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Qat, Cosmopolitanism, and Modernity in Sana’a, Yemen

Irene van Oorschot


Le qat, ou Catha edulis, est une drogue largement et fréquemment consommée (mâchée) par les hommes et par les femmes yéménites mariées. Les femmes célibataires, en revanche, ont toujours mâché moins fréquemment, leur consommation étant généralement considérée comme inappropriée et honteuse (‛ayb). Cette interdiction informelle sur la consommation de qat par les femmes non mariées, cependant, est de plus en plus contrariée par une cohorte de jeunes femmes, instruites et célibataires, d’un milieu social élevé et distingué. S’appuyant sur des entretiens approfondis, des observations et des conversations informelles réunis dans le cadre de huit mois d’un travail de terrain ethnographique mené en 2009, l’article montre que mâcher du qat fonctionne pour créer et maintenir des subjectivités de classes spécifiques, « modernes », évoluant autour des valeurs et des pratiques du cosmopolitisme, de l’indépendance et de la liberté.

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Notes de l’auteur

I wish to thank my two supervisors, professor Annelies Moors and Marina de Regt, for the help and advice I received throughout this research project. I am indebted to the organizing committee, as well as the critical and clever audience members, of the “Gender Transformations in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa” symposium of 2011.

Texte intégral

1The prevalence of qat consumption in Yemen strikes even the most casual of observers. Adolescent and adult men can be seen chewing in shops, taxis, and on the streets, while the many qat vendors in the streets and squares of Sana’a contribute —in the eyes of many tourists— to its quaint charm. While women do not usually chew qat in public places, married women chew qat in the privacy of their own or their female relatives’ houses. Chewing qat is however held to be shameful for unmarried women, a notion which is sometimes explained with reference to the alleged effects qat has on people’s libido. As a (sexual) stimulant, qat has no place in unmarried women’s lives. After all, they are not supposed to have premarital relationships, and as such are “not supposed to chew”. However, among unmarried women of the educated and urban elites, qat chewing is an popular way to spend one’s spare time:

“It is just a way to relax, to unwind, to be away from work, and to be with my friends,” Wafā’, an unmarried woman, told me. “My married sister chews qat, too, and she is even younger [than I am]! So why should I not get to chew qat and relax?”

2This woman, like many of the women I worked with, chewed qat in secret. Her parents did not know she frequented qat chews at least once a week.

“They don’t know,” Wafā’ continued, “at least I think so. They would tell me it is shameful (‘ayb) for me to chew because I am unmarried. But there are so many women like me! We all chew together, and we like it!”

3As a transgression of the social norm proscribing qat consumption for unmarried women, this practice of chewing qat, it seemed to me, could potentially shed light on the lives these educated, working, and unmarried women lead. I wondered what meanings chewing qat had for them, and how they might use chewing qat as a way to tell others, and perhaps themselves, something important about their values and outlooks. In other words, I set out to find out what was the “meaning of chewing” for educated, working, and unmarried women.

4Through an ethnographic study of qat consumption among unmarried women conducted in Sana’a, Yemen, from February 2009 until October 2009, I found out that chewing qat had become somewhat of a life‑style for groups of unmarried, educated, and working women. These women, in their early to late twenties, studied in university, graduated successfully, and now have demanding jobs in local or international NGOs, in government, or in media. Their fathers are usually well‑connected, and similarly employed in the upper echelons of government and businesses. These women are unmarried, and live with their parents. Researching the meanings these women attached to chewing qat, I came to realize that it was a way to signal to others their financial independence (from their families), their outlook on life, stressing the values such as freedom (for women) and modernity. It also offers them the chance to engage in identity‑building practices revolving around the consumption of Western goods, images, music, and texts. As such, chewing qat contributes to constitute these women as modern, cosmopolitan subjects. This is especially paradoxical as qat consumption is often treated as a remnant of the past, as something traditional and quintessentially Yemeni. For these women, in contrast, chewing qat is part and parcel of their modern and cosmopolitan leisure practices. As such, chewing qat is strategically deployed in the creation and maintenance of modern and cosmopolitan subjectivities.

5These emergent subjectivities are born out of wider political, economic, and demographic developments characterizing Yemen in the second half of the 20th century. Urbanization processes, state‑initiated modernization projects, and consumerism have led to the emergence of a demographically small, yet significant group of urban, employed, and unmarried women, whose qat consumption is center stage in this paper. In the following, I will explore these changes more fully, and show how they have contributed to the emergence of a group of educated, employed and upper class women.

Unmarried women emerging as students, employees, and (qat) consumers: Historical roots

6The emergence of the demographic group I researched is tied to several historical processes rooted in the second half of the 20th century, most notably urbanization, state‑initiated modernization projects, and the rise of consumerism.

