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Yemeni Women’s Crafts: A Timeless Legacy and an Ancient History

Sawt Al-Amal (Voice of Hope) – Alia Muhammed

Yemen preserves the culture and heritage of its ancestors, and its ancient traditional professions have been passed down throughout the ages. Yemen’s craft industries are among the most popular factors that attract tourists, giving the city a unique and charming characteristic that reflects Yemen’s history and cultural legacy.

Yemeni women are the basic component of society, and they play a crucial role in the country’s overall development. Moreover, women play a significant role both inside and outside the family. Throughout history, Yemeni women have been closely associated with craft activities, and their work has emerged in the traditional industry and handicrafts sector.

Laila Ahmed, a member of One Community Foundation, believes that women artisans in Yemen play a prominent role in supporting the national economy, and it became more prominent during this period. The primary reason for choosing this field of work was to make investments and improve the living conditions of the family.

She noted that there are a number of women working in a number of craft projects, most notably:  sewing, embroidery, knitting, pickling, designing traditional fashion, and other handicraft industries.

“We have a workshop in Al-Hikma village in Al-Haswah District of Aden. This workshop employs many girls in the field of sewing. This activity is very popular with all ages, and they excel in sewing jalabiyas and folk dress,” she added.

The ongoing conflict in the country has prompted many Yemeni women to utilize their crafts to enter the labor market, overcome difficult living conditions and provide a source of income for the family.

Somaya Arafat, one of the girls who sews a number of canvas handbags, said, “I have been working in this profession for seven years. The war and the current circumstances prompted me to think about doing my own project. Therefore, I decided to use my sewing skills to create a variety of canvas handbags that combine between civilization and the past.”

“Many women prefer to buy canvas handbags, because they are used for both daily use and special occasions, and they are very popular,” she added.

Al-Mashjab is an Ancient Craft

No house in the governorates of Aden, Lahj, and Abyan is without a “mashjab (sticks wrapped together to form something like a clothes hanger. Yemeni women use it to fumigate their clothes and give them a pleasant scent. This is done by placing the incense burner under the mashjab in the center and hanging the clothes over it. This way, the incense spreads throughout all the clothes).

Aqdar Ahmed, one of the Yemeni craftswomen living in Lahj Governorate, has been practicing the craft of making mashjab since she was very young.

“I make the mashjab using wood and palm frond branches. The process of making mashjab involves different steps. The firstinvolves gathering the branches and removing the leaves attached to them. We then gather the branches and tie them together to create a shape that resembles the mashjab in the photographs,” Aqdar said.

“The mashjab can be colored in the preferred colors, or it can be wrapped with satin cloth of different colors to make it more beautiful and attractive,” she added.

Azaf (Wicker) Products are an Ancient Yemeni Heritage

Rural women in Yemen and coastal regions engaged in a historic folk industry that involved producing baskets, handmade hats, and mats from azaf. It is also prevalent in regions where with trees they use for weaving are available. Additionally, there are numerous varieties and designs of baskets used for food storage. Mats, on the other hand, are used as a table on which food is served, while the coverings are used by some to cover food.

Fatima Muhammad, a 45-year-old resident of the Abyan Governorate, is well known for her talent in creating handcrafted baskets and hats from palm fronds.

“I have been in this field of work for many years, and I produce a lot of hats and baskets,” Fatima added. They are in high demand, particularly from people who want to buy traditional and historic items.

She mentioned that numerous people ask her to make baskets and unique hats in various shapes and designs, and others ask her to make mats, food covers and old hand fans.

Making Bukhoor

The production of bukhoor (incense) is one of the traditional crafts inherited in the governorate of Abyan. Women in most of the southern governorates of Yemen are engaged in the profession of making bukhoor, oud, zabad and akhdharain (scented materials).

There is no home in the governorate of Aden that is without bukhoor, and it is frequently used during family gatherings and weddings.

Ibtisam Adel, one of the women in Abyan Governorate who manufactures bukhoor, zabad and akhadharain (scented materials for the body) said, “I inherited the profession of making bukhoor from my mother, because I was watching her while she was making them. Thus, I gained experience in terms of how to select materials and mix them with each other. Now, this industry has become a source of income for me and my children, thank God.”

The process of making bukhoor involves multiple steps, beginning with the selection of the aromatic materials as well as ingredients and cooking them over a fire. After that, it must be dried, perfumed, crushed, and packaged in containers before being sold.

Regarding the materials used in the manufacture of bukhoor, Ibtisam said, “A number of materials that we bring from perfume shops are included in the manufacture of bukhoor, such as adah, amber, misk, sandal, afs, dhafari, and sugar. Some types of perfumes vary according to the quality, cost, and manufacturing process, which vary from woman to woman and depend on the experience in selecting ingredients and estimating them during production.”

Rural Women Play an Important Role in Development

Women in rural areas play just as vital a role in society’s development as women in urban areas. Rural women have made great achievements and have become an integral part of productive society. They have also mastered many handicrafts and traditional industries.

Eng. Nadia Hamid Sultan, Director General of Rural Women’s Development, confirmed that small projects and craft industries have helped women improve their families’ financial conditions. In light of the current conditions that the country is going through, it has become one of the most important sources of income for the individual as a result of the conflict, which was a key factor in the expansion of poverty.

“The craft industries provided many of the daily market requirements and provided job opportunities for many women. Therefore, we can say that we have reached the stage of recovery,” she added.

She outlined the most important services provided by the General Administration for the Development of Rural Women in terms of assistance, training and guidance services, and programs targeting rural women. In addition to providing a number of training programs in the fields of production, and contributing to finding marketing means for women’s products.

Obstacles and Solutions

Fathia Irshad, an agricultural engineer and the director of rural women’s development in Lahj Governorate, cited a number of challenges faced by craftswomen, most notably the lack of raw materials in large quantities and the difficulty in obtaining them, particularly for those residing in rural areas. Among the other obstacles is the lack of an organization dedicated to artisans that handles their affairs, organizes their work in the market and supplies raw materials at discounted prices.

She suggested training, supporting and developing women artisans, in addition to encouraging and supporting them, and providing them with information on marketing concepts and knowledge of market requirements. This would be done through the provision of vocational training centers and setting up craft centers to develop production.

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