Yemen – What a Houhi-Controlled Yemen Means for Women
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: March 9, 2015
Yemen – What a Houthi-Controlled Yemen Means
participate in an anti-Houthi demonstration in Sanaa, Feb. 21,
2015. (photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
By Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni journalist who writes for
Jadaliyya, Weghat Nazar, and several Yemeni newspapers. A master’s degree
student at the American University in Cairo, she has recently finished shooting
a documentary about Yemen.
Houthis published a circular in January 2015, pertaining to
women in the city of Amran, banning them from going out following the Maghrib
prayer, prohibiting them from bringing male bands or singers to their
gatherings or parties, banning the use of cameras at women’s gatherings and
parties, including mobile phones with cameras. These new rules are being
implemented in Amran, and the people there have been adhering to these
rules to avoid punishment.
The circular stirred controversy in Yemeni society,
especially among women who feel that the next phase will bring in many
unpleasant surprises regarding hard-won gains they had achieved. Some women
have concerns about Houthis since they are so dogmatic when it comes to women’s
Women in Yemen suffer from discriminatory laws. The country has the
largest educational gapbetween
men and women: the illiteracy rate among
men is 30%, and 67% among women. But the popular movement that erupted in February 2011 witnessed a
heavy participation of women, drawing attention to women’s issues, and
following the revolution, the National Dialogue Conference in March
2013 brought about new legislation, some of it
related to the quota system and underage marriage. These were considered a
victory for women.
Houthis are not the
only political grouping in Yemen to target women. Yemeni women used to
work on the land alongside men in rural areas. But when Ali Abdullah Saleh took
power in 1978, the state policy started to tighten the noose around women’s
freedoms and rights, because of the political alliance between Saleh and
the Muslim political movements to confront communists in the south. This
reflected on the education curriculum and women started covering their faces,
which hides their identities and decreases their role in the public sphere.
Some political parties used women’s rights as a card to show off their
modernity, but they didn’t adopt women’s issues seriously, as their actions did
not exceed mere media propaganda. On the other hand, religious political
parties claimed that women’s rights are something alien to our society and an
attempt to Westernize society. But they showed a hypocrisy of sorts during
elections, encouraging women to vote while not putting forth female
In 2011, Yemeni women took the streets to participate in
the revolution. Many of them
were subjected to defamatory campaigns, which culminated in Saleh’s April 2011 speech
in which he banned gender-mixing in the demonstration arenas.
The president’s statement caused a stir in a tribal conservative
society, with a particular impact on the Islah Party, the Islamic party that
was in control then. It was not long before the party started to set up
checkpoints to ensure gender segregation, but failed to fully achieve its goals
to impose segregation in the long term.
Although Islah seems to have been harsh about women’s issues,
Houthis are much worse. They are not obsessed with imposing gender segregation,
but they obstruct female movement by forcing women to return to their homes
before the sunset. All Yemeni political forces are similar in their
targeting of women. The victims of Islah are now suffering the same fate at the
hands of the Houthis, but with greater harassment and fear given the absence of
any accountability for such acts.
In the past, there was a weak state but with a space for the
freedom of media and civil society organizations supported by foreigners,
pressuring the Yemeni government and political forces. Today, however, Houthis
are free of any responsibility toward the international community, having free
rein to harass journalists.
Back in April 2011, the 1st Armored Division — a military group
close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements — beat Arwa Abdo Othman, a
woman who founded the House of Folklore institution, an organization working on
the collection of Yemeni heritage pieces.
The attack came following Saleh’s speech as the group used it as
an excuse to impose gender segregation, under the pretext that women did not
abide by the segregation orders.
Othman is being subjected to a new harassment campaign by the
Houthis, as she believes that all religious groups tend to restrict women’s
freedoms in general. However, Houthis have been the worst so far in their
campaign, as they sent her several threats because
she participated in the commemoration of the Sept. 26 Revolution — which
brought down imamate rule in 1962 — while dancing and singing in defiance with
a group of young men.
The Houthi group had taken control of Sanaa a few days before
the revolution’s commemoration, on Sept. 21, 2014. Othman was then appointed
minister of culture in the outgoing government in January, facing a relentless
campaign by the Houthi media, dubbing the
outgoing government “the government of dancing.”
Similarly, Yemeni activist Samia al-Aghbari faced the same
challenges, as Islah accused her in late December 2012 of being an infidel.
Today, as the Houthis in power have been tarnishing her reputation, she is
accused of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS).
“With the 2011 revolution, we aspired for a better Yemen, and
for Yemeni women in particular. However, when the 1st Armored Division joined
in in March and started to violate women’s rights, we sensed the danger. We
knew that the future would be worse. Today, things are truly much worse, and we
are threatened by a replication of the Taliban rule in Yemen,” Aghbari told
“Houthis have more audacity than the Islah Party. While the
latter sends its lower-ranking members to carry out all the slandering and threats,
as Saleh’s cronies used to do, today, prominent Houthis jurists and writers are
brazenly performing the same acts,” she added.
Student Hiba al-Zabahani, who shares the same opinion as
Aghbari, believes that Houthis are more rigid than their predecessors, as they
have threatened to strip her of her clothes if she continues to wear pants
instead of the abaya, or cloak.
Just last Jan. 25, she took part in a student demonstration
against Houthis in Sanaa University, where she refused to hand them her phone,
with which she had captured attacks on students. She was beaten up along with
her friend as a result.
“The most recent attack on Jan. 25 was the worst. We went out to
protest the Houthi coup and the Houthis chased us with white arms
[non-firearms]. We managed to escape them,” Zabahani said. “Nothing is the
However, a Yemeni activist and writer claims the Houthis
will not succeed in cracking down on Yemeni women. She told Al-Monitor, on
condition of anonymity, that the 2011 revolution was a turning point in her
Before 2011, she was a traditional housewife with six children
coming from a socially and religiously conservative family. However, when her
husband saw her great enthusiasm for the revolution, he allowed her to take
part in it, which was her first contact with the public sphere. She was
inspired by people such as Tawakkol Karman, who was
awarded the Nobel Peace prize and was one of the female leaders who
participated in the 2011 revolution, among others.
After the revolution she decided to make her own way to the
public domain and started writing, which raised the ire of her husband. He
prohibited her or at least tried to convince her to write under a pseudonym.
She refused and insisted on her right to reveal her true identity.
Radya al-Mutawakil, a human rights activist and the founder
of Mwatana organization, shares the same view.
“The Houthis will fail to further crack down on women, because they will not
last long,” she told Al-Monitor.
Mutawakil, as well as all the other women Al-Monitor spoke with,
agreed that the women’s gains came as a result of their struggle and defiance
of political forces, which greatly undermine and neglect women’s issues, except
as a show for the media. They believe that these political forces are
not sincere or honest in their positions toward women, as they sometimes claim
that they support them. Women hold senior positions in these parties’ ranks
such as Aghbari in the central committee of the Yemeni Socialist Party, and
Karman in the Shura council of Islah; these are prominent positions that
influence in the decision-making process in the parties. But
this doesn’t mean that the parties are struggling for women’ rights, as it
is not their priority. Thus, including women in leadership positions is for
show. Women are not given incentives to participate in the political process
other than just to vote in elections.
They believe that the achievements of the National Dialogue
Conference, including the decisions on the women’s quota system and the minimum age of marriage, are merely for form’s
sake, as nothing has been achieved on the ground and political forces can
easily circumvent these new rules.
Nevertheless, the fear barrier was destroyed in 2011, and women
continue to try to safeguard their gains and prevent any attempt to force them
back to stay at home after having been part of a revolution that brought
them substantive change.