Story

Yemen: Family values

A while ago, when I first came to Yemen, there was a TV adv run by a cell phone manufacturer on the Arab satellite channels. It started with a close-up shot of an Arab woman's face. She seemed to be writhing with pleasure, but the camera pulled back to show her wriggling into a pair of skin-tight jeans. The new slim-line handset was thin enough to fit into the tightest pocket – that was the message.

Around that time, I was drinking tea with three Yemeni men – they were married professionals in their early forties. We were sitting at a plastic table on the pavement, watching people walking by.

Three veiled women came past, wearing black from head to toe. Eyes, hands and shoes were the only visual clues to identity. My male companions muttered the catch-line for the phone ad and sniggered into their glasses of tea like teenage schoolboys.

I remembered this incident while I was reporting for the BBC on Yemen's new 'vice and virtue' movement – an unofficial body dedicated to reviving compliance with Islamic sharia law. Clerics and tribal leaders have criticised 'modern' practices and creeping foreign cultural influences – like co-education, night-clubs and pop concerts by visiting Syrian and Egyptian musicians – that are undermining Yemen's traditional, conservative values.

My own experience of hanging out at home with Yemeni friends involves watching al-Jazeera and Melody Arabia, a music video channel. But, as background for my report, I spoke to a range of men and women in their teens and twenties. I wanted to know what they were watching on TV and to find out whether they felt there's any conflict between Yemeni values and the range of international media available on the Internet and satellite channels.

I got a rather cautious answer. "We only take the best of foreign cultures," they all said. No one really wanted to be drawn on specifics, but I pressed them a little. What do you watch at home with your families?

The answer: Dr Phil and Oprah Winfrey – and Turkish soap operas, dubbed into colloquial Syrian Arabic.

"They're all about family life, society and ethics," said 17-year-old Abdul-Karim. "They show you how to talk about problems. They're a study of manners through the prism of the family."