Wed 8 May 2013
Webshaykh’s Note: An article entitled “Qat, Cosmopolitanism, and Modernity in Sana’a, Yemen” has been written by Irene van Oorschot, and published inArabian Humanities, Vol. 1, 2013. Her ethnographic study focuses on urban women in Sanaa. I attach here the beginning paragraphs, but urge readers to read the full article on Arabian Humanities, a new journal dealing with Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.
The 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?”
This 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!”
As 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.
Through 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.
These 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.
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