Critical Podium Dewanand Islam
Islamic Caste In Yemen By Marguerite Abadjian 25 April, 2004
Sacrificer Marguerite Abadjian
Sacrifice code wfor0249
Sacrifice date 25 April, 2004
Caste In Yemen
By Marguerite Abadjian
25 April, 2004
SANA'A, Yemen - The walled shantytown near the Old City here makes a
Houses made of refuse, families as large as 15 living in one room, children
eating what appears to be dirt, pools of disease-laden water, piles of
garbage and human waste buzzing with flies, the stench. The scene followed
Aisha Sulaiman even after she was far away. She couldn't forget it.
It is a place where children have gotten high snorting crushed glass.
beg barefoot on the city streets - the soles of their feet callused and
evidently immune to the blazing asphalt, fired by the incessant Yemeni
Sulaiman, like many of the shantytown residents, belongs to the lowest
social caste in Yemen, the Akhdam. The Arabic word Akhdam means servants,
and for centuries they have felt discrimination and isolation from mainstream
Though conditions have improved somewhat over the past few years, many
mainstream society still stereotype them, considering them lowly, dirty,ill-mannered
Even their plates are considered dirty. "Don't eat with the Akhdam
worms come out of their plates," the saying goes.
While there is no official record of the number of Akhdam in Yemen, they
are considered to be the country's largest and poorest minority. Unlike
all others in Yemen, they do not belong to a tribe. They are poorly educated
and are not allowed to marry into higher social castes.
Legends of Akhdam origins abound. The most credible is that they descend
from Abyssinian soldiers who stayed in Yemen after a failed invasion in
the sixth century AD. The soldiers, from ancient Ethiopia, were so hated
they were forced to accept the worst jobs, such as transporting and disposing
of human sewage and collecting garbage.
Today, the most common job for male Akhdam is street cleaning. They also
work as porters, foot soldiers and shoemakers. Women and children beg.
Sulaiman was considerably better off than most because of her tenacity.
Some of her relatives don't believe women should be educated. They think
women should sit at home, get married and have children, she says. But
Sulaiman resisted and is halfway toward completing a university degree
in philosophy. She is also determined not to have a large family that
could lead to economic ruin.
Along the way, she has become a human rights trainer and educator, fighting
for the rights of other Akhdam women and children who she believes suffer
most. Her goal is to help the women become more self-confident and aware
of their rights.
Many Akhdam do not share her hope for the future.
Tears come easily to the weathered eyes of Sai'ida Bin Sa'ad Ahmed Souhaib.
She, along with five members of her family, lives in a one-room shelter
in the Bab Al-Yemen (Yemen Gate) shantytown, one of the largest of 11
shantytowns in Sana'a.
Souhaib, a Yemeni, had a good job and life in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s
but was forced to return to Yemen after her country supported Iraq in
the Persian Gulf war. This was the fate of countless thousands of Yemenis.
She returned, minus a husband who died there, and with no means to support
"Now when I get hungry, I simply go out and beg," she says.
"All my children are on the streets."
Souhaib and others in the shantytown say they are treated with contempt
outside their community.
Rawsha Hassan, 20, is another woman who lives in the Bab Al-Yemen shantytown.
She, her parents and most of her 13 siblings live in a ramshackle
Hassan's mother is a street sweeper in the center of the city. Her father,
a former security guard, can no longer work. He can't see well because
of surgery gone wrong, she says.
Hassan's sad, tired eyes peek through her luthma, a black veil revealing
only the eyes, worn by most Yemeni women in public. She gazes at her dirty,
dreary surroundings in the shantytown. She doesn't want to bring children
into this world, she says.
In the shantytowns, men make important household decisions, even though,
in many cases, the women and children bring in most of the income by begging.
Even the poorest families spend a significant amount of their money on
qat, an amphetamine-like mild narcotic shrub that is chewed by men and
Hassan, like her mother, used to sweep the dusty streets of her capital
city. But she stopped when a male cousin, also a sweeper, working the
night shift was hit by a car whose driver didn't even stop to look. Her
cousin is disabled. Hassan now works as a janitor at a human rights organization.
Although she makes less than her salary as a sweeper, she is happier.
Hassan would be even more content if she could continue her education.
While in fifth grade she stopped because, as she recalls, her father told
her school is not for girls. Also, Akhdam children are often rejected
in schools for the same reasons adults are rejected in society, because
they are considered unclean and immoral. Hassan is trying to get literacy
training without her father's knowledge.
Akhdam often have to resort to secrecy. While they are proud of their
background among their peers, they usually do not advertise their social
caste to outsiders. One successful Akhdam doctor, who has worked in a
local hospital for years, does not reveal his social status, afraid he
will lose his patients.
Officially, there are efforts to help the Akhdam. The Yemeni government
is building a new housing project financed with international aid, says
Noor Ba Aabad, assistant to the deputy minister of social affairs and
There have been reports that owners of expensive villas near the housing
project intend to sell out because they don't want to live near the Akhdam.
Ba Aabad, who has worked on women's, children's and poverty issues since
the 1970s, says she thinks the most important way to help the Akhdam is
integrate them into mainstream society and improve their education.
While mainstream society is becoming more accepting of Akhdam, she says,
Akhdam have low self-esteem. It will take time to erase the effects of
centuries of stereotyping, she says.
Society as a whole has to change its beliefs about Akhdam, says Jonathan
Puddifoot, country representative with Care International in Yemen. But
the most disadvantaged group in Yemen has to find a way to rise above
"The prejudice keeps them down," he says, "and they keep
themselves down as well."
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