This article was first published in Yemen Today in 2009.
by: Mahwash Ajaz.
One of the many things I consider while I write these articles, these views from an expat’s eye about Yemen and its society, is a sociological concept. When I write about how strange the traffic is in Sana’a or how women and men are both addicted to Qat or how decidedly unique their sense of food and attire is – I continue to consider that I am experiencing what sociologists have long dubbed as a ‘culture shock’, the phenomena where one experiences feelings of disorientation when you have to adjust within a new culture and a new environment. When I read essays in the weeklies about the question of educating women, I tell myself that it is not something that surprises the locals because it is built within their social fabric. It is something that they have gotten used to since they were born – and I have not.
For example, when I hear about the idea of polygamy being a common and accustomed practice in the Yemeni society – I wonder if women are okay with the idea or are under some kind of social/moral barrier to repress their thoughts about it. I ask myself if it was okay with me to be a third or fourth wife of a man and I wonder if my conclusions about the idea would be the same as of a Yemeni woman.
And then I ask myself if that question was really fair. Is it fair to compare cultures like that? Is it fair to consider Yemeni women as oppressed or repressed – just because I think they are based on what I see?
The truth is – what is a home-grown reality for me could just as easily be a far-fetched myth for a Yemeni woman and vice versa. Just as it is inconceivable for me to think of being Mrs. Wife the Third, maybe it is just as inconceivable for any woman in this society to reject the idea.
Maybe polygamy isn’t as big a holy horror as the rest of the world thinks it is.
And so – the question ultimately becomes: what’s right and who decides?
Social scientists ultimately agree that with respect to each society’s norms and values, the members of each society or group decide the ways and mores of their daily lives. For Yemenis, one man having four wives is not a taboo, it is not a morally discouraged practice and it is not something women would want to raise a hue and cry about. It’s not a question of equality for them because not only have they rationalized the practice with the help of religious doctrine, they have it accepted in their ideological framework that for a woman, it is ultimately better to be a third wife of a man than never to be married at all.
So while I sit on my high horse trying to wrap my head around the idea that women actually willingly would be okay with polygamy – there is a simple fact that I am ignoring. I am ignoring that these women have had lifestyles unlike mine. They have grown with principles different than mine (though I also come from a Muslim background) and they have adjusted the views to life in a much different way than mine.
It is a lesson in humility to understand that other people are different than you are. Most of us don’t get around to accepting this difference and either reject the ideas as preposterous and absurd, or dismiss the differences as unimportant or useless to consider.
The only thing we need to worry about is if the civil rights of a human being are being protected in the various cultural norms adopted by a society. If a man says he will take four wives, is he capable of providing those four women with equal opportunities of love and financial security? If a woman says she is willing to be a fourth wife, is she doing it out of some compulsion to be accepted in society or does she honestly find it alright to be the fourth in line? These questions are not meant to be answered by expats or random commentators. They are meant to be seriously considered by the intelligentsia of the society. They can later pose these questions to more legal and constitutional authorities that can help decide whether the customs are present in the society due to some advantage that can be given to powerful groups – or if they are really serving some functional purpose to the people of the society.
So I’ll get off my high horse now. And let the people – who are really experiencing it all – think it over for themselves and form an opinion – since that is one of the few things that transcend all barriers of culture and race.