punishment.”
The fact that the majority in the sample viewed domestic violence as a consequence of the wife’s behavior is revealing when it comes to society’s perspectives on domestic violence.
According to the SWMENA study, the 21% of women with no education “were the most likely to report that it is always justified for women to be beaten by their husbands if they go out without permission.”
UNDP Gender Advisor Baharoon observed that with the great influence and popularity that religious extremists’ ideologies have lately regained, domestic violence has both increased and been justified by perceived religious teachings. Due to its perceived legitimacy, it can be essentially considered a crime for victims to report cases of domestic violence. Rather than find justice, victims can possibly expect retaliation from the perpetrator of domestic violence.
While some husbands and fathers have justified the beating of their wives and children as being permissible according to Islamic law, Nabila Al-Dhourani, a manager at the Hafsa Center for the Memorization of the Holy Quran, opined that in such cases verses from the Holy Quran have been intentionally misinterpreted.
She explained that ‘permission’ to beat one’s wife is usually taken from a verse in Surat Al-Nisa’a, in which the verb ‘dharaba’ is taken to mean ‘beat’, while in the original Arabic, it’s closer to the verb ‘strike lightly’ or ‘talk in a persuading tone’.
“Hitting another human being in Islam is not condoned, and can be accepted only if it was used as a method of last resort. Even so, the striking shouldn’t cause a wound, break any bones or hurt the humanity and dignity of a person,” she added.
Layla Mohammed, who was a victim of severe abuse at the hands of her husband, nevertheless continued to live with him. By the time Layla died, she had developed into a hunchback , “of the type that you see among very old people,” said Al-Dhourani. Layla’s physical situation resembled the manner in which the stem of a flower bends when it has no more strength or nutrients to stand tall.
Yet Layla was just 40 years old; though some speculated her severely curved back was the result of some illness or disease, very few could know the true cause. A mother of two, Layla was the first wife of a husband who married twice. After his second marriage, he reportedly grew increasingly violent towards her. One day, when his anger possessed him, he beat Layla to the point that her spinal cord was damaged, leaving her irretrievably crippled.
Only 17% of women who were beaten by their husbands were provided with medical services after receiving injuries, reported a 2003 NW health survey.
“Nowadays, women in Yemen could be treated violently for any reason,” commented Baharoon, who listed clothing choices, a failure to prepare food, not bringing her salary to her husband, and failing to attend to all males in the family as some of the most frequent rationales behind violence against women in Yemen.
He also noted that relative to thirty years ago, the domestic abuse situation had drastically deteriorated, and especially for women in Yemen’s south.
Before 1989, women residing in the south of Yemen, which was formerly under British colonial rule, generally enjoyed more rights. For example, they were able to advance in their careers while their counterparts in the north, who were under the rule of the Imamate, were prevented from participation in the public sphere and were generally confined to their homes.
In 1984, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was signed by Yemen. Despite this, articles in the current Yemeni constitution continue to disfavor females. In 2011, Yemen was ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. In the Gender Inequality Index, Yemen ranked 146th out of 146 countries.
Lawyer Lamis Al-Arashi commented that even when the rights of women were supposed to be granted by law, they were very rarely enforced by police authorities in practice.
“Women are not taken seriously, not even in court, and their complaints and cases receive little attention,” said Al-Arashi. Though a law may be in the books, judges possess ultimate discretion.
The past two years have been trying for Yemenis in a number of ways. Some have cited stress, work pressure and a decrease in quality of life as major reasons behind the increase in the type of aggression which leads to domestic violence.
Baharoon identified a deterioration in the socio-economic lives of Yemeni families and an absence of punishments for those who are abusive towards women as significant factors. He also cited “strong religious and cultural acceptance for any violence committed against women within the family” as a major factor behind the practice.
Such violence inflicted upon women in Yemen varies in degree and form. Of the women interviewed for the study by the International Review of Victimology, 55% reported that they had been physically abused; 34% financially victimized; and 17% that they had been the victims of sexual abuse.
In Baharoon’s words, “Strong religious and cultural acceptance of any violence committed against women within the family” amounts to a major reason why domestic violence is so prevalent in Yemen. If this is true – and there are many indications that it is – any successful campaign against the practice will challenge the harmful social practices and cultural values which lie at root level.
More than anything else, it is clear that domestic violence must first be recognized as a form of abuse by society before steps to combat the practice will begin to be effective.