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Akhdam children Taizz.jpg
Akhdam children in a Ta'izz neighborhood
Total population
3,500,000 (According to unofficial sources)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Sana'a, Aden, Ta'izz, Lahij, Abyan, Al Hudaydah, Mukalla
Yemeni Arabic
Related ethnic groups
Bantus, Ethiopians, Nilotes and Yemeni Arabs[2][3][4][5][6]

The Al-Muhamashīn (Arabic: المهمشين), "the marginalized ones"); previously called The Al-Akhdām, Akhdām or Achdām (Arabic: الأخدام) ("the servants", singular Khadem, meaning "servant" in Arabic, are an Arabic-speaking ethnic group who live in Yemen. Although the Muhamashīn are Arabic-speaking Muslims just like most other Yemenis,[7] they are considered to be at the very bottom of the supposedly abolished caste ladder, are socially segregated and are mostly confined to menial jobs in the country's major cities.[8] According to official estimates, the Muhamashīn numbered between 500,000 and 3,500,000 individuals.[1]


The caves of Al-Akhdam in Sanaa in 1942
Akhdam man or Khadem in Ta'izz

The exact origins of Al-Akhdam are uncertain. One popular belief holds that they are descendants of Nilotic Sudanese people who accompanied the Aksumite army during the latter's occupation of Yemen in the pre-Islamic period. Once the Abyssinian troops were finally expelled at the start of the Muslim era, some of the Sudanese migrants are said to have remained behind, giving birth to the Akhdam people. This belief, however, was denied and described as a myth by Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana'a University.[9]

Societal discrimination in Yemen[edit]

Anthropologists such as Vombruck postulate that Yemen's history and social hierarchy that developed under various regimes, including the Zaydi Imamate, had created a hereditary caste-like society.[10] Today, the Al-Akhdam people still exist at the very bottom of Yemeni social strata.[11]

In the mid-20th century, the Akhdam people who lived in the vicinity of al-Gades (an exclusive Jewish village) were given the name "Kano" by Jews. While a Shafi'i Lowland Muslim would eat from the same dish as a Jew, he would break a vessel touched by one of the Akhdam.[12] Jewish women, however, would still sing the songs of Ahkhdam women, who were often hired as farmhands.

Social conditions[edit]

The Al-Akhdam community suffers from extreme discrimination, persecution, and social exclusion from the mainstream Yemeni society.[13] The contempt for the Akhdam people is expressed by a traditional Yemeni proverb:

"Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it's touched by a Khadem.″

Though their social conditions have improved somewhat in modern times, Al-Akhdam are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemeni society; they have been called lowly, dirty and immoral.[14] Intermarriages between the conventional Yemeni society with the Akhdam community are taboo and virtually prohibited, as the Al-Akhdam are deemed as untouchables.[15][16] Men who do marry into the community risk banishment by their families.[16]

Today, in Yemen, children born from mixed Akhdam and Yemeni parentage are called muwāldedīn, and are often still discriminated against in their society.

The social inequality of the Al-Akhdam is also analysed by Anne Meneley from a gendered perspective. Indeed, in Yemeni society, women have a certain number of practices to respect in order to be considered pious in the eyes of society. These practices are, among others, a certain behavior to be respected such as wearing the veil or a way of socializing and maintaining relationships. Women from the elite are linked to power and contribute to reproducing the relations of dominance that are exercised towards the Akhdams. In the eyes of the elite, Akhdam women are not respectable because they do not have acceptable moral behavior. They do not wear chador but, instead, they wear colorful gowns with wide sleeves and they go to the suq to sell goods even though the suq is supposed to be a place for men only. All these inappropriate behaviors, according to the dominant class, accentuate the domination of this class by opposing the respectable and pious elite and the Akhdams women who do not wear the veil and are morally inferior.[17]

Economic status[edit]

In the face of extreme societal discrimination, the Al-Akhdam people are forced to work menial and dirty jobs such as sweeping, shoe-making and the cleaning of latrines, vocations for which they are still known to this day.[7][8][10] Those who are unemployed, most of whom are women,[13] usually resort to begging.[8]

Even the Akhdam people who are employed are not spared from discrimination. Akhdam street sweepers are rarely granted contracts even after decades of work, despite the fact that all Yemeni civil servants are supposed to be granted contracts after six months.[8] They receive no benefits, and almost no time off.[8]

