Yemen's Houthis tighten restrictions on women

Rebels clamp down on females travelling without male relative, even within the country

Yemeni women at a university in Taiz. But the Houthis are limiting female rights. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Yemeni student Abir Al Maqtari dreamt of studying abroad but amid a tightening of restrictions on women — echoing religious regimes in Iran and Afghanistan — Houthi forces blocked her from leaving.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who have controlled swathes of the Arab world's poorest country since seizing the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014, have increasingly enforced travel restrictions on women over the past eight months, residents and activists say.

Ms Al Maqtari, 21, from Yemen's south-western city of Taiz, was ready to study in Egypt but she was barred from leaving Sanaa airport without a male guardian.

Pro-government Yemeni demonstrators march in Taiz, calling on the Presidential Council to gain total control of the city. AFP

"I got a scholarship in Cairo, but the Houthis didn't let me travel through [Sanaa] airport," she said.

"I then thought I could try to travel via the airport in [government-held] Aden, but the Houthis also stopped me from reaching it."

Yemeni society, although deeply conservative, has traditionally allowed space for individual freedom. But this is changing under the Houthi movement, which was founded with the aim of pushing for a theocracy.

The Houthis have clamped down on women travelling without a "mahram" — or male relative — even within the country. Women in the rebels' north-western stronghold of Saada are denied contraception if they don't have a prescription and their husband isn't present.

In Saada and in other small towns, women cannot travel alone after dark, even for medical emergencies, while an all-female police force called the Zainabiyat enforces discipline.

However, there are numerous examples of women complaining and pushing back, especially in the bigger cities.

"As a Yemeni woman, I feel that all my rights and my freedom are being stolen from me," Ms Al Maqtari said.

'Dangerous' precedent

The Houthis, from Yemen's mountainous north, belong to the Zaidi minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that makes up more than a third of the fractured country's Sunni-majority population.

The hardline force emerged in the 1990s, rising up over alleged neglect of their region.

It has been fighting a pro-government coalition led by powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia since 2015, a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions on the brink of famine.

Restrictions on female freedom, which parallel decrees issued by the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan, are not part of Yemeni law and are enforced arbitrarily through rebel directives.

Radhya Al Mutawakel, co-founder of Yemeni rights group Mwatana, said the travel restrictions set a "very dangerous" precedent and disproportionately affect women who have jobs.

"This is the first time that a decision limiting the freedom of movement of women has come from an official authority," she said.

Bilqees Al Lahbi, a gender consultant at the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies think tank, said the restrictions were aimed at satisfying the most extreme branch of the Houthi movement and exerting political control.

"They are inspired by both the Iranian model and that of the Taliban to silence all opposition and subjugate society," she said.

'Talibanise society'

But in major cities, residents are resisting "attempts to Talibanise society", Ms Al Mutawakel said, highlighting Sanaa's younger and more defiant population.

Aicha Ahmed was forced to close her beauty salon and gym in Sanaa for months after the Houthis shut down swimming pools, fitness centres and other businesses catering exclusively to women over the summer.

After repeated complaints and lobbying on social media, she was permitted to reopen her salon but not the gym.

"Eight employees lost their jobs," she said.

In the western city of Hodeidah, also under Houthi control, the owner of a cafe for women had to fight to stay in business.

"We told them that we were ready to respect all their conditions," the 38-year-old said, requesting anonymity over security concerns.

In Sanaa, an outcry over the prohibition of men and women mixing at graduation ceremonies and in restaurants, as well as a ban on music during certain events, has forced the authorities to backtrack.

"But it's a long-term battle," Ms Al Mutawakel said.

"We don't know who will win ... because in the end, the population is exhausted."

Updated: December 22, 2022, 1:22 PM