Identity and War: The Power of Labeling

Identity and War: The Power of Labeling

Sabria Al-Thawr, Sana’a University


This article explores the role of labels and identities in Yemeni society through investigating the social hierarchies in Yemen and expanding on the identity crisis before and during the current war. The current war has widened differences among social segments and contributed to complicating the Yemeni identity conflict. I highlight the role of the language and labels used by different fighting groups to legitimize their movements and delegitimize their opponents. Labels are hierarchically derived based on the social placements of the individuals and are weaponized to “other” those who lack patriotism and loyalty to Yemen. This is a form of racialization, which, in turn, justifies fighting for each group as a holy means to gain “rightful” control over the region. The extensive use of various labels in naming opponents on social media, banners in streets, media and TV talk shows provoke hate speech and further contributed to weakening an already torn up society and fragile social fabric.

Yemen has long been characterized by social and political inequality and social division within different races, languages, and religions.[1] Yemen is traditionally a highly stratified society, with various forms of exclusions faced by certain social groups such as historically marginalized Akhdam (servant group), mixed birth groups, women, and youth.[2] Purity of blood and being the ancestors of the prophet, in the case of Sayyids, has been perceived as a holy right to rule and control. The Zaidi ideology, similar to the Shiites, believed that rulers should be one of the Prophet’s successors. These enduring structures of exclusion, I argue, meet the criteria for the concept of “caste,” despite Diana Kim’s warnings against conceptual overstretch in this collection. In the case of the Muhamisheen (see below) this caste-like system takes on a form of racialization.

Yemen’s caste-like social system

Yemen’s hierarchal social system and caste-like social stratification is usually represented as a pyramid, with the Hashemites or Sayyids (Master) class who represent the religious elite at the top of the pyramid. Sayyids claim their descent to the family of Prophet Muhammad and who historically have enjoyed certain political and social privileges at the top of the Yemeni social hierarchy. Then comes the Ouda (judges) families who represent the religious scholars, jurists, and state administrators.[3] The vast majority in Yemen are qabâ’îl, (tribesmen) or warriors are arms-bearing people; a large segment work in agriculture. Lower in status are the Bani Al-Khums or Mazyaina (service providers), the artisans, butchers, barbers, and others who form a minority of the population and are socially stigmatized due to the nature of their manual and handicraft work.  Non-qabilis traditionally occupied a lower rank on the social hierarchy ladder.[4] At the bottom of the pyramid are the ‘abîd, or slaves, and the Muhamesheen (marginalized), or Akhdam (servants).[5]

There are a few religious minorities in Yemen who are not visible in the media but are now being represented during the ongoing war as a result of the exacerbated persecution and discrimination. In addition to the marginalized people who have lived in isolation and discrimination for centuries, there is a small number of Jews who failed to immigrate to Israel in 1948 in Operation Carpet of the Wind, the Baha’is who were deported and exiled from Yemen in 2020,[6] the Ismailis, who are a Shiite minority who have always peacefully co-existed, and a Christian minority whose existence is not yet acknowledged.[7] There are no statistics about them or their presence, except for some publications by those living outside of Yemen.

The Muhamesheen share a history of persecution, isolation, and discrimination with
the Yemeni Jewish minority. Neither of these communities is allowed to own land, intermarry outside of their communities, or participate in any public or civic actions including political engagement. They are also restricted to degrading jobs such as handicraft, silver jewelry work for the Jewish minority, and shoemaking and street sweeping for Muhamesheen.[8] Tribal customary law labels these groups ‘naqis’ (which translates to ‘incomplete’). It signifies that these groups are weak, and are not allowed to carry weapons, and therefore should be protected under tribal law.

Women and girls and women from marginalized groups are at higher risks of various forms of violence including sexual violence as they are considered to be immoral. During the war, frequent harassment by armed groups at checkpoints and kidnapping was reported.[9] The concept of ‘homo sacer’ by Giorgio Agamben that discusses sovereign power and bare life can usefully explain how such a complex stratified society in Yemen may justify marginalizing and exploiting those at the bottom of the social ladder. Muhameshat women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, a practice legitimized by a dehumanizing social saying ‘al khadmah hallwat saydaha’ or ‘the servant is the sweet of her master.’[10]

For centuries, the Yemeni tribes have played significant roles in the political, economic, military, and judicial scene in rural areas.[11] The tribal judiciary system has replaced the state system in areas with a strong tribal history[12] and even acts as an intermediary party between state and society in such areas.[13] Therefore, tribal affiliation is crucial in identifying loyalty and social capital.[14]

The tribal system, likewise, maintains the same social hierarchical pyramid that emphasizes inequality among its individuals. However, the Yemeni tribal system is a segmentary lineage society where certain structural principles apply to groups and individuals. In events that “follow the rules,” all individuals that belong to the tribe should join, defend, and maintain sharaf al-qabila (the honor of the tribe) against opponents.[15] This is called daie al-qabila (the call of the tribe) that invokes a collective response and is obligatory to all who belong to the tribe. So, during the current conflict, answering the question of ‘what is your origin’, ‘auysh aslak’, or ‘what is your tribe’ is a question about social and political identity and loyalty that could jeopardize people’s lives.

