Membership in the social group known as muhammasheen is hereditary but not ethnically determined. The term designates a group of Yemenis associated with certain types of occupations. According to a publication by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, muhammasheen are considered “weak” in traditional Yemeni social structures; they encounter discrimination because they are perceived as “lacking origins,” in other words, unable to trace their ancestral roots to Yemen’s main tribes. The study, titled Bringing Forth the Voices of Muhammasheen, affirms that marriage between the muhammasheen and other social groups is socially unacceptable. The muhammasheen are also forbidden to own property or bear arms.
Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, levels of coexistence in society have fallen. Pre-existing segregation and other forms of discrimination against the muhammasheen and other minorities have increased, as detailed in Even War Discriminates, a book by Rania el-Rajji published in 2016.
The Yemeni Organization Against Discrimination, a Sana’a-based human rights group founded in 2012, advocates for muhammasheen in Yemen through awareness campaigns on legal and educational issues.
“In Yemen, there can be acceptance and equality only if we recognise each other as Yemeni citizens first,” said Yahya Saleh al-Sulaihi, the group’s director, “with the understanding that Yemen’s power and wealth belong to all of us. “
Overcoming discrimination against the muhammasheen, he added, requires a concerted effort to create an inclusive state. “Our loyalty as citizens should be to the constitution and the law, not to customs, tribes or political parties,” he said.
The debilitating circumstances of the war, compounded by limited funding, have forced the NGO to limit its work to documenting and monitoring rights abuses.
Women Also Suffer Entrenched Discrimination
Article 1 of the 2015 draft Yemeni constitution states that “the Federal Republic of Yemen is a federal state, civil, democratic, Arab Islamic, independent and a sovereign country; based on the will of the people, equal citizenship and the rule of law.”
But these policies hardly reflect everyday reality in the country, which has ranked at the bottom of almost every gender gap index for the past few years. This is not only due to the war; Yemen has also had the poorest results of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap surveys for over a decade. According to the Arabia Felix Center for Studies, violence against women was a recurring problem long before the outbreak of the war, particularly within families.
The final document of the ten-month National Dialogue Conference, which concluded in January 2014, offered a list of recommendations concerning coexistence. The first of them states that the preamble to Yemen’s future constitution should “guarantee the principles of equal citizenship, dignity and rights of citizens in Yemen, social justice and the rule of law in a civil and democratic state.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from the past ten years, said independent writer and journalist Mohammed Al-Alani, 37, it is that “our fate as Yemenis is intertwined as never before.”
“When this kind of thinking and awareness prevails,” he added, “a common ground for national action will emerge, which we can use as a starting point to rebuild the Yemeni state.”
This interdependence provides a basis for the resumption of dialogue to resolve contentious issues raised at the National Dialogue Conference, said Dr Abdul Kareem Ghanem, a senior researcher with the Arabia Felix Center for Studies.
“These issues include the civilian state project and the distribution of power and wealth in a way that ensures the promotion of social integration,” he added.
Dialogue can promote reconciliation, acceptance of diversity, and the principle of equal citizenship. It will enable the rebuilding of a state whose institutions embody the kind of tolerance that reinforces efforts to sustain peaceful coexistence, especially in the wake of war.