YEMEN: A Woman Among the Tribes

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Yemen Times
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Human Rights

To tackle tribal conflicts in her country, Nadwa Al-Dawsari took the leap from journalist to director of the Partners for Sustainable Leadership program in Yemen. With an impressive background in both gender issues and journalism, she has previously worked with the United Nations' Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Women's Studies Center at the University of Sana'a, and the Yemen Times.

Her dedication in addressing tribal conflict, one of Yemen's most challenging issues, makes her one of a kind. Nadwa Al-Dawsari answered Amel Al-Ariqi's questions.

Why is Partners Yemen addressing the tribal conflicts? And how do you think such conflicts are challenges to Yemen's developing democracy?

Partners Yemen is part of Partners for Democratic Change International, a network of organizations specialized in change and conflict management. Over the last 20 years, Partners launched 17 centers in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East in Yemen and Jordan. Partners has significantly enhanced the capacity and capability of thousands of civic, non governmental organizations (ngos), municipal and national governmental institutions, and university academic courses in more than 50 countries in the world.

As part of its mandate, Partners Yemen focuses on tribal conflicts because we understand the implications of conflicts not only to the processes of development and democratization but also to the stability of the country.

Conflicts have almost paralyzed development efforts and prevented investment in tribal regions. The result is increased poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and lack of basic services, conditions that constitute serious challenges to any emerging democracy.

Partners Yemen has local expertise with solid background and long experience on the politics and issues related to tribal conflicts in Yemen. We also have very rich and valuable regional and international experience in this regard. Our approach relies on addressing the root causes and the structural factors that lead to and sustain conflicts, rather than focusing on their political aspect.

We coordinate our work closely with the Ministry of Local Administration and Local Authorities. We work with local councils and local ngos based in the governorates and with community based organizations. We try to complement the work of other organizations so we focus our work on the underserved governorates [that] most organizations avoid because of security reasons.

What are the main factors that lead to tribal clashes flaring up in Yemen?

Tribal conflicts start mainly over land and resources including water and grazing lands, as well as over development services and projects such as schools, health facilities, water projects.

In most cases conflicts are dealt with through tribal conflict prevention and resolution systems which are very sophisticated. If attempts to resolve conflict fail, then it escalates and becomes violent. When it involves killing it falls into a cycle of revenge killing and becomes dangerous and too complicated to resolve. Sometimes, even if the original cause of conflict is resolved, the issue of revenge killing remains, sustaining the conflict.

We know about cases in which conflicts have been around for over 90 years because of revenge killing issues. That is why it is very important to work on conflicts before they become violent.

Conflict happens because the process of designing and implementing development projects and services is top-down, not inclusive, lacks transparency and sensitivity to tribal conflicts and tribal politics. Because of that, conflict and lack of development continue to reinforce each other.

Conflict leads to the destruction and closure of schools and health facilities, and to the interruption of development projects and services. At the same time, planning and implementing development projects and services without understanding the sensitivities and nature of conflict and without involving the locals in the process triggers violent conflicts.

Lack of development and the weak presence of law enforcement institutions are two major factors that provide a fertile ground for conflict to flourish and sustain [itself]. In the past, tribal conflict prevention and resolution systems maintained a reasonable level of order but, because of the transition process that Yemen is going through, these systems are increasingly less effective, contributing to the increase and escalation conflicts.

How does being a woman either help or hinder you in dealing with tribal issues?

Working in this field is challenging in general because there are a lot of sensitivities out there that you need to be aware of, but once you understand the context and have the proper channels of communication things become a lot easier.

It is very much about how you present yourself and how you are clear and transparent about who you are and what you want to do. I think being a woman gave me more access, maybe because of the fact that women are protected in tribal culture, and that they have access even during violent conflicts.

The blood money [for] a woman in tribal areas can be 44-fold the blood money [for] a man, and that is because it is simply forbidden to kill women in tribal culture.

What stereotypes exist for Yemeni tribes, either as individuals or regarding their lifestyle? And to what extent do such stereotypes influence the way of handling tribal issues?

I think we have unfair prejudices and stereotypes against tribes. We tend to think that tribes are thugs who like to kill for revenge, block roads and kidnap foreigners to extract money and resources. We don't even bother to try to explore why they resort to doing that, or to empathize with them to understand where they come from.

It is very sad to see that even the elite and most educated tend to portray tribalism as an impediment to democracy and development. Some of those people have never travelled to tribal areas or interacted with local tribal people. They make judgments based on some books and references they read. They don't try to go beyond to research why tribalism strongly exist in Yemen or what are the positive aspects of tribalism -and there are many- that can actually contribute to development and democratization.

I don't understand the rigid argument that says that we have to get rid of tribalism in order to be “civilized” and democratic. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

Can you tell us about the typical life of a member of a Yemeni tribe?

I have worked with tribesmen and women and I have built strong relationships with local people, be they tribal leaders, women, community leaders, students, or simply standard people.

I treasure these relationships that are built on trust and mutual respect. Personally, I find tribal people just like “non-tribal” people in Yemen. They might have bigger problems with regard to their living situation, but they are part of the whole system.

They participate in public life as politicians, representatives, teachers, journalists, businessmen, students, etc. They are just about everywhere.

The tribal system has continuously been pitted against the civil system in Yemen. Moderate analysts prefer to address the advantages and disadvantages of each system. Based on your experience dealing with civil society organizations and tribes, can the two systems meet and how? Or should Yemen choose only one path?

I strongly argue that there are a lot of positive aspects in the tribal system that we need to maintain and strengthen. The formal system is not strong [enough] to replace the traditional system, and the traditional system is breaking.

With huge development challenges, Yemen needs to integrate the traditional system into the formal system in order to address the challenges associated with the transition process.

For example, given the high unemployment and poverty rate and the deteriorating economic situation, the traditional system provides an excellent social security network. The ghorm tradition, in which members of the tribe contribute equally to individual members' cause, is a great example of that.

Another good example is the tahjeer which is protecting public places as safe havens. We understand that ending violent conflicts is a long term process, so reviving the tradition of tahjeer can be an excellent mechanism in the meantime to limit the impact of conflict by protecting public areas including schools, health facilities, project sites and roads as safe havens. This can reduce the impact of conflict on people's life.

Traditional mediation and conflict prevention systems already take a lot of burden off the court system. I think this should be strengthened and formalized. I am not talking theories here. Traditional systems have proven effective in mitigating current problem and I think efforts need to be done to strengthen this system and to respond to the challenges that increasingly limit their effectiveness. Such challenges include unemployment, increasing poverty and lack of services.

Do you think that the current Yemeni tribal lifestyle can survive global changes, like globalization and the global financial crisis?

The traditional culture is based on a set of ethics that reinforce solidarity and co-existence between members of a tribe, between tribes and between tribes and other people.

The traditional systems and mechanism were developed to ensure those ethics are maintained and respected. They include sets of rules and regulations that govern relations at all levels and ensure enforcement of those regulations. I think if strengthened, traditional systems can reduce the negative impact of globalization and economic deterioration.

For example, social solidarity has reduced the sharp effects of increasing poverty and unemployment. Tribes also have rules that regulate usage of water and grazing land which reduces conflict over scarce resources.

I believe that any effort to bring development and strengthen democratization needs to invest in traditional systems. After all, traditional systems represent the accumulation of thousands of years of valuable experience of people who built great civilizations in this part of the world.