Blackness and Purity of Blood

This caste-like system blurs into racialization with the discourse over purity of blood. A person born to a Yemeni father and an African mother is not classified socially as a ‘Yemeni,’ even if they possess Yemeni identification papers. Instead, they are called ‘muwalad’[16] which is a derogatory label that indicates being hybrid, not pure-blooded, a stranger and outsider. This was portrayed powerfully by the Yemeni novelist Mohamed Abduwali in his famous novel “They die Strangers”[17] where he narrated about the search of a nation, of citizens, of hope.  As novelist Samia al-Shatbi observes, being muwalad’ is like being ‘half a human and half a ghost’.[18] Muwaladeen are not perceived to be pure; “an Arab who is not purely Arab.”[19]

The Akhdam or Muhamesheen sect’s historical accounts differ from their origin, and their ethnic race throughout the history of the Abyssinian occupation of Yemen.[20] Both Akhdam and Muwaladeen groups suffer from these stigmatized labels that indicate incompleteness and illegibility to be socially respected and to belong to society. The Yemeni Civil Status Law allows Yemeni citizens to hold more than one nationality, unlike the Ethiopian Personal Status Law.[21]During the war, some Muwaladeen who carry Yemeni nationality regret not holding another nationality that could have offered them more options.  Meanwhile, Akhdam are exploited politically by labeling them as Ahfad Bilal[22](descendants of the first Prophet prayer caller who is from an Ethiopian or Abyssinian origin) to attract as many to the battle fronts considering it a religious and national war and giving this sect a sense of belonging due to their participation in the war.

The purity of blood is not the essence of all forms of historical discrimination against these two groups. It is blackness. For example, if one is a mixed birth of a European parent or any other lighter skin color, he or she will not be perceived socially as muwalad or Khadim, which means the most salient factor here in determining this label is more the skin color and blackness. Social fragmentation is a geneagenetic issue at the intersection of race, ancestry, politics, and geography.


Failure or collapse of the National Identity

The 1990 unification between the two parts of Yemen was assumed to create a collective national identity with the birth of the new Yemeni unified state. However, instability was a feature of this state for 20 years. This instability only worsened with the attempts of separatists in the south and further north of Yemen. However, that was terminated by the emergence of the Houthi rebellion in 2004 and the retired soldiers’ movement in 2007 in the south. The grievances were left unaddressed due to the political instability, corruption, war on terror, the exhaustion of the state from the six wars with Houthis, and the decline of oil revenue.

During the six rounds of war against the Houthis (2004-2010), the Yemeni government categorized Houthi fighters as ‘terrorists’, ‘rebels’, and ‘Iranian Shiite pawns in the Arabian Peninsula.’ The Pan-Arab media described the fighting in Sa’ada as a ‘guerrilla war’[23] or an Iran proxy war. These labels legitimized military actions carried out by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in the sixth round of war. The accumulation of this conflict in the past decade commenced with the popular uprising in 2011. The overthrow of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years and the initiation of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) gave the impression that the centuries-long instability in Yemen was merely political rather than a collective of entranced cross-political grievances united against an authoritarian regime. The failure of the NDC and the breakout of the war began another chapter of label and identity conflict. The war has been labeled lightly as a sectarian war and sometimes as a proxy war and extension for the Sunni and Shia regional conflict, but this does not tell the whole story of the war in Yemen.[24]

The umbrella of political and party loyalty was the basis for wealth and position sharing in the pre-war period that intersected with tribal loyalty in tribal areas. Now, sectarian affiliation in Houthi-controlled areas came to play a major role in determining the role of individuals in political life and in sharing political and material gains.

The Houthis, as a religiously driven political movement, could hypothetically share the fantasy of belonging to a larger Ummah Islamiyah (Islamic Nation) community with the Sunni Islah Party[25] and the Salafists. There are varied interpretations made by each group as to who belongs to the Ummah (Sunni Ummah and Shi’i Ummah). Such Islamic collective identity enables these groups to adopt a more holy project that is religiously more appealing to a diverse group of people to join. Consequently, the creation of a national political identity contributes to diminishing the political aspiration of Islamic political groups.

