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Dossier Genre et mobilités au Yémen et dans la Corne de l’Afrique

Gender and social remittances

Return migrants to Yemen from Eastern Africa
Connie Carøe Christiansen


Dans cet article, les récits de trois migrants de retour au Yémen depuis l’Afrique de l’Est invitent à considérer le rôle que les migrants ont pu jouer dans l’apport de nouvelles dynamiques sociales – d’un nouveau capital culturel et social – dans la société yéménite. L’émigration du Yémen vers l’Arabie saoudite et les pays du Golfe, ou bien l’immigration depuis la Corne de l’Afrique dessinent habituellement les principales routes migratoires. Cependant, afin d’évaluer l’impact relatif des returnees d’Afrique de l’Est sur les dynamiques sociales au Yémen, l’ensemble des déplacements – depuis et vers le Yémen – doivent être pris en compte, y compris les retours d’Afrique de l’Est de ceux qui y ont émigré durant la seconde moitié du xxe siècle. Dans les récits de ces returnees, les pratiques et les idéaux liés au genre sont considérés comme des facteurs de différenciation qui isolent les returnees du reste de la population yéménite. L’approche qui sous-tend cette analyse se fonde sur le principe d’une « narrativité onotologique », selon laquelle l’identité et la signification sont construits par le récit, et orientent l’action. Cet article postule que la réception par la société yéménite d’un capital culturel et social dépend du statut social du transmetteur, du système migratoire transnational en général et des relations de pouvoir entre les pays d’émigration et d’immigration.

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Entrées d’index

Géographique :

Horn of Africa, YEM
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  • 1 According to the UN‑related Nations Encyclopedia, an Internet source, (Erreur ! Référence de lien h (...)
  • 2 However, see contributions by Bezabeh 2011 & 2010, Manger 2010, Walker 2008, de Regt 2007.
  • 3 Muwallad, the singular of muwalladîn, refers to ‘not truly Old Arabic’ or not purely Arabic in term (...)

1In the decades following World War II, particularly the 1960s when several Eastern African countries obtained their independence while Yemen became a republic, large flows of migrants referred to as ‘Arabs’ or ‘Hadramis’ returned to Yemen from Eastern African societies. In later decades large‑scale returns also occurred; thus, in 1992 more than 60,000 Yemenis from the Horn of Africa returned home, chiefly because of the turmoil in Somalia.1 Research about the migrants' experiences and their return migration is scarce,2 but findings show returnees from these societies often face unexpected difficulties in being fully accepted by Yemeni society. Indeed, these returnees' claim to belong is put into question, in some cases this leads to stigmatization and issues such as unemployment. Moreover, the returnees are labeled ‘muwalladîn’,3 a derogatory term referring to people of mixed descent resulting from intermarriages between, generally, Yemeni fathers and African mothers. However even returnees, who would not consider themselves mixed descent at all, whose mixedness goes back several generations might be labeled as such.

  • 4 Levitt, 2001; Levitt & Nieves‑Lampak, 2011.
  • 5 Molyneux, 1995 ; Manea, 2002 ; Dahlgren, 2010 ; Yadav, 2010.
  • 6 Connell, 1987 and 2009. The term gender order does not exclude male dominance, nor does it take imp (...)
  • 7 Somers & Gibson, 1994, p. 38.

2These findings should be viewed in light of others in transnational migration research detailing how migrants may contribute to new turns or developments in their home country.4 Could the same be said of experiences of returnees to Yemen from East Africa in terms of current social dynamics and struggles in Yemen? And what is the significance of these returnees' ambiguous sense of belonging? Currently, issues of social justice, economic and cultural development are central for social dynamics in Yemen, often with gendered practices a central point of contention.5 Memories of gender practices and norms in East African societies remained vivid among those returning to Yemen. These norms continue to constitute a source of inspiration for the returnees, and exemplify a practice putting more emphasis on women being visible and active participants in society. Other factors such as class and social status clearly have a role to play, but in the narratives of return told by these returnees, gendered practices are also used to set themselves apart from other Yemenis. Consequently, experiencing a different gender order6 in East African societies should come into play when dealing with identity formation. According to what has been termed ‘the narrative turn in social theory’, narratives are not only an ontological condition for social life but also guides for social action.7 In light of these claims, I discuss if such migrant experiences could have any impact on social dynamics in Yemen.

  • 8 Moors, 2007.
  • 9 Doumato, 2003; Krause 2009
  • 10 Jalal & Sardjunani, 2005; Cameron, 2002; Kebede, 2001.

3Influence from Saudi Arabia, e.g. practices concerning women’s clothing, is often pointed to,8 including by Yemenis in everyday conversations on gender relations. Yemen, as an aid‑dependent country is subject to cash flows and political influence from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries where women are increasingly present in public life, but where gender segregation and male dominance are legally sanctioned.9 However, when estimating the overall effect of social remittances – or to use the more common but also vaguer term, "cultural flows"‑ introduced by return migrants, one should bear in mind that returnees come back into Yemen from a number of societies besides Saudi Arabia, and that these societies vary considerably in terms of gender organization, e.g. how the work force and educational levels are gendered.10 The contestation of these gendered norms and practices in relation to migrant experiences is therefore not unidirectional; rather it is has to do with the diversity of experiences migrants encountered in the destination country.

  • 11 /Husniya wanted me to use her real name; the two other names are fictitious. All three have given c (...)

4In this paper I draw on the narrations of /Husniya, who as a 15 year‑old moved back to Yemen, with her father’s permission, in the mid‑1970s from a region then part of Ethiopia, nowadays in Eritrea; of Fawziya who around the same age, in 1989 along with the rest of her family, fled Idi Amin's reign in Uganda and the attacks upon her town by a coalition of 30 African states; finally of ‘Abd al‑La/tîf11 who went to Djibouti with his parents as a 6 year‑old child, and returned with them and his brothers and sisters in 2000 when in his late twenties.

