By Dr. Katherine Hennessey
“She’s a human being!” Zahra’s mother states, contradicting her husband’s plans to marry their little girl off to a rich old man. “She’s not a hen that you can just sell to people, and either she lays eggs for them or they kill her!”
These powerful lines were delivered on an outdoor stage at the Yemen-American Language Institute (YALI) on June 17th, as part of the production of a play entitled Yaana min al-Shaiba. The play script, written by Fatima al-Baydhani and Amin Abu Haydar, treats the issue of childhood marriage in Yemen – an issue on which certain Yemeni politicians and religious leaders have taken contradictory and self-serving positions over the past decade.
This is not the first Yemeni play to intervene in a fraught socio-political debate. Yemen has a long (though sadly little known) history of using the theatre as a vehicle for biting criticism of corrupt political systems and endemic social problems (such as Enough Injustice!, a play performed in Change Square on April 29, 2011), a history which reaches back to the early decades of the 20th century. Over recent years, beginning well before the Arab Spring, Yemeni actors and actresses have repeatedly called from the stage for social and political change. The theatre in Yemen has many times provided ordinary Yemenis with a forum in which to debate serious questions – oppressive gender dynamics, the abysmal state of education and health care, the hypocrisy and nepotism that riddle Yemen’s politics and its economy, to name just a few.
Yaana min al-Shaiba stands proudly within this dramatic tradition. The play is composed of three independent acts; in each, the protagonist is a girl who is married at a very young age. The first of these protagonists is Shams, who at the age of 16 has already been married and divorced. Sadly recalling the difficulties she had with her first husband and his mother, she feels certain that no other man will ever want her. So when the rich but elderly Sheikh Nagi proposes, Shams accepts, discovering too late that Nagi is irrationally suspicious and prone to violence: he forbids her to go out, even to attend a women’s wedding party, and beats her savagely when he wrongly suspects her of talking to a young man on the phone.
In the second scene, we find little Zahra playing with her toys and dolls. She is picked out of a group of her friends by Hajj Ali, who coaxes her father to accept his proposal with promises of wealth and luxury. Zahra’s father tells her she is going to marry someone who will give her everything she wants: toys, sweets, beautiful clothes. “And all I have to do is marry him?” asks the little girl, clearly not comprehending the enormity of this proposal.
In the final scene, 14-year-old Warda is struggling with a difficult pregnancy. Her elderly husband sits in the hospital waiting room with his adult daughter from a previous marriage; his daughter is older than Warda. The husband is interested only in the son Warda is about to give birth to, not in the health of his adolescent wife. And Warda’s body is simply not physically mature enough to handle the rigors of pregnancy: her baby is stillborn, and Warda dies soon afterwards.
The play does contain a certain amount of comedy : for instance, when the obviously elderly men try to convince others that they are still young and vigorous shabab (youth), or when other characters assume that the old man is the girl’s father, rather than her husband. But the issue is a serious one, and everyone who participated in the production, from the director to the cast of child actors playing the roles of Zahra and her friends, treated it with due gravity.
The question of whether young girls, some as young as seven and eight years old, can legally be married in Yemen is enmeshed in the quagmires of Yemeni politics. Yet there is a clear contradiction between Yemen’s signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly defines the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood at eighteen years of age, and the Yemeni government’s failure to enact legislation that establishes a minimum age for marriage.
According to statistics gathered by the International Center for Research on Women, nearly half of Yemen’s women are married before the age of eighteen, and many much earlier. A report by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor estimates that 25 percent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of fifteen; anecdotes abound regarding the marriage of girls as young as seven and eight.
This phenomenon takes a severe toll on the young women, who are often physically and psychologically unprepared for the demands of marriage and especially of childbirth—a problem bluntly illustrated by Warda’s struggles in the third act of the play. Yemen, too, suffers from its failure to educate and protect its young women, effectively marginalizing them from opportunities to participate in and contribute to the life of the nation.
Two former laws setting minimum ages for marriage in Yemen were struck down in 1999, due primarily to objections from religious leaders saying that they contravened Islamic laws that define adulthood as beginning at puberty. Valiant attempts to pass new legislation, sparked in part by the internationally-acclaimed case of Nujood Ali, the courageous ten-year-old Yemeni girl who successfully petitioned for divorce in 2008 after being raped and abused by her husband, led in 2009 to the proposal of a bill establishing 17 as a minimum age for marriage. But this legislation has not been enacted, again due mainly to opposition from the Yemeni Parliament’s Committee on Islamic Law.
Thus in the play, though Zahra’s mother is furious that her husband intends to marry their little daughter off to an old man, her father points out that neither her mother nor anyone else can prevent him: “No judge will ever ask about this, and there’s no law to call me to account!”
This may be true, at least for the moment. But Yaana min al-Shaiba and plays like it are doing their part to enlighten audiences by bringing such issues to their attention. And the groundswell of public opinion that such plays engender may well prove, in the end, to be more crucial than mere legislation in creating a brighter future for Yemen and for some of its youngest citizens.
Dr. Katherine Hennessey is a Fellow at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS), where she researches and writes about Yemeni theatre, from its origins in the early 20th century to the present.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.Français
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