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  Book review

Yemeni Voices: Women tell their stories

edited by Marta Paluch, with illustrations by Amnah Al-Nassiri

British Council, Yemen, 2001. Pp. 319. Pb. £8.95. ISBN 0-86355-468-7.

This is a fascinating book. The idea is deceptively simple: women talk about their lives. The individual interviews are framed with brief sections on general background and the circumstances of each interview. A short epilogue gives the comments of the women who had been interviewed on the finished book. The aim is to enable an English readership to find out more about women’s lives in Yemen and get away from stereotypes.

I spent twenty months in the early 1 980s living in the western highlands, doing anthropological research into the lives of women in a small mountain town. The women of this book are staggeringly far removed from those I knew, and far from typical of women in Yemen. They are (mostly) from a tiny highly-educated minority. Many have studied abroad, they have professional careers; they include one of the first two women MPs and the first woman ambassador, as well as workers in education, health and development.

Some common themes emerge. One is the vital importance of education for girls. Several struggled to be educated, including one who went to school without her father’s knowledge. Both conflict with fathers, and the importance of support from them and other family members, are prominent. As one interviewee says, ‘in Yemen, if you have a father who supports you, you can do a lot of things that society does not easily accept’.

We get a sense of massive achievement, and a massive amount remaining to be done. There are striking examples of what individuals have achieved: ‘I feel that I have positively influenced the women of the region. Each father who previously took his daughter out of school, has now brought her back. Mothers use me as an example to encourage their daughters to continue their education’; and also of the constraints that come with achievement: ‘being the model of the educated girl, I have to be very careful in my behaviour. ’ Some have combined the roles of wife and mother with a professional career. Another says that sadly ‘women still have to make a choice between marriage and work’.

The interviews show the huge gulf between women in villages and in cities, between past and present, rich and poor, north and south. There is a strong sense of steps forward and back, with heartrending accounts of gains made and lost: ‘When we compare the situation of the women in the north and south today we see that women in the north are moving forward ... But in the south we feel we are retreating. ’ Women who could go out or travel alone unchallenged are now expected to be always accompanied by a husband or brother’.

One interviewee expresses the risk of increasing polarisation: ‘As for the future of women, I think the situation of my generation is better than my mother’s and my grandmother’s ... Now we have education, we have the opportunity to study . . . Young women drive cars, they work with men, they travel ... This is particularly true for families with a good economic situation ... But poor women, I don’t see much hope for them. I think their situation will get worse. If there is a lobby from women to do something about this, maybe it will change. ’

Another makes the point that there are women in powerful positions, but they are a mere handful: ‘What about the women at the grassroots? There is no doubt that they are oppressed by men whose behaviour is based on the backward customs of a male dominated society, but has nothing to do with Islam. ’

While not representative or typical, women like these are pivotal for the future. They have pushed at boundaries. Although the book focuses on entirely exceptional women, it carries an awareness of all the others; these women struggled, consciously, on behalf of all: ‘We have to fight for our rights and even if I cannot enjoy the fruit of my struggle, the next generation will. ’

The editorial framework is beautifully done, clear and elegantly restrained, mostly leaving women to speak for themselves. It deserves the comment from one interviewee: ‘this kind of book, where you have interviews and you do not interfere in the interviews, is really what I call democratic and it respects the readers themselves, because in this way you let each reader analyse for himself or herself rather than give them in advance your own analysis.’ The atmospheric illustrations bring the book to life.

When I first opened this book, I was a little put off to see that the interviewer and editor didn’t speak fluent Arabic, and that the women interviewed were so unrepresentative. But the book transcends these constraints. Marta Paluch has assembled elements which add up to something greater: a rich and moving document, where a vanguard of women hold the possibility of change for all in their struggles. Their honesty about their own development is inspiring and moving. We are lucky to have this record. I felt privileged to be reading it.

I can’t do better than end by quoting from the comments the women who were interviewed made on the final book:

‘I don’t know what it’s like in your part of the world but here history is always written from the side of the men. Maybe this will be a start so that history will be written from the point of view of women.’ ...  ‘I think this book will change the way people think about Yemeni women.’ ... ‘What attracts me most about this book is that it can be considered as an encouragement to determined women to stand against any difficulties they face in their lives.’