  • 12 Richardson, 1998; Bruner, 1996; Somers & Gibson, 1994.
  • 13 Somers & Gibson 1994, p. 38‑39.

5Biographical stories constitute the ontological dimension of narratives – the narratives which social actors use to establish who they are and to make sense of events and life trajectories.12 They give us access to the subject's narrative space where they narratively organize and manage events which may otherwise appear as chaotic or meaningless. However, my approach to narrative analysis is that it is not exclusively an opportunity to gain insight into subjective experiences. Instead narratives constitute a source of sociological data, beyond explorative or exemplifying purposes: “People are guided to act in certain ways, and not others, on the basis of the projections, expectations, and memories derived from a multiplicity but ultimately limited repertoire of available social, public and cultural narratives”.13 Narratives of return, just like other ontological narratives, are used by their narrators to find out who they are, and I argue that this ‘guide for action’ has implications for the social dynamics these narrators are involved in.

  • 14 Consequently, Fawziya was not selected because she was more critical of Yemeni society, nor is ther (...)

6For reasons of space, and account coherence, I focus particularly on one of the three narratives presented here, that of Fawziya,14 but I also draw upon the narratives of /Husniya and ‘Abd al‑La/tîf. These three narratives are due to highly educated returnees; in all three cases they pursued their higher education abroad (in Uganda, France and Iraq); they are multilingual (African languages, Arabic, French and/or English) and through their work they are affiliated with the higher education and international development sectors in Yemen. Narratives are emplotted, and narratives of return are no different. To identify the plot of this particular narrative, I point out firstly, the structure of the narrative, secondly the particular issue at hand which is the driving force of the narrative, and finally the moral – how it expresses the ability to act. This analysis will form the basis for a discussion on the specific social remittances that returnees to Yemen from Eastern Africa may bring about.

  • 15 Levitt, 1998 and 2001.

7The returnees' childhood and youth memories in Eastern Africa combined, in some cases, with current transnational migration experiences, and reflections on how to relate to these experiences while living in Yemen as shown in the following subject to narrative analysis requires we consider the narrative form in conjunction with the semantics used. Based on this, I discuss to what extent these memories and critical approaches may develop into social remittances.15 These are cultural flows of new ideas, practices and connections that as a result of migrants experiences are introduced into the country of return and, provided the conditions for their development are in place, give impetus to social change processes. In other words, I argue that the narrations of /Husniya, Fawziya and ‘Abd al‑La/tîf are an indication of how return migration from East African societies may bring new social dynamics into Yemeni society.

  • 16 In other cases of forced migration from the Horn of Africa migrants are not as ambiguous as returne (...)

8At issue are representations of gendered practices in the narratives of returnees and the subjectivity they facilitate. Subsequently I use this subjectivity in a discussion on social remittances, drawing on factors pointed out by Levitt as central to their transmission. Consequently, this is not a balanced study of gendered practices found in Eastern African and Yemeni societies, even though such a study would throw further light on the positioning for which these narratives are instrumental.16

Three returnees, three narratives

  • 17 Social stratification in Yemen is usually represented as a hierarchy in which the sâdâ, the descend (...)
  • 18 De Regt 2007, p. 199.

9In Yemen where poverty is widespread and social hierarchies are prevalent,17 the observations made about living conditions in Yemen by Fawziya, ‘Abd al‑La/tîf and /Husniya are no different from those made by the Yemeni general population, nor are they very different from those one might make as a tourist or a sojourner. However, they are neither – as Yemeni returnees they form part of an emerging professional strata in Yemen, their status based on cultural capital, profession and academic achievement. In official and popular terms they may belong to the muwalladdîn of Yemen, a term with negative connotations, depending on the father's status and the muwalladîn themselves such a categorization would imply a certain amount of discrimination;18 yet the muwalladdîn include an emerging élite among which women professionals.

10Abd al‑La/tîf, Fawziya and /Husniya returned to Yemen at different time periods between the mid‑1970s and 2000, and in the strict sense of the term, ‘Abd al‑La/tîf is the only one to be is a returnee, as Fawziya and /Husniya are only returnees in the sense that they were part of a returning family. Fawziya’s maternal grandfather and grandmother left Hadramaut for Mombasa, Kenya, two generations back and moved later on to Uganda where Fawziya’s mother married the stepson of her father’s sister. In ‘Abd al‑La/tîf's and /Husniya's cases, it was their fathers, both successful businessmen who left for East Africa. ‘Abd al‑La/tîf's father migrated earlier on, in the 1960s when Hadramaut became part of the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, ‘Abd al‑La/tîf and his mother moved to Djibouti later on. The family returned to Yemen because, as ‘Abd al‑La/tîf puts it, “many things had changed in Djibouti”: Politicians started thinking Djiboutis should have their own business. My family had a large business, and was the main supplier for the state – in many branches, electronic supplies and many others. Djiboutis felt that such business should go to one of their own and competition became fierce.As a result ‘Abd al‑La/tîf’s father had to give up his business there, and most of the 6‑8 families in his kin in Djibouti returned, not to Hadramaut, but to Sana’a.

  • 19 /Husniya also told her story to Marta Paluch, 2001.

11/Husniya was born in Ethiopia where her father was an established businessman, importing fabrics and other goods from Italy into Ethiopia. He had migrated from the region of Ibb, along with a few brothers.19 /Husniya went to Yemen to pursue her education rather than stay and live through Emperor Haile Selassie's fall as well as the chaos brought on by his successor. Later her mother came to live with /Husniya and her brother as /Husniya’s father had re‑married. /Husniya’s mother has passed away now but she never got used to life in Yemen.

