In Yemen, an Uneven Appreciation of Wisdom that Comes with Age

Eslah Saleh
Yemenis hold senior citizens in high esteem, a social value expressed through respect for elders and positions that reward the wisdom that comes with many years of experience. Women are largely excluded from this latter rank, a condition some Yemenis are trying to change.
Elders are highly revered in Yemen, but older women are excluded from holding higher social positions. © Rod Waddington

Elders represent a pillar of social cohesion and unity in Yemen. The presence of grandparents contributes to communal stability; their homes are the usual meeting place for extended family. 

In a similar fashion, members of the Hamida tribe in the city of Lahij gather around their sheikh, Shihab al-Shamat al-Humaidi, for wisdom and guidance. His council space serves as a daily focal point for neighbours, family and tribe members.

Al-Humaidi was appointed sheikh by tribal consensus ten years ago. Among his most important leadership roles is that of mediator. 

“We work on bringing hearts, souls and minds together, finding solutions and overcoming obstacles,” he said.

“Many women would like to work on conflict resolution.”

Tribal mediation and arbitration is a complex process that requires a deep knowledge of rules and procedures, says Marieke Brandt, a researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. In a paper titled Some Remarks on Blood Vengeance in Contemporary Yemen, she writes: “This complexity includes the necessary commitment of many persons in different functions, such as mediators, arbitrators, guarantors, solidarity groups, and vengeance groups.”

رجل يمني مسنّ من زبيد، إحدى أقدم المدن اليمنيّة. © رود وادينغتون

An elderly resident of Zabid, one of Yemen’s oldest towns.
© Rod Waddington

Sheikhs play a central role in bringing all these groups together and ensuring their participation in the resolution of tribal disputes.

In recent years, however, urbanisation, migration and other factors of social change have weakened traditional systems of conflict management. This has diminished the sheikh’s role to a certain extent, Brandt notes.

But they still actively support their communities, supervising the construction of schools, wells, and health care facilities. Sheikhs also coordinate assistance for tribal members affected by natural disasters such as floods.

Another role traditionally reserved for male elders is aqil, literally “the wise one” who acts as a link between citizens and authorities to help solve problems among the population. 

“In tribal society, the aqil is elected by the members of an extended family and represents the group that is usually identical to a local neighbourhood,” according to the Geneva-based ACAPS project, a civil society group that publishes international, independent humanitarian analysis.

While the title of aqil is usually a male domain, one woman in Aden Governorate managed to close the gender gap in 2003. Fikriya Khalid Abdou, 50, is the only female to hold the position so far. 

“Many women would like to work on conflict resolution,” she said. “They solve family issues and do a lot of follow-up.” 

“We work on bringing hearts, souls and minds together.”

But that does not suffice in Aden, where the aqil is appointed by the governor. 

“I trained many women, and I believe they are qualified,” she said. Yet none of them has advanced to aqil status.

Abdou is anxious for the war to end, not least because it prohibits women from entering such fields. She wants women to have greater access to community guidance so they can offer it as well. 

“This is how we will finally break the glass ceiling and have access to these positions,” she said. 

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