- 1 An earlier version of this article was presented in Cairo at a 2011 symposium on Gender Transformat (...)
- 2 See, inter alia, Abu‑Lughod, 2004, Limbert, 2010, and Özyürek, 2006.
- 3 Kandiyoti, 1992, p. 246, cited in Abu‑Lughod, 1998, p. 3
2For the past fifteen years, Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago has attracted a considerable amount of state funding and international aid earmarked for conservation‑and‑development programs. Not only have these ascendant projects transformed the archipelago’s place‑in‑the‑world —from a relatively obscure and seasonally inaccessible enclave to a “globally” recognized World Heritage site— but they have also been significantly instrumental in transforming gender roles and relationships within its largest and most populated island, Soqotra. As in many other nations and locales throughout the Arab world, the development aspirations and discourses that underscore such projects stand in delicate tension with coinciding Islamic reformist discourses —even though both are inherently modernizing and moralizing. Moreover, although these development and reformist frameworks regularly intersect through state‑sponsored projects of modernization and nation building, they have also often constituted sites of conflict between the state and its opposition2. In Soqotra, this tension has been fueled by Yemeni political parties and coalitions (notably the ruling General People’s Congress, on the one hand, and the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, more commonly known as al-Iṣlāḥ [Reform], on the other) while, at the same time, having been independently stoked by ideologies and actors originating from outside the nation. Indeed, as has been noted in many postcolonial contexts, in Soqotra women’s roles, rights, and relationships are interrogated within a national —and extranational— “ideological terrain where broader notions of cultural authenticity and integrity are debated and where women’s appropriate place and conduct may be made to serve as boundary markers”3, in this case, distinguishing Soqotra from Yemen, and Yemen from the rest of the Arab world.
- 4 Both terms —“development” and “reformist”— re kept intentionally broad here. By “development” inter (...)
- 5 Li Puma, 2000.
- 6 Of the circa 50,000 inhabitants of the Soqotra Archipelago, approximately 25% live in or around the (...)
- 7 Joseph, 2005, p. 80.
- 8 My suggestion need not be restricted to rural areas alone. Suad Joseph, whose work I draw on here, (...)
3In this paper, I explore several examples of both development and reformist interventions aimed at transforming Soqotran women’s behaviors in the decade following Yemen’s unification and ensuing civil war (1995–2005)4. This was also the first decade that the Soqotra Archipelago was truly “encompassed”5 by the Yemeni nation‑state, beginning, in 1997, with the implementation of an island‑wide Integrated Conservation and Development Project (ICDP) by the Government of Yemen (GoY), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which, between 1997 and 2008 sought to transform the entire archipelago into a national protected area supported by international ecotourism, and accelerating, in 1998, with the upgrading of Soqotra’s airstrip: a renovation that, allowing for travel and transport year‑round, has aided the “opening” (Ar.: infitāḥ) of the island to new forms of economic liberalization and ideological debate. Based on field work carried out between 2004–2006 and with additional visits until 2011 to one of Soqotra’s fledgling (internal) protected areas —here identified as the Protected Area— I argue that, in rural Soqotra6, imported pietist discourses gained traction over international development projects because of their dexterity in addressing women’s rights, roles and responsibilities within “relational matrices” or, in other words, “within the context of intimate patriarchal familial and communal relationships”7; Development projects, on the other hand, which tended to promote autonomous or gendered (feminized) self‑interest aimed at empowering or elevating the position of women as “women,” often folded —largely because they failed to recognize or accede the importance of kin‑based as opposed to strictly sex‑determined notions of relational selfhood and connectivity. That is, while the quite novel tensions in Soqotra between “development” and “reformist” interventions could be characterized as a struggle between imported “Western” (in other words, “neoliberal”) ideologies and endogenous “pietist” (in other words, “neoorthodox”) ideologies in which “endogenous” beliefs naturally hold ground —despite the fact that both sets of interventions and their related discourses have been introduced to the archipelago in recent years— their successes with regard to the projects examined were in fact largely incumbent upon the degree to which rural women were located and addressed in relation to their family, clan/tribe, and (village) community. This hypothesis, which I present through a series of ethnographic vignettes, suggests that public policies or development initiatives that specifically target rural Yemeni (or even Arab Gulf state) women may, in fact, curtail their ultimate “empowerment,” pathways, or even possibilities8.
- 9 In 1886, Sultan ‘Alī bin ‘Abd Allāh of Qishn and Soqotra signed a protection treaty with Great Brit (...)
- 10 For a more detailed history of the succession of political regimes in Soqotra, see Elie 2009, 2010.
- 11 In Saba Mahmood’s influential work on da‘wa movements in Egypt (2005), she defines da‘wa as a piety (...)
4Both the Arabian and the Somali peninsulas have experienced transformative political and social change during the past fifty years. The Soqotra Archipelago, situated roughly between the peninsulas, is no exception. In 1967, after nearly five centuries of independent rule under the Banū ‘Afrār, rulers of the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Soqotra9, the archipelago was incorporated into the People’s Republic of South Yemen (in 1970, renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). Soqotra was then administered as a restricted military zone until 1990, when it became part of the newly unified Republic of Yemen10. The socialist state was credited for having introduced a range of social welfare programs —most importantly, state education and food subsidies— to the transhumant pastoralists and coastal fishermen who until recently depended largely on a combination of animal husbandry, fishing, and date cultivation. Nevertheless, many Soqotrans consider “real” development —that is, infrastructural and economic developments in transportation, telecommunications and trade (paved roads, weekly flights to the mainland, a mobile phone network, and the proliferation of mosques, schools, hotels, and shops)— to have occurred only in the past fifteen years with the national and international “discovery” of Soqotra as a biodiversity “hot spot” as well as an ideal location for Islamic da‘wa, that is, missionary or proselyte activities11.
- 12 In Soqotra, the term da‘wa (Arabic: call to God) is used more frequently to refer to lawsuits over (...)
- 13 Mahmood, 2005.
- 14 By the time I began my research in Soqotra, just ten years after Yemen’s civil war, the Soqotri hal (...)
- 15 Salafi reformists in Yemen in the broadest sense of the term oppose or discourage these and other p (...)
- 16 Molyneux, 1995, p. 422.
- 17 Art. 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Yemen, as amended on 29 September 1994, emphasis adde (...)
- 18 Badran, 1998, p. 506. Both Badran (1998) and Molyneux (1995) provide cogent analysis of the regress (...)
