Sufi Schools in Yemen: Life Behind the Veil

National Yemen

Mohammed Abdulmalik

Nowhere else in Hadramout is spirituality elevated to the highest level as in Tarim, the city of light. Tarim is the heart of Sufism with its Islamic schools are attracting good numbers of young Western Muslims in search of life as a real Muslim. It draws young Western women to a remote valley in the Yemeni desert to learn more about Islam.

In Tarim, there are still some old habits preventing girls from showing their faces. They cover them with a black Niqab, and young people are also not allowed to wear jeans.

Dar al-Zahra located in the center of Tarim and specializes in educating women in the holy Quran. Dar al-Zahra is a prominent school, and female students come from America, Britain, England and Spain and wear a Hijab wrapped around their heads, even while sleeping because angels prefer it, according to a statement made by Sufi scholars.

When visitors arrive in Tarim, they see four prominent colors: yellow is the color of the mountains and houses, black is the color of women’s clothing, white is color of men’s clothing, and green is the color of farms where most women work.

Mohsen Ahmed al-Seri, chairman of Dar al-Zahra, said that they teach the science of hearts, a Sufi approach, to more than two hundred students from foreign countries and fifty Yemeni students, all gathered in their desire to worship Allah.

“Foreign women come with a strong desire to commit to wearing the veil and changing their behavior, especially after their shamelessness lives in their home countries. They want to escape from temptation and mixing to learn the purposes of Islamic law and publish in their countries when they get back,” al-Seri said.

Dar al-Zahra’s students accept all the rules, even the rule preventing the use of any electronic devices except a mobile phone once a week. “We inform them of these instructions from the very beginning because it is better to be used to taking care of their hearts and repenting far away from electronic devices that have misguided ideas,” al-Seri said.

The daily program for the students in Dar al-Zahra starts one hour before dawn prayers. They wake up to read the holy Quran, perform al-Qiam prayers, then perform the dawn prayer, and then they read the morning Doa’a and rest from sunrise to breakfast.

At seven o’clock in the morning they begin daily classes until 11 am, then lunch, and after that every student has their nap time. After al-Asr prayer, they listen to al-Rouha lesson, then they go to pray for al-Maghreb, read the Quran until al-Isha prayer, followed by a rest period and then they have dinner and go directly to review their lessons before getting ready for bed at exactly 10 pm.

Dar al-Zahra requires students to memorize at least a part of the holy Quran, master the Arabic language, stay in the house for at least a year, and each student pays US$180 per month for the cost of a bed and food.

Teaching is according to the traditional Islamic system and students are prevented from leaving the school building alone except when visiting a friend or attending a wedding party. According to Sufi sheikhs of the Dar al-Zahra administration, they get assistance from their wives to conduct transactions for the students.

“The veil is a cover for women and chastity for men.” This phrase is found on the gates of the Tarim secondary school for girls that graduated 200 students in 2013-2014. Only 30 joined the university for three reasons. Parents in Tarim don’t want their daughters to continue their education because of the mixing of male and females in the university, the university is very far, and sometimes they are unable to continue due to difficult economic conditions.

A member of the local council in Tarim said that more girls in the town marry immediately after the preparatory stage at the age of 16 years and if a girl joins the university, her chance to marry becomes less. Another habit followed by girls in Tarim is that they don’t allow makeup or perfume before marriage.

Male youth have started to change some of these habits, Mohammed, a citizen in Tarim, said that when he first came to Sana’a to study media, he changed his mind because he found girls and boys studying and talking with each other. “Reality effects the women and they start to change and create groups to break some of the habits outside Dar al-Zahra,” he said.