Shaima Bin Othman

A Generation Without a Shared National Identity

March 2023

State fragmentation is now manifesting in school assemblies, where instead of cultivating a shared national identity, schools are fostering new, disparate political identities. Shaima Bin Othman argues that these new identities, promoted in schools in place of the rituals involving a shared national anthem and flag, will result in a fragmented generation without national identity, prolonging conflicts and leading to further division. Here she reviews changing rituals and the effects on society in Sanaa, Aden and Hadhramaut.

The politicization of education in Yemen was already a problem prior to the outbreak of the current conflict. Controlled by the narrative of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the education curricula were altered to fit his perspective on Yemeni unity, thus neglecting the grievances of south Yemen. However, with the state fragmenting, and the education system coming under the control of the various conflict parties, school assemblies, as part of a school’s broader protocols and procedures processes, are powerful instruments to shape students’ sense of identity. Serving as a microcosm of the larger community that exists outside of schools, assemblies are a foundation of community building. During assemblies, students participate in rituals and listen to teachings, for example, on morality, which shape their identities and feelings of belonging. By including ritualistic practices like raising and saluting the national flag and singing the national anthem, morning assemblies convey powerful ideas of nationalism.

During Saleh’s rule, students started their days singing the national anthem and raising the flag of the Republic of Yemen. Today, with the wider spread and control of different political groups, Yemeni students are no longer molded into one national identity. Whether due to political coercion or societal division, students during morning assemblies bear witness to manifestations of increasing fragmentation driven by the conflicting political factions. Their socialization now depends on the dominant party in their school’s geographical location. Each political force views the opportunity to shape the identity of students as an opportunity to gain political power and consolidate it for the future.

The Zaydi State Embeds its Nationalism Through Educational Reform

In 2021, as Yemen’s war entered its seventh year, the Houthis (also known as Ansarallah) made significant changes to the school curriculum in areas under their control. Their educational reforms intended to construct a national identity in line with their vision for the Yemeni state. For example, the Houthis removed lessons honoring the September 26 revolution, which overthrew the Imamate’s rule and initiated the republican era in Yemen in 1962. The Mutawakkilite Imamate was based on Zaydi theology, according to which political power could only be held by the Sayyids, a set of families which within Yemeni society are considered descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The Houthi movement emerged in the 1990s not only to defend the religious tradition of Zaydism but also, once they came to power in Sanaa, worked towards bringing back a system which, before the republican revolution, legitimized their political power.

Within their territory, Houthi educational reforms also introduced mandatory chanting of the Sarkha (chant or scream) during morning assemblies. Students now begin their days shouting: “Allah is greater; death to America; death to Israel; curse on the Jews; victory to Islam.” This chant originates from Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric and was adopted by the Houthis in the 2000s. However, there is some resistance as  news reports show that several students were disciplined by being removed from classes for their refusal to chant it. Ultimately, through the education system, the Houthis aim not only to mobilize and recruit thousands of Yemenis for their cause but also, by replacing Yemen’s national identity and principles with their own sectarian ideology and goals, to ensure control over future generations. To also indicate control, the Houthis changed Yemeni school names. For example, the Babel School is now known as the ‘September 21 School’, the day when the Houthis captured Sanaa in 2014. Significantly, they also transformed numerous educational institutions into prisons and training facilities for child soldiers.

The national identity being cultivated in school assemblies and the education system at large ensures that a new generation of soldiers is being raised to fight in a sectarian war based on the Houthis’ perception of religious superiority. But by framing the identity in religious terms, it also designates all those against the Houthis as religious, rather than political opponents. This is an inherently exclusionary national identity, in which those Yemenis who do not follow the Houthis are antagonized, cementing the current fragmentation for decades to come.

Southern Nationalism in Aden Holds to the Past

In the interim capital of Aden, which is fraught with conflicting identities, school assemblies have also undergone a transformation. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which was established by members of the Southern Movement seeking to reestablish the independent southern state, did not alter schools’ curricula in its areas of control. Students in Aden still study the history of Yemen as decided earlier by northern Yemen authorities constructing a national identity for a unified Yemen. In May 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and Yemen Arab Republic—two very different states with different visions for Yemen—unified to form the Republic of Yemen. However, in the summer of 1994, a civil war erupted between north and south, ending with the southern forces’ defeat and the northern forces’ entry into Aden. While many southerners considered this an occupation, the government in Sanaa considered it consolidating unification.

STC officials have announced that the school curriculum is currently under review, with changes being anticipated; the review will identify lessons that are “extraneous, false, and programmed to Yemenize the south, and replacing them with lessons that carry the southern stamp, identity, and history”. However, the STC already promotes its political goals by holding regular school lectures and events and by rejecting the symbols of unity; for example, the STC banned the Yemeni flag and anthem during morning assemblies. Instead, the anthem and flag of the former PDRY are being used in ritual practices. Despite a large segment of the population supporting this decision in the south, some altercations occurred after one school principal refused to raise the southern flag, sparking widespread outrage among activists loyal to the STC, who demanded that the principal be held accountable.