5For example, following Yemen’s 1994 civil war, Tablighi and Salafi “proselytizers” from mainland Yemen and the Arab Gulf States —referred to in Soqotra by the Arabic term muṭawwa‘īn, meaning “volunteers”12— began visiting the island in the interest of summoning Soqotrans to God. Not only had Soqotra just been made more easily accessible after a prolonged period of enforced isolation under socialist rule, but also its inhabitants were considered underdeveloped and uneducated —and thus particularly in need of religious instruction and guidance. At the same time, this post‑unity politico‑religious “opening” afforded Soqotran men and women the opportunity to engage openly in their own “pedagogies of persuasion”13, including traveling outside of the coastal towns to instruct the rural “Bedouin” in proper Islamic deportment and dress. Soqotran women, for example, were advised to replace their “traditional” knee‑length and short‑sleeved dresses (Soq.: halaq) with more modest attire14. Men were actively discouraged from drumming, performing mawlid celebrations (in Soqotra, a recitation of religious verse honoring the Prophet, not necessarily on his birthday), engaging in religious supplication (for rain, for example), and participating in mixed‑sex poetry recitations (a common form of entertainment at weddings or large feasts)15. A more vigilant separation of the sexes was generally encouraged. This shift toward religious conservatism in Soqotra reflected broader shifts in mainland Yemen that had occurred during its transitional period (1990–1994), when the socialist, secular, and gender‑egalitarian elements of South Yemen’s constitution and progressive Family Law of 1974 were replaced by the less progressive “laws, and customs, prevailing in the North”16, the declaration of Islamic jurisprudence (shari‘a) as “the source of all legislation”17, and the enactment of a new, gender discriminatory Personal Status Law in 199218. Many Soqotrans, however —male and female— perceived this not as a regressive shift, but rather as an enabling form of spiritual and material “development.” With Arab state secularism (and socialism) dismantled, Soqotran émigrés living in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf took to funding the building of mosques in their native villages and across the island. Through satellite television programs and advertisements broadcast from these same countries, Soqotrans living on the island were exposed to and learned to desire urban Islamic fashion, like svelte black gloves and intricately embroidered black ‘abāyāt. New mosques, metropolitan nuqub: such forms of “development” came to symbolize the religious modernity to which many Soqotrans aspire.
- 19 West, 2006. To be exact, three distinct project phases have been implemented in Soqotra: the GEF‑fu (...)
- 20 Agrawal, 2005.
- 21 For more on Soqotra’s recent transformation into an environmental and political enclave, see Peutz, (...)
6In the late nineties, the launching of the “Socotra Biodiversity Project” (1997–2003), followed by the “Socotra Conservation and Development Programme” (2003–2008), introduced Soqotrans to a new ideological “regime”: “conservation‑as‑development”19. Some of the major accomplishments of the projects during these years included the ratification by Presidential Decree of an archipelago‑wide conservation zoning plan in 2000, the establishment of 37 terrestrial and marine protected areas within the archipelago, and the recognition of the archipelago as a UNESCO (natural) World Heritage Site in 2008. Yet, one could argue that the most transformative and enduring effect of these ICDP years was less the creation of a conservationist “environmentality”20 among Soqotrans, than it was the jumpstarting of Soqotra’s tourism economy. While the Government of Yemen had been laying the physical infrastructure necessary for international tourism —including upgrading the airstrip mentioned above and the beginning of an asphalt ring road— the IDCP outfitted six of the eleven terrestrial protected areas with campgrounds intended to provide income‑generating opportunities for rural residents. Subsequently, many of the predominantly pastoral Soqotrans received both “environmental awareness training” concerning new restrictions on environmental use and minimal training as local tour guides in service to the “ecotourists” who —until the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, that is— arrived on the then bi‑weekly flights from the Yemeni mainland21.
- 22 In 2003, the SCDP employed 18 (or, approximately 20%) women, the majority of them environmental edu (...)
- 23 According to the Chief of the Tourist Police whose officers register (by sight) the arrival of fore (...)
7It is challenging, in such a brief outline, to discuss economic and social transformations without perhaps incorrectly attributing too much causality to any one factor. The ICDP project, alone, had been among Soqotra’s largest employers, employing approximately 90 national and local (Soqotran) staff, male and female, at the height of its activity22. Several of the mainland Yemenis and a few of the Soqotrans (including one woman) were sent abroad for further training; other Soqotran employees learned English on the job, which has since served them well in tourism or in other ventures. “Nature‑based” tourism is thus not the only “engine of [economic] growth” on Soqotra —and, indeed, “sustainable fisheries” was recognized as another (SCDP 2003: 6)— but it has had a noteworthy hand in infusing the local economy with ready, albeit seasonal, cash23. Conspicuous consumption is, well, more conspicuous today than it was when I lived in Soqotra from 2004 to 2006. Young, male Soqotrans boast smart phones with video or camera capacity on their belt straps; rural men and women have taken to wearing sturdy leather sandals instead of plastic Chinese‑made flip‑flops; and pastoralist women, like my former neighbors, apply expensive skin products like “Fair and Lovely” in place of the turmeric powder used previously for skin‑lightening. One of the most striking effects of tourism in Soqotra, however, is its slow, but inevitable widening of a gap in life experiences between young adult men and women, especially in the rural areas. Clearly, Soqotran women encounter foreign tourists or development workers in the market place or even in their villages, but only a handful of women employed by local Non‑Governmental Organization (NGOs) or international projects work with non‑Yemenis on a daily basis. More commonly, Soqotran men work with tourists, while Soqotran women work behind the scenes. For example, in the protected area in which I lived, rural women made trinkets and collected gum resins to sell to visiting tourists; however, the children would run them over to the car park or campground, preventing any direct contact between the tourists and their mothers. Men, on the other hand, working as guides, drivers, cooks, and translators, spent weeks if not months per year in foreign company; many speak English, Italian, German, Spanish, or Czech now; several have had European “girlfriends.” If their lifeworlds are increasingly broadened, then the experiences of their sisters, daughters, and even wives remain, relative‑to‑their own, quite insular. In what follows I discuss several examples of how these rural Soqotran women have been targeted by pietist and development discourses, respectively, in order to examine in further detail the types of gender(ed) transformations occurring on the island.
8In June 2005, in the dusty market streets of Hadiboh, Soqotra’s largest town, the facsimile of a vaguely humanoid and paedomorphic creature was selling for 20 riyals a copy, or 250 YR (approx. US $1.30) for a color reprint. If Soqotrans were not purchasing this image —frequently described to me as that of a woman who looked like a marsupial or a reptile— then they were talking about it: in the market place, at domestic gatherings in town, on the road, and in the rural hamlets of Soqotra’s interior. This creature, the accompanying text explained, was a girl from the Rustaq district in Oman who, while watching qanāt nujūm, (“Channel of Stars” or, in English, Nojoom TV, a United Arab Emirates‑based entertainment channel), became irritated by her mother’s coincident recitation of the Qur’an. In a fit of anger, the girl struck down the Holy Book, but then was in turn struck down to the ground —transmogrified by God into this grotesque, but still recognizably human form. She was currently, the text revealed, in the al‑Sulṭānī hospital in Muscat, Oman.
Figure 1: “photograph” circulated in Soqotra, 2005
- 24 Piccinini, 2003. “We Are Family” was exhibited at the Australian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 20 (...)
