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Huda Seif - Research Project | Back to Fellows' List
 

ETHNIC VIOLENCE AS A CASTE SYSTEM: A CASE OF CRUEL TRADITION
The study deals with a case of extreme social practices of cruelty and violent socio-economic exclusion of "Al-Akhdam", a minority social group, in the Republic of Yemen. It explores the relationship between culture and violence from a human rights perspective. It argues that the root cause of the age-old systematic and structural violence against “Al-Akhdam” is ethnic in nature that nevertheless finds "legitimate" cultural expressions through caste-like practices of social and economic condemnation and exclusion.
Huda Seif - Interview

Describe the challenges that you experienced during your research efforts.
One of the most challenging aspect of my research while at Emory was the re-conceptualization of my ideas of advocacy from its theoretical state to a more practical approach. Coming up with a concrete methodology for advocacy was the biggest challenge I faced. In other words, transforming a theoretical approach to collective violations of human rights into concrete and tangible advocacy project was my major challenge. Another challenge relates to my recent difficulties in physically accessing Yemen following September 11.

What is the current status of your research?
My research at Emory is complete. However, the implications of my research involves an ongoing process of advocacy for the rights of Al-Akhdam minority group in Yemen. My project is a long term commitment to finding ways through which these rights can be achieved through state sponsored reforms. Yet the state of Yemen has yet to be convinced that the basic human rights of Al-Akhdam are violated.

What are your future plans for the project or for work in the field of Human Rights?
My plans involve establishing an NGO either inside Yemen or outside whichever might be feasible. This establishment is necessary since currently there is no single Yemeni or international NGO concerned with the rights of this group.

Along the way, how has your design or idea for research evolved or how do you foresee it evolving in the near future?
What has changed is my approach to advocating the rights of Al-Akhdam. As I detail this in my final report, what has changed is my approach to the rights of Al-Akhdam as a collective rights and not just the rights of individual human beings. My research has shown me that the plights of this group are one of collective punishment. And as such it requires an approach that seeks to redeem these rights collectively.

How might your conceptual model and field research be implemented and communicated in various communities and contexts, and in your homeland?
Given the magnitude of my research interest on collective human rights violations against minority groups across Yemen, I have relied on research assistants at some points in my research career. My recent use of two research assistants, however, was mainly related to my inability to go to Yemen and my research on and need to understand comparatively two specific questions that relate to perceptions of "collective identity" within marginalized social groups in two different locales in Yemen. It was also related to my need to research on any recent development with regard to local NGOs and whether there were any local organizations that were doing the same work that I was interested in with regard to advocating the rights of “Al-akhdam” in Yemen. Two research assistants, one in Sana’a and one in ‘Aden have assisted me in answering these questions.

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Huda Seif - Description of Research

My research deals with a case of extreme social practices of cruelty and violent socio-economic exclusion of “Al-Akhdam,” a minority social group, in the Republic of Yemen. It explores the relationship between culture and violence from a human rights perspective. It argues that the root cause of the age-old systematic and structural violence against “Al-Akhdam” is ethnic in nature that nevertheless finds “legitimate” cultural expressions through caste-like practices of social and economic condemnation and exclusion. This is so because the practice of ethnic violence and difference are not defensible within the larger Islamic principles of social equality that castigate social difference within Muslim communities on the basis of ethnic difference. My research pursues aspects of this structural violence and its ethno-historical bases and analyzes both anthropologically and within recent histories of modern state regimes in Yemen. It also analyzes the ways in which existing human rights discourse and its focus on individual rights may become inadequate in helping us understanding instances of collective human rights violations such as the one in Yemen.

Mindful of the futility of advocating minority rights through an appeal to international discourses that prioritize individual human rights in the context of sovereign states that fail to protect the rights of their subjects, my research project advocates the recognition of the violence against ‘Al-Akhdam” in Yemen as one of ethnic related structural violence that breaches not just international laws, declarations, and conventions that oblige states to protect minority groups under their sovereign jurisdictions but also Islamic teachings of tolerance and equality. Here I argue that the Yemeni state not only fails in providing internationally recognized protection to a vulnerable minority group under its domestic jurisdiction but also participates in perpetuation of an age-old, caste-like condemnation of "Al-Akhdam" as human waste removers by continuously and exclusively employing this group (and only) as "manual sanitation workers" through its Municipal Authorities.

My current human rights advocacy project builds on several years of ethnographic research in Yemen. It is a practical extension of the topic of my theoretical doctoral thesis in Anthropology that also dealt with social categorization and domination in Yemen. In this case my current human rights research project is a scholarly informed advocacy project that combines theoretical analysis of social domination, inequalities, and marginalization with a concern for collective human rights violations in the context of a Muslim society. In this context I pursue among others the following questions: What are the root-causes of this violence? Will an advocacy project for the rights of “Al-Akhdam” in Yemen be served better as violations of individual human rights or as collective rights of a social minority group? What would be the value added in seeking collective rights for this group? My aim is to establish an advocacy project that seeks to redeem the collective rights of this minority group and to submit certain theoretical as well as legal rationalities for taking this venue. It is hoped that the readership of my research project will create critical awareness and prompt both scholarly and humanitarian responses locally, regionally, and globally to act against this case of cruel social practices of inequalities in Yemen against “Al-Akhdam.”

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Huda Seif - Research-in-Progress Documents

1. Abstract - The Accursed Minority: The Ethno-Cultural Persecution of “Al-Akhdam” in the Republic of Yemen
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2. Advocacy Project Draft - The Accursed Minority: The Ethno-Cultural Persecution of “Al-Akhdam” in the Republic of Yemen
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Huda Seif - Development/Training/Networking

Conceptual Development
The Fellowship program, and specifically under the tutelage of Professor An-Na’im, helped me to conceptualize the most viable as well as effective approach of advocating minority rights in Yemen. In particular, I was able to come up with my current approach of advocating "Al-Akdham" minority group as an advocacy for collective rights as opposed to individual human rights in Yemen. Through my one to one consultation with Professor An-Na’im, and through the two courses I have attended while at Emory, I have come to the realization that existing human rights approach and its focus on the individual are incapable of addressing the collective plights of "Al-Akhdam" and the violation of their human rights as a minority group in Yemen. I am now convinced that the most effective and viable way of achieving human rights for "Al-Akhdam" in Yemen is through an advocacy for their collective rights.

While at Emory I attended the following classes:
Islamic Law: This course helped in understanding the fundamentals of Islamic Law, or Shari’a, both historically and its use in contemporary Muslim society.
Interdisciplinary Approach to Human Rights: This seminar was very useful in understanding the concept of human rights both historically and in its current debates globally.

Training
My interests in human rights, both locally in Yemen and internationally, have previously led me to pursue the subject on personal basis. I have read extensively on the subject and have professionally worked as Human Rights Officer with the United Nations in Afghanistan. During this period I took several training courses and participated in conferences on Human rights, and specially the rights of women, children, and refugees. However, I did not have substantial formal training in human rights. That is why my attending classes at Emory was a very crucial step in my training in the field of advocacy for human rights.

Networking
While at Emory I presented the conceptual framework of what I consider to be the anatomy of minority human rights violations in Yemen. In this presentation I talked about the root causes of the violations of "Al-Akhdam" as a minority group and the responses to such violation within marginal communities. My presentation was entitled: "Summoning the Devil: Inequalities and Allegories of Justice."

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