In this dissertation, entitled "Gender and the Writing of Yemeni Women Writers", it was my aim to discover the contextual reasons for the absence and neglect of women writers in Yemeni literary history books. A country that has been ruled by two outstanding queens in two totally different periods, the pre-Islamic period and the post-Islamic period, could not have been without some prominent women poets.
Adopting the hypothesis that the compilers of literary history books probably ignored women writers, and that Yemeni social history has not always been in favor of women, who have had to face backward social ideologies that have led to the restriction of omen to limited socially constructed roles and responsibilities, and to narrow definitions of the relations between men and women, I directed my study to answer the following questions: are there Yemeni women writers? If there were, as one would expect, I resolved to investigate how and why these women writers came to be neglected. I investigated what influence gender had on the lives and works of Yemeni women writers. An additional aim of this study was to restore women's corpus of texts, names, and lives. With a concern for the particularities of each nation and culture, describing differences in cultures, and creating a new idiom to express similarities and common ground, I also aimed to relate this study to the theories and discussions of international women's studies. Thus, the approach of gender as an analytical tool with a concern for issues that affect the writing and reading of texts, and Virginia Woolf's approach in A Room of One's Own, were chosen as the appropriate theoretical framework to do justice to the Arab-Yemeni cultural particularities. The study is divided into six chapters and a conclusion.
In Chapter One, the Introduction, a concise review is given of the social and cultural situation of Yemeni women and the historical and contemporary contexts which have influenced women writers and are in turn influenced by them. Women's status in the Yemeni society has two contradictory images. Women have been accepted and respected as queens when circumstances made it necessary or when their authority imposed this, but this does not mean that there was a total absence of a backward culture that treated women as inferior to the point of not acknowledging them as human beings. A woman is sometimes seen as a possession, a commodity like an animal, land, or any other property of a man. Even today, most Yemeni women do not have the freedom to choose their husbands, and a woman is not an independent entity in the family but must be under the custody of a male relative: her father, brother, or husband. During the Turkish colonization of Yemen (1849-1918), women in urban areas disappeared, adopting the harim castle culture in which women were detached from public life and were limited in their household activities. This continued during the most of the period of the al-Mutawakeliyya Kingdom (1918- 1962). Since the 1940s however, Yemen has been exposed to the new forces of the twentieth century. Issues of women's education, women's hijab (veiling), and women's political participation started to be raised in the newspapers.
Women have recently gained several rights in different fields and aspects of life.
Women are now seen in public life. Nevertheless, the progress of women is still slow and a stronger will of authority and society is needed to encourage them to move forward. The high percentage of illiteracy among women (71%), the backward amendments in Personal Status Law, the great opposition to the Empirical Research and Women's Studies Center, and the absence of women in decision-making positions indicate the patriarchal heritage of biased ideologies against women.
In Chapter Two, the four basic theoretical debates that form the background of the thesis and determine the point of view in this work are expounded. This chapter introduces the concept of gender developed mainly as an analytical tool in the West, looks at gender in Islam and the development of gender in the Arab world, particularly in Yemen, and discusses feminism and its various debates and the relation of gender and feminism to literary criticism, in particular, the impact of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. In the West, the term gender as a theoretical concept-- which was introduced by John Money and Robert Stoller--has been the subject of long discussions and studies by the feminist movement. In this dissertation, I adopted Joan Scott's definition of gender, as "a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power." Though the term "gender" emerged in the Arab countries within the context of development projects, and was emphasized by the foundation of academic women's studies in some countries and at different times, it is misunderstood, particularly in Yemen, and Women's Studies is still in its early stages.
Virginia Woolf's approach to women's writings in A Room of One's Own (1929) is an eminently applicable and suitable thematic and formal technique to be used as a framework in investigating at Yemeni women's writings. She showed how “the representation of female experience in literary form is gendered.” I adopted Virginia Woolf's three main stages for the investigation into women's writings: (i) Revision;
(ii) Recovering a Female Tradition; and (iii) Rewriting History. It is not possible to begin rewriting history in the manner suggested by Virginia Woolf at this early stage because Yemeni women writers need first to be known and included in the mainstream of the literary canon. I am still answering the question asked by even educated people: are there any Yemeni women writers? Thus, in rewriting Yemeni literary history, I could only fill the gaps where women were lost and neglected.
My aim in Chapter Three was to re-position women writers in Yemeni literary history in the three main current genres: poetry, the short story, and the novel. I reviewed the position of women writers as depicted in the major contemporary Yemeni literary history books. I give an overview of women's contribution to the three genres which required a tireless search among Yemeni books and newspapers. I also received information directly from the Yemeni writers themselves. In reviewing the main recent Yemeni literary history books, I noticed that women writers have not taken their proper place in literary history. They are either neglected or marginalized.