9Although the same arresting image and message circulated also in Oman —at least, among the Soqotrans living in Salalah— it had actually been extracted from a 2003 exhibition, “We Are Family,” by the Australian sculptor‑artist, Patricia Piccinini. One of its installations, titled “Leather Landscape,” presented a blond‑haired, pink‑suited toddler gazing at what Piccinini calls “humanoid, transgenic creatures, based on the African Meerkat”24. Perched on a dais of white leather, one of the creatures stands sentinel, as would a meerkat; a second male squats, supporting a senior, fatigued family member leaning over his shoulder; a six‑breasted creature, also squatting, suckles two of her three babies; while the second female, her breasts shielded, crouches toward the human toddler. It is this crouching creature, excised from her family of male, female, aging, and infant mutants, that was circulated by photograph, photocopy, cell phone snapshot, and word of mouth throughout Soqotra and Oman in the summer of 2005 (and, additionally, within Turkish and Bahraini blogospheres).
Figure 2: “We Are Family”/“Leather Landscape.”
Image posted on www.patriciapiccinini.net/wearefamily/, accessed January 1, 2013
Patricia Piccinini, 2003
- 25 A few reviewers of this article have questioned the amount of space I have dedicated to this descri (...)
- 26 Haraway, 2008. In this catalogue‑essay, Haraway writes about Piccinini’s “(tender) creatures” exhib (...)
10Why was it that this particular transgenic female figure became a sought after, albeit short‑lived, commodity among the (still) largely pastoral population of Yemen’s (still) “remote” island of Soqotra25? What did the Soqotrans’ rapt encounter with this “Omani girl’s” unsettling “transmogrification” suggest about their relatively mundane, but perhaps equally unsettling engagement with post‑unity gender expectations introduced, as Soqotrans like to say, min rinhem: “from [across] the sea”?In order to respond to these questions, I return briefly to Piccinini’s creatures whom feminist scholar Donna Haraway has described as “replete with narrative speculative fabulation” while also “altering viewers to both danger and possibility”26. “Leather Landscape” invites us to consider this female‑creature returning the human toddler’s gaze as our bio‑diverse kin: a techno‑natural possibility. Excised from this family, the image that circulated in Soqotra was replete with a different narrative of possibility and danger. There, as I remarked already, the narrative comprised a girl transmogrified by God for having desecrated His word and treating her pious mother with disrespect. This mutant‑daughter, sequestered in a hospital, had been removed from her family —both physically and genetically— as a direct result of her enthrallment with a putatively immoral technoculture.
- 27 See Piccinini, 2003 and Michael, 2003.
- 28 Virtuous fear, of fear of God (Ar.: khauf), can be considered an emotion or disposition that cultiv (...)
11While this fabulation departs from Piccinini’s message on the ethics and beauty of human creation27, nearly all of the Soqotrans with whom I spoke interpreted it as an affirmation of the creative power of God. During the two weeks that the image circulated the island, God-fearing Soqotrans with access to television stopped watching Nojoom TV altogether, flipping past it as quickly as their remote controls would allow. Even those who had not seen the photograph, much less viewed television in their rural homes, were moved to fear28. When Rawiya, my elderly neighbor in the Protected Area, was shown by her young granddaughters and their cousins a photocopy of the image that had made its way there from Hadiboh, she had cried and felt fear (Ar.: khauf), she later told me, because God can do anything.
- 29 “Al‑Qaeda” did not have any presence on Soqotra during this period nor is it likely that the organi (...)
12Others, while audibly giving thought to and reviewing their own disposition toward the Qur’an, remarked that this story was probably “just lies” spread by what they called “extremist” groups such as al‑Iṣlāḥ (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, a major Yemeni opposition party with a religious platform), or even “al‑Qaeda”29. A Soqotran woman of African descent living near Hadiboh asserted that the image had been manipulated to keep people, and especially women, from watching television. “Why would God punish this woman when our own children desecrate the Qur’an everyday because they lose pages of their school books [containing Qur’anic verses] in the wādī, or the goats eat them, and they get torn or even peed on and yet none of our children are turned into animals,” she countered. “And further, why would someone bring her to the hospital? What is a hospital going to do: turn her back into a human? Why would people think the hospital could turn an animal into a human? If this really happened to someone, her family would keep her at home. This is all lies,” she insisted.
- 30 Group discussions centered on this image were not restricted to exchanges on God’s will and power, (...)
13Even some of the more devout Soqotrans were skeptical. “What about the U.S. soldiers [in Iraq] who desecrated the Qur’an in far worse ways —wouldn’t God have turned them into animals first?” a self‑identified “volunteer (proselytizer)” (Ar.: muṭawwa‘) based in Hadiboh asked me rhetorically. Nevertheless, as a preacher (Ar: khaṭīb) and thus religious spokesman, this same young man asserted that it was his duty to explain to others that it was indeed in God’s power to transform human beings in this fashion. Indeed, while many Soqotrans proclaimed this an outright miracle and just as many argued that the image was a fabrication, or plain lies, almost everyone I spoke with concurred that, regardless whether God turned this particular girl into an animal or not, the important point was that it was undeniably possible that He could do so. With this conviction firmly voiced, Soqotrans could return to attributing the photograph —and message— to al‑Iṣlāḥ, “al‑Qaeda,” or to, more generally, “these terrorists” who “do not like people watching Nojoom TV [qanāt nujūm]” and who, especially, “do not like women watching television” because they think that it will direct their time and minds away from religious devotion30.
14Clearly, at issue here was not only the ethical question of how to behave toward the Qur’an, but also a gendered notion of social comportment illustrating how women should discipline themselves, more generally, and especially against the onslaught of mass media and other “new” (to Soqotra) technologies: thus, the striking contrast between the pious mother and her “modern,” but irreverent daughter. And yet, the “narrative speculations” evoked by this image are far more layered than this, containing as they do an implicit assessment of the possibility and danger incurred by Soqotra’s neoliberal and neo‑religious “opening.” In other words, it is not just new technologies that were seen as potentially threatening to Soqotrans, but also the moralizing restrictions —religious and environmental— imposed on them by peoples and institutions “from [across] the sea.” These peoples and institutions include the followers of al‑Iṣlāḥ (widely believed to be behind the distribution of this image) and the employees of international (and, in some cases, mainland Yemeni) NGOs, all of which were deemed to be “meddling” with Soqotran family structures and relationships. To illustrate this, I return once more to the image’s original “message.”
- 31 Piccinini, 2003.
- 32 Haraway, 2008.
15It is poignantly ironic that an installation from an exhibition celebrating the inclusivity of family relationships —“We Are Family”— would be transformed into a narrative of exclusion from the family, and from humanity, altogether. And yet, even though the Soqotrans I know have most likely not seen a photograph of the full installation, “Leather Landscape,” Piccinini’s concerns in this work speak uncannily to their own: what constitutes a family? Whereas in the Soqotra‑circulated image, the creature’s bare breasts are partially hidden by her arm, the full installation features, as noted above, a seated, six-breasted mother-creature nursing two of three babies nestled between her legs. Piccinini states that this particular work is about “our relationship to the animals and creatures we may create”31. Indeed, these transgenic creatures appear “human” in their earnest effort to nurture, guard, and care. Moreover, as Haraway points out, these “progenitors and guardians all covered with organs to feed and shelter off‑category offspring” are made to take care of the “unexpected, vulnerable, hungry progeny of whatever species, natural or not”32. Fully capable of nursing and nurturing more than their offspring, alone, these mother-creatures remind us that we, too, have it in us to nurture more than our genetic offspring, more than our “own” family, more than our species.
