IndexMiddle East Yemen


“Well aware of its effectiveness for retaining control over females, Yemenite Jewish men [from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century] submitted to the rabbinical ruling which permits a man to have sexual intercourse with a female once she is three years and one day old (b. Niddah 44b). Although it seems to have been rare in Yemen to acquire a female under the age of eight there were a fair number of cases where girls were procured and raised in the boy's father's house until the groom at least was sexually mature. Between one-third to one half of acquisitions in this study took place between a sexually mature male and a just pubertal female. I know of only one out of over two hundred where the female had not yet entered menarche. Nearly all the females were transferred to new owners by their parents before the age of fourteen whether or not they were sexually mature. About half the males who acquired them were between fifteen and eighteen. […] At the turn of the century in southwestern Yemen a widowed mother, barely able to feed herself and her infant daughter, gave her pre-pubertal ten-year-old away to a man nearly three times her age. An orphan and without a trade, he had remained unmarried all those years[1]. The child refused to be acquired, but the desperate widow cajoled her daughter, employing a common ruse: if she remains quiet like a good girl, the man will give her a nice surprise. It seems the child's new owner was somewhat overeager. As the narrator put it, “He jumped on her like a dog,” damaging her reproductive system so badly that she had great difficulty conceiving and giving birth. In two separate circumstances, both taking place in San'aa, Yemen's capitol during the early 1940s, the girls were quite vocal about refusing to leave their parents' homes. Threatened with the great sins of disobeying and shaming their parents, the girls remained silent just long enough to be acquired. In one, a just-nubile ten-year-old was acquired by a man in his forties. A grandfather several times over and a widower twice, shortly after the huppah, 'the acquisiton ceremony,' he dragged the child into the kummeh, a storage room cum “honeymoon suite” set aside for sexual privacy. Her reluctance to be penetrated while the guests were present infuriated him. He beat and raped her. Her parents and the wedding guests heard her screams. No one intervened. She was his property. (cf. El- Sa'adawi 1981, Granquist 1931, 1935). Many girls lived in constant fear of their rites of acquisition.” (Dahbany-Miraglia, 1999)[2].

Yemen’s legal age at marriage is 15, but a significant percentage of young women marry before age 14. The 1997 YDMCHS recorded a median age at marriage of 16.5 for women ages 20–49. There is evidence that the median age at marriage is rising […]”[3].

However, twenty-nine of Dorsky’s fifty women (1986:p143-5)[4] claimed to be premenarchal at marriage.


“Despite the general claim in Άmran that a few considerate men delay sexual relations until their wives are sexually mature, this was not the case for any of these twenty-nine informants. Although townswomen are sharply critical of “excessively early” marriages (but they do not define excessive earliness precisely), they do not focus specifically on the attainment of menarche. Almost no women state directly that girls who do not menstruate are not ready for marriage. In fact, many claim that sexual activity hastens the onset of menstruation, although several say they themselves did not begin to menstruate until several years after marriage. A few months after her daughter’s marriage, a woman announced proudly to me, “Arwa has gotten to be all right!” When I asked what she meant, she explained, “She has gotten her period [...]. It usually comes quickly once a girl gets married” (p135).


According to Chelhod (1973:p60)[5] in was common for girls to marry before puberty. In one village (Bornstein, 1974)[6], 22 out of 147 were married between eight and ten. As in Maklouf (1979)[7], the average age for girls was estimated at 13 or 14, and significantly higher for males. In another, far northern village (Myntti, 1979)[8], 65% of ever-married women had done so before puberty.

Dorsky (1986:p123) stated that women say they had no idea of what was to occur in their wedding nights, and believe it is best for a woman to learn such things from her husband. “Many mothers say they would be too embarrassed to tell their daughters what to expect. However, some women say that, in actuality, girls do learn about sex from an early age, although the knowledge may well fail to protect them from experiencing shock and shame at their first sexual experience”.


