Where Islam, Democracy Try to Mix Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula's Only Democracy, Wrestles with Religion, Population, and Poverty

By Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Where Islam, Democracy Try to Mix Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula's Only Democracy, Wrestles with Religion, Population, and Poverty


Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Dina Mohsen Awad wears a brightly colored head scarf and fuschia red lipstick. Like many women in southern Yemen, her wardrobe contrasts starkly with garb in the northern part of the country, where women typically don a floor-length black hejab that leaves only the eyes exposed.

Two years ago, she didn't cover up with a scarf. "None of us did," she says of a roomful of women in an embroidery workshop. "We put it on just like that," she says, with a wave of her hand equivalent to a snap, "but we weren't legally forced to."

Others in the formerly socialist South Yemen, which united with North Yemen in 1990, say it didn't take legislation to force the ways of the conservative north onto the still-liberal south. Since the short-lived civil war in 1994 that threatened to redivide the country, critics say the government of conservatives and Islamists has been more subtle - oppressing Socialists and extolling the virtues of strict Islam. Besides the religious-secular tension there is also economic stress. Like Germany as it has reunified after the cold war, Yemen faces problems of trying to satisfy those who were used to socialism's safety net. And Yemen, the only democracy on the Arabian peninsula, also faces some of the world's worst poverty. Divided past, united today Yemenis were a divided people long before socialism swept through the world, and before Islam spread through Arabia in the 7th century. It was then, during the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, that Yemen's first mosques were built. The north was more influenced by the Saudis and a long Turkish occupation, while the British occupation of the south - and Aden's key spot on historic trade routes - left South Yemen more open to outside ideas. Now, whether in an attempt to forge a unified nation or to spread the stricter lifestyle of Zaydi - a form of Shia Islam - southerners say a more fundamentalist Islam is taking root. Islamic gains in south Some point to Islah, the Islamic party that shares control with the center-right People's General Congress (PGC). Islahi officials had some women judges in the south dismissed as un-Islamic and decreased science teaching in school to make way for more Koranic studies. "Our very own Taliban, huh?" jokes one high-ranking official from the PGC who asked not to be named, comparing Islah to the Islamic group that recently seized power in Afghanistan. After unification, unveiled women in Aden were harassed - often by women. Three weddings in Aden with co-ed dancing were bombed last year, say Western diplomats in Sana, the capital. But like other Islamic movements in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel, Islah has gained favor with the young because it provides social clubs and services. The aunt of one club goer says he trained to be a pilot but refuses to fly for Yemen's airline because of its unveiled flight attendants. Islah leaders say they reject violence and support women's rights. And like in Iran, they say, the religious upsurge is merely the will of a people bucking forced secularization.

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Where Islam, Democracy Try to Mix Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula's Only Democracy, Wrestles with Religion, Population, and Poverty
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