Even in the old history books, where some famous women are documented, there is not enough information about women writers and their work; the writers' biographies are full of information about their male relatives: a father, a brother, or a husband. Inpoetry, which is a basic part of Arab and Yemeni literature, there have been contributions by women poets in all periods except the Renaissance and Post Revolutionary period. This sterile period needs to be researched again, particularly in private libraries. The first short story written by a woman appeared three decades after the first short story written by a male writer, in the thirties. The first story by a woman writer presents the same level of excellence in its period. Women writers employed a realistic mode, which was the mode of men's writing at the time, as well.
Contemporary women short story writers use different techniques of narration but the vivid and rich reality of Yemeni society continues to be a source of topics and themes.
The novel is a comparatively new genre that was introduced to the Arab world in the 20th century. In Yemen, the novel comes after poetry and the short story in production and publishing. About forty novels have been published so far. Despite the fact that there are only three women novelists in the literary history of Yemen, women's contribution is integral to the development of the novel.
As described in Chapter Four, I examined in detail some of the works of the first women short story writers in Yemen. The pioneering women short story writers, belonging to the newly educated urban class, present a good example of how Yemeni women writers have returned to the literary field after a period of total silence, and address issues important to women. When women write short stories about women, not only is it a way of revealing what is considered to be `awra, or to be hidden, but it is a revolutionary act that liberates the writer and ends the imprisonment of "the age of the harim." Yemeni women writers used short stories as a device of self-liberation.
The protagonists of all of the stories I have dealt with are women with only one exception. All the writers show concern for women’s issues that were long absent from print. In the stories presented in this chapter, liberation is achieved at different levels: the levels of the individual, society, and state.
Chapters Five and Six report an investigation of how gender has affected the lives of Yemeni women writers and their creative processes. This was achieved through a field research conducted by distributing questionnaires among twenty-eight Yemeni women writers in different cities in Yemen, and by holding interviews with seven women writers and writing down the life story of one of the writers. The results of the questionnaire confirmed my hypothesis that gender has a great impact on Yemeni writers' processes of writing at four levels: individual, organization, norms, and subjective identity. Though women have overcome the constraint of education, and many have already obtained decent levels of education, they still face other difficulties. Despite the general expectation that there should be more poets than prose writers because poetry has a prominent place in Arabic literature, the number of women short story writers exceeds the number of women poets. The explanation may be that that Yemeni women writers find more space in prose for self-expression hiding behind a character to escape social criticism. Being females, women writers are not allowed to write in all literary genres and on all themes. Women writers avoid writing songs, in particular, love songs, and if they do, they do not give their names.
Yemeni women writers face constraints from different organizations: family, marriage, state, and press. The constraints created by their own families limit their daily life and future plans. Whereas marriage for Yemeni men writers sometimes provides support, for women writers it is a great constraint. Women writers can not deal with the heavy duties of marriage, which in Yemen requires a complete selfsacrifice and submission. Political authorities, whether the state or the opposition parties, conservative or liberal, do not accept women's political writings, and women writers have to consider the consequences of their participation, for--unlike men—they have to face lasting social criticism. Social norms evaluate men's political struggle highly, considering imprisonment as an honor, for men, but for a woman imprisonment is a shame that can never be eradicated. Women's political writings are not taken seriously and women are requested by varied cultural organizations to limit
their literary participation to women’s and family subjects. In publication and criticism, Yemeni women face the same constraint: a lack of seriousness and blind nencouragement in dealing with their works. Publishers have started using women's work as a commercial item either to attract readers or to show an exaggerated change in the attitudes of society. Yemeni social norms concerning women are integrated in all the constraints Yemeni women writers have to confront. With some changes in the social norms as a result of the development of society, many writers have started to publish under their real names. But it seems that the impact of social norms is not only felt from outside; they have become part of the women writers' identities, evident in strict self–censorship that deeply affect their process of writings. To overcome this self-censorship, a great courage and sacrifice is required. Such an attempt can be seen in Nabilah al-Zubair's latest work, published in 2003. Because social norms consider women inferior to men, Yemeni women writers contradict themselves in discussions of women's writings.
In the Conclusion, I summarize, highlight, and interpet the points raised in the previous chapters of the dissertation. Critically reflecting upon my own work, I have emphasized that my dissertation is the first academic dissertation on this subject, and is based primarily on published books, Yemeni magazines and newspapers, a questionnaire, and personal interviews with Yemeni women writers. I have underscored the limitation that I found very little material by women writers in the long Renaissance and Revolutionary period (1930s- 1970s). Despite the constricting factors which women faced, such as
conservatism and illiteracy, women must have expressed themselves also during this long period. Future researchers will have to gain access to thepersonal libraries of individuals in their search for any published works andunpublished manuscripts.
The picture I have presented of women and women writers in Yemen is adark one, but I have ended my dissertation a ray of hope. With the spread ofcollege education among girls, the women writers of the future will gaingreater self-confidence and will overcome the gender restrictions which standin the way of self-expression and publication of their works. Their relatives,friends, and country will be proud of their self-reliant, intelligent voice, ONE DAY.