- 33 For example, the milk mother’s biological children become maḥram and, thus, unmarriageable to her s (...)
- 34 Her name and all that follow are pseudonyms used to ensure my interlocutors’ anonymity.
16In Soqotra, women have, for years, nursed more than their biological offspring. The tradition of wet-nursing (Ar.: raḍā‘a; Soq.: a‘tadeg) is widely prevalent, such that the majority of the inhabitants of “Qayher” (pseudonym), the Protected Area village in which I lived, have a milk mother (in Soqotri: memé) in addition to their birth mother (in Soqotri: biyyo) —and many of them have several. As in other Arab Muslim societies, when a woman breastfeeds a child that is not biogenetically her own, that child becomes maḥram, or kin, to her, as do each other’s consanguineous relations33. In small communities, such as in rural Soqotra, this milk kinship has effected numerous marriage prohibitions (one acquaintance charted for me the forty‑eight women and girls he was legally restricted from marrying due to these expansive milk relationships), while at the same time fostering several close and privileged kinship‑like relations (i.e., the ability for a woman to appear unveiled in front of her milk brother or milk father, as well as intimate forms of social greetings, like the Soqotran tradition of nose touching) between people who may not have been previously related. While most of the Soqotran women and men with whom I spoke about their milk kin explained that Soqotrans forged these relationships out of mutual feelings of love and respect between the wet nurse and her suckling’s biological mother (and their respective families), there have been also several benefits to this practice. First, and foremost, wet nursing helps to feed hungry offspring in a pastoral community —where food has been periodically scarce, and infant formula hard to come by— when the biological mother may not have enough milk, or may be away from her child, looking after her sheep, for example. Secondly, it establishes ongoing relationships that are mutually beneficial social investments with intermittent economic returns. Loved and respected by their milk children, Soqotran memés can count on receiving economic or physical assistance from them in times of need. Soqotrans fortunate enough to have milk mothers or milk siblings living in the relatively affluent Arab states of the Persian Gulf (Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, primarily) are said to receive cars from them, or other forms of financial support. Milk relationships are based thus on love, but also, to a certain degree, on shrewd calculation. My neighbor Widād (pseudonym)34, for example, rejected several proximate women’s offers to breastfeed her daughter because, as she said, they were not living overseas from where they might send her daughter dresses, and thus, “there would be no benefit (Ar.: fā’ida)” from such a relationship.
- 35 A son of a prominent Soqotran family who himself has “about ten” siblings from raḍā‘a as well as a (...)
17Self-serving as Widād’s explanation may sound, it may just as likely have been mere dissimulation to evade discussing the then‑current controversy and anxieties over milk kinship in Soqotra. These anxieties were palpable in the responses of Soqotrans I knew less well to my questions about milk kinship on the island: “it rarely happens now”; or, “do you think it is shameful? (Ar.: ‘aib)”; or, “it used to happen here, but now it is forbidden (Ar.: ḥarām)”35. Several women told me that when the muṭawwa‘īn came to Soqotra, they were told that breastfeeding other women’s children was “illicit” (Ar.: ḥarām); or that they were not properly following the Qur’anic injunction to “complete the breastfeeding quickly” by satiating the baby either five times in a row or over the course of five days; or that, at the very least, they needed to seek their husband’s permission (Ar.: rukhṣa), first. Despite the general acknowledgment that raḍā‘a was a practice sanctioned by Islamic law and tradition, several Soqotran men I knew also disparaged raḍā‘a, arguing that it was no longer necessary today, or even, that it was “bestial” (Ar.: min al‑bahā’im). Younger women were quick to tell me that they just did not have any “desire” to suckle children other than their own, despite the fact that several living in the Protected Area still did. Indeed —and with some parallel to the generational divide depicted in the alleged “Omani” mother-daughter conflict— Widād had refused also to breastfeed her own mother’s newborn son (i.e., Widād’s brother), despite her mother’s explicit request to this effect.
- 36 Although many Soqotrans with whom I discussed milk kinship seemed eager to dismiss it as a bygone o (...)
18In part, the voiced aversion to the act of suckling another woman’s child could be read as a self-conscious demonstration of these Soqotrans’ “modernness,” or aspirations thereto36. Yet, one of the underlying discomforts with raḍā‘a in early 21st century Soqotra, I believe, springs from anxieties regarding the very parameters of “family” in an ocean of change. What are the possibilities and dangers that could arise from women having the autonomous ability to engender quasi‑consanguineous relationships, independent of their agnates? Repeatedly, I heard the rather allegorical tale of a Soqotran woman who had breastfed a male and female infant who later— unbeknown to each other’s families that they were milk siblings— married and, together, conceived a child. When the grown man eventually discovered that he had committed incest by marrying his milk sister, he divorced his wife/sister and went insane (Ar.: yatajannān). To this day, I’ve been told, he lives alone (whereas his milk‑sister remarried and has borne additional children, and their daughter has become a mother, too): a living example of why, several Soqotrans concluded, raḍā‘a must be forbidden now. Now, with the “opening” of the island to outside influences, institutions, and people, just how inclusive can the Soqotran “family” afford to be? Will Soqotrans remain able to recognize and distinguish their “kin”?
19Piccinini’s celebrated explorations of the radical broadening of “family” (including, for example, an installation of a child coddling stem cells) might not, thus, make sense to the Soqotran women I know. And, yet, her depictions of motherly care and family responsibility, legible even in the (imported) narrative fabulation accompanying her lonesome, excised creature, spoke directly to Soqotran concerns. That is, regardless of the Soqotrans’ individual positions in either controversy— the debate over the veracity of the Omani girl’s transmogrification, and the debate over the continued permissibility of wet‑nursing— or their stances toward the “intrusiveness” of these moralizing discourses and their alleged disseminators, their responses served invariably as a publically‑reiterated affirmation of the belief that Soqotran women’s primary responsibilities are, first and foremost, to their immediate family, agnatic and affinal. “Imported” development projects aimed at empowering or elevating the position of women as “women” —independent of their husbands and male relatives— failed, in contrast, to find such a receptive audience.
- 37 The term, Salafism, is of course, quite complex. Bonnefoy discusses the diversity of actors and int (...)