12/Husniya and Fawziya are divorced; their marriages did not last long but, in both cases, resulted in a son. They also were the ones to ask for divorce, and, something unusual for Yemeni women, they are well educated and professionals. Fawziya works for a foreign donor organization, /Husniya for a Yemeni NGO. Fawziya went to high school in Uganda, while /Husniya, like ‘Abd al‑La/tîf, who is a university professor, got her PhD in Europe. ‘Abd al‑La/tîf is married and his children are still young.

  • 20 Each interview was based on questions specifically directed at that person in order to encourage mo (...)

13I encountered all three while taking part in a project, the “Development of a Master Program in International Development and Gender at GDRSC, Sana’a University, Yemen”, funded by the Danish‑Yemeni Partnership Program between 2009‑2012, where I managed the Danish side of the project, and as such had to take part in all activities involving both partners. During at least three years I would meet with them 3‑5 times a year, not on a regular basis, for meetings, teaching sessions, workshops and social events, but these activities would not always give us much time to discuss more personal matters. I asked them to put their narrations down in writing (via e‑mail) based on a few questions that we followed up on during informal conversations conducted with each of them separately. During these informal conversations I asked them about their background and current relations with the East African society in which they used to live. This in turn was inspired by spontaneous accounts from these professionals that I also consider good friends. Thus it was bits of accounts which originally gave me the idea to pursue their experiences as return migrants more systematically. Therefore, I started each interview by referring to what I knew already about their background and asked them to continue the narration. 20

14The vignettes of memories and experiences that I present in the following are only excerpts from larger accounts, but combining the concept of social remittances with a narrative analysis of these accounts creates an opportunity to assess the significance of specific experiences of migration. However, before venturing into these details, a presentation of the concept of social remittances, an introduction to Yemeni migration from a comprehensive perspective, i.e. including all migration routes to and from Yemen is required.

Social remittances

  • 21 Levitt 1998, p. 936. Transnational migration studies is but one current theoretical perspective on (...)
  • 22 see de Regt 2007, p. 204
  • 23 In fact Levitt categorizes migrants’ interactions with the receiving society into three patterns, b (...)
  • 24 Levitt, 1998, p. 937

15According to Levitt, migrant‑driven cultural exchanges are normative structures (ideas, values, norms), identities, systems of practice (actions shaped by normative practices), and social capital (social relations bringing certain benefits) transmitted individually or collectively by migrants. Return migration is considered one of the occasions on which influences from the destination countries can be transferred to the sending country.21 However, not all migrants adopt new cultural practices encountered abroad, and return migration may in some cases lead to the realization that what was perceived abroad as a particular Yemeni version of gender order, is in fact no longer in use.22 The transmission of social remittances is dependent upon a number of factors, among which the character of the remittances themselves, the transnational system, the messenger, 23 target audience, differences between sending and receiving countries and the transmission process.24

16Abd al‑La/tîf points out migration from Yemen to Djibouti is currently on the rise: “Now, Yemenis are returning to Djibouti to start up new businesses. I would like to go there, but the problem is my wife, she is not African. I don’t want to be pushy with her. I talk it up with my kids so now they want to go there with me.” ‘Abd al‑La/tîf is still attached to Djibouti, and even though he is aware of the problems that come with being considered a foreigner, in fact one of the reasons as to why his family returned to Yemen in the first place, he still would rather live there. I argue that his narrative is an a point of entry into understanding these positive feelings towards Djibouti and the lifestyle there, which gives rise to an inclination to pass them on to others in Yemen, ultimately to act and ‘transfer’ social remittances.

  • 25 Idem, p. 937 and 940.
  • 26 Idem, p. 940.

17In a similar vein, /Husniya and Fawziya's narratives are an indication of the positioning and the efforts made to have an impact on Yemen's social and cultural development. However, the narrators' intent and willingness to transfer social remittances is only one side of the problem; receptiveness of other social actors to accept social remittances is just as important for there to be an actual impact. This receptiveness is what I discuss in terms of the transnational system, the status of the transmitter and the power differentiations between sending and receiving states as particularly relevant factors regarding the return migration from Eastern Africa to Yemen. The degree and type of contact with the destination society is an indication of the likeliness of social remittances being transferred and adopted. If this transnational system is not elaborate enough or non‑existent, the likeliness of transmission diminishes. Elite members and people with high social status have a greater capacity to influence their surroundings with ideas or normative standards hitherto not accepted,25 whereas the impact of social remittances is likely to be larger coming from a large and powerful country and less likely from a receiving country of equal status. 26

The diversity of Yemeni migration

  • 27 Okruhlik & Conge, 1997; Colton, 1993; Van Hear 1994.
  • 28 Dahya, 1965; Halliday, 2010, orig. 1992.
  • 29 Dweik, 1980; Friedlander, 1988; Abraham & Shyrock, 2000.
  • 30 Bang, 2003; Freitag, 2003; Ho 2006.
  • 31 Thiollet, 2007, p. 4.
  • 32 De Regt, 2007a, 2007b.
  • 33 De Regt, 2009 and 2010.
  • 34 Alley, 2010; Okruklik & Conge, 1997; Colton, 1993; van Hear, 1994.
  • 35 Levitt , 2001.

