Islam and Law After Unification: Debates and Challenges

The two legal traditions were merged after the unification of Northern and Southern Yemen in 1991. Members of the Yemeni Socialist Party in the south and conservatives and Islamists in the north engaged in intense debates over family law. Socialist politicians and press paid more attention to shaping the education system of the new state and largely ignored the demands of southern women, who did not want to lose what they gained in the south. Therefore, conservatives and Islamists were able to gain the upper hand in laying out a new family law for a unified Yemen. A year after unification, the new Republic of Yemen passed law 20/1992 on Personal Status that resembled the legal tradition of Northern Yemen, with little state intervention that could protect women from abuse. For example, minimum age for marriage (fifteen years for both sexes) was not enforced and was not considered a condition for the validity of marriage. In addition, restrictions on polygyny, such as notifying the wives of the polygamous union, were not enforced, and the practice continued without imposing laws that could protect women’s rights.

The Constitution since unification made no specific reference to which school of thought (madhhab) the Code of Personal Status would follow. It only made references to shari’a in general terms and avoided any mention of the Zaydi, Shafi’i or Isma’ili sects. This was part of North and Southern Yemen’s attempts to stress the nationalist, non-sectarian nature of the Yemeni state (Shamiry, 2007).

A few years after unification, South and North Yemen were engaged in a civil war as a result of what the south considered a violent campaign against its socialist party instigated by the north as well as economic marginalization of the southern region. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former army officer from a Zaydi peasant family, in cooperation with radical Islamists like Abd al-Majid al-Zindani of the Islah Party and Arab Afghans returning from fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were able to defeat the south and eliminate the Yemeni Socialist Party in 1994 (Worth, 2008). In the aftermath of the war, the Yemeni government and the Islah Party, a coalition of Islamists (mainly Muslim Brothers) and tribal leaders, joined forces to amend the Yemeni Constitution and purge all liberal traces from it, previously implemented with southern-socialist pressure. Various groups were victims of the new Constitution, particularly minors and women.

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