20Before turning to these failed or otherwise derailed development projects, it would be instructive to discuss a related example of the shortcomings of pietist or missionary Salafism on Soqotra37. In doing so, I hope to stress the point that it is not religious reformism and “sustainable” development that are inherently at odds —not only are both projects modernizing and moralizing as I have stated above, but in fact on Soqotra there were members of reformist organizations such as al-Iṣlāḥ as well as Salafi sympathizers working for or with the ICDP projects and their partner NGOs— but rather the ways in which they may interpellate women in areas thought to be culturally and religiously “conservative.” That is, to the degree in which reformists and development workers in Soqotra recognized gender as a flexible system, however discriminatory, to which men and women agreed and which they jointly enforced, their messages found traction. To the degree in which they sought to draw clear lines between the sexes —whether to segregate or “empower” women— their messages fell short.
- 38 Bonnefoy 2011, p. 44.
- 39 Qāt, or Catha edulis, is a mild stimulant cultivated in Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya and chew (...)
21Missionary Salafism —with its literalist “emphasis on purifying religious practices from local particularities and innovations”38— has had perhaps its most vocal proponents in Soqotra in the mosques and study circles in the coastal towns of Hadiboh and Qalansiya. It is during the Friday sermons that men have been warned against engaging in religious innovations (bid‘a); that qāt39, music and poetry have been declared illicit; that the men have been warned against cavorting with tourists; and that women have been criticized for working for the ICDP. The more episodic examples that have been the focus of this article —the circulated image and the debate over milk kinship— may not have been as predominant as these more mundane (and thus germane) discussions and influences but these are the “controversies” that between 2004 and 2006 had reached the women living in the Protected Area, not many of whom travel down to Hadiboh on a regular or consistent basis where they might view television or hear the echoes of the Friday khuṭba, or sermon. In addition to these controversies, an even more acute example of missionary Salafism entering their homes occurred in the winter and spring of 2006 when a Salafi school teacher from Laḥj, Yemen was assigned to the Protected Area and moved in with the school’s other visiting teachers in the same hamlet that had been hosting me.
- 40 Ahl al‑sunna wa al‑jamā‘a is not an organization as such, but rather a descriptor often used by Sal (...)
- 41 Describing the reasoning behind such Salafi prohibitions, Bonnefoy explains: “To the extent that th (...)
22Although residents of the Protected Area were relieved to have been assigned additional teachers for their children’s beleaguered school and were eager to accommodate them, the presence of this self‑described “member” of ahl al‑sunna wa al‑jamā‘a (“people of the Tradition and of the Group”)40 posed a series of unprecedented challenges to his proximate hosts (my neighbors) and his increasingly irritated roommates. His pious determination to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions demanded an architecture of strict gender segregation that was not only novel, but also in practice unfeasible within this agnatic pastoral community. Yet, both men and women of the hamlet took pity on their guest, telling me that he was miskīn (poor, unfortunate, mild) and that he simply could not bear the presence of women (Ar: ma yaḥmil al‑nisā’). Within a day of his arrival, the men of Qayher erected a feeble plastic screen between the (male) teachers’ house and its external kitchen, where the women of the Protected Area took turns cooking for them. The women, meanwhile, must have been advised to lower their voices or to remain silent while cooking in the compound for the conversational banter that used to dart regularly between them and the male teachers lounging outside the kitchen had come to an abrupt halt. Moreover, and just as suddenly, the women in the hamlet made sure to cover not only their hair but now also their faces when walking between the clustered houses or when fetching water from the communal faucet. Even inside their homes, the teenaged girls suspended their then favorite pastime of listening and dancing to the scratchy cassette recordings of Yemen’s famed ‘ūd player, Fayṣal ‘Alawī. At the same time, the other teachers started spending more of their evenings in their hosts’ homes where they could smoke cigarettes or listen to (muted) radio news broadcasts without offending their pious new roommate. He’s miskīn, everyone agreed, generously dispelling any sign of encumbrance brought on through these special accommodations41.
- 42 For a more extensive “case study” of how Salafi students in a village in Yāfī, mainland Yemen, are (...)
23Nevertheless, the real challenge to the Protected Area residents during this teacher’s stay in the hamlet would not be limited to this newly performed gender segregation nor the quotidian gymnastics required of “good” hosts. Instead, the teacher attempted to draw on his credentials to teach more than just Arabic language to his pupils, telling his hosts that it was ḥarām for them to serve food to the “Jews” (his description of the tourists) visiting the nearby campground, an income‑generating project organized and funded by the SCDP and its donors; that it was ḥarām for the pupils to engage in physical exercises at school, whereby the boys and girls would see each other’s movements; that it was ḥarām to raise a Yemeni flag above the school building, as the state should not be greater than God; and that it was ḥarām for the Protected Area children to accept small trinkets, like pens, from foreign visitors. He even openly criticized the esteemed local qādī, or judge, for associating with “foreigners” by accepting rides in their vehicles down to Hadiboh. Although I had been gone for several months during this period, I was told upon my return how influential his teachings had been, especially among the Protected Area residents who were “illiterate” and thus “less educated” than he. “I know that he is a little weak [Ar. da‘īf] in his [understanding of] religion,” one of the other teachers asserted, “but he has a baccalaureate in Arabic so he is also fairly learned [Ar.: muta‘allim], somehow”42.
24Three months later, however, upon the completion of the school year, the Salafi teacher was transferred back to mainland Yemen and the people of the Protected Area must have turned their attention to a new set of challenges and concerns, such as the monsoon winds that were about to sweep across the plains. When I next returned to Soqotra in June 2007, I saw no material remains of the plastic screen that had been erected between the teachers’ house and their outdoor kitchen (the monsoon winds would have destroyed it in days), and the women’s movements were, once again, less circumscribed. My generous and pragmatic hosts, I learned, had not retreated from catering to tourists in the nearby campsite, nor had they constructed further barriers, material or ideological, as their former guest/teacher had proposed. Although they had been eager to accommodate their visitor whose learning and profession they respected, and while the teacher’s form of pietist principles and practices may have convinced a few of the Protected Area’s inhabitants during the six‑month duration of his assignment, his enjoinments —unlike the previous admonitions over the evils of certain media (and the necessity of respecting one’s elders) and the dangers of milk kinship (and the necessity of respecting one’s husbands)— were quickly brushed aside. Most disregarded was his attempted imposition of strict gender segregation in a small‑knit community in which mixed‑sex socializing had been and would continue to be routine. Efforts by international development organizations to educate, train and address men and women separately —imagining women as a community in gendered solidarity rather than as “relational selves” interested primarily in forwarding the agenda of their own (male and female) kin— failed similarly to take root.
- 43 GoY & UNDP, 2003, p 11.
- 44 GoY & UNDP, 2003, p. 12.
