Halldórsdóttir, Tanya (MA and PhD alumna)

Old Sana'aHi, I’m Tanya, mad baker, enthusiastic thespian, passionate pedagogue and abaya wearing revolutionary. Well actually the abaya is optional, but I do seem to have the uncanny knack of discomforting the status quo and this goes to the heart of my research interests as a critical theorist and feminist…


The road to critical theory and feminism of the post structural variety has been a long and winding one, but the journey started in earnest in 1997 in the historic heartlands of Arabia, in the ancient gingerbread city of Sana’a, a place where you could be forgiven for thinking the clock had stopped in the fifteenth century, were it not for the occasional intrusion of twentieth century technology.

Wanting to immerse myself in Yemeni culture, I chose to live with a local family, much to the consternation of fellow expats at the British Council. It was to prove a fateful decision, allowing me access to the very private and fiercely guarded domestic domain, and involving me in the rigidly segregated life and rituals of the women in the community; visiting the sick, distributing zakat (charity), celebrating religious festivals, births, deaths and weddings. The price to be paid for the privilege was conforming to the behaviour expected of women – wearing the all concealing black abaya and hijab, respecting the evening curfew, informing the family of my movements, and not entertaining men. Any suspected infringement of the rules was reported to the family who defended my honour vigorously in public and chastised me equally energetically in private!

Being a member of the so-called ‘third sex’ (Western women defying traditional Yemeni sex roles) meant that I also had access, albeit limited, to the world of men. I often ate lunch in the company of assorted male members of the extended family for example, sitting in the carpeted comfort of the mafraj (main reception room) with a tempting array of delicious dishes spread before me. I was always the only female to eat with the men, since the women of the house, fully-veiled, would serve the food and then retire. Naïvely, I assumed that they sat down to the same meal, until the day when the presence of ‘unknown’ men (i.e. non family members) meant that I was instructed to join the women. Crouched on the packed earth floor in the soot blackened cavern of the kitchen, I watched in dismay as the women tucked into the leftover scraps of the men’s meal, not a morsel of meat, chicken or fish among the discarded rice and vegetables strewn across the platters…

Old Sana'a 2

That women should suffer such discrimination, even at the heart of family life was profoundly shocking to my Western sensibilities, and the fact that they ‘accepted’ their subjugation even more so.  My distress however did not preclude my own subsequent marriage to a Yemeni prince, a union which furnished me with a multitude of painful and personal examples of constraint, marginalisation and subjugation, situations in which the only ways I differed from my Yemeni sisters was education and nationality, neither of which offered much in the way of practical defence against systematic mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Being a woman, and a wife in Yemen, created a compelling desire to explore both the concepts and women’s lived experience of power and agency. My focus was initially on ‘women in Yemen’, but as I became familiar with the literature on subjugated knowledges such as feminism, movements such as post structuralism and the reflexive and emancipatory underpinnings of critical theory, I have come to believe that it is possible to think of ‘women’ as a group, for regardless of whether they are rich or poor, brown or white, educated or illiterate, to be a woman means on some level to be constrained.

Women the world over are responsible for the welfare and education of the next generation, and with such weighty responsibilities comes an expectation of moral guardianship. The modelling of morality does seem to fall disproportionately on the female of the species, and in conservative Islamic states like Yemen often results in women being effectively prisoners in their own homes. In the ‘liberated’ West too, women are constrained, the young by expectations of what (how little?) they should wear, how much they should drink and how many sexual partners they should have (where is the line now between ‘good’ girl and slut?) and the not-so-young by the expectation that when no longer ‘eye candy’ they should fade gracefully into the background, assuming the maternal mantle which conveniently negates recognition of their other identities, their sexuality in particular. The existence of ‘yummy mummies’ and MILFs only serves to emphasize the de-sexualised nature of motherhood in popular culture. All societies attempt to control women’s sexuality one way or another it seems…

Though the storylines may differ from continent to continent, and culture to culture, women everywhere are confined by scripts which dictate the parameters of acceptable behaviour. Going ‘off-script’ may result in censure, exclusion, isolation, even death. So do women, particularly those in extremely conservative societies, resist the positionings that they have inherited, and if so, how?

You’ll have to read my thesis to find out!

These are some of my conference papers to date which all explore women’s experience in one way or another:

  • Halldórsdóttir T (2011) Challenging Regimes of Truth: A Feminist Perspective on the Narrative Study of Lives. Paper presented at the 7th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, 18th  –  21st May 2011, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2010b) Whose Story Is It Anyway? Paper presented at the 6th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, 26th  –  29th May 2010, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2010a) Text and Countertext: Beyond the telling…. Paper presented at Narrative Matters 2010 – Exploring the narrative landscape: Issues, investigations, and interventions, hosted by the CIRN in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada,  20th –  22nd May 2010.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2009) Through a veil darkly: A question of perspective? Paper presented at the 5thInternational Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, 20th –  23rd May 2009, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2008b) Exploring the map of experience: Making sense of teachers’ stories. Paper presented at Cutting Edges: Identity in the Classroom, 20th – 21st June 2008, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2008a) Becoming someone else: How women experience professional identity in Yemen. Paper presented at Narrative Matters 2008: Storying Our World, 7th – 10th May 2008, University of Toronto, Canada.
  • Halldórsdóttir T (2006) Not just telling stories. Paper presented at Cutting Edges: Classrooms, People and Cultures, 23rd – 24th June  2006, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.