18A comprehensive perspective including all the destinations of Yemeni migrants is seldom presented in one work; rather focus tends to be on either return migrants from the GCC and most frequently from Saudi Arabia 27 or to Britain 28 and the United States.29 Historical migration to destinations in the Indian Ocean on the other hand constitutes a separate and extensive research field.30 Observing that Yemen is a country of emigration, mainly to the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a transit and immigration country for African migrants,31 is too narrow for our perspective, especially when taking into consideration transnational migration patterns and their long term effect on Yemen. For the past decade, attention has increasingly been directed towards the migration of African citizens from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, although it has yielded little research for the moment. In the first decade of the new century, there were over 80,000 Somalis living in Yemen32 with refugees still coming into the country from the Horn of Africa, comprising today more than 200,000, along with several thousands of Ethiopians (according to UNHCR) who fled poverty and oppression.33 Yemen's domestic economy and large parts of the Yemeni population are dependent upon migrants in Saudi Arabia and their monetary remittances. This had far‑reaching consequences on the shape of Yemen's economic structure when there was a large flow of returnees from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 199134 Both points are important when discussing the kind of social dynamics brought on by migration – social remittances cannot be untangled from economic remittances, whether remitted by migrants or return migrants. New practices and ideas are simply more easily accepted if they are accompanied by economic flows.35

  • 36 World Bank, 2010.
  • 37 Quite brutally, I denote as Yemeni all migrants from former South Yemen, the socialist PDRY (People (...)

19The current stock of emigrants from Yemen is reported as 1.135 mill or 4,7 % of the population .36 Other sources indicate this as the amount of Yemeni migrants in Saudi Arabia alone. Consequently, Yemeni migrants37 in Eastern Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti ‑ even if they do count ‑ don't represent ‘top destinations’ for Yemeni migrants. In this light, can return migration from these countries still have some influence over the country's social and cultural development?

Yemeni migrants in Eastern Africa

  • 38 Halliday, 2010, p. 10
  • 39 Manger, 2010, p. 95
  • 40 Idem, p. 100

20In Halliday’s account of Yemeni migration, “small Hadrami communities existed not only in India but also in East African countries – Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania –, but these communities were threatened and perhaps dissolved by nationalist uprisings in those countries”.38 When exactly Yemenis in those countries left depended on the course taken by the nationalist cause in the country in question. Thus, in 1948 in Somalia anti‑Arab unrest ended in ‘Arabs’ getting killed – likewise in the 1960s and 1970s the future of Yemeni populations settled in other East African countries became uncertain, due to the growing nationalist and anti‑Arab sentiments.39 Yemenis in Ethiopia who had typically worked as traders, religious judges, teachers and clerics (all of them men, it goes without saying), were also regarded as a threat, due to growing Ethiopian nationalism, and in 1974, after the overthrow of Haile Selassie, in which regime quite a few Yemenis had a stake, they were persecuted as ‘capitalists’ and collaborators.40

  • 41 Idem, p. 75
  • 42 Bezabeh, 2010, p. 336
  • 43 Idem, p. 338
  • 44 Manger, 2010, p. 103.
  • 45 Bezabeh, 2011.
  • 46 Idem.

21Although Yemeni presence in Eastern Africa is nowadays primarily presented as a historical phenomenon, people claiming ancestors in Hadramaut can still be found in the region. The Hadrami community in the Sudan which goes back to the early 19th century and is exclusively found along the coast, is no longer cut off from the general Sudanese population but intermarries and generally interacts with it.41 Yemenis in Ethiopia have historically been regarded as enemies of the Christian majority42 and are still stigmatized as such. Among the Muslim population, the sâdâ who in the past were respected for their religious and their claimed descent from the Prophet are increasingly challenged by wahhabists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the country.43 /Husniya narrates that during the fall of Haile Selassie, all the schools in Ethiopia were closed. /Husniya’s father suggested she continue her schooling in Lebanon, but /Husniya insisted on going to Yemen, and ended up attending a school in the city of Taiz. However, some of Husniya’s relatives still live in Ethiopia, and her family still owns the house in which she grew up. This Yemeni community has a mixed identity, due to assimilation and intermarriages, most notably in Addis Ababa where the young generation is now also vesting in education and migration to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.44 Abd al‑La/tîf who still goes to Djibouti on all occasions, spends at least three months there every year. On Yemenis in Djibouti, he has to say: “There are three kinds of Yemenis in Djibouti: The first kind is totally like the Djiboutis, and they are third or fourth generation there. The second kind has Djibouti citizenship but is still in contact with Yemen and they consider themselves Yemeni. Then, there's the immigrant Yemeni”. Yemeni immigrants who do not already have the right documents cannot expect to get permission to stay in Djibouti, but ‘Abd al‑La/tîf has dual citizenship and travels freely between Yemen and Djibouti. His division of Yemenis in Djibouti into three kinds is an indication of how the issue of citizenship in Djibouti is graded and controversial.45 In fact business cannot run smoothly without a patron who is a citizen. At the same time people are still considered strangers even if migration occurred several generations back. In 2003 an attempt was made to expel 100,000 undocumented immigrants out the country.46

22Fawziya has one brother (out of seven brothers and sisters) still living in Uganda. Another brother who returned to Yemen with his family as a young boy has recently visited Uganda in search of business opportunities. This brother would like to go back and live there.

23Thus, the three returnees I present have all maintained some ties with their respective former East African society, mostly due to family members remaining there. Accounts of what happened when they returned to Yemen are referred to as narratives of return. I point out the structure of the narrative which sustains the point made by the narrators; either a turning point or pivotal moment in the narrative, or the engine of narrative, and finally, the resulting vigor and ability to act.

Narratives of return

  • 47 Peacock, 1983, p. 93.
  • 48 Idem, p. 97.
  • 49 Bruner, 1996.