Identity Labeling and Legitimacy

Is the current Yemeni war a sectarian war or a war of identities? Some research tends to classify what is happening in Yemen as a war of identities while others label the conflict as a sectarian conflict to politicize religious identities within a regional conflict over influence and legitimacy. However, the emerging sectarian labels used by opponents such as ‘dawaish’ (as extremist Sunnis) and Majus (pro-Iranian Shia) fail to tell the whole story of the current conflict in Yemen.[26] A closer look would reveal that conflicting parties use sectarian labeling to strip ‘legitimacy’ and claim the title of the sole and legitimate representative and authority for Yemenis. As Yemenis struggle to survive and adapt to the dynamics, the unstable conflict continues to impose greater restrictions every day. Traveling between one province and another has become dependent on the regional, political or tribal afflation of those standing at the military checkpoints that have spread throughout the country and follow the geographical division of the conflicting parties. The place of birth has become a charge, and regional dialects have been weaponized as an accusatory tool that may subject their speakers to unlawful arrests in unknown prisons for years. Women have become afraid to travel alone, even in groups, due to the fear of violence perpetrated by certain military checkpoints that follow militant religious parties (Salafists and al-Qaeda) that pursue women who travel without a mahram (a male guardian). Travel outside Yemen has become dependent on the passport’s place of issuance. In addition, the internationally recognized authority of legitimacy has considered tightening the screws on citizens who travel for treatment and prevent their travel if their passports were issued in the governorates controlled by the Houthis.

Within the conflict of identities during the ongoing war, multiple new identities emerged that seek to gain the endorsement of the warring factions, as a means of achieving the right to lead as protectors and representatives of Yemen, much like the Houthis. The seven years’ war awakened many conflicts that had been dormant for more than five decades, such as sectarianism, and regionalism.

Labeling is a political act that aims to identify the inclusion and exclusion of others.[27] In Yemen, labeling entails the act of pragmatic “othering” during the conflict to impose certain boundaries and social stigmas against opponents and empower actors. An example is using the label “shaheed” (martyr) by different fighting parties as a means to honor their supporters or those who join their fighting fronts. This takes the label away from its cultural and religious meaning. During the war, the label of “shaheed” has also been used as a victimization tool to shame and criminalize the killing of civil and military people by their opponents. Meanwhile, each group labels their martyrs as heroes and opposing martyrs as villains, mercenaries, or ‘murtazak’.

The emergence of a youth movement in the name of Yemeni nationalism (Aqiyal) sparked loud arguments between supporters and opponents, and a collateral battle has emerged for the ongoing war that is led by various intellectuals, researchers, writers, journalists, and political activists. The identity of the ‘Aqyal’ evokes the history and links the land, geography, and history of the era of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms. “Qayl” means a king in the ancient Himyarite language. This identity confronts the so-called faith identity ‘Alhawyah Al’emanya’ that Ansar Allah (the Houthi movement) established to empower religious authority over the Yemeni identity or any other national identity. On the other hand, the political forces that belong to the Yemeni Islah Party established a unitary identity “wahdawya,” which claims a unitary identity and the unity of the whole geographical territory of 1990 unified Yemen as an existential identity that could protect its political existence.  In the South, the identity of the ‘Arab South’ has emerged, which also denies, as the authority of Ansar Allah, the unity concept with the North of Yemen and even adhering to any form of a Yemeni identity. The supporters of a new southern identity have been labeled as ‘separatists’ by the Islahis who call for a unitary identity. More recently, due to the military and political developments in the south and the liberation of the southern areas from the control of Ansar Allah in 2015, a new political structure was created in 2017 called the ‘Southern Transitional Council.’ As a ‘self-styled southern government-in-waiting, this entity controls most of Yemen’s four southern governorates, including the temporary capital, Aden.[28] However, this political structure is labeled by their opponents as ‘UAE -back separatists’ as a label that denies the reality of these political changes.

This discourse allows the higher social classes to claim and introduce themselves as holy groups that have “divine” privileges granted based on ‘sacred lineage.’[29] In other words, utilizing a political function of descent,[30] being part of Syadds or religious elite means being part of the sacred descent which enable people to assume certain privileges even if they are not politically active or occupy certain positions. For example, Houthi authorities replaced government and military officials with Hashemite Zaidi cadres who were largely appointed for their sectarian identity rather than their expertise and merit.[31] Furthermore, intermarriage is not allowed, to maintain the purity of origin (‘irq) and of the lineage (as-salālah). This maintains sacred social and material privileges of higher classes such as benefiting from an alleged right to distribute one-fifth (Khums)[32] of the country’s revenues to those of a Hashemite origin or receiving the priority to occupy high political positions in a patron-clientelism system. However, while the Hashemite lineage used to be perceived as a privileged label, during the war it has become a hate label ‘sulalli’ (belong to the Hashemite lineage) or kahnoty (sacerdotal) used in media by their opponents. Some of the consequences affected traveling between territories controlled by the different military and political groups where those who hold last names that belong to the Hashemite families are sometimes attacked, arrested, and accused of being Houthi.[33]

Is Social Cohesion Attainable?