  • 1 vom bruck, 2005b, p. 256
  • 2 As descendants from the Prophet, the Sāda effectively ruled much of the country during the period o (...)
  • 3 adra, 1985

7Urbanization in Yemen is a process tied to two developments in the 1960s and 1970s. First, the political regime established after the revolution against the Imamate in 1962 committed itself, in principle, to the “abolition of hereditary social distinctions”1. This meant that government jobs, previously the preserve of the Sāda and Quḍa elites —the highest status groups in the social hierarchy characterizing Yemen in the 20st century— were open to all and that tribesmen, the Qabā’il, were also eligible for employment in the growing government bureaucracy2. Second, under the pressure of Yemen’s increasing participation in the global economy, subsistence agriculture declined and many of those tribesmen became increasingly dependent on other forms of employment3. As a result of these twin processes, many rural tribesmen migrated to the cities where they joined the government bureaucracy and the military.

  • 4 carapico, 1996; de regt 2007; makhlouf, 1979; myntti 1979. See also abu lughod, 1998 and moghadam, (...)
  • 5 makhlouf, 1979, p. 91‑92
  • 6 carapico, 1996, p. 85‑86

8 These processes of urbanization coincided with the development of large‑scale, state‑initiated modernization and development projects. Like many modernization projects in the Middle East in the 1970s, these projects emphasized the role of education and employment opportunities for women in the development and modernization of Yemen. They also stressed the way employment for women served their personal development4. By attempting to legitimize this, these projects implied that “women contribute[d] to both their personal happiness and to social welfare”5. These notions were in stark contrast with older expectations concerning employment for women. While Sāda and Quḍa families were expected to protect their daughters and wives from the “drudgery and physical exertion of the fields” as well as “public view and interaction with strangers, and from violence”6, women from the lower strata were largely forced to work in the field or perform services out of dire economic need. However, these modernization projects gave women and men an alternative vocabulary to frame and understand employment and education for women, namely, as a modern and progressive option rather than an economic necessity for the lower strata only. And while many of these projects did not have the results hoped for —labor market participation among women is still low; and local, negative associations equating employment for women with disreputability and dire economic need continue to exist— these modernization projects nevertheless opened up opportunities for women to work and study.

  • 7 vom bruck 2005b, p. 262. Her argument employs both veblen, 2007 [1899] and bourdieu, 1984, in focus (...)

9Of course, the extent to which women can make use of their education and employment opportunities is heavily dependent on their families’ wealth and status. Women from wealthy families especially find it, in practice, easier to work: their families are in a position to actively pay for their (secondary or tertiary) education and forego the short‑term “profits” of marrying a woman off while she is still of (secondary) school‑going age. As such, providing education for a daughter of marriageable age seems to have acquired aspects of conspicuous consumption and as such come to function as a source of social distinction. This development resonates with the observation that education is of increasing importance for the urban elites not only in terms of employment opportunities, but also on a symbolic level. It has been argued that education in Yemen has become “one of the key domains of investment by those who have remained (or become) prosperous. […] Among social climbers there is […] a great desire to convert economic into cultural capital,” seeing education as “a road to refinement, an urbane life‑style, and further economic advancement”7.

10 The women I worked with are in many ways exemplary of these developments. Daughters and granddaughters of urbanized tribesmen, they reap the benefits of their fathers’ and grandfathers' stable jobs in the upper echelons of government. They have had ample time and money to pursue secondary and tertiary education, and negotiated their family's permission to work in government jobs, in local and international NGOs, and in media. This was not always easy: some workplaces may also be spaces within which women and men work together, and as such may pose a threat to the reputation of young women and that of their families. One of my observations has been that the wealthier these women’s families are, the easier it seems for them and their family to counter these suspicions of immoral behavior: as they ostensibly do not work out of economic necessity, employment for women is more easily perceived to be the “modern” and “progressive” choice identified in the modernization projects of the 1970s. Being employed for these women is not to a sign of poor and undistinguished roots; rather, it is a mark of respectability, that they belong to an “open‑minded” elite with “modern” values according to which employment for women is not necessarily disreputable. However, many of the women I worked with nevertheless recounted many difficulties in legitimizing their desire to work to their families, while only those from the most “open‑minded” families met with little resistance.

