Yemen: People & Dress                                               

Who are the Arabs?

By definition, Arabs are people who speak Arabic as a native language. Arabic is a northern Semitic language spoken by 220 million people and the official language of some 20 countries in southwestern Asia and northern Africa, a region known as the Middle East. Arabic is one of the 6th official languages of the United Nations and the 4th most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish). Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and, as a result, Islam is heavily influenced by Arabic culture. The Qur’an is the Islamic holy book (similar to the Bible for Christians or the Torah for Jews).

Are all Arabs Muslims?

Muslims and Arabs are different populations. Not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. (Only about 12% of Muslims are Arab.) For that matter, not all Mid-Easterners are Arabs (that is, native speakers of Arabic—for example, the Assyrians, Berbers, Chaldeans, Turks, Kurds, Iranians and Israelis are not Arabic speakers). Likewise, not all Mid-Easterners are Muslim. For instance, the Christian Chaldeans and Assyrians, who are Semitic and share some cultural foundations, have different languages and religion.

Many Arabs Believe…

  • The family is the focal point of social existence (and everyone loves children).
  • Men and women are inherently different.
  • Wisdom increases with age.
  • Most of life is controlled by fate.

Many Westerners (especially US Americans) Believe…

  • The individual is the focal point of social existence.
  • Rules should apply equally to everyone in all circumstances.
  • People have a right to various kinds of privacy.
  • People can control their environment (and destiny).

Common Arab Values

  • A person's dignity, honor and reputation are primary and are to be protected at all costs. Honor (or shame) is collective—pertaining to the entire family or group.
  • All behavior must create a good impression on others.
  • Loyalty to family takes precedence over personal needs and desires.
  • Social class and family background are the major determiners of personal status, followed by individual character and achievement.

Common Arab Religious Attitudes

  • Belief in God and the importance of acknowledging His power.
  • Humans cannot control all events. Much depends on God's will—that is, fate.
  • Piety is one of the most admirable of personal characteristics.
  • Church and state should not be separated. Religion should be taught in schools and promoted by government. (This is the Islamic view which is not necessarily shared by Arab Christians.)

Common Arab Self-Perception

  • They are generous, humanitarian, polite and loyal.
  • They have a rich cultural heritage, as illustrated by their significant contributions to religion, philosophy, literature, medicine, architecture, art, mathematics and the natural sciences. Many Arabs believe that most of these accomplishments are unknown in the West.
  • They are a clearly defined cultural group and perceive themselves as members of the Arab Nation.
  • They often believe they have been victimized and exploited by the West.
  • Some believe that indiscriminate imitation of Western culture may have a corrupting influence on Arab society, weakening traditional family ties and social and religious values.
  • Some feel they are misunderstood and wrongly characterized by Westerners. And some feel that many Westerners do not distinguish between Arabs and Muslims.

Dress in Yemen

Traditional clothing varies according to the region. The men in the photo below are dressed for a wedding. Notice the “western style” suit jacket over the traditional clothing.

The janbiya knife is generally worn by men starting at the age of 14. The knife is also worn in parts of Saudi Arabia, India, Djibouti and Oman. In Oman the knife is called a khanjar.

  • Hijab is the Arabic word for “curtain” or “cover” which is based on the root word meaning “to cover,” “to veil,” or “to shelter.” In popular use, hijab means “head cover” and “modest dress for women."

  • Some Muslims and Islamic legal systems define hijab as covering everything except the face and hands in public.


  •  According to some Islamic scholars, hijab is given the wider meaning of modesty, privacy, and morality.


  • Still another definition is metaphysical, where al-hijab “refers to the veil which separates man or the world from God.”


  • It is important to note that not all Muslim women wear the hijab and that the hijab can vary in size. Some offer less coverage than others. Personal choice as well as geographical norms and family pressure can influence a woman’s decision to wear the hijab or not. Muslims differ as to how “hijab dress” should be enforced and particularly over the role of religious police who enforce hijab use in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Advice for Non-Islamic Expatriates

  • Visitors and expatriates are advised to show respect for the local culture when it comes to dress.


  • While western dress, such as sleeveless and tighter-fitting outfits for women have become increasingly common in some majority Muslim nations, it is advisable to dress more modestly in the souks (markets), country-side and places with few expats.