Labels impose boundaries and define categories. They are a means to construct our social world; to define norms in relation to others who bear similar or different labels.[34] Political labeling and counter-labeling processes produce varied unanticipated and significant implications on social cohesion. Social cohesion is concerned with the quality and nature of connections between people and groups, and this concept needs to be the focus of development efforts to address state fragility.[35] Furthermore, social cohesion is often weakened by perceptions of injustice and grievances among social groups. Creating an “us-versus-them” mentality exacerbates intergroup divisions.

This escalated and contested labeling further polarizes Yemen and weakens its social fabric leading. The war in Yemen has been labeled as a counter to Iran’s influence presenting Houthis as Iranian proxies which have exacerbated the mentality of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and has led to further fragmentation. However, social cohesion has yet to be prioritized in the peace talks or peace interventions at the community level and is considered an afterthought that could be addressed after the end of the war. The emerging multiplicity of identities questions whether Yemenis are able to build up a collective national identity given the expansion of political fragmentation, separatist tendencies, and historical isolation of identities or the political divides.




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[1] Considering Jewish minority who speak Hebrew language and Soqatri language (archaic yet living Afro-Asiatic and South Arabian language known as Socotri) that is spoken in some parts of Al-Mahara Governate and the archipelago of Socotra.

[2] Colburn, 2021

[3] Lackner, 2016; Al-Sharjabi, 1986

[4] Salmoni et al, 2010

[5] Christensen & Al-Thawr, 2019; Lackner, 2016; Al-Sharjabi, 1986

[6] Human Rights Watch, 2020; Al-Monitor, 2020

[7] See: Haber, Romy. “Facing Targeted Attacks, Yemen’s Christian Minority Struggles to Survive.” 2019. Global Voices. January 17, 2019. & World Watch Monitor. “Christians in Yemen ‘Persevering, Not Surviving.” 2017 Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 2001

[8] Christensen and Al-Thawr, 2019

[9] Gressmann, 2016: 11

[10] Sexual violence again women form Muhamesheen have been debated by human rights activists in media before and during the war due to frequents sexual abuse and rape incidents where perpetrator often escapes with punishment. See some media coverage for rape incidents: The Muhamesheen Union accuses the authorities of Taiz of complicity in the rape case of the child “Risalah”. . The rape of a Muhamesheen girl, and the police arrest the victim’s family.

[11] Marc et al, 2013; Bonnefoy and Poirer, 2009; Adra, 2016

[12] Gaston and Al-Dawsari, 2014

[13] Bonnefoy and Poirier, 2009

[14] Carter, 2017

[15] Dresh, 1989; Nevola, 2015

[16] Yemenis of mixed Yemeni Ethiopian descent whose ancestry mixed of Yemenis and Africans especially Ethiopians.

[17]Yamutun ghuraba’ (“They Die Strangers”) illustrates African-Yemeni marriages and its connotation to a persistent social stigma. This novel was published in 1971 has been translated into several languages including English, French and German.   The writer himself is of Ethiopian decent.

[18] Samia Al-Shatbi in his novel “One nose for two homelands” published in 2015 and another “lost in Ethiopia” in 2021, both novels discuss the suffering of Muwaladeen in Yemen.

[19] IOM, 2014

[20] Christiansen, & Al-Thawr, 2019, Al-Haj & Michael, 2016; Al-Hakami, 2010; Saif, 2005; Shajab,2002, Al-Sharjabi, 2001

[21] Nasser, 2016

[22] Bilal ibn Rabah, who was a slave brought from Al-Habsha land (Ethiopia), was one of the closest companion of the Prophet Mohammed and his prayers caller or Muathin. He was Using his name is purposeful as his case symbolizes the equality based on Islam. (Christiansen, & Al-Thawr, 2019).

[23] Salmoni et al, 2010

[24] Durac, 2019b

[25] Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party in Yemen (Hamzawy, 2009).

[26] Durac, 2019a &b

[27] Sajjad, 2018

[28] Salisbury, 2021

[29] Sana’a Center, 2020

[30] Nevola, 2015

[31] Sana’a Center, 2020

[32] Articles 47 and 48 the “Zakat” law (approved by the parliament in 1999) contains an article that specifies allocating 20% of the country’s revenues (a tax on natural resources and minerals extracted from the ground or the sea ) to “Ahl al-Bayt”” or Banu Hashim but was never implemented. The Houthi movement/Ansar Allah amended this article recently to execute it as part of the Zakat taxation. This action causes a heated debate in media accusing the Houthis as being racist who try to exploit religious texts to take additional stakes. See  Mahdi, Safia (2020). ‘Yemen: One-Fifth of the Country’s Wealth Among the Hashemites’. In Daraj., published on June 28, 2020.

[33] OHCHR, 2020

[34] Rosalind & Moncrieffe, 2007

[35] Marc et al,2013:3