The Akhdam reside in slum districts that are generally isolated from the rest of Yemeni society.[7] It is hardly possible for the Akhdam people to afford shelter with even the most basic amenities such as electricity, running water and sewage system.[16] Accordingly, Akhdam generally live in small huts haphazardly built of wood and cloth.[7]

Health conditions[edit]

Due to poverty and the unsanitary living conditions, the Akhdam people are vulnerable to preventable diseases. The death rates from preventable diseases are worse than the nationwide average in Yemen.[8] Many Al-Akhdam children suffer from diseases such as dyspnoea, malaria and polio, and the death rate is high.[13] The reported infant mortality rate is also described as "appalling".[8] Out of the deaths reported in an Akhdam shantytown over a year, about a half were children under the age of 5, a quarter of whom were in the first month of life.[8]

Studies by Al-Serouri et al. further report a poorer understanding of HIV risks amongst the Al-Akhdam community. Accordingly, group members also have higher reported rates and risks of contracting HIV infections.[18]

Activism and international visibility[edit]

Many NGOs and charitable organizations from other countries such as CARE International are reportedly working toward improving the living circumstances of the Akhdam.[19] Such initiatives include the building of a chicken farm, sanitation projects, the provision of electricity and classes aimed at eradicating illiteracy.[7] The extent of these efforts, however, is disputed, most notably by Huda Sief.[20] Government corruption also means that monetary aid intended for the Akhdam is often misused or stolen.[8][21]

Government officials, while admitting a historical disdain for the Akhdam among conventional Yemeni society, insist that there is no official discrimination.[7][21] The Yemeni government has occasionally built shelters for the Akhdam,[8] although it is reported that 30% of Akhdam who received such state housing sold it, choosing instead to return to their original neighborhoods.[7] Despite the supposed absence of official discrimination, many Akhdam claim that officials often block their attempts to seek state services at schools and hospitals.[7]

The search for rights and recognition is a daily task for the Akhdams. This daily struggle for survival further reinforces the stereotypes that other social classes have about the Akhdam community. To change this, many petitions and letters are being written asking the state for welfare and other assistance. This way of negotiating without violence and insurgency is due to the fact that the Akhdam community does not take the state as the enemy but as the one that has to defend the weakest citizens. These requests and petitions rarely succeed.[22]

A significant step forward was achieved with the formation of a political party to represent them and possibly alleviate their conditions.[16] The Yemeni revolt in 2011 had also roused many Akhdam people to participate in the uprising by appearing regularly in the demonstrations and sit-ins that filled the mains squares of the capital city Sanaa and Taiz.[16] This popular uprising was taking place that called for egalitarian citizenship and recognition of the diversity of identities within Yemeni society. By egalitarian citizenship, the Yemeni people mean that every Yemeni on the street is equal. This uprising led to a transition period, running from March 2012 to February 2014, which was supposed to lead to a new, more cohesive Yemen. Many had hoped that the revolt would help end the cycle of racism that has placed them at the bottom of the social ladder.[23]

Stereotypes and global discource on race[edit]

The Akhdams are associated with a number of stereotypes. They are considered immoral because they let their wives interact with men, ignorant of the Islamic religion, lenient towards theft and alcohol, or they are nomads without any property.

The emergence of the notion of race and racism in contemporary Yemen is linked to the emergence of the European racial configuration in the 1930s and then in Egypt following the revolution of 1952. In the Middle East, it is the "unsuriyya" term that will spread. The notion of “unsuriyya” or racism emerged in public discourse in Yemen in the 1950s as a critique of Hashemite privilege. Akhdams activists and politicians rely on the color of their skin to denounce the marginalization of their people. This amplifies their international visibility.[24]


Most Al-Akhdam live in segregated slums on the outskirts of Yemen's main urban centers.[8] Many of them reside in the capital Sana'a. Others can also be found in Aden, Ta'izz, Lahij, Abyan, Al Hudaydah and Mukalla.