The long years of both neglecting southerners’ voices and not resolving historical grievances have created enmity against the north that rejects any act linking the south to a united Yemen. This is especially true in education, which before Yemeni unification was proactive and developed under socialist rule in southern Yemen, but largely deteriorated after unification. Even though Yemen is still de jure, one united country, Adeni students are growing up with a strong belief in the south’s independence and a vision of north Yemen as an occupying state. The changing of the Yemeni flag and national anthem, which symbolized a unified Yemeni identity, indicates the emergence of a new southern nationalism, with belief in the north as occupier and enemy potentially being cemented for generations to come.

In Hadhramaut Even ‘Neutrality’ Has its Dangers

Unlike Aden and Sanaa, which have both become dominated by single political actors, in Hadhramaut there are various political groups and factions, including supporters of Yemeni unification, supporters of a southern state, and voices calling for an independent state of Hadhramaut. Many Hadhramis believe that their region has been neglected by the earlier socialist state that focused on Aden and later after unification, centralized rule from Sanaa. They also consider themselves marginalized as Hadhramaut, the largest and richest governorate in Yemen, has a unique identity that emerged from the intersection of a long-standing Hadhrami identity within Yemen and the centuries-old Hadhrami diaspora. They also consider it has been politically and economically marginalized.

A school principal based in the port city of Mukalla reported riots when male students who refused to raise the Yemeni flag stormed a girls’ school in Mukalla, calling for raising the southern flag instead. The principal added that the safest solution for students is to stay neutral, cancelling the national anthem and flag raising in light of “political uncertainty”. Hence, in anticipation of potential violence between various political factions, all schools in Hadhramaut opted to take this neutral stance by having morning assemblies in which no national identity is promoted and instead limiting it to reciting verses from the Qur’an, along with advice and general wisdom for students.

While Hadhramaut’s local authority opted for neutrality in school assemblies, students experience state fragmentation and competition between political groups in the streets. The flags of the Republic of Yemen, the PDRY, the flag of an independent Hadhramaut, as well as the flags of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all competing in public spaces. Reflecting this polarization, on 26 September 2022 some school students celebrated the 26 September Revolution in Mukalla’s streets, the national holiday to commemorate the birth of the Yemeni republic in Sanaa. In doing so, they raised the official flag of Yemen and clashed with another group of students who raised the southern flag. Adding to the complexity, Hadhrami activists shared on social media that the authorities, who themselves fly the Yemen Republic flag, arrested the children who carried that same flag.

Rather than practicing an inclusive neutrality that would allow school children to overcome division and hatred, Hadhrami schools have simply created a void. The type of neutrality practiced in Hadhrami schools today merely obscures the existence of an officially sanctioned approach to belonging and national identity. The streets, however, demonstrate a fragmentation level that this neutrality cannot obscure. Thus, the schools’ approach does not protect the children from being shaped by competing, exclusive, and sometimes violent nationalist beliefs.  

Peace Also Requires Justice and Reconciliation in Yemen’s Schools

Competing groups manipulating school agendas in this way sow a new generation of conflicts. Students raised in Houthi-controlled areas see ‘Sunnis’ as their enemies and believe the Houthis’ leaders are divine agents. The southerners see the northerners as occupiers and enemies due to these divisions and differences. Even if the south is liberated from the ‘occupation’, animosities and hatred will likely remain because the young generation in Aden and the south grow up believing that northerners are enemies. Given the divisions among Hadhramaut’s students and the absence of a unified identity, any group could easily polarize them. These generations will bear these grievances and hatred towards each other as they grow up. Even if a political solution is found for Yemen in the near future, the likelihood of conflict continuing is high due to the fragmented identities the war drew out and exploited.

These school assembly conflicts have made it necessary to look at and change how we think about peace in Yemen. Although current international peace and justice mechanisms call for a cessation of violence as an initial agreement, justice and reconciliation are required for long-term peace. Rethinking identities and cultural diversity as assets rather than obstacles to conflict resolution is a good place to start to achieve sustainable peace in Yemen. Yemen’s conflict must be viewed holistically, including the pre-war narratives that shape today’s identities. Current conflicts result from past injustices, which must be addressed before future generations drift further apart.

Shaima Bin Othman is a Yemen Policy Center Associate Fellow. As a co-founder of Takween Cultural Club and Meemz Art Initiative, she is a social activist and volunteer, focusing on the arts as a method for social change. She is also a freelance writer, with many articles published in al-Madaniya magazine. Her research includes a focus on women and youth. In addition, she is an MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar and has recently completed a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

German Federal Foreign Office
Karol Malik
Jatinder Padda
Enas El-Torky
Ahmed al-Hagri
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