25In 2003 (the year of Piccinini’s “We Are Family” exhibit), the new phase of the Integrated Conservation and Development Project, the Soqotra Conversation and Development Programme (SCDP), redirected the project’s primary focus from conservation research and planning to sustainable community development, albeit still within an “integrated” framework. Included in its 85‑page project document was a small (half‑page) subsection labeled “Gender Issues,” explaining that the SCDP “assigns highest priority to maximizing involvement of women and addressing gender issues in all aspects of the programme”43. It planned to achieve this through the following three broad interventions: the use of women extension officers to provide training courses for women only (on primary health care, home‑gardening, environmental protection, etc.) in a society “which in most cases does not allow for joint training and educational activities”; continued support for the Hadiboh hospital’s mother and child care department; and active engagement with and support of the Soqotra Womens’ Cooperatives and the Soqotra Women’s Union44. To this end, the SCDP hired a gynecologist and supported the training of midwives and mother and child‑care staff in the island’s one hospital; ran gardening training programs for women and helped support several women’s home gardens; and, through its partnership with the Socotra Conservation Fund (an international NGO established to fund small‑scale conservation and development projects), helped establish and support the Hadiboh‑based Socotra Women’s Development Association (SWDA), which until recently ran a handicraft‑shop catering to tourists, a Mother and Child library encouraging literacy programs, and related training courses. Unfortunately, however, these noteworthy developments were limited largely to Hadiboh and its environs, whereas similar efforts to support and employ women in the rural protected areas have been far less successful. Some of these rural development initiatives, such as the home‑gardening projects and the establishment of women’s associations, targeted women specifically. Others, such as the environmental awareness training programs and the promotion of ecotourism as an “income‑generating activity,” were invested in “community development,” more broadly. In both cases, however, these projects tended to make assumptions about rural, Soqotran women’s lives that, in practice, devalued their skills, time, and desires. Moreover, whether by targeting women, specifically, as agents of community development, or by segregating women from men, based on a surface notion of “culture,” these programs, in effect, barred actual or further progress from taking place. In order to illustrate this, I now turn to three of the “development” projects introduced in one of Soqotra’s pilot protected areas between 2004 and 2007. Due to space constraints, my discussion of each will be brief, highlighting primarily the gender(ed) assumptions these project share —assumptions glossed in the section titles below— and the reasons for their failure.
- 45 The “course,” which included several focus group meetings, participatory land use mapping exercises (...)
- 46 Although, traditionally (and ideally), labor on Soqotra has been differentiated according to sex —w (...)
- 47 While correct, his statement may also have been a form of evasion. Mapping of grazing areas and tri (...)
26In November 2004, the adult inhabitants of the Protected Area were invited to take part in a “training course” on tourism run by two Hadiboh‑based employees of an Italian NGO45. The planners of these course activities had conscientiously “selected the main socio‑economic groups” and “consider[ed] gender and age variables” to enable individuals “to express their own and their group’s opinion” (Ucodep and Movimundo 2005: 50). Thus, men and women were sex‑segregated and then further divided into various “occupational” groups. The women had been gathered in a central house in Qayher where they were grouped according to whether they were “craftswomen,” “herders,” or “agriculturalists.” Because, in actuality, women’s labor was not this differentiated —indeed, most of the women and men of the Protected Area took care of their herds and cultivated gardens and produced everyday material goods and necessities (reframed by the developers as “handicrafts”) as part of their regular routines— the administrator of the survey, a Soqotran woman from Hadiboh, told the randomly organized groups she had formed: “You will be the herders; you will be the agriculturalist; and you will be the craftswomen”46. After having been asked about their expectations of tourism, the various “socio‑economic groups” were each requested to draw a map of the Protected Area labeling, among other things, the campsite, other “tourist areas,” the “places of agriculture,” and a potential site for a “factory” or “center” for the production of women’s handicrafts. One of the women pointed out that they would make crafts in their homes, and then sell them at the campsite. Meanwhile, at the Protected Area’s new campground located at a good remove from any of the villages, the men had been asked by the male NGO employee to also “map” the Protected Area, in their version distinguishing between the settlements, grazing areas, and areas appropriate for tourism. Bū Qays, one of the men who had been greatly involved in the SCDP’s efforts to establish the Protected Area in 2000 and the “ecotourism” campground in 2003, insisted that the entire Protected Area was used for grazing (their ungulates roam free)47. Territorial (like occupational) differentiation, he implied, was thus un‑chartable, that is, their lands, livelihoods, and lives bore little resemblance to the map and outcomes envisioned by the Italian NGO.
27Revealed by this brief anecdote is the extent to which “development” proposals and projects in Soqotra’s protected areas based their interventions on stark assumptions regarding gender segregation, socio‑economic distinction, and the gendered‑nature of certain skills. Although the separate “training” of men and women demonstrates and, more accurately, performs a kind of “cultural” sensitivity on the part of the international NGOs and their staff —and, most likely, was even demanded by some male Soqotrans as a condition of “their” women’s engagement— it makes little sense in a region like the Protected Area, with its 300-some inhabitants, where everyone knows one another, where men and women do congregate together in small, informal groups, as well as during large celebrations (sitting, perhaps, in separate spaces, but not in segregated ones), and where schooling is coeducational. More importantly, women in the Protected Area ended up being disadvantaged by this form of “inclusion” for, although they were treated as “stakeholders,” women were thus structurally and physically absent from the all‑male meetings during which most decisions were made. Moreover, in the more remote areas such as the Protected Area, where there were no female extension officers, women’s “environmental awareness training” seldom occurred —unless one expected the men, after convening separately, to relay the minutes of such meetings to their female kin. Finally, the assumption that “handicraft” production is solely and naturally a women’s domain —and that it can be financially lucrative— further compartmentalizes women and belies the facts on the ground. Although rural Soqotran women have traditionally plaited palm‑frond sitting mats and food “trays,” woven wool rugs, and fired clay pots, and many continue to do so, the women I knew vastly preferred the imported plastic mats, tin pans and containers that last longer and do not make excessive demands on their time. (Thus, by selling such “handicrafts” to the occasional interested tourist they can, at best, earn enough cash to purchase the commercial replacements for the material goods they, themselves, no longer wish to make or use —because they are so time‑intensive.) Moreover, some of the finest works of craftsmanship are made by men —such as the plaited‑hide harness used for scaling date palms (Soq.: hibehul)— and might even attract an even greater financial return than the “women’s” work. Indeed, the very idea of selling dragon’s blood and frankincense resins in small, plaited frond “bags” —the main “souvenir” sold now in the Protected Area at the cost of 500YR (approx. US $2.50) per bag— was conceived by one of my male neighbors who designed and made its prototype. Nevertheless, the idea of a women’s “factory” in the Protected Area remained a “development” goal, despite the reality that rural Soqotran women had more productive —and pressing— things to do with their time: child rearing, cooking, fetching firewood, attending to livestock, milk processing, washing and sewing clothes, et cetera.
- 48 Not only had they received agricultural training before, but it was the women in the Protected Area (...)
- 49 Soqotrans tend to refer to the ICDP and all of its phases as the “the environment” (al‑bī’a); altho (...)