11These developments, in turn, have had consequences for young women’s position on the marriage market. When pursuing tertiary education, women and women’s families usually postpone marriage until after graduation. This postponement of marriage may affect a woman’s chances of marriage: for instance, many of the women I worked with argue that some Yemeni men (and importantly: their mothers) may prefer younger, less educated women because they are less “strong” (qawī) and presumably make better wives and daughters‑in‑law. Secondly, studying in mixed classrooms, and later, working in mixed settings, may furthermore negatively affect their chances of getting married. Intensive professional contact with male colleagues may be a source of suspicion and jealousy for potential suitors —what could they have been up to all these years? And how can they ensure fidelity in marriage if they are surrounded by men day in, day out? Here, too, this upper class, urban, and educated group of women is at the forefront of on‑going social and demographic developments. Having postponed their marriage, the women I worked with are as such exemplary of the demographic changes initiated by urbanization and modernization.

  • 8 de regt, 2007; vom bruck 2005b.
  • 9 varisco, 1986; kennedy, 1987; milanovic, 2008.
  • 10 gatter, 2007, p. 71
  • 11 yemen observer, 2008, oct. 14

12As a period of relative economic growth, the 1970s also witnessed the rise of consumer demand for status goods. In the Yemeni context, these status goods were, for instance, relatively new commodities such as televisions, but also, as mentioned, education, especially for women8. More importantly, qat consumption, historically restricted to the wealthy and landed elites, democratized rapidly, i.e. spread to all layers of society. Technological advances in its production and transportation as well as a growing demand coincided in the 1970s and caused qat consumption to spread to virtually all layers of society9. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2007, 72 per cent of Yemeni men and 33 per cent of Yemeni women used the substance10. Local research estimates these percentages for both men and women to be slightly higher11. Some users may only chew once a week or fortnight, but many others consume qat on a daily basis either at work or in the qat chews organized in people’s homes.

  • 12 kennedy 1987; makhlouf 1979; meneley, 1993.
  • 13 E.g. in the diwān, or the usually more luxurious living room on the top of their family’s house cal (...)
  • 14 kennedy, 1987; wedeen, 2008; weir, 1985.
  • 15 caton, 1985; dresch, 1993; kennedy, 1987; weir, 1985
  • 16 kennedy, 1987, p. 99; makhlouf, 1979, p. 27.

13While husband and wife may chew together, qat chews are largely homosocial affairs. Women’s qat chews often take place inside their homes, to which they invite other (married) women12. Men are also keen on chewing in their living rooms13 but in practice can be seen chewing qat at work and in public (this, however, is the least preferable alternative). Indeed, qat plays an important social role in contemporary Yemen: chewing qat is not only central to socializing with family and friends, but also to professional networking and political decision‑making14. As such, these qat chews are places where social inequalities are re‑affirmed and reproduced15, even though it has been suggested that women’s qat chews are less hierarchical than men’s are16.

14However, there is little literature on qat consumption among those “not supposed to chew”: unmarried women. This is doubtless due to the fact that chewing qat, like smoking cigarettes, shīsha, or the Yemeni water pipe called madā‘a, is often deemed shameful (‘ayb) for unmarried women. Some Yemenis explain this with reference to the popular idea that qat increases one’s libido, and, if acted upon, would threaten these women’s (and their families’) reputation. More generally, it seems that the notion that qat is inappropriate for unmarried women is indicative of a hierarchical relationship between married and unmarried women: married women, in contrast to their unmarried daughters or sisters, have a larger say in household budgeting and their siblings’ marriage negotiations, while their movements are less circumscribed than those of unmarried “girls”.

  • 17 vom bruck, 1996. Vom Bruck focuses on the distinction between married and unmarried women as lived (...)

15Prohibiting unmarried women from chewing qat underlines and enforces hierarchical distinctions between married and unmarried women17. In Karīma’s (27) words:

“In this society, they believe that as an unmarried girl, you should not chew qat […] because they want to distinguish between married women and unmarried women.”

16Chewing nevertheless —and being found out— indeed has harmful consequences for unmarried women’s reputations. Rana (25), for instance, was embarrassed to chew amongst a large group of unmarried women many of whom she did not know, and left only an hour into the qat chew. Later, she told me she had feared one of the other women might have told others about her presence at the qat chew:

“And when her mother, or her aunt or anyone, is looking for a girl for her son [to marry], she will not think of me, because I chew qat. She will say I am a bad girl!”

17However, according to my findings as well as interviews with Yemeni experts, qat consumption among young, unmarried, and especially educated and employed women is spreading.

  • 18 de koning, 2009a, 2009b

18These observations raise the question of what these women find so appealing about chewing qat. In other words, what is the “meaning of chewing” for these women? And, importantly, how are these meanings related to their (multiple subject‑) positions as unmarried women, members of the urban upper classes, university graduates, and employees? In other words, how do we connect their qat consumption with their privileged position as members of the urban, upper classes on the one hand, while also considering their marginalized position in their households as unmarried women? The literature on similarly positioned women in Egypt, often describes them as “representing modernity”18. Yet how is modernity practiced and shaped in every‑day life, in and through consumption practices?