“In 1999, the rarely enforced minimum marriage age of fifteen for women was abolished, and instead the onset of puberty was set as a requirement for consummation of marriage, interpreted by conservatives as the age of nine[[9]]. An amendment to the personal status law to introduce a minimum age – eighteen years – for marriage was introduced in 2001, but the proposal has not been passed by the parliament [[10]]”[11].


“Girls are seen to be marriageable as soon as they have reached puberty. In the urban sites in Dhamar we find that those under 25 years of age were generally married by the time they were fourteen. For those over twenty five years of age the age at marriage ranged between 11 – 13 years and often before the onset of menstruation. The girls who are not married at fourteen among our respondents were the ones who were completing school and there were exceptional circumstances that kept them there. However, this does not mean that school-going girls are not married off at the age of fourteen since many of our under twenty respondents were withdrawn from school and married off. In the rural areas the pattern is similar to that in the urban sites with age at marriage for younger women (under twenty) being about fourteen and for women above twenty five ranging between 11 – 13. In the urban sites in Aden marriage just before or at the onset of puberty was also common for women who are now above thirty. However, there does seem to be some change in the age at marriage of women now in their twenties in that they were generally married off between the ages of 16 and 18”[12].


As for jurisdiction,


“The Personal Status Act. Article 15 of this Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 15 years in the case of both males and females. Article 127 sets the minimum age of maturity for men at 10 years, on the attainment of puberty, and for women at 9 years, likewise on the attainment of puberty […] Article 272 of the Penal Code prescribes a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment for anyone who, through force or deception, sexually abuses a female under 15 years of age, a male under 12 years of age or any person who is wholly or partly incapable of exercising discretion for any reason whatsoever. The same penalty applies if the offender is an ascendant of the victim or responsible for his or her upbringing”[13].











Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Oct. 2004




[1]It is common in state and in other societies, especially those with a sexual hierarchy in which males supersede females, to encourage male control over females through early real or symbolic sexual access to prepubertal ones. Early betrothals and marriage are one of the most common expressions of masculine (and parental) dominance. Among the New Guinea Arpesh a man “grows” his preadolescent wife. That is, he infantilizes her and makes her psychologically as well as physically dependent on him. In loco parentis he feeds, clothes and disciplines her until she has reached menarche and is ready for sexual intercourse (Mead 1963). [orig.footnote]

[2]Dahbany-Miraglia, D. (1999) Getting Away with Murder: The Application of Marriage Laws in Jewish Yemen, Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 1,3 []

[3] Al-Rabee, Arwa (January, 2003) Adolescent Reproductive Health in Yemen: Status, Issues, Policies, and Programs. []

[4] Dorsky, S. (1986) Women of Άmran. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press

[5] Chelhod, J. (1973) La parenté et le marriage au Yémen, L’Ethnographie 67:47-90

[6] Bornstein, A. (1974) Food and Society in the YemenArabRepublic. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[7] Maklouf, B. (1979) Changing Veils. New York: Wiley & Sons

[8] Myntti, C. (1979) Women and Development in the YemenArabRepublic. Eschborn, FederalRepublic of Germany: Germany Agency for Technical Development

[9] Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Yemen: Human Rights Developments [orig. footnote]

[10] Human Rights Watch World Report 2002, pt. 483 [orig. footnote]

[11] Ljung, Ch. (2003) Women’s Rights and Shari’a- A comparative study of marriage and family relations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Master thesis, University of Lund, p42 []

[12] Muslim Women and Development action research project. Synthesis report. Amsterdam, KIT Gender, and Women and Development Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2001 / Muslim Women and Development Action Research Project, Annex 8, YEMEN (2001). Yemeni Women’s Union (YWU), Yemen, Dhamar Women’s Health Center, Yemen, p4 []

[13] Second periodic reports of States parties due in 1998: Yemen. 23/07/98. CRC/C/70/Add.1. (State Party Report) []