28In May 2005, about half of the women of the Protected Area gathered in Rihām’s home, in one of the area’s small hamlets, where they waited for the “agricultural trainers” from a French NGO to arrive. After two hours of drinking sweet, milky tea and joking that their discussion of the benefits of vegetables had been their own self‑provided “lecture,” the women began to express their frustration. Many worried aloud whether they had left their houses, children, and chores to walk to this neighboring village under the midday sun for naught. By the time the NGO employees arrived and tacked up their hand‑drawn posters, the Soqotran women were more interested in voicing their objections to the home‑garden project, than they were in listening to a lecture on the growth stages of carrots and tomatoes. These objections, of which there were several, centered around the following two concerns: first, they had already received “training” in “home‑gardening” from the SCDP and they knew how to garden (“we are not goats!” Umm Ḥishām, a mother of seven, declared); second, the promise of training and seedlings was irrelevant when what they really needed was chicken‑wire fencing to keep the goats out of their home‑gardens if they were to cultivate them (the palm fencing they had traditionally used was very laborious and time‑consuming to construct, and disintegrated quickly). More than simple training, then, they needed materials (fencing, seeds, tools) instead —or, at least, a per diem for each training with which to purchase such materials48. After much interrogation of how this training would actually benefit them, Umm Ḥishām brought the meeting to an end with a summary of the women’s demands: “If there is no money [a per diem for attending the training], or [material] support, or food [lunches for the attendees]” she said, visibly counting off each one these demands, “then we’re not coming back!” The women in the room agreed. “We’re giving you our time, so we need to get something in return,” said Umm Jamāl, Umm Ḥishām’s neighbor. Later, on our way back to Qayher, Umm Jamāl turned to me and added, “We used to plant gardens long before ‘the environment’ [Arabic: al‑bī’a] arrived and told us to change everything”49.
29In addition to supporting and supervising the “community‑managed” campground, the SCDP (in concert with the GoY and various international donors and NGOs) had envisioned that sustainable development both in and outside the protected areas would be cultivated, quite literally, through a home‑garden project aimed at improving local food sources. To this end, the SCDP developed and upgraded several “home‑gardens” and nurseries around the island, provided training to groups of women in its target areas, and distributed seedlings and basic materials (tools and fencing). In the Protected Area, the SCDP developed a “community” garden —tended by one woman, Rihām— that would, in theory, serve as an agricultural‑training site and a nursery for the rest of the Protected Area residents. When, in November 2004, a French NGO became responsible for the continued implementation of the former SCDP home‑garden project, it was decided that the Protected Area was to be one of their prime targets. Yet, within a month of the project’s new start, a dispute between the international expert‑managers over the location of the “new” garden delayed the project (the SCDP favored “their”/ Rihām’s garden, while the NGO favored a location closer to a natural spring), and soon antagonized “the community.” The new garden, it turned out, was not considered a “community” garden, at all, but rather the good fortune (Ar.: rizq) of the individual family on whose land it was to be located. This dispute over the garden’s location and, ultimately, the “terms” of the NGO’s support continued for months. Male representatives of the SCDP, the NGO, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the (male) Protected Area Association met repeatedly in Hadiboh, without any of the women —the alleged beneficiaries of and labor for this project— being included; the men in the Protected Area alternately demanded and rejected the continuation of the women’s training sessions; and the women continued to pursue their own agenda and voice their concerns, even if it meant ignoring the decisions and agreements that had been made by the men of the Protected Area. In September 2005, having given up on receiving aid from either the SCDP or the NGO, the women of Qayher cleared their own (village‑based) “community” garden and were at that point just awaiting seedlings —to come from the NGO’s “new” garden— and rain. The “new” garden, to this day, has not been planted.
30What had been a fairly simple and straightforward plan to improve local food production was thus largely thwarted by the external impression of the Protected Area as a single “community” that would benefit equally regardless of the garden’s location. (Where the SCDP and the NGO did see difference, they recognized it primarily in “gendered” and “tribal” form, choosing only women as their “beneficiaries” and labor, and men as their interlocutors, and, later, seeking to hire women from each of the three major “clans,” rather than from each “village,” or sub region.) Yet, an additional reason for this project’s ultimate failure was its assumption that women had ample, autonomous, and “free” time: time during which they could leave their children, livestock, and households to sit through “trainings” they had not requested, without any direct remuneration. It assumed, also, that women constituted their own “community” —that they would “naturally” desire to labor together, rather than directing their efforts toward their own family and villages.
- 50 The use of the term “modern” here is not mine. Rather, I borrow it from the inhabitants of the Prot (...)
31In January 2011, the home of Soqotra’s newest women’s association, a “modern” two‑room structure built nearly two years earlier to serve as a meeting and training space for its forty‑some female members, remained vacant50. Although its basic structure —right‑angled stone and mortar walls, an imported timber ceiling, a painted iron door, and a separate toilet room— was intact, the house required an additional one million Yemeni riyals (approx. US $4,600) for interior “repair” (Ar.: tarmīm), Bū Qays, the Association’s (male) minder told me, as he unlocked the iron door’s padlock to allow me inside. Bū Qays showed me the empty “office,” and then escorted me into the larger “meeting” room where he pointed to the mud‑plastered floor and walls that, with the desired funding, would be smoothed over with cement. Standing inside this —yet‑another— aborted development project in the Protected Area, I was less surprised by its abandon, than I was by the room’s contents. Its few, still‑plastic wrapped furnishing —five office chairs, a white wooden bookcase with lockable glass doors, and a four‑drawer filing cabinet— with their implied functionality in terms of small‑group meetings, the writing and filing of reports, the housing of documents, and so forth, stood in stark contrast to the absence of any defined or funded activities the women might undertake there.
- 51 Tragically, Dr. Ra’ūfa Ḥasan did not live to see this project through. The following account is not (...)
- 52 When I spoke with Rihām two months later, in June 2007, she expressed much uncertainty as to whethe (...)
32Shortly after the delineation of the protected areas by the conservation zoning plan in 2000, the SCDP, in conjunction with the SCF, helped to establish and support the “Association for the Conservation and Development of [the Protected Area]”: a “community”‑based organization comprised of the area’s adult male residents who, through an elected council of five men, were tasked with promoting local resource management and running the Protected Area’s new “ecotourism” campground (built in 2003). Although the women were not included in this “management” organization, they were encouraged by employees of the SCDP project, the Yemeni Social Fund for Development, and, in particular, by the eminent Dr. Raufa Ḥasan al‑Sharqi, former Professor of Media and Gender Studies at Sana’a University51, to form a separate “Women’s Association” in the Protected Area through which the women could produce and sell “handicrafts” directly to the tourists. In April 2007, the 48-member Women’s Association was officially born, and Rihām (the former gardener) was “elected” its president52.
- 53 The three‑day “training” in the Protected Area was followed by a three‑day visit by Rihām and her v (...)
