Face of a Yemeni youth his face painted in the colours of the Yemeni flag (photo: AP)

Paternal and Religious Authority in the Arab World
Yemen's Sons Have Broken the Vow of Silence

In the patriarchal and deeply religious culture of Yemen, every revolt against the father is likewise a revolt against God. Now, however, the younger generation has discovered ways and means to avoid paternal authority, writes Michael Roes

I have just returned from Yemen, where I wanted to make a film about deaf youths. Everything had been planned and prepared for a year. I only needed a classroom in Aden in order to begin filming. The school for the deaf in Khor Maksar and the parents of the deaf-mute children supported my plans to do the film adaptation of Nigel Williams' "Class Enemy" with a group of deaf students. And soon enough, we found a suitable room, a rundown classroom that only served as storage space for broken desks.

We could have started right then if it wasn't for the lack of an official permission from the school authorities, as the principle's jurisdiction in such matters is limited. After all, this does concern a film, something that might be shown in public. Perhaps it could offend someone, and possibly cause problems. This would mean having to find someone responsible – someone who could be punished. And this is only about an unused classroom. Or is it?

We were still quite optimistic as we set out to find the school inspector for the Khor Maksar district. We met with great sympathy for our project. Yes, it is a wonderful idea to shoot a film with these poor deaf children, we were told. Of course, the classroom would be made available. Yet, the authorities would first like to have a quick look at the scenario.

This was the beginning of the end for the project.

The translation into Arabic required days, and we waited even longer for a response. Finally, we were asked to come to the local school board. In addition to accepting some censorship of the script, we would be obliged to have two members of the school board present during filming – understandably for our own security and to provide support. And, of course, it was taken for granted that we would be paying the salaries of our "guardians" during this time – money from the non-existent budget of our no-budget production.

Masters in the art of friendly obstruction

Yes, Yemen is corrupt, just like all of its neighbouring countries. And the corruption ends up hindering every independent initiative and attempts at renewal. There is always someone with an outstretched hand claiming to be responsible. It is also true that Yeminis, at least those employed by the state apparatus, which nonetheless make up about half the population, are paranoid. They hold their positions, not because they are particularly qualified for the office, but rather because they have connections or bribed their superiors.

Photo: AP
Yemen's patriarchal society has hampered social and political development for centuries, writes Michael Roes. Now there are cracks in the temple of authority. Pictured: Youth protests against President Saleh in Yemen's capital Sana'a

​​And then they have to make decisions on matters of which they have no idea whatsoever. Instead of making the wrong decision, it is better to make no decision at all. And if they haven't learned anything else, they are all masters in the art of friendly obstruction. That is unless the size of the bribe is worth the risk of a decision.

And here end the parallels to Yemen's Arab brother countries. Yemen is different. No other country in the Arab world was catapulted so quickly from the Middle Ages to post-modern times – within only one generation – as this poorest state in the region. The smart phone with its place next to the traditional curved dagger on a wide leather belt is the most striking image of simultaneous transformation and immutability.

Yemen's rebellious nature

The current protests in Yemen are not really all that surprising. There have always been demonstrations and revolts. The press was always freer, or at least more courageous, than in neighbouring states. A proud tribal warrior can't be banned from speaking his mind.

The tribal structures of the country have certainly prevented the formation of a unified and functioning state structure, but have likewise hindered the complete control and subjugation of the country's population. The power of the president, in fact, ends at the borders of the capital city, and, at present, it doesn't even extend that far. Any attempt to exercise control requires negotiation with various power brokers. The use of violence may prove to be a supporting argument, but never a decisive one.

The demonstrations in Sana'a, which until now have been surprisingly peaceful for this otherwise warlike country, have wrested the first concessions from the president. In Aden, by contrast, things are strangely quiet, although the South Yemenis reject the government in Sana'a. Without a doubt, they also want to see an end to the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. But they see the post of president merely as a symbol, a sort of symptom carrier. They are against the whole political, social, and religious order of the North that was imposed upon the South after "reunification" in 1989. As a result, an armed rebellion broke out in the 1990s that was subsequently brutally suppressed.

Intellectuals, women, and young people, above all, regard themselves as victims of this annexation, which they see as a step back into the Middle Ages. And they have a point. Women have almost completely vanished from all positions of responsibility. They can only appear in public wearing a veil, just like the women in Sana'a. The universities have sunk to levels found in the North, while cultural life has been pushed back into the private sphere or dilettantism.