According to official estimates, the Akhdam numbered around 500,000 individuals in 2004.[8] An organisation called "Yemen’s Sawa’a Organisation for Anti-Discrimination" estimates put their number at over 3.5 million residents in 2013, which is 14% out of the total population of Yemen.[25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Yemen's Al-Akhdam face brutal oppression". Archived from the original on 2014-11-29. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
  2. ^ Non, Amy L.; Al-Meeri, Ali; Raaum, Ryan L.; Sanchez, Luisa F.; Mulligan, Connie J. (January 2011). "Mitochondrial DNA reveals distinct evolutionary histories for Jewish populations in Yemen and Ethiopia". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 144 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1002/ajpa.21360. ISSN 1096-8644. PMID 20623605.
  3. ^ Richards, Martin; Rengo, Chiara; Cruciani, Fulvio; Gratrix, Fiona; Wilson, James F.; Scozzari, Rosaria; Macaulay, Vincent; Torroni, Antonio (April 2003). "Extensive female-mediated gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa into near eastern Arab populations". American Journal of Human Genetics. 72 (4): 1058–1064. doi:10.1086/374384. ISSN 0002-9297. PMC 1180338. PMID 12629598.
  4. ^ "Red Crescents: Race, Genetics, and Sickle Cell Disease in Turkey and Aden | SOAS University of London". Retrieved 2018-12-30.
  5. ^ de Silva Jayasuriya, Shihan (2008-11-01). "Indian Oceanic Crossings: Music of the Afro-Asian Diaspora". African Diaspora. 1 (1–2): 135–154. doi:10.1163/187254608x346079. ISSN 1872-5457.
  6. ^ Washbrook, David (2012), "The World of the Indian Ocean", Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora, Routledge, doi:10.4324/9780203796528.ch1, ISBN 9780203796528
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "YEMEN: Akhdam people suffer history of discrimination". IRINnews. November 2005. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Robert F. Worth, "Languishing at the Bottom of Yemen’s Ladder", New York Times, (February 27 2008)
  9. ^ "Zooming into the Past". Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  10. ^ a b GABRIELE VOMBRUCK (June 1996). "Being worthy of protection. The dialectics of gender attributes in Yemen". Social Anthropology. 4 (2): 145–162. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8676.1996.tb00322.x.
  11. ^ "Caste In Yemen". Baltimore Sun. April 25, 2004. Archived from the original on November 5, 2006.
  12. ^ Page 10 in: Goitein, S.D. (1955). "Portrait of a Yemenite Weavers' Village". Jewish Social Studies. Indiana University Press. 17 (1): 3–26. JSTOR 4465298.
  13. ^ a b c "Yemen - International Dalit Solidarity Network". International Dalit Solidarity Network. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  14. ^ Marguerite Abadjian (April 22, 2004). "In Yemen, lowest of the low". The Baltimore Sun.
  15. ^ Lehmann, Hermann (1954). "Distribution of the sickle cell trait". Eugenics Review. 46 (2): 113–116. PMC 2973326. PMID 21260667.
  16. ^ a b c d e "The Untouchables of Yemen". Al Akhbar English. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  17. ^ Meneley, Anne. “Living Hierarchy in Yemen.” Anthropologica 42, no. 1 (2020): 61-73.
  18. ^ Al-Serouri A. W.; Anaam M.; Al-Iryani B.; Al Deram A.; Ramaroson, S. (2010). "AIDS awareness and attitudes among Yemeni young people living in high-risk areas". Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. 16 (3): 242–250. doi:10.26719/2010.16.3.242. PMID 20795436.
  19. ^ Yemen Times
  20. ^ Huda Seif (2005), The Accursed Minority: The Ethno-Cultural Persecution of Al-Akhdam in the Republic of Yemen, Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Art. 9, (pages 10, 29)
  21. ^ a b "Akhdam: A look into lives of Yemen's untouchables - Khaleej Times". Retrieved 2015-11-30.
  22. ^ Hall, Bogumila. “Subaltern Rightful Struggles, Comparative ethnographies of the Bedouin villagers in the Naqab, and the akhdam slum dwellers in Sana’a.” Ph.D. diss., European University Institute, 2016.
  23. ^ Christiansen, Connie and Al-Thawr, Sabria. “Muhamesheen Activism: Enacting Citizenship during Yemen’s Transition.” Citizenship Studies 23, no. 2 (February 17, 2019): 115–138.
  24. ^ Nevola, Luca. “‘Black People, White Hearts’: Origin, Race, and Colour in Contemporary Yemen.” Antropologia, 7, no. 1 (2020): 93-115.
  25. ^ "Akhdam: A look into lives of Yemen's untouchables". Khaleej Times. Retrieved 2019-01-03.
  26. ^ "المهمشون في اليمن: إهمال وتمييز وحقوق ضائعة". Huna Sotak (in Arabic). Archived from the original on 2019-01-03. Retrieved 2019-01-03.

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