24In life histories personal experiences intersect with collective structures.47 An analysis of the narrative form – and not just a semantic analysis – allows these collective structures to emerge; in fact, ignoring form would be tantamount to reductionism, when narration is precisely what is presented to the researcher.48 The approach that reality is ‘narratively construed’49 brings out narrative form, with the narrator performing the task of organizing and structuring, thus identity shapes facets of the narrative, bringing them into focus.

25Fawziya was born in a provincial town in Uganda, she lived with her family in a highly ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood – “we lived as Arabs”, Fawziya tells us. Then she adds: “We followed Arab culture at home, whenever necessary. For example our women wore traditional black abayas and covered their hair according to Islam. Arabs would avoid going to drink parties and so on. But if people were invited to a Christian or Hindu wedding party, then it was okay. Usually, at the party there would be a variety of different foods to choose from. Muslims would just avoid the alcohol.”

26Fawziya remembers her mother preparing food for the Christian neighbors and inviting them over for Muslim holidays, for Fawziya such a rapprochement is more natural than each one staying on their own. She did however have preconceptions about Yemen: “Our parents would sit with us after evening prayers two or three times a week and tell us about their land and past. They taught us about our culture and religion and our values. They also missed some of the things back home, even if they were small things.” The family was forced to leave their Ugandan home when military forces attacked the town they lived in.

Turning points

27Fawziya points out that when she came to Yemen she experienced a cultural shock: “At the time I thought, well, we have arrived on a different planet: “Is it still the 16th century here, Dad?” ‑ My Arabic was weak and if I thought that I knew Yemeni culture, then I was mistaken.”

28The story line of this narrative is one of loss; by invoking ‘a different planet’ and ‘the 16th century’ Fawziya pinpoints the shock of her encounter with Yemeni society as a 17 year‑old. Fawziya’s representation of the women she encountered in Sana’a sustains the structure of her narrative: “Oh my God, I thought, what a difference. The women mostly stayed at home and in the early afternoon they would go to visit neighbors or relatives but would be fully covered in black sharshafs or in colored sitâra‑s ‑ I didn't cope well with the suffering especially what the women had to endure. The illiteracy, dirt everywhere and so on, none of these were things I had anticipated.”

29Irrespective of the women Fawziya actually met and how they moved around and dressed, the plot of Fawziya’s narrative is brought out by invoking the shock of realizing that women’s lives in Yemen were different from what she knew back in Uganda. This realization is the turning point of the narrative, giving substance to the cultural difference she encountered in Yemen. This is paralleled in /Husniya’s narration: “When I went to the countryside I found that women were ill‑treated. I discovered that work for women was limited to house chores, fetching water and helping their husbands in the fields in addition to pregnancy and childbirth, what we call now the reproductive role, no voice for women, no say. The other thing that shocked me was that married women were controlled not only by their husbands, but also by their mothers‑in‑law.” /Husniya also sustains her narrative of return with the realization that women in Yemen live a harder and more restricted life than she had imagined or knew about before actually witnessing it firsthand.

The engine of narrative

  • 50 Bruner, 1996, p. 142.

30Just like any returnee from any other destination, those from Eastern Africa had to adjust to a new life in a Yemen which was not only in a different state from when their parents had left, but also a different society than the one presented to them by their parents. ‘Trouble is the engine of narrative’, i.e. the problems and resistance encountered by the narrator, give the narrative structure, and make it a ‘story worth telling’.50 The difficulties encountered by each of the returnees figure as ‘the engine of narrative’, the issue at hand becoming the essential background for storytelling.

31In Yemen Fawziya was discouraged from shaking hands with men even if they were work colleagues, from laughing out loud in public, and was told to cover her hair and legs. At the same time Fawziya as the eldest of the siblings became the breadwinner of the family after her father passed away a few years after their return. She reflects on how she was perceived by the Yemenis in Yemen: “I dressed and I looked different. Men and women would ask if I was Yemeni. They still ask even today because I don’t wear a niqab (face cover), my Arabic is still not perfect and I am much freer than their women are. I used to keep the same working hours as men, from the morning until sometimes 9 p.m. which was not common in Yemen.”

32Fawziya stands out in the eyes of the Yemenis who are a part of her everyday life. In fact, to them, she is not completely Yemeni. She does not wear the niqab, and as a woman, she lives a different life than most Yemeni women do: “It was not easy to make ends meet but I worked hard by taking on part‑time jobs, working until nighttime. I got married and got a son out of that marriage. The marriage didn’t work out for me so I asked for divorce. I was 4 months pregnant with my son. After the divorce I didn’t re‑marry for a simple reason. I could not find someone I felt was honest, understanding and caring.”

33Fawziya went to live with her mother who looked after her son while she was working; also so that people did not refer to her as a woman living alone: “In this society it is very difficult for a divorced woman to re‑marry as she is looked down upon as the one who was at fault in the relationship, our society doesn't think that a divorced woman can be exempt of blame.”

34 Two events from Fawziya’s adult life are presented as evidence that life as a woman in Yemen is difficult: her father died and she became the breadwinner for her mother and seven younger brothers and sisters. Fawziya indicates the fact she accepted this duty sets her apart from Yemeni women in general. After that, she got a divorce and the way Yemenis view divorced women as ‘not innocent’ further sustains her point that conditions for women are particularly difficult in Yemen.

