Amal Abdullah

Shifting Gender Roles in Yemen: The Crisis of Masculinity

April 2024

While Yemen holds on to a fragile ceasefire, unresolved issues that perpetuate cycles of violence and societal distress continue. Amal Abdullah argues that due to economic and war-related challenges, many men experience a crisis of masculinity as they struggle to fulfil expected traditional roles, such as being providers and protectors. Moreover, the adverse effects on society have been amplified as some conflicting parties exploit this crisis to further their cause and recruit for war.

In Yemen, a country deeply affected by longstanding conflict and cultural traditions, societal expectations significantly shape the concept of masculinity, exerting immense pressure on men and boys to adhere to traditional gender roles. From early childhood, boys are immersed in an environment where they are expected to grow into strong, dominant figures, embodying the traits of providers and protectors within their families and broader communities. However, due to economic hardship, many men find themselves facing obstacles when trying to live up to traditional notions of masculinity, such as being providers. And currently, amidst the turmoil and instability of war, the role of protectors becomes more significant, with men often seen as the defenders of not just their immediate families but also their communities, cultural values, and the nation.

Cultural norms, economic pressures, and the reality of conflict create a demanding and often restrictive framework for masculinity; thus, Yemeni men who are unable to fulfil traditional masculine roles undergo a crisis of masculinity. This ‘crisis of masculinity’ refers to a shift in traditional male roles that arises with the economic and social changes resulting from the war: as men have lost income sources, women have become primary providers.  This shift in roles has left many men feeling “resentful and ashamed that they are now unable to provide”. Thus, these men develop an attachment to more rigid forms of traditional gender norms and seek to reinforce them within their surroundings. This leads to adverse effects on gender equality, such as resistance to women’s participation in the workforce in jobs that are dominated by men and an increase in gender-based violence (GBV).

Indeed, with the absence of or inability of men to occupy previous roles – due to unemployment, war injuries, war trauma or stress – women have been forced into roles traditionally held by men, thereby not only challenging patriarchal structures but also reinforcing a crisis of masculinity. More importantly, the crisis has been exacerbated because some of the conflicting parties have systematically appealed to nationalistic sentiments, cultural identity, and religious duty with the aim of exploiting the crisis to promote and recruit for war. This includes men of all ages, ensuring the next generation will also adhere to the status quo. 

Militarization of Masculinity Exacerbates the Crisis

A CARE International report in 2016 highlighted a rising trend of young men in Yemen joining armed groups, driven either by the need to provide for their families financially or by patriotic feelings to help resolve the country’s conflict. Indeed, the Houthis have provided financial incentives or basic necessities like food in exchange for joining the frontlines. Nevertheless, the issue of recruitment for war in exchange for financial benefits has not been viewed from a gender perspective. By alluding to economic vulnerabilities and traditional gender norms, the conflicting parties not only use patriotism but also notions of masculinity to recruit more fighters and maintain their control over communities – exacerbating the crisis of masculinity. Thus, given limited livelihood opportunities, men’s struggles, and need, to provide for their families and meet societal expectations – ‘to be a man’ – have compelled many to join the war. For many, this will enable them to fulfil their perceived duty as providers for their families, thus reinforcing traditional masculine roles under extreme circumstances.

The militarization of discourse has also led to more rigid notions of masculinity in Yemen since the conflict started. In order to influence public opinion and rally support for their causes, the conflicting parties, especially the Houthis, have been portraying their fighters as heroes and martyrs and emphasizing the duty and honor associated with defending the country. By framing their fight as a defense against external aggression, the Houthis play the masculine role of protectors of Yemen. This narrative is compelling for many Yemeni men who internalize the protector role as a core component of their masculine identity. For many people, to be a man now means to be a fighter, to defend your country, to be part of the solution – even if it means death at the frontlines. A Yemeni man from Ibb said in an interview with YPC that, “to be a man, you should be a fighter and hold a gun, it doesn’t matter how old you are”. He said that as he was leaving Yemen after the conflict erupted, one of the fighters with the Houthis told him that he was not a man because he was leaving the country rather than joining the war.

The militarization of masculinity is not confined to a certain age; 10 year old boys have been recruited and killed in fighting.Although all conflicting parties have been recruiting children, the summer camps established by the Houthis in Yemen contribute significantly to a long-term militarization of masculinity by training young boys in an aggressive form of masculinity and normalizing violence from an early age. The indoctrination of children and their involvement in military activities can create rifts within communities and families. It challenges traditional family roles, with children being pulled away from the guidance of their parents and community elders and being pushed towards roles defined by the conflict. Moreover, the effects of such militarization are long-lasting and can alter the social fabric. A generation of boys attending these camps is likely to perpetuate militarized notions of masculinity, influencing future societal norms and potentially leading to a cycle of violence and conflict.

Navigating the Shift: Towards a Balanced Masculinity

The shift in gender roles may have created a crisis of masculinity, but at the same time it also presents an opportunity to support more inclusive gender norms to emerge from the crisis, especially in the event of peace. International and non-governmental organizations aiming to address these issues must consider the interconnectedness of women’s empowerment and the masculinity crisis. The focus on empowering women, while crucial, inadvertently overlooks the broader social implications of the masculinity crisis, including its impact on women and the perpetuation of GBV. Thus, livelihood programs such as job training, employment opportunities, entrepreneurship support, and access to markets could provide men with a pathway to regain a sense of purpose that aligns with a more peaceful and balanced form of masculinity, rather than joining the frontlines. Also, these programs could help in alleviating the economic pressures that contribute to many men feeling inadequate, relieving the effects of the crisis on the broader community.

However, with many men still joining the frontlines of the conflict, the cycle of violence continues. For that reason, protection mechanisms must be developed to stop the recruitment of children in schools. This has been achieved in areas such as Hadhramaut where local communities introduced a complete ban on politics in schools to neutralize politics within the education sector. Thus, intensive awareness campaigns targeting families would be the most effective method, as this would stop the flow of recruits from within households, rather than attempting enforcement of child protection measures in the absence of the rule of law. Moreover, with many women experiencing the rise in GBV that has also accompanied this shift in gender roles, protection of Yemeni women could be achieved by increasing the number of women officers in police stations, to create a safer environment for women to report GBV incidents.

Finally, community-based initiatives are essential to challenge and diminish instances of GBV. By adopting such measures, we not only secure direct protection for women but also lay the groundwork for enduring stability in Yemen – and ultimately, the building blocks for peace and gender equality for generations to come.

Amal Abdullah is a Research Analyst who joined the Yemen Policy Center in 2021. Amal has written policy reports on social cohesion, IDPs, and the non-profit sector. She has published articles on subjects including women’s entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment and higher education. Recently she wrote about the resilience of working women in Yemen. Her interests lie in development, family economics, women empowerment, and gender equality. Previously she worked in the education sector. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Economics from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

German Federal Foreign Office
Mareike Transfeld
Jatinder Padda
Enas El-Torky
Yemeni women sitting at sunset by the seafront, al-Hodeidah, Yemen
Photo: Michele Falzone / Alamy Stock Photo
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