  • 19 besnier, 2004, p. 9
  • 20 miller, 1998

19Furthermore, if we assume that consumption makes it “possible for agents to fashion ways of thinking and acting that may diverge from and undermine received patterns endorsed by elites, political and economic institutions, and other loci of power,”19 exactly what “ways of thinking and acting” do these women fashion for themselves? And if such a transgressive instance of consumption did not only express but also produced subjectivity20, what sense of self would these women create by chewing qat?

20In answering this question, I am interested in connecting two hiatuses identified above: on the one hand, this paper attempts to sketch the contours of the lives of a demographically, increasingly significant group of people in Yemen, i.e., educated, employed, and unmarried women. On the other hand, the paper zooms in on an aspect of qat consumption in Yemen generally neglected, that is, qat consumption among unmarried women.

Chin‑wagging and chewing: Method

  • 21 A long robe of synthetic material (usually black, sometimes dark blue or brown) that women wear whe (...)

21In order to answer my research questions I lived, worked, and studied in Yemen’s capital Sana’a from February until October 2009. Studying Arabic provided me with a key point of access to a group of professional women, as my Arabic instructor introduced me to her friends from university. Other important women I met through two researchers in Sana’a, who had asked their female, Yemeni contacts if they were interested in speaking to me. These women and their friends in many ways facilitated my research, from helping me pick an appropriate bāltu21 to drawing my attention to aspects of the qat chew I had overlooked or, in their opinion, underappreciated. I also accompanied them to their weekly qat chews, went shopping with them for clothes, make‑up, and accessories, drank coffee with them in the few high‑end coffee shops in Sana’a, ate with them at home or in restaurants, and visited them at work on their tea breaks. I formally interviewed twelve of these women in a later phase of my fieldwork. I also conducted interviews with similar non‑qat chewing women, and five Yemeni experts on qat consumption among men and women in Yemen. These interviews served primarily the purpose of contextualizing and historicizing qat consumption among women and unmarried women more specifically. Aside from interviews and informal conversations, the bulk of my material was gathered observing and participating in female‑only qat chews (jalisāt, singular: jalisa). Other important observations concern several public spaces in Sana’a ranging from male‑dominated street life, shopping malls, family restaurants, to some of the high‑end coffee shops and shīsha clubs frequented by the women I worked with as well as other well‑positioned Yemeni men and women.

The qat chew: Consumerism, independence, and freedom

22Three meaningful aspects of qat consumption stood out in these women’s engagements with qat. The first aspect of their qat consumption can be described as “embodied performances of cosmopolitanism”: or the way in which chewing qat together works to construct and maintain cosmopolitan and consumerist subjectivities. The second and third aspects are more discursive, i.e., relate to the way these women give meaning to their qat consumption. These narrative constructions revolve firstly, around the notion of independence from one’s family —and how qat enables them to communicate this independence to others and to themselves— and secondly, around the notion of freedom. Chewing qat, within this last repertoire of meaning, is a sign of their determination to live a free(‑er) life than they are typically allowed to. Chewing qat serves to construct a measure of freedom for these women. However, I will first sketch a picture of these jalisāt in more detail.

Gathering to chew: The jalisa

  • 22 makhlouf, 1987; meneley, 1993.

23The qat chews the women I worked with liked frequenting were called jalisa (plural: jalisāt), which can loosely be translated as the “sitting down”. This is a word often used for female qat chews, including those of married women. Like married women’s qat chews, these jalisāt take place in each other’s diwān-s, the important difference being that not all unmarried women had negotiated permission to chew, so that not everyone in the specific group of friends could host qat sessions. The qat chews take place once or twice a week on average (however, during Ramadan many of the women I worked with would gather almost daily). They often chew on Wednesdays and Thursdays, as they do not have to work Thursdays and Fridays (considering the stimulating effects of qat, people only manage to fall asleep well into the night). Most women travel to the qat chew by taxi and buy qat on the way, usually still seated in their taxi, as qat markets are commonly perceived to be unwelcoming places for women. Depending on their mood and the size of the available diwān, these women gather in groups as small as four women or attend larger qat chews with up to twenty women. The jalisāt these women like frequenting are often organized by close friends from school, university, or their work. As such, these qat chews contrast with those of married women, who usually chew with female members of their extended family22.