35As for ‘Abd al‑La/tîf whose family, like Fawziya’s, originates from Hadramaut, Djibouti is a topic of conservation which ‘graces his heart’ even today, and his experiences of growing up in a Yemeni family in Djibouti motivated him to actively contribute to, as he terms it “a modernization of women’s role in Yemeni society”. Thus he is critical of gendered practices and women’s status in Yemen, this criticism is in return for the suspicion encountered as a Yemeni from Eastern Africa: “I did not like the social life in Yemen. Many things in Yemen are better, but in Djibouti Yemenis came to work and did their best every day. In Yemen people are lazy; you will find the same people in Djibouti will behave differently. In Yemen we do not accept ourselves ‑ people from Sana’a will not accept me if I am from Aden. In Djibouti they accept us even if we are white. In Yemen you can see how the Ethiopians are treated– they call them “Blacks”. I find myself forced into struggles and fighting with others. We have many Ethiopians, they work in services.” ‘Abd al‑La/tîf just does not accept Ethiopians being called "blacks" in Yemen, and he ends up having arguments with his Yemeni compatriots when he points out Ethiopians (who are often domestic workers) are not well treated there.

Vigor and the ability to act

36The experiences of a different racial and gender order in Eastern African societies are presented as a means to shape a stronger identity as "Yemenis with something more", more open to different ways of life and religions than the general Yemeni population. Fawziya's narration indicates her encounter with Yemen was important for the gendered subjectivity she has forged since coming to live in Yemen. /Husniya had never worn a headscarf before entering Yemeni society, nor had her father ever asked her to, leaving her to decide. Today, /Husniya does wear a headscarf, but unlike most of her female friends and colleagues, she deliberately avoids dressing in black. /Husniya explains this by claiming a dislike for black, and claiming it is foreign to her. ‘Abd al‑La/tîf’s points to the position of those called the muwalladîn: “When we came back to Sana’a, it was strange and difficult in the beginning. But it is more difficult for those who are half and half. In Sana’a they call them “muwallad”. Someone once called me “muwallad” and I did not react. I have a lot of friends who are muwallad, and they are not happy inside. They have a sub‑network going on in Yemen as a means of self‑defense. They are now in a strong position, since most of the foreign companies prefer them – the oil companies.”

37Abd al‑La/tîf’s narration is a condensed version of the narrative structure also found in Fawziya’s narration: after a good or at least satisfactory life in Eastern Africa, the return to Yemen leads to trouble, but in the end those singled out as muwalladîn in fact do better than most Yemenis. In all three narratives returning to Yemen and the confrontation over how Yemenis in Yemen are different, give the ego new perspectives, bringing vigor and the ability to act to the fore. This allows for enforced subjectivities.

38As a closure or moral of the narrative, Fawziya claims: “I am so happy that I was lucky enough to be exposed to other cultures. It meant that I could choose from a wide variety of lifestyles. I got life experience and accept and appreciate others and their way of life. I understand why some people do things differently, I have a rich life. Many of my friends have learnt quite a lot from me because I share with them.” Fawziya pinpoints her own position as someone coming from abroad, evaluating Yemeni practices, implying that she is not Yemeni in the same way as Yemenis today are, which is why she had to learn about Yemeni culture from scratch, but she is also able to teach Yemenis about other ways and norms. The issue– or the shock over the Yemeni way of life and her lack of recognition – is overcome by hard work which in the end pays off in terms of accomplishments, a sense of self‑worth and dignity.

Receptiveness to social remittances

  • 51 See vom Bruck, 2005, for an analysis of the strategies and social maneuvering such families – the s (...)
  • 52 De Regt, 2007, p. 204

39Even though none of the three narrators come from Sana’a's most distinguished families,51 in their job positions they have the opportunity to influence others, thanks to their relatively high‑ranking social status, one of the conditions for the diffusion of social remittances is fulfilled. However, it is important to note that high status is not granted to all returnees from Eastern Africa, but depends on several factors such as their socio‑economic background; some of the returnees in de Regt’s study are in much less favorable social situations which on the other hand seem – much like Fawziya’s case – to make returnees' daughters want to get an education and contribute to the household income.52

  • 53 Basch, Glick‑Schiller & Szanton‑Blanc, 1998; Al‑Ali & Koser, 2002.
  • 54 Ho, 2006; Freitag & Clarence‑Smith, 1997; Boxburger, 2002.

40The considerable insight given by transnational migration studies is that in any part of the world migration rarely occurs as a single movement consisting of a break‑up from one society and from that moment onwards smooth and unidirectional settlement in the receiving country. There are usually many more continued and renewed links, return movements, transactions, influences and contacts between the two (or more) locations and nation states involved.53 Thus, a historical perspective would be better suited for a transnational approach to Yemeni migration rather than a synchronic perspective.54

  • 55 Abd al‑La/tîf, in contrast, seems to articulate a belonging also based on his frequent travels to (...)
  • 56 Glick‑Schiller & Levitt, 2004, p. 2010.
  • 57 There is a wide variety in Yemen depending on social context (e.g. urban/rural and social class) of (...)
  • 58 De Regt 2007a, 2009.

41In the case at hand, high‑ranking members of Yemeni society refer to the lasting influence of migrant experiences in Eastern Africa; even though some returnees, and among which Fawziya and /Husniya, have lost the kind of connections based on visits, exchanges of goods and social relations with their former country of residence.55 In these cases the transnational system in which they are inserted may be relatively weak, although they place themselves in a transnational collectivity which in contrast to a transnational community established by flows and activities, has to do with identity and belonging.56 Placing themselves in a transnational collectivity, they set themselves apart as representing a voice and an experience at least partly from abroad. Such a voice points to what the narrators may verbalize as a modernization of gender relations in Yemen, but speaking from their Sana’a residence,57 it means a more cosmopolitan and, in terms of gender, more permissive cultural direction for Yemen, in contrast to the Islamic‑conservative influence popularly alluded to as the Saudi influence in Yemen today. The impact of social remittances in gender relations needs however also to be estimated in terms of power differentiations between sending and receiving countries – with the low status of East African societies in Yemen as perhaps the background to which experiences of a different gender order from these societies among the returnees seem to be voiced in closed and private spaces. An indication of the status of East African societies, at least in the eyes of the Yemeni middle class, is perhaps best illustrated by the status of Somali refugees as scapegoats and the low status of female domestic workers from Ethiopia and Somalia,58 also pointed out by ‘Abd al‑La/tîf.


