by Anne-Linda Amira Augustin | published May 15, 2014

Huda al-‘Attas (b. 1973) is an activist for women’s rights, an author of short stories and a teacher of sociology at the University of Aden. Aden was the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which existed from 1970 to 1990 under the governance of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Al-‘Attas is deeply engaged in today’s peaceful fight for the independence of southern Yemen and the movement (or hirak) around the “southern cause.”The “southern cause” refers to resistance to the marginalization of southern Yemenis after the PDRY’s unification with North Yemen in 1990. Both the marginalization and the resistance intensified after the war between north and south in 1994, when southern factories were looted, land was stolen and southerners were forcibly retired from the civil service and the army. Al-‘Attas is from a well-known family in Hadhramawt, an eastern province, but has lived in Aden since the 1980s. Anne-Linda Amira Augustin met her in Aden and translated their interview from Arabic.

What was life like under the PDRY?

I lived a quarter of my life in the south before unification. Life was different indeed. We lived a normal life like the rest of the world.

In school we had gymnastics and sports — I was more skilled at table tennis than the boys. The schools were mixed, with boys and girls sitting in the same classes all the way through. Gender mingling was not an issue. There was no haram (prohibited) or ‘ayb (dishonor). We also had “cinema weeks” when the school took us to see films.


Citizens could count on the state to provide education and training. There was order and we had our rights. Of course, there were also negative things such as limits on freedom of expression. Ideological and economic openness were missing. There were controversies concerning socialism, but citizens lived a stable, secure life. The regime provided welfare and the law was the same for everyone.

What changed after unification?

First, Islamists came from the north. Before anything was changed in the economic, security or military sectors, the northern regime changed our progressive family law. Then Islamists grabbed the Ministry of Education, resulting in the prohibition of gender mingling in schools and the abolition of subjects such as music and sports.

The first question for them was how to change the culture and the open-minded mentality in the south. The Yemeni Socialist Party was not the only reason for that mentality. It is a heritage going back to the 129 years of British colonial rule.

I believe that the cultural attack on the south was aggravated after 1994, when legions of Islamists came to the south. That was the first time that we saw men with full beards. Women involuntarily donned the veil and covered their faces. It was also the first time that we saw homeless people.

Read the rest f the interview on the Middle East Research and Information Project.