Qat, Cars and Women

This article was first published in Yemen Today in 2009.

by: Mahwash Ajaz.

There is an old Arab tradition about having a great ride. Vehicle wise. Of course in that era (I’m talking about 1400 years ago) it was all about the kind of horse or camel you had. So loosely spun across time, Arabs still seem to entertain the idea of having great cars. Of having a great ride.

How else can you explain General Motors still thriving in Yemen when they’re going out of business everywhere else?

Yemenis, it began to dawn on me, loved their cars like they loved their Qat-filled cheeks.

The bigger the better.

What I couldn’t comprehend was how the world stopped for Qat. Or went into complete disarray. If you were to walk on the streets or (God forbid) drive during Qat time, your senses would be aggravated with all the craziness you’d see. People park their cars in the middle of the road, dash out to get those leafy greens and merrily swing tiny packets of it as they cross the roads without even so much as blinking in the direction of the car that is speeding at the speed of 60 km/h.

Which is why I wonder at something else as well. The complete lack of road rage on the streets.

And it oddly makes sense. They don’t get angry at each other on the roads at each others’ hideous mistakes because they all understand they’re all going to do the same thing one day or the other. They’re all going to stop in the middle of the road for no reason, park wherever they want during Qat hours and cross the road without looking left and right.

Being a feminist, I wish I could say women were better drivers but I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with the sexist portion of the argument on this one. They’re actually much worse than Yemeni men. And I hate to admit that because it just makes the whole women-are-bad-drivers phenomena much more global.

What boggles the mind even more is how women can juggle driving a car, chewing qat, handling four kids in the vehicle (one on the side, one hanging his head out of the window and the other two pulling on mum’s abaya from the backseat) while talking on cell phones during driving. If that doesn’t say Superwoman I don’t know what does.

Though the abaya never made much sense to me, I am impressed to see that most women sport enough confidence to walk the streets after sundown without so much as a care in their heads. They actively hire cabs, take other forms of public transport and easily laze around shopping malls and grocery stores. For someone who can only sport one layer of clothing per day, wearing three layers like the abaya-clad women is something quite beyond my intelligence and much more beyond my capacity. It is always a little uneasy as well as thought-provoking to me whenever I see women with their faces and bodies completely covered doing everyday jobs like working at the cash counter or taking blood samples at the doctor’s or serving as saleswomen in stores.

Though the majority of people seen on streets and in public sphere are men, women are seen quite frequently as well with bags of groceries or bunches of kids. One wonders at their survival tactics amidst a patriarchal society, a strongly traditional society where women are told their place from the very start.

Perhaps it is the Islamic influence. Perhaps it is the lack of infrastructure or the result of social boundaries that are so heavily drenched in norms and age-old traditions, that they have a hard time breaking free. Perhaps it is merely convenience. It is simply convenient for men and women to know their niche in society, respond to it obediently, live accordingly and die peacefully.

In an age where women empowerment is one of the hottest, most controversial topics to discuss and debate over, women in Yemen seem to be placate with their role in the society. The amount of freedom given to them seems to be adequate – as they walk in parks when their husbands clutch their hands tightly.

I like to think they do it out of love, rather than a sense of possession.

As for women – I like to think they like being loved. Instead of possessed.

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