  • 59 Castles & Davidson, 2000.

42When migration to or from Yemen is presented along its current main routes only, it gives a highly selective view of the mobility involving Yemeni nationals, and the picture drawn from it is far from capturing the complexity of all the Yemeni migration routes. In fact, Yemen is a case in point for migration in a global age; it involves several types of migration – refugees and work migrants, circular migration and long‑term settlement; it is both a sending and a receiving society, and presents a multiplication of migration routes.59 Migration to the GCC countries from Yemen and refugees coming in from Eastern Africa to Yemen are currently the specific routes which – these are the dominant movements ‑ characterize current attention towards Yemeni migration. In other words, while agreeing that currently migrants in Saudi Arabia are by far the most numerous there is still a potential balancing action in terms of social and cultural influence by returning migrants from a number of other parts of the world, including Eastern Africa.

  • 60 Molyneux, 1995; Carapico & Wuerth, 2000; Manea, 2002.
  • 61 De Regt, 2007, p. 204.

43Societies in Eastern Africa are clearly not characterized by gender equality; but then neither were the former states of YAR and the PDRY. Nevertheless, especially compared to the PDRY's family law, the family law in Yemen currently reunited is usually pointed to as a U‑turn for women's rights, an observation substantiated by reforms of the personal status code restricting women’s opportunities to obtaining a divorce, for instance.60 The narrative of return told by returnees from Eastern Africa tells of experiences of a different gender order, in line with the returnees in de Regt’s study, who find that in East African societies “gender segregation is less strict, women do not wear a veil (at least not in the way Yemeni women wear the veil), men and women socialize easily, and education for women is more common”.61

  • 62 Yuval‑Davis et al, 2005.

44When the returnees' narratives point to gendered practices as a factor (if not the factor) for differentiation, it needs also be pointed out that the returnees told me their life story as someone they may want to align with as ‘modern’ and ‘liberal‑minded’ in terms of gender practices and ideologies. The narrative plot being built around gendered practices on the other hand confirms that politics of belonging are gendered62, gendered practices constitute an important element for the kind of belonging that migrants or returnees see for themselves.

45Moreover, narratives of return provide an entry into the study of how returnees position themselves and shape their identities thus creating ‘a guide for action’ which allows for the transfer of social remittances in terms of accepting women have professional careers, for instance. Positioning oneself as more advanced in terms of gender practices and other progressive trends opens up in other words the way to influencing people around oneself. Thus, the point of my argument here is not to prove or demonstrate returnees from Eastern Africa do in fact transmit social remittances and take gender relations in Yemen into specific directions (although the narratives emphasize the likeliness of this happening). Instead I would like to point out that the strong inclination to transmit social remittances found in the narrative of return take gender practices as a justification for positioning oneself as Yemeni with something more. While this position is a precondition for submitting social remittances, receptiveness in Yemeni society to innovative ideas and practices is limited by other factors, among which a poorly elaborated transnational system and low esteem for the destination country. At the same time, relatively high social status in terms of higher education and professions enjoyed by returnees from Eastern Africa means they are an essential part of the on‑going contestation of the Yemeni gender order.

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1 According to the UN‑related Nations Encyclopedia, an Internet source, (Erreur ! Référence de lien hypertexte non valide. com/Asia‑and‑Oceania/Yemen‑MIGRATION.html#ixzz1Et4C8NJ3).

2 However, see contributions by Bezabeh 2011 & 2010, Manger 2010, Walker 2008, de Regt 2007.

3 Muwallad, the singular of muwalladîn, refers to ‘not truly Old Arabic’ or not purely Arabic in terms of language, according to Mehrez (2007, p. 109) when referring to people, those of mixed Arab parentage (Ho in Freitag & Clarence‑Smith 1997, p. 131). Ho refers to the usage of the term in the latter sense in Hadramaut, but such a use seems to extend to other parts of Yemen. See also Jacobsen, 2009 and de Regt, 2007.

4 Levitt, 2001; Levitt & Nieves‑Lampak, 2011.

5 Molyneux, 1995 ; Manea, 2002 ; Dahlgren, 2010 ; Yadav, 2010.

6 Connell, 1987 and 2009. The term gender order does not exclude male dominance, nor does it take imply such a dominance. Instead it makes for a more diversified and nuanced power structure in which women may achieve dominance or independence in specific spheres or areas (Connell 2009, p. 73‑74).

7 Somers & Gibson, 1994, p. 38.

8 Moors, 2007.

9 Doumato, 2003; Krause 2009

10 Jalal & Sardjunani, 2005; Cameron, 2002; Kebede, 2001.

11 /Husniya wanted me to use her real name; the two other names are fictitious. All three have given consent to the publication of their narration in this article.

12 Richardson, 1998; Bruner, 1996; Somers & Gibson, 1994.

13 Somers & Gibson 1994, p. 38‑39.

14 Consequently, Fawziya was not selected because she was more critical of Yemeni society, nor is there anything about her condition or activities which would make her more likely to transfer social remittances compared to the other two narrators.

15 Levitt, 1998 and 2001.

16 In other cases of forced migration from the Horn of Africa migrants are not as ambiguous as returnees, as they have a status as aliens. In Le Houérou’s study of Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees in Cairo neighborhoods these migrants are in contrast to Yemenis returning to Yemen, confronted with the refugee aid‑apparatus (Le Houérou, 2003). De Regt’s study of migrants from Ethiopia who become domestic workers in Yemen is also a study of migrants from Eastern Africa who are given status as aliens, despite them taking an identical migration route (de Regt 2007 and 2010). In other words, the ambiguity of status in terms of belonging is clearly attached to returnees, rather than to other migrants.

