Where Islam, Democracy Try to Mix

Yemen, the Arabian peninsula's only democracy, wrestles with religion, population, and poverty

Dina Mohsen Awad wears a brightly colored head scarf and fuschia red lipstick. Like many women in southern Yemen, her wardrobe contrasts starkly with garb in the northern part of the country, where women typically don a floor-length black hejab that leaves only the eyes exposed.

Two years ago, she didn't cover up with a scarf. "None of us did," she says of a roomful of women in an embroidery workshop. "We put it on just like that," she says, with a wave of her hand equivalent to a snap, "but we weren't legally forced to."

Others in the formerly socialist South Yemen, which united with North Yemen in 1990, say it didn't take legislation to force the ways of the conservative north onto the still-liberal south.

Since the short-lived civil war in 1994 that threatened to redivide the country, critics say the government of conservatives and Islamists has been more subtle - oppressing Socialists and extolling the virtues of strict Islam.

Besides the religious-secular tension there is also economic stress. Like Germany as it has reunified after the cold war, Yemen faces problems of trying to satisfy those who were used to socialism's safety net. And Yemen, the only democracy on the Arabian peninsula, also faces some of the world's worst poverty.

Divided past, united today

Yemenis were a divided people long before socialism swept through the world, and before Islam spread through Arabia in the 7th century. It was then, during the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, that Yemen's first mosques were built.

The north was more influenced by the Saudis and a long Turkish occupation, while the British occupation of the south - and Aden's key spot on historic trade routes - left South Yemen more open to outside ideas.

Now, whether in an attempt to forge a unified nation or to spread the stricter lifestyle of Zaydi - a form of Shia Islam - southerners say a more fundamentalist Islam is taking root.

Islamic gains in south

Some point to Islah, the Islamic party that shares control with the center-right People's General Congress (PGC). Islahi officials had some women judges in the south dismissed as un-Islamic and decreased science teaching in school to make way for more Koranic studies.

"Our very own Taliban, huh?" jokes one high-ranking official from the PGC who asked not to be named, comparing Islah to the Islamic group that recently seized power in Afghanistan.

After unification, unveiled women in Aden were harassed - often by women. Three weddings in Aden with co-ed dancing were bombed last year, say Western diplomats in Sana, the capital.

But like other Islamic movements in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel, Islah has gained favor with the young because it provides social clubs and services. The aunt of one club goer says he trained to be a pilot but refuses to fly for Yemen's airline because of its unveiled flight attendants.

Islah leaders say they reject violence and support women's rights. And like in Iran, they say, the religious upsurge is merely the will of a people bucking forced secularization.

"Women wearing normal dresses may not be looked at with respect by some," says Abd al-Wahab al-Ainsi, the deputy prime minister. "But the ordeals of women in the West are worse then the ordeals women in Islamic countries are suffering."

Many in Yemen believe the veil protects women from the violence, including rape, they see Western women as susceptible to. The veil is also a symbol of a woman's modesty and of her family's protection.

Socialists hanging on

The Socialists, to be certain, have not disappeared. They currently hold 56 of 301 seats in parliament. But they have been severely weakened, with many jailed or sent into exile.

In the three years after reunification, 150 party members were killed, says a report in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Many suspect Islah issued a fatwa, or religious decision, that encouraged the killing of socialists for their supposed atheism. Islah denies the charge.

Also, the government often shuts down the Socialist paper. "Whenever they see something that doesn't please them, they suspend the paper," says Ali Salah Abad, a leading Socialist.

Such criticism is supported by a recent critical report by Amnesty International. Amnesty says, however, that since it issued the report the government has tried to improve.

Poverty, graft beget strife

At the root of Yemen's troubles, along with tension over Islam, is poverty. When the Soviet Union collapsed, South Yemen lost a major aid donor. And overall Yemeni income dropped dramatically after the Gulf war, when it declined to join the US-led coalition against Iraq. Up to 1 million Yemenis working in Gulf countries were kicked out, and Yemen's patron Saudi Arabia cut off funding.

"There are better goods on the shelves," says a woman in Aden, "but we can't pay for them." Most observers fault corruption, which many Yemeni leaders say they aim to thwart.

"Of course, we want to cut back on corruption," says Foreign Minister Abdul Karim el-Eryani. Blaming criticism on politics, he adds, "any opposition should not be a rubber stamp - unless we want democracy to be a camouflage."

He also points to advances: "The oil sector is expanding. Our deficit is declining," he says. "It's not that services were everywhere and disappeared. They weren't there in the first place."


* In the 11th century BC, the use of camels as beasts of burden made once-remote Yemen a booming trade center. Its main export: frankincense.

* Islam was introduced in AD 630. Some mosques built then in Sana stand today.

* Yemen controls Beb el Mandeb, the strait linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

* Yemen's 13-million population is among the world's fastest growing. It's expected to double in 20 years.

* One million Yemenis were kicked out of neighboring states when the country didn't side with the US-led allies in the Gulf war.

* North and South Yemen united in 1990 and stayed together despite a short civil war in 1994.

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