Photo: picture alliance/dpa
"When we talk of 'fathers' in Yemen, we don't limit ourselves to actual physical fathers, but also include representative father figures – the imams, teachers, police, and politicians." – Pictured: Security police units during the protests in Sana'a


Revolt in the Age of New Media

For the tribes living on the border with Saudi Arabia, the situation is similarly unclear and ambivalent. They have only recently agreed to a cease fire with Ali Abdulla Saleh after many years of engaging in what was practically a civil war. No doubt the president had to pay a hefty price (although not out of his own pocketbook). Now, events have cast this hard-fought compromise into doubt. In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, however, the Yemeni president has not had to face a determined block of frustrated citizens.

Saleh is a member of the Hashid tribe, one of the largest and most influential tribes in the country, and can rely on the solidarity of his fellow tribesmen. In addition, he is a military man. He was military governor of Taiz province when, in 1978, he overthrew his predecessor in a putsch and immediately eliminated all potential opponents from the military apparatus. One of the first measures that the Yemeni president promised to enact in reaction to recent protests was, in addition to renouncing a further term in office, to raise soldier's salaries.

Under the current circumstances, I do not wish to make any predictions on the political future of Yemen. This is not just because the situation is so complex, but also because something completely new is taking place for which there is no model – there is a media age revolt brewing among the country's sons. If there is one thing that binds all Arab cultures, it is the absolute authority of fathers over their children.

Sary is only one of many Yemeni friends who have told me of their problems with their fathers. He has no one with whom he can confide. He has not even told his best friend about the conflicts in his family.

Talking about such problems is considered shameful – not only for violent fathers, but also for the suffering sons. Sary is nineteen. He would have liked to study, but had to help in his father's business. Like many, he sympathizes with the demonstrators in Sana'a. Yet, he would never dare to take to the streets in Aden. His father would probably beat him to death.

The absolute power of the father

Sary is the kind of young man that any father could be proud of – he is intelligent, polite, and helpful. Sary's father, however, doesn't seem to appreciate this. Some days, he appears to be the caring family man, only to suddenly turn violent and brutal. He tyrannizes Sary and his siblings with absurd rules and subjects them to severe punishment. A young man in Yemen cannot simply move out of his family home. A father enjoys absolute power over his children, even when they are grown up. Corporal punishment is not a crime. On the contrary, it is considered necessary for the upbringing of children. Many Koranic scholars even view the murder of one's own children as a father's God-given right.

Photo: AP
"The country's youth have broken the central commandment of paternal authority – the vow of silence." 'Go out', says the writing in the palm of this young protestor, urging President Saleh to leave office

​​When we talk of "fathers" in Yemen, we don't limit ourselves to actual physical fathers, but also include representative father figures – the imams, teachers, police, and politicians. And, likewise, "sons" are not only young persons, whose desires are to be kept in check by all means. In the patriarchal culture of Yemen, a man remains a son, even long after he has become a father himself. Every revolt against the father is likewise a revolt against God. In the Koran, God has designated fathers with absolute authority for all eternity. To place this in doubt is the equivalent of doubting God himself.

This system has hampered social and political development for centuries. Whatever took place behind closed doors did not concern the outside world. This has religious and, therefore, social legitimacy. In recent years, Yemen has experienced changes having unforeseen subversive and revolutionary potential – satellite dishes and fast Internet connections have made the closed doors transparent. Fathers can still lock up their sons and daughters, but can't completely control their outlets of communication.

The younger generation has discovered ways and means to avoid paternal authority and link up with each other beyond their confining walls. The country's youth have thereby broken the central commandment of paternal authority – the vow of silence.

Internalized fear and submission

The new channels of communication have not only broken down the isolation whose victims were left feeling alone in their powerless hatred towards authority. The new connections to the outside world have shown that there are alternatives. Suddenly, it was possible to see a life in freedom. Previously, one was compelled to believe this didn't even exist.

All of my friends in Yemen can relate stories of paternal violence. And their stories seamlessly flow into reports of violence in schools, children's homes, and prisons. The rage arising from paternal humiliation and injury has now coalesced in a medium where it has been amplified with the force of an explosion. What will happen in Yemen after this blast, which can be heard around the world, remains to be seen.

Is there sufficient time to take the necessary steps to turn this internalized fear and submission into a sense of responsible self-determination? Even among the most ardent opposition figures in Yemen have I yet to meet anyone prepared to cast doubt on religious authority.

Rather, it seems much more the case that in deeply religious Yemen, the patriarchal structures will remain tied to their religious legitimacy for some time to come.

Michael Roes

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantara.de 2011

The author and filmmaker Michael Roes, born in 1960, has been constantly drawn back to Yemen after spending a one-year research stay in the country, where, in 2000, he filmed "Someone is Sleeping in my Pain." His novel "Rub' al-Khali. Leeres Viertel" ("Rub al-Khali. Empty Part of Town") is also set in Yemen.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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