17 Social stratification in Yemen is usually represented as a hierarchy in which the sâdâ, the descendants of the Prophet Mu/hammad, rank highest. Then follow the mashâyikh, descendants of respected religious scholars, and the qabâ’îl, or warriors, usually referring to tribal descent, and finally, the masâkin, referring to artisans, servants and peasants. At the very bottom, come the ‘abîd, or slaves (Jacobsen 2009, p. 10), among which the akhdam, descendants of slaves (Bezabeh, 2010, p. 337). This structure of social stratification has changed considerably in the last few decades.

18 De Regt 2007, p. 199.

19 /Husniya also told her story to Marta Paluch, 2001.

20 Each interview was based on questions specifically directed at that person in order to encourage more narration on family background, migration destination and returning to Yemen. I asked questions such as: “How did growing up in Uganda affect your life? Please reflect…” and: “Can you tell me more about your family in Djibouti and why they went there?” Formal interviews were in two cases in written form, whereas ‘Abd al‑La/tîf responded to my written questions orally, when he visited my university, and I took notes as he spoke. All quotations in the following are based on the written responses that I got from /Husniya and Fawziya, and on my notes from the conversation with ‘Abd al‑La/tîf.

21 Levitt 1998, p. 936. Transnational migration studies is but one current theoretical perspective on return migration which has received renewed attention due to the migration‑development nexus ranking high on the international political agenda, for an overview, see Cassarino, 2004.

22 see de Regt 2007, p. 204

23 In fact Levitt categorizes migrants’ interactions with the receiving society into three patterns, based on their propensity to forward social remittances, as purposeful innovators, instrumental adapters and recipient observers (Levitt, 2001, p. 57).

24 Levitt, 1998, p. 937

25 Idem, p. 937 and 940.

26 Idem, p. 940.

27 Okruhlik & Conge, 1997; Colton, 1993; Van Hear 1994.

28 Dahya, 1965; Halliday, 2010, orig. 1992.

29 Dweik, 1980; Friedlander, 1988; Abraham & Shyrock, 2000.

30 Bang, 2003; Freitag, 2003; Ho 2006.

31 Thiollet, 2007, p. 4.

32 De Regt, 2007a, 2007b.

33 De Regt, 2009 and 2010.

34 Alley, 2010; Okruklik & Conge, 1997; Colton, 1993; van Hear, 1994.

35 Levitt , 2001.

36 World Bank, 2010.

37 Quite brutally, I denote as Yemeni all migrants from former South Yemen, the socialist PDRY (People’s Republic of Yemen) and North Yemen, the YAR (Yemeni Arab Republic) as well as state formations prior to these 1964 and 1967 inventions. This is in recognition of the formal reach of the current Yemeni state but does not do justice to the variety of collective belongings (Yuval‑Davis, 2006) these migrants have had and continue to have during their settlement abroad. Except for de Regt (2007) who did fieldwork for her study in /Hudayda, a Yemeni city on the Red Sea coast, Manger (2010) and many others writing on migrants from Yemen probably come closer when they point to Hadramaut as the homeland for a majority of migrants that are in the following referred to as ‘Yemenis’. In fact Manger discusses at length the identity of migrants from Hadramaut which in the receiving societies have varied: ‘Yemenis’, but also ‘Arabs’, ‘capitalists’ and ‘terrorists’ (Manger, 2010, p. 109 ff) ‑ and muwallad, betwixt and between (Idem, p. 123). The latter term seems particularly relevant for returnees, whether they originate in Hadramaut or not.

38 Halliday, 2010, p. 10

39 Manger, 2010, p. 95

40 Idem, p. 100

41 Idem, p. 75

42 Bezabeh, 2010, p. 336

43 Idem, p. 338

44 Manger, 2010, p. 103.

45 Bezabeh, 2011.

46 Idem.

47 Peacock, 1983, p. 93.

48 Idem, p. 97.

49 Bruner, 1996.

50 Bruner, 1996, p. 142.

51 See vom Bruck, 2005, for an analysis of the strategies and social maneuvering such families – the sâdâ – perform, some of them of royal descent, having lost their official status since the establishment of the Yemeni Arab Republic in 1967.

52 De Regt, 2007, p. 204

53 Basch, Glick‑Schiller & Szanton‑Blanc, 1998; Al‑Ali & Koser, 2002.

54 Ho, 2006; Freitag & Clarence‑Smith, 1997; Boxburger, 2002.

55 Abd al‑La/tîf, in contrast, seems to articulate a belonging also based on his frequent travels to Djibouti.

56 Glick‑Schiller & Levitt, 2004, p. 2010.

57 There is a wide variety in Yemen depending on social context (e.g. urban/rural and social class) of gendered practices, in terms of how ‘permissive’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ gendered practices are. Note that I use these terms for want of more precise ones to designate the extent to which women’s clothing cover their body shapes and restrict their mobility.

58 De Regt 2007a, 2009.

59 Castles & Davidson, 2000.

60 Molyneux, 1995; Carapico & Wuerth, 2000; Manea, 2002.

61 De Regt, 2007, p. 204.

62 Yuval‑Davis et al, 2005.

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Connie Carøe Christiansen, « Gender and social remittances », Chroniques yéménites [En ligne], 17 | 2012, mis en ligne le 23 mars 2013, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.1869

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Connie Carøe Christiansen

RUC Roskilde Universitet

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