Speaker highlights persistent anti-Black racism in Yemen

March 26, 2021

Gokh Amin Alshaif, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke about racial issues in Yemen in the post revolution period in the 1960s. Alshaif spoke about the history of anti-Black racism in Yemen towards “Muhamasheen,” a term used to describe Black Yemenis, which still occurs today.  

“Racism shapes the grammar of everyday life,” Alshaif explained, in remarks to the state of Muhamasheen in Yemen. Muhamasheen is an Arabic term which translates to “the marginalized” and only represents a particular group of black Yemenis at the bottom of the Yemeni social structure. Alshaif compared their social status to “untouchables” in the caste system in India. 

Ever since the war in Yemen six years ago, the Muhamasheen have been further discriminated against, Alshaif explained. Black Yemenis are being pushed out of refugee camps and are forced to live in informal housing with a lack of access to basic infrastructure. This structural racism often results in the Muhamasheen being turned away from hospitals and schools and being attacked without intervention from law enforcement, Alshaif said. The structural racism observed towards the Muhamasheen is not a new trend, according to Alshaif. 

Before the 1962 revolution, blackness in Yemen was organized into strict social classes, Alshaif explained. Before 1962, one’s social class was determined by their genealogy, one’s line of descent. According to Alshaif, the more you could trace your family history to Yemen, the higher in the social hierarchy you would be. “Genealogical imaginations determine morality,” Alshaif explained. If you were Black and could not trace your genealogy back to Yemen, you were relegated to the bottom of the social ladder, which is where the Muhamasheen are.

According to Alshaif, the 1962 revolution had potential to get rid of the strict social class because following the revolution it was promised that these hierarchies would be dissolved. Following the revolution, there was also supposed to be the redistribution of political power to the lower classes, said Alshaif. However, this largely did not happen, “Legacies of genealogical imaginations continue to shape social worlds,” said Alshaif. 

Conversely to these proposed plans following the revolution, the state created policies that prohibited the Muhamasheen from obtaining jobs beyond janitorial work, and they had to work without basic protection and contracts, Alshaif said. These state policies institutionalized the racism faced by the Mushamasheen and “the Muhamasheen were excluded from the category of the human and of the citizen,” according to Alshaif.

Some groups in Yemen have fought back against anti-Black racism, said Alshaif. These groups are organized similarly to those of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Many activist groups highlight race and Blackness instead of class or genealogy, which helps change the narrative, said Alshaif. 

“Activists hope to be seen as Yemeni and Muslim, and not as untouchables,” said Alshaif. However, he added that some activists are skeptical, saying that citizenship would erase the realities of structural racism. The event was hosted by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

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