24Arriving around 4 or 5 pm, the women in the qat chew unveil, take off their bāltu upon entering the diwān and show (off) their finest clothing. In contrast to the heavily brocaded dresses favoured by married women, they rather opt for expensive jeans bought in the Western‑style malls of Sana’a, combining these with glittery tops, dangling earrings, and shiny bracelets or necklaces. Those wearing the niqāb applied make‑up back home; others, wearing the ḥijāb only, apply their make‑up upon arrival. While the hostess lights the coals for the shisha-s, and offers some tea and sweets, the women make themselves comfortable on the low seats all along the walls of the diwān or mafraj. After an hour of chewing, conversation usually becomes livelier, interspersed with jokes and witticisms. Often, the women play music, or set a television to a music channel playing American hip‑hop and R&B or Egyptian music. While chewing, the women present discuss their work, their (romantic) lives, and their families, and, importantly, make‑up, clothing, as well as visits to certain high‑end establishments in Yemen, like the (then) very popular and very expensive coffee shop The Coffee Trader, well‑known for its elaborate coffee‑based drinks and American classics like apple pie, muffins, and brownies. Trips abroad are another much‑recurring topic of conversation, as well as US popular culture (especially music and film).

25Around 9 or 10 pm, the mood turns more introspective under the waning influence of the qat, and women start to leave, packing their bags and discarding their empty Pepsi‑cans and water‑bottles. Taking a taxi back home, they will spend some hours struggling to go to sleep, while the hostess cleans up her diwān or mafraj.

Qat and embodied performances of cosmopolitanism

  • 23 de regt, 2007; vom bruck, 2005b
  • 24 vom bruck, 2005b, p. 263
  • 25 de koning, 2009a; 2009b

26The consumption of goods and entertainment from abroad (and indeed often from the West) in the unmarried women’s qat chew is illustrative of these women’s upper‑class status, which, as described above, in the 1970s became strongly linked to the ability to consume goods and services23. Importantly, these status‑goods were and are often Western, while cosmopolitan familiarity with and knowledge of “things foreign”24 functioned, and functions, as a way to confer social standing. Markers of this cosmopolitan, upper‑class belonging include for instance travel or studying abroad, knowledge of the English language, Western lifestyles, and international politics. These women’s shopping, coffee‑drinking, and “qat‑chewing” lifestyle is in many ways exemplary of the rise of cosmopolitan consumer practices among urbanized elites, and urban tribesmen in particular. The women’s fascination with Western goods and lifestyles in particular aligns with these urban elites' cosmopolitan ambitions. As such, the lifestyle and structural positioning of these women are reminiscent of the Egyptian women de Koning researched25 in the sense that these lifestyles represent cosmopolitan yearnings of a specific social group or class. The capacity to consume Western goods, and to display one’s consumption, is for both groups of women, Yemeni and Egyptian, a way to distinguish oneself from lower strata or classes.

  • 26 jackson, 2004, p. 170.
  • 27 robbins, 1998, p. 3
  • 28 I am not, here, referring to cosmopolitanism as a political project or ideology. Rather, in line wi (...)

27While the qat chew, at least outwardly, has much in common with the married women’s qat chews (in Sana’a: tafriṭa) or visiting practices called khurūj in Lower Yemen, the fact that unmarried women in these qat chews are “not supposed to chew” effectively empties these jalisāt of some of their connotations. For many of the women I worked with, the jalisa is a setting crucial to these women’s cosmopolitan lifestyles. Like these women’s favorite Western‑style coffee shops and restaurants, these qat chews are a “space[s] of leisure and affluent consumption”26. The specific dynamics in the jalisa itself testify to the role it plays in creating cosmopolitan subjectivities and sensibilities. Because many of these unmarried women lack other venues to get together, to evade responsibilities in the home and parental supervision, and to display their (fashionable) self to others, the jalisa is the prime space in which to performatively embody out‑of‑the‑ordinary, leisurely glamour. It is in this that I recognize aspects of Robbins’ “actually existing cosmopolitanism”, in the sense that these women, through their cross‑border consumerist choices, allegiances, and preferences express and construct “a reality of (re)attachment, multiple attachments, or attachment at a distance,”27 to that which transcends locality. Of course, these attachments remain located, in the sense that they are shaped by these women’s multiple subject positions as members of the urban upper classes28.

  • 29 ferguson, 1999, p. 96.
  • 30 ferguson, 1999, p. 96.

28The jalisa is also a space in which to communicate to others one’s “cosmopolitan capital”, which may be established in expressing familiarity with American pop stars, celebrities, and the latest movies or knowledge of, and taste for, the food items at KFC, Pizza Hut, and the different types of coffee at The Coffee Trader. Or, it is displayed in drawing attention to one’s grasp of the English language in pronouncing the names of movies or pop stars in faultless, American English and teasing others if they mispronounce English terms and expressions. These performances are reminiscent of Ferguson’s “cultural styles” which are defined as signifying practices that mark “socially significant positions and allegiances”29. As such, these activities actively constitute individuals as savvy cosmopolitans. These observations also illustrate that “cultural styles” are painstakingly acquired: “It is not simply a matter of choosing a style to fit the occasion, for the availability of such choices depends on internalized capabilities of performative competence and ease that must be achieved, not adopted”30. As such, these jalisāt are also competitive arenas, where cosmopolitan performances may fail to elicit recognition from others, or where participants may challenge others’ claims to a cosmopolitan identity.

