Looking at the Middle East at present, may seem like the usual unrest, but upside down.

Young people play a major role in these upheavals, which do not seem to be turned against so-called Western interests, or ideologically motivated (remember the Mohammed-cartoons). This time there is no need for factual or construed outside involvement, this time, cause and effect comes from within. The street is finding a voice.

In Yemen, presumably the most "traditional" and tribal Arabian country, with more than 50% of its population under the age of 15, there is a trend at the moment, questioning the usual power relations: while they might still be maintained toward the outside surface, they seem to be undergoing deep changes. Traditional patterns of knowledge diffusion are cracked: it is no longer the fathers who explain the world to their sons, it is like elsewhere young males and females who have a know-how advance on technology use.

Who manages a computer finds a job – or sometimes, challenges a government as in Tunisia. With the general return into privacy, youngsters have opened a whole new field for themselves where the identity machineries are at work, virtually.

We heard all these stories, of mothers in socialist Aden donning mini-skirts in public, with high hair, and we know some of those who still retain no headscarf are being portrayed as recalcitrant, at current, in the eyes of the more religiously fundamentalist and orthodox. While street looks in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, may not vary too much as compared to 10 years ago, they do vary significantly as compared to 30 years ago, with colourful flowery traditionalist styles, or modern trench coats with bright scarves disappearing and giving way to "the black thing".

The project we present intends to locate the young in Yemen, somewhere there between these fashionable new identities and "the black thing". Within the intricacies of fashion blogs with titles like "The Muslimettes" or "Muslim Style Queen" and "Hijabulous", we wanted to know whether the suggested need to identify as 'Muslim yet stylish' is applicable on the street, and street-proof at the same time. With regard to what is being suggested in terms of street fashion / street styles and fashion blogs within the Muslim world, it was most challenging to locate the young of one of the most isolated Arab countries within the coordinates of upward mobility of the urban female, the well educated jeunesse dorée, a computer based service industry, and those who will take the future into their own hands: who are they ?

More tangibly than a mere street appearance is to know where these streets are taking to at present: is it roads to nowhere ? "The experts called it a 'youth buldge' … the CIA had reported on 'the doomed future of youngsters living in the Middle East…'", as Allegra Stratton has it in "Muhajababes" (literally: 'the veiled babies', see references, p 4f), while the World Bank suggested that "…the new generation of Arabs, male and female, is 'the most educated in the region's history'." (item)

Will, as so-called gender theories behold, more educated and self-assured individuals automatically tackle the region's problems by taking them into their own hands? The crucial role that women will play in this process does not need to be identified, however, it will only be maintained together with young men.

And here is where a chronic problem of perception sets in, and the ghosts come up. In Europe, especially in Germany and France with their respective positions on veiling in public respectively in the public service, the integration discourse keeps painting a rather sinister picture of the oppressed Muslim female clad in black.

While it is true that Yemen has been in the news over and over again as for its voluntary or involuntary involvement with terrorists, parcel bombings, the civil war in the North, the Somali refugee problem at its shores, the separatist moves in the South, we want to maintain that despite all of this, there is a young bright generation, briefly the majority, that will shape or at least illustrate, as a matter of time, the future of this country and that does not deserve to be written off, and, along with the usual yellow press Islam-bias in Europe, be 'othered' beyond 'othering'.

By interviewing more than 300 individuals, by the help of 45 youngsters of 3 youth organizations resp. their youth wings, notably the "Cultural Development Programs Planning Center", the "Youth Media Forum" and the "Development Media Center", answers to what "the street wears" were found. Critics would find this as not representative of Yemen and Yemeni society, as we know it, as country-wide surveys are not exactly the role of cultural centres; we just took samples. With a focus on fashion in Yemen, we did not want to focus on traditional styles of Yemen at all, with all its regional and local varieties; neo-folkloristic trends were exactly to be avoided, as they usually are too frozen in time.

And, yes, the young want to be young, indeed. While dancing on the volcano is what Yemeni society has been referred to before, it is not necessarily the fault of the young and brash and fabulous – whoever they might be. We see pink shoes matching pink handbags, perking out under the black abaya, in passenger mini buses flying by. We see svelte metro-sexually dressed young men in arabesque gold-clad tank tops, while golden threads, apart from the nomadic regions and Bedouin cultures of Mahra and Hadhramaut traditionally were considered as "womanish". Branding has not been much of an issue within the ranks of consumers so far, people choose according to the best available quality – mixtures of Chinese imports in large new clothes markets, few Italian retailers, and traditional cloth stuff (which is imported from India). And yet, the answers we got in the small survey were most revealing.

With no entertainment industry at all, no opera, no theatre, no cinema, no pubs, no bars, no concert halls, no concerts, it seems only natural that shopping is the most visible leisure time pursuit. As the sexes are segregated, and as women could only partake in activities outside the home, marriages and wedding halls, with their segregated divisions, are the habitual places of gathering, and of match-making. There, the social pressure on appearance seems rather high, forcing "Patricia of Monaco style" outfit upon outfit on the participants – of which not a trace is to be seen on the streets.

What is current Yemeni fashion, then, for current Yemeni people? How can the young manage to develop their proper style as opposed to traditional (or neo-traditional), habitual (or neo-habitual) exigencies, and between new influences from both Arab and Western fashions... in the post-modernity of the identity assembly they live in?

These were the guiding questions on the journey of this three-fold project, with the intention to give a face to the young, uniting academic positions, recorded onto sound samples, sociological observations printed onto cloth and hung on clothes lines, photographic art, text and picture installations, video art, and last but not least the first sincere public fashion show, in a public space, in Yemen. The work of Sophie Elmenthaler, Hijab and High Heels (2010) has been tremendously important for our approach, as was the work of Maha Al-Khulaidi, Yemen's first and best known fashion designer.

The project hit 870 visitors at its opening day 13 Dec 2010 alone.
We hope it may be useful as a resource, both for the artists as for online viewers.

Guido Zebisch

Director The German House Sana'a & Aden
Art Director & Curator Sana'a Styles: Fashion and Identity in Yemen

February 2011

 

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