Shaha Riza - Culture and Poverty: Projects at the World Bank
Poetry, Literacy and Empowerment for Rural Yemen Women
This is a pilot research project that will explore the relevance of expressive culture to development. Adult rural women in Yemen will be taught literacy skills through the writing and documenting of their own poetry and that of other women in their community. A cultural resource that is valued locally and nationally will be utilized to teach rural women a potentially empowering skill that is not currently perceived by them as relevant to their lives. The project will be community driven from the planning stages, and it has the support of Ministry of Education officials in Yemen.
The pilot project addresses two problems currently faced by rural Yemeni women: the first is a decline in their own poetry composition and with it a loss of social voice. In Yemen, among men and women, poetry is the primary recognized tool for conflict management and for the expression of personal wishes and opinions. Good poets have considerable input in local political issues, and poetry is an acceptable cultural venue with which to sway family decisions that impact on a poet’s personal life, such as choice of marriage partner. While the poetic tradition as a whole has been enhanced through audio cassettes which permit the transmission of poetry across the country, this is largely poetry composed by men. Rules of modesty constrain most women from recording their voices on tape. For rural women, modernity has resulted in a decline of occasions and contexts for poetry composition and a consequent loss of their social voices. Meanwhile, they are not taking advantage of the modern option of formal schooling. This project is designed not only to help document and archive traditional women’s poetry, but to encourage women to compose poetry again. It is intended to foster intergenerational communication between older and younger women through which literacy (or poetry) becomes a tool for the transmission of traditional values of empowerment.
The second problem the project addresses is Yemen’s very high illiteracy rate for women – 77% in 1996 (UNICEF). According to Min. of Education personnel, current literacy efforts aimed at rural women are not seen by these women as relevant to their lives as agriculturalists. One hypothesis to be tested is that they might find literacy efforts more relevant it these focused on cultural expressions that they themselves value – in this case, their traditional poetry. Using the Language Experience approach to community literacy (which taps into the philosophy of Paolo Friere) and Community Counseling Learning developed by Fr Curran, women will be taught reading and writing skills through the transcription of poetry that they and their neighbors have composed. As the process develops, these and other poems composed by project participants will be printed and disseminated in the community, and possibly outside the community as well.
Proponents: Shaha Riza, Najwa Adra"