  • 31 aitchison, 1999.

29While there are other urban spaces that may allow the performance of cosmopolitan sensibilities for these women, most notably expensive, Western‑style restaurants like the Coffee Trader, Pizza Hut, or KFC, these spaces are either very family‑oriented (Pizza Hut, KFC), or have the reputation for allowing contact between the sexes (for instance, the Coffee Trader is notorious for not having a separate “family section” for women to eat and drink). In general, moreover, many of the women I worked with drew attention to the harm that can be done being seen to spend too much time in public or semi‑public places. Chewing qat in the diwān or mafraj, then, is an exceptional space in these women’s cosmopolitan, and gendered, “geographies of leisure”31.

Qat and independence

  • 32 Living alone as an unmarried woman is in Yemen, and especially in Sana’a, virtually unheard of.

30On a discursive level, many of the women I worked with explained their qat consumption with reference to their (financial) independence from their parents. While most of them lived at home32 they nevertheless felt that their employment and their incomes permitted them to “unwind”, to “take it easy sometimes”, and to take “some time for oneself”. Chewing qat, according to Aziza (30), for instance signals “that I am leading my own life.” Among her working friends, this sentiment is a recurring trope. Fatima (27), for instance, told me that her visits to the qat chews were a way to tell her family that “no one has the right to tell me anything,” whereas Mahā (29) told me that “chewing qat is a way to express my independence.” Or, according to Rashīda (28), “I am old enough to have this life, to control my life. I can’t give up chewing because others don’t like it.”

31This trope, i.e. independence from their family's expectations, acquires a particular urgency for these women, who may rapidly be getting “too old” to marry. Their employment instead strengthens their position in the family and enables them to project a measure of adulthood and independence. That such a process is not merely symbolic is illustrated in a conversation I had with three friends, who told me that they had started to contribute to the family budget with their wages. Fatima (27) told me that her parents had been much more open to negotiations about chewing, smoking, and wearing make‑up ever since she began to work and earn money. “The more money you contribute, the more freedom you get,” Mahā (30), also present, had nodded in acquiescence. These financial contributions, then, make their role in the household more central, and as such challenge their marginal status as unmarried women in the family. Chewing qat, also at home, brings further home the point that they are not merely unmarried “girls” (banāt) but adult women. For these women it seems the precondition to establishing one’s adulthood is financial independence —not marriage. As such, these women can be seen to reconfigure what being an adult woman in Yemen means; and chewing qat is part and parcel of these reconfigurations.

Qat: Freedom and compromise

  • 33 Ilhām here refers to the notion that a woman’s voice is considered ‘awra, or: potentially tempting (...)

32Another level on which chewing qat is particularly meaningful is the way in which it is, to these women, evocative of the freedoms they feel they lack, but would very much like to enjoy. The freedoms at stake to them range from not being harassed when in public, to making important choices about their lives (as pertaining to work or marriage). After all, as unmarried women, their lives are more circumscribed than those of their married counterparts: they are expected to update their parents on their whereabouts when not at home, while aside from their jobs they also have responsibilities in the household. Moreover, their presence in public places like coffee shops, malls and streets, they argue, is constantly policed by the abstract “men on the streets”, who may harass them, urge them to cover their face (in case they are not wearing the niqāb), or tell them to go home. In Ilhām’s words: “They don’t like it when I put on make‑up, when I wear perfume, when I talk in the street, when I laugh —it’s forbidden. In Sana’a, to laugh, to talk, in streets, cars, the buses, it’s forbidden for women. Even our voices should not be heard”33. Because of these socially enforced norms, these women may argue they keep “clashing” with what they identify as “society”, embodied by their parents or “men on the street”.

33Chewing qat with friends in the (semi‑)private sphere of the diwān, then, strikes them as a more appropriate, easier option. At least, the homosocial, female qat chew takes place in the relative privacy of one’s diwān, and as such does mean they are in public spaces, where men and women mingle. They may also level this argument at their parents when arguing about their use of qat. Ilhām recounts, for instance, her mothers’ anger when she found out about Ilhām chewing qat:

“I used to go out a lot, and she [Ilhām’s mother] was like, ‘My daughter is going out and I am about to lose my daughter! Stay with me! I want you [Ilhām] to be next to me!’”

