Black ’Ayb and Female Mediation in Yemeni Tribes

Zain Alaabdain Ben Ali
Tribal customary law regulates much of life in Yemen. One of the guiding concepts that enables society to distinguish right from wrong is based on a spectrum of ’ayb, or disgrace, which carries a colour code to mete out punishment and compensate for dishonourable behaviour. The status of women in tribal societies is greatly impacted by this system, which predates the 19th century, when leaders from different tribes unified Yemen’s tribal code based on rules originating in old Yemeni kingdoms.
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No discussion about tribal custom in Yemen is complete without the mention of disgrace as an index of misconduct. It’s one that protects women’s status yet hinders their potential for conflict mediation. 

This cultural contract has allowed society to self-regulate its affairs, according to Tribes and the State in Yemen, by Rim Mugahed with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Under this system, all individuals know their rights and duties as well as the consequences of any wrongful acts. 


Tribal ’Ayb

Under tribal law, an act deemed a disgrace must be punished. ’Ayb can be categorised according to its degree of severity: the colour code, for example, categorises manslaughter and unintentional homicide as white ’ayb, the least offensive. Black ’ayb, on the other hand, applies to treacherous murder, the most severe.

Sheikh Abdul Hadi Mohammed al-Shami, 40, leader of the Arhab tribe in northern Sana’a Governorate, said examples of crimes that are pronounced black ’ayb include murder committed during or after reconciliation, the killing of a travel companion or guest, and femicide. 

According to tribal custom, punishment for acts of disgrace takes two forms of compensation, the financial measure of which is known as diya.

In the Nihm tribe, north of the capital Sana’a, one diya is worth US $8,000. If a perpetrator is sentenced to pay 11 diyas, he would face a fine of $88,000.

“These harsh sentences deter potential criminals so that everyone can live in security, tranquillity and peace,” al-Shami said.

“I have never known or heard of a woman who committed black ayb.

The other form of compensation in tribal law is requital, for example tha’r, a revenge killing after a murder. Collective compensation goes to the entire community because its security and stability have been threatened. 

Al-Shami listed alternatives to revenge killing in cases categorised as black ’ayb. Forgiveness can be granted in exchange for diya if agreed upon by both parties without arbitration. If the family of the victim chooses arbitration, the diya is determined by judges. The perpetrator can also be expelled and his house destroyed if the victim was a resident of the same village. Finally, the perpetrator may also face sentencing in a court of law. 


‘Ayb and Women in the Tribal System 

The abuse of women is one of the most punishable acts in tribal customs. Femicide is a major offence; even the unintended killing of a woman is severely punished. 

“If a woman is killed accidentally, the killer must pay 11 diyas, and black ’ayb will taint his name,” said Reem Buhaybih, 35, the first of only three women in Marib’s tribes to earn a PhD (hers is in business administration).

Tribal custom grants women special privileges in times of war: attacking them is explicitly forbidden. This protection is extended to whomever seeks it.

“If a man appeals to a woman to grant him protection, tribal law prohibits aggression against him,” Buhaybih said, “even if he is from an enemy tribe.”

This can lead to a period of calm if negotiations are underway. 

Women are regarded as virtually infallible in tribal custom, and as such cannot be capable of black ’ayb. 

“I have never known or heard of a woman who committed black ’ayb,” Buhaybih said, adding that if this came to pass, she would be obliged to pay diya but would not be expelled.

Such privileges have made Yemeni women successful mediators between individuals and tribes. 

Amina al-Thabti, 26, from the al-Abdiyah district in Marib, recalls how her mother, Jom’a Mohammed, managed to prevent violent conflict. 

“After one person was accidentally killed, the two sides prepared for war,” she said. “My mother stood in the middle of the square and announced her intention to bring goodwill and prevent bloodshed, to offer the mediation of the sheikhs, and do a good deed.” 

Then she gave an ultimatum: “Either you accept this, or you kill me.” 

Although the two sides tried to evade a promise of reconciliation, they eventually agreed to stop fighting. 

“My mother refused to move until the promise was sealed,” al-Thabti said. “The sedition was quenched, and the fire of war was extinguished.” 

Al-Thabti’s mother was able to impose peace because of her position in both tribes. 

Women in Yemeni society derive their strength from the men in their family, said Dhiaa al-Aweeni of the Al-Kathir tribe in eastern Yemen.

“Tribal law prohibits aggression against a man if he is granted protection from a woman.”

Yet society will accept and respect a woman’s conflict mediation only if she is backed by the male members of her family, according to a research paper titled “Women’s Non-Traditional Roles in Tribal Societies.” Dhiaa al-Aweeni, a member of the al-Kathir tribe in eastern Yemen and a contributor to the paper, writes that a lack of support by a woman’s brothers means society will not accept her mediating position, even if her arguments are correct.

The need for male support as a pre-requisite to legitimacy is only one aspect of a woman’s position as a vulnerable element in the tribal system. As in many other societies, women are considered guardians of the tribe’s honour. Any attack on her is considered an attack on the whole tribe, which is why most tribes prefer male mediators. 

While trying to resolve a dispute, a male mediator may be belittled or his efforts can be rejected without fearing that his tribe’s honour will be insulted, which would not be the case if the mediator were a woman, according to the same report. 

However, this dichotomous situation has not prevented Yemeni women from playing a role in conflict resolution at family, neighbourhood, or tribal levels, said Amina al-Thabti, who feels strengthened by her mother’s experience. She’s convinced she can play a role in the mediation of inter-tribal conflicts, she added, on one condition: “That my brothers don’t object.”

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