Population, Way of Life
Yemeni tribesmen are known by the jambiyya, or curved dagger, carried in a scabbard on a wide belt at the front of the body. Men often wear one of several types of skirts rather than pants, and a straw hat or headcloth. They also may wear Western styles of clothing. The clothing of Yemeni women, which includes robes, shawls, and veils, varies greatly from region to region; much of it is colorful, striking, and imaginative.
Women in Yemen tend to live secluded from nonfamilial men, although this is less true under the more relaxed conditions in the countryside and former South Yemen generally. The most distinctive and important Yemeni social institution is the “qat session,” a relaxed but ritualized afternoon gathering at which men and women socialize separately and chew the mildly narcotic leaves of the privet-like qat (khat) plant. Most men and many women “chew qat” at least twice a week.
The Yemeni diet includes rice, bread, vegetables, fish, and lamb. A spicy green stew called salta is one of Yemen’s most popular dishes. Housing in Yemen varies from region to region. In the Tihamah, near the Red Sea, people live in African-style circular reed huts. Residents of the highlands, many of whom are farmers, sometimes live in stone or mud-brick houses of multiple stories, often intricately decorated with alabaster or stained glass. City dwellers also reside in houses of this type, or else in modern-style houses or flats.
Yemen’s relative isolation and traditionally weak economy have produced a number of long-standing social problems. Because education was until recently unavailable to the majority of Yemenis, the country has traditionally had one of the lowest literacy rates in Asia. This is particularly true for women in Yemen, who have not generally been encouraged to seek schooling. In addition, health care in Yemen is notoriously underdeveloped. Polluted drinking water, inadequate vaccination, and a shortage of medical personnel and facilities have contributed to the quick spread of numerous diseases among Yemenis. These conditions have also given Yemen a high infant mortality rate and a much lower rate of life expectancy than in other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past two decades, Yemeni leaders have made greater efforts to provide social welfare for the nation’s inhabitants; with the help of foreign aid, new training and treatment facilities have opened, and new health-care programs are in operation in some rural areas.
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