34To at least keep an eye on what Ilhām was doing, her mother granted her permission to chew and smoke inside the house. Chewing qat has hence become a way for Ilhām to stay “next to” her mother: “I chew qat to stay home. […] Qat keeps me inside. Indoors.” ‛Azīza recounted a similar instance, in which she told her mother that she could either chew qat or “go out”:

“We [‛Azīza and her mother] had a talk about this. [I said,] ‘Look, I am independent now, I don’t have a husband, I don’t have children, I don’t have anything to do. Do you want me to go out in the street and, you know... I will go out, I have a car, I can see men and go out with men, and have boyfriends!’ ‘No, no, no!’ [‛Azīza’s mother said], ‘just stay at home and chew qat, as long as you stay away from boyfriends!’”

35However, this activity is still transgressive to these women and as such, an attractive way to give voice to their desire to “be free”. Many families only hesitantly and begrudgingly accept that their daughters consume qat, and even then, only when confronted with the other —more illicit— alternatives (i.e. having boyfriends, going out with men). Within this frame of reference, chewing qat marks a compromise between “satisfying” one’s desire for “freedom” and, only partially, meeting the expectations of others. Simultaneously, however, it is also an exercise in freedom in and of itself. After all, it is only the lesser of two evils: while parents may find it the most desirable option when the alternative is “going out” (khurūj), chewing qat is still deemed highly inappropriate for unmarried women. Located within notions of freedom and constraint, for these women chewing qat is hence a compromise as much as an exercise in resistance.

Conclusion: Struggling over modernity and progress

36In this paper, I have demonstrated that qat consumption among upper class, urban, educated and employed women functions as a way of articulating novel subjectivities. Revolving around independence from one’s family and attaining freedom, the discursive framework these women employ in making sense of their qat consumption speaks to the challenges they face as unmarried women in their households, whose status and influence is marginal compared to that of their married kin. However, chewing qat is also a lifestyle suited to performatively express their belonging to a cosmopolitan upper class. The jalisa forms an important setting within which these women cultivate their consumerist and cosmopolitan values and outlooks through the clothes they wear, the knowledge they exchange in the jalisa, and the savvy they display.

37It is therefore ironic that similar well‑positioned upper‑class intellectuals, both male and female, are quick to condemn their country’s mass‑consumption of qat. Among the educated elites, qat is increasingly perceived as a remnant of Yemen’s tribal and pre‑modern past. In formal interviews and informal conversations, educated, urban Yemenis stressed the way qat hampered their country’s political, social, and economic development and modernization. On a political level, qat is conceived of as highly problematic as women are largely excluded from the type of networking and decision‑making that takes place in the men‑only qat chews in business and politics. In perpetuating unequal access to employment opportunities, educated men and women argue, qat maintains male privilege and as such hinders women's emancipation and the democratic workings of politics. The educated Yemenis I probed on the matter may moreover argue that Yemen’s qat habit contributes to the corruption in the government administration. The low salaries of government officials coupled with the social imperative to nevertheless participate in daily qat chews results in a situation where lower‑level officials are forced to spend a large portion of their salaries on qat. As the qat chew is moreover the prime space to network with one’s social superiors, the qat chew functions as a site in which clientistic ties are maintained and strengthened. As such, educated Yemenis argue, the daily qat chew also works in decidedly undemocratic ways. Moreover, a frequently expressed argument is that qat is a serious impediment to Yemen’s economic and political development. Although qat production provides numerous farmers with a means of subsistence, it is a product that cannot be exported easily: qat is legal in only a few countries and perishes, after harvest, within 24 hours. The capital generated hence stays within Yemen’s borders and does little to alleviate the burden of the government’s financial deficits. Lastly, many of the educated Yemenis I spoke with also shared a keen awareness of the environmental and health‑related problems accompanying large‑scale qat consumption. For instance, they may point to its effects on Yemen’s scarce water‑reserves, as qat production requires up to 40% of the total water supplies used in agriculture. They also stress the consequences for public health, as the pesticides used in the production of qat may cause serious dental problems, various types of cancer —especially mouth‑, throat‑ and stomach cancer— and, when used by pregnant or nursing women, birth defects in newborn children. In sum, for an educated and progress‑minded elite in Yemen, qat often symbolizes their country’s impeded modernization and lack of development.

38Significantly, many of the women I worked with —who are a part of these educated and progress‑minded elites— leveled the exact same arguments against qat consumption in Yemen yet did not refrain themselves from consuming it. Indeed, I was more than once subjected to particularly vehement elaborations on the negative effects of qat consumption for public health, the environment, and democracy at large delivered to me by qat‑chewing women in the qat chew itself.