33When I visited the Protected Area in June 2007, several of the women expressed their excitement at the prospect of receiving external financial “support” [Ar.: da‘m] and at having a store from which they could sell their “handicrafts” to earn money to build a hospital or improve the local school. Nearly four years later —with their building vacant and barred shut— their enthusiasm had markedly waned. Indeed, during an afternoon tea in one of my former neighbor’s home, several women expressed their bewilderment over what “their” Association was “supposed” to have done. Some recounted that they had been told to collect Dracaena cinnabari (dragon’s blood tree) resin from all the women in the area, plait bag‑like containers for the resin inside their Association’s building, and then sell it to tourists, onsite. The problem, they all agreed, is that tourists never came through the village in which “their” building was located. (Earlier, the women had been told to erect a small roadside stand from which to sell the resins, but tourists, they said, had not stopped there, either.) If tourists purchased these bags at all, then they purchased them at the campground, or in Hadiboh. I then asked them about the “training” they had received in 2009, which, in the Protected Area, had consisted of a three‑day course on basic accounting and first aid. “To be honest,” one woman replied, “I don’t even remember it.” “We didn’t understand the training,” her cousin explained53. These women were not only uncertain about the purpose of the Association or the “training” they had received, but also they were perplexed about the very use and usage of their “new” house. “What will you use the house for, if not a shop?” I asked them. The house is for “meetings,” they explained, even though they had had no meetings since their “training” in 2009 (before the house was built). “What will you do in these meetings?” I asked. “We will sit and write things,” the Association’s treasurer ventured. “Why don’t you use the house now, then, just to spend time there, together?” I pressed. “Because there’s no room to sit there,” her sister said: “there’s a table in the room, and it’s filled with chairs,” she added, implying that the office furniture would be an obstacle to social gatherings, during which Soqotri women (and men) are used to leaning against firm pillows scattered on the floor.
34My point in providing this conversational sketch is certainly not to make the Protected Area women seem provincial or uneducated. Nor is it simply to demonstrate the mismatch between a development project’s disciplinary objectives and their “beneficiaries’” actual “gains”: an all‑too common problem, to be sure. Rather, my aim is to underscore the fact that these various development projects have failed largely due to their reliance on a common set of assumptions: that rural Soqotran women are “naturally” artisanal, and thus may need training in accounting, but not in how to actually produce handicrafts that could attract tourist revenue; that rural Soqotran have ample time during which to leave their children and other responsibilities behind in order to attend various hours‑long training sessions, even if the benefit of these often‑imposed sessions is less than clear to them; and that rural Soqotran women desire a room of their own —as if a physical structure could substitute for actual education, while at the same time forming disciplined (and paper‑filing) “factory” workers of them all. Moreover, what these assumptions, themselves, have in common is their tendency to further isolate and quarantine women as women, rather than build on the patriarchal familial relationships and responsibilities that rural Soqotran women negotiate already. What if the one and a half million Yemeni riyals sunk into this barred and vacant building had been used instead to provide midwifery and primary health care classes to women and men —separated, perhaps, but not segregated— in these villages, without midwives, where the mobile health clinic passes through but twice per year? What if the money had been used instead to purchase each household a garden fence, supporting the often‑joint labor women and men already do, instead of the paltry “income‑generating activities” (feminized already) that the developers envisioned?
- 54 Joseph, 2005, p. 81.
- 55 Idem.
- 56 I borrow this formulation from one of this article’s external reviewers.
35In the past two decades, Soqotrans have experienced several ideological waves sweeping over and transforming their “native” shores. This paper has examined rural Soqotran responses to two of these currents, broadly conceived: pietist projects both national (Yemeni) and local (Soqotran), and development projects undertaken by international and national NGOs, and their urban Soqotran counterparts. What both their modernizing and moralizing discourses have in common in Soqotra is their implicit commitment to governing gender. While their specific aims may be vastly different, if not antithetical, both types of discourses and their projects find virtue particularly in the disciplining of Soqotran women: be it the domestication of docile, pious, and obedient selves or the cultivation of a docile, productive, and cooperative community of women. Moreover, both projects tend to segregate men and women, imposing a dominant and narrow understanding of “religious” or “cultural” norms on a society —and by some Soqotrans on themselves— that has demonstrated far more gender flexibility historically and in practice. Indeed, the development planners and their projects have effectively bought into Soqotri reformist representations of just how gendered Soqotran relationships and interactions ought to be, thereby giving even greater credence to their (and others’) moralizing message. Nevertheless, these development discourses and projects have gained far less traction than have their pietist counterparts. This is due, at least in part, I argue, to their failure to address women within the context of what Suad Joseph has called “patriarchal connectivity”: the “embedding of relationally constituted selves in gendered and hierarchical aged relations animated by kinship idioms and morality”54. Even women’s desire, in such a context, “often bec[omes] invested as a property of relationships rather than singularly the property of a person in a society in which the most important asset of ownership [i]s not one’s self but one’s web of relationships”55. Likewise, Soqotran women’s desires —to listen to Qur’anic recitation, or pop‑music; to breastfeed another woman’s infant, or not; to work in communal gardens, or their family plots; to associate in an office, or socialize at home— often privilege their relational selves over their “individuated” ones. Rural Soqotrans have been more receptive to pietist (including Salafi) discourses and projects than development ones precisely because they speak to these relational responsibilities. This is not to say that “separate women’s organizations for self‑reliant emancipation”56 or development projects seeking to improve the condition of rural women should be abandoned, but rather that the privileging of gender segregated “norms” —whether for religious or cultural reasons and no matter how well‑intended— should be reconsidered in light of the demands and desires of the women themselves. Simply put, the rural Soqotran women among whom I lived from 2004 to 2006 did not share the 20th century Western liberal feminist desire for a room of their own; their interests, rather, were in protecting and caring for the relational and gender‑inclusive “we” who constituted their family.
36The Terminal Evaluation Report of the SCDP project phase concluded that, “one of biggest shortcomings of the Project in terms of its relevance to development priorities is the difficulty it has had in involving women”57. If the evaluation team concluded that “the lack of attention to gender is perhaps the greatest weakness of the project document,” then they would have been dismayed even more by its glaring absence in the project document of the “Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project” (SGBP) that followed. In this project aiming to mainstream decision‑making and strengthen decentralization processes, a vague “outcome” hoping for “an environment that fosters the efficient and sustainable use of resources leading to equitable, job‑creating growth in promising sectors, with a focus on youth and women” was followed only by two parenthetical mentions of “women’s associations” among others (heritage and protected area associations), and a note that membership in the (expatriate‑dominated) Project Board “should ensure gender balance to the extent possible”58. Nevertheless, their efforts to “involve women” on the ground showed some progress. In the spring of 2011, 160 Soqotran “decision makers, local leaders and representatives of civil society” attended a two‑day UNDP‑SGBP gender workshop on “mainstreaming gender into local governance, decision making and biodiversity conservation”59. Although only thirty‑three of the participants were women, women and men were at least brought together for a joint conversation, demonstrating a hopeful step forward for Soqotran “development,” at large. Within months of this meeting, however, in response to the spreading revolution in mainland Yemen, the SGBP and nearly all other development NGOs working in Soqotra suspended their projects there. The long‑term effects, then, of these development interventions and their reformist counterparts on Soqotran gender roles and relationships remain to be seen.