  • 34 taylor, 2004.

39 As such, qat does not only form a lens through which to explore the lives of educated, unmarried, and upper‑class women. Indeed, current struggles over qat consumption also seem to express deeper concerns about the nature of modernity and progress, and what “becoming modern” could mean in the Yemeni context. In my paper, I have aimed to show that qat is a local, every‑day practice through which a version of cosmopolitan modernity is exercised, played with, and constructed by young, educated, and upper class women. This observation also underscores the need to inquire into the dynamics of consumption practices with an eye for how these are embedded in every‑day life and engaged in by socially, economically, and culturally situated people. And of course, how these situated, “multiple modernities”34 are constructed is a question that can only increase in relevance now, as we have witnessed a fully‑fledged destabilization and reconfiguration of the Yemeni political sphere.

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1 vom bruck, 2005b, p. 256

2 As descendants from the Prophet, the Sāda effectively ruled much of the country during the period of the Imamate. Often committed to religious learning and the study of Islamic law, the descendants of the Prophet enjoyed status and esteem in Yemen. The Quḍa, not descended from the Prophet but highly educated, assisted the Sāda in their rule and functioned as religious judges. The tribes, or Qabā’il, historically owned land and farmed both for subsistence and small‑scale trade. Below these groups are the muzziyīn: people without honorable descent who work in “polluting” jobs like barbers and butchers; and the akhdām, literally meaning “servants”, who are said to have migrated from the African Horn to Yemen in the distant past and often work in “base” occupations like street‑sweeping. See also adra, 1985; carapico, 1996; gerholm, 1977; serjeant, 1977; vom bruck, 2005a. While the majority of the women I worked with were from Qabīlī descent, a few of them came from Sāda or Quḍa families.

3 adra, 1985

4 carapico, 1996; de regt 2007; makhlouf, 1979; myntti 1979. See also abu lughod, 1998 and moghadam, 1993 for analyses of these modernization projects and their role in “remaking” or “modernizing” women in the Middle East.

5 makhlouf, 1979, p. 91‑92

6 carapico, 1996, p. 85‑86

7 vom bruck 2005b, p. 262. Her argument employs both veblen, 2007 [1899] and bourdieu, 1984, in focusing on the conspicuous, class‑based consumption practices that signify ones “distinction” (from other classes/strata).

8 de regt, 2007; vom bruck 2005b.

9 varisco, 1986; kennedy, 1987; milanovic, 2008.

10 gatter, 2007, p. 71

11 yemen observer, 2008, oct. 14

12 kennedy 1987; makhlouf 1979; meneley, 1993.

13 E.g. in the diwān, or the usually more luxurious living room on the top of their family’s house called the mafraj

14 kennedy, 1987; wedeen, 2008; weir, 1985.

15 caton, 1985; dresch, 1993; kennedy, 1987; weir, 1985

16 kennedy, 1987, p. 99; makhlouf, 1979, p. 27.

17 vom bruck, 1996. Vom Bruck focuses on the distinction between married and unmarried women as lived and performatively enacted in Sāda families. While some of the practices to distinguish between married and unmarried women are relatively common also among women of non‑Sāda descent —mostly the prohibition of chewing qat and smoking— others seem less common in other layers of Yemeni society, especially the taboo on bodily adornment for unmarried women vom Bruck describes.

18 de koning, 2009a, 2009b

19 besnier, 2004, p. 9

20 miller, 1998

21 A long robe of synthetic material (usually black, sometimes dark blue or brown) that women wear when going outside their houses. This Saudi style of dress is gaining in popularity over the Turkish sharshaf, which is a layered, two piece item of cloth.

22 makhlouf, 1987; meneley, 1993.

23 de regt, 2007; vom bruck, 2005b

24 vom bruck, 2005b, p. 263

25 de koning, 2009a; 2009b

26 jackson, 2004, p. 170.

27 robbins, 1998, p. 3

28 I am not, here, referring to cosmopolitanism as a political project or ideology. Rather, in line with Robbins’ seminal formulation I understand cosmopolitanism to be, among other things, an every‑day practice. Cf. robbins, 1998.

29 ferguson, 1999, p. 96.

30 ferguson, 1999, p. 96.

31 aitchison, 1999.

32 Living alone as an unmarried woman is in Yemen, and especially in Sana’a, virtually unheard of.

33 Ilhām here refers to the notion that a woman’s voice is considered ‘awra, or: potentially tempting to unrelated men.

34 taylor, 2004.

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Irene van Oorschot, « Qat, Cosmopolitanism, and Modernity in Sana’a, Yemen », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 23 mars 2013, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2072

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