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Commentary War Passing Over Women’s Bodies

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

War innately ruins all that is civil within society, crashing economies, dismantling political systems, and invalidating human rights. In Yemen’s conflict, women are seeing their rights stripped away faster than any other group.

For decades, feminist movements in Yemen achieved significant progress. The Women’s League was one of the first civil society groups organized after South Yemen became an independent state in 1967, and it subsequently had a major impact on the young nation’s policy design. Women helped draft legal circulars that increased the minimum age of marriage, required women’s consent for marriage, protected women from domestic violence, gave women the right to apply for divorce, and automatically granted divorced women custody of their children. By 1990, South Yemen had elected 11 female members of parliament. Education and employment opportunities for women were on the rise generally across Yemen. Yemeni women overall made great achievements during periods of relative stability from the 1960s until the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014. But the ongoing conflict has dismantled much of that progress and revealed the fragility of previous achievements.

War affects all segments of society, depending on their position in the social and economic hierarchy, directly and indirectly. Women from lower social or economic classes experience an intersection of biases, compounding the hardship of war. Although women make up less than 50 percent of the population in Yemen, 80 percent of internally displaced people (IDPs) are women and children. For several years, Yemen has been described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, steadily holding the bottom ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

Apathy in the face of the backsliding of women’s civil rights is almost worse than the inequality itself. In Yemen’s war, the destruction of the civil sphere in favor of a militarized society has not engendered a sufficient response, on either the local or international level. Some of the most dramatic changes to public life in Yemen include the exclusion of women from public spaces, the quiet removal of women from the workforce, the disappearance of Yemen’s independent press, and the erosion of civil society organizations. All of these changes have slipped by without causing public outrage.

Instead, public discourse in Yemen takes on a veneer of virtue in its open persecution of women. With this rhetoric, all gender-based discrimination is justified and any objections to women’s slow exile from social life are silenced through fear of public shame. Women and girls are exploited by men in power and subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual violence as their means of subsistence, including salaries and job opportunities, are disappearing.

This repression is evident in areas under the control of the Houthi group (Ansar Allah) through official and unofficial policies that remove women from intellectual spaces and workplaces, and in the most extreme cases, completely trap women in their homes. At the same time, the internationally recognized government is clearly unable to enforce Yemen’s laws and constitution, let alone raise its standards to meet international benchmarks for women’s rights. There is an almost complete absence of protections for women and girls, despite the strong presence of international and local aid organizations.

The Body Politic vs Women’s Bodies

Yemeni political actors, who normally disagree on all issues, manage to agree on neglecting the protection of women, reducing their rights, and expanding the forms of abuse they regularly encounter. While some call for reform and ostensibly raise the flag of gender equality, in practice they ignore the violation of women’s rights. Since 2014, Yemeni women have been murdered, tortured, disappeared, physically attacked, and arbitrarily arrested. Women’s movement has been restricted, they have been excluded from public office, and gender segregation has increased to levels previously unseen in the country. All groups wielding power in Yemen are complicit in neglecting their protection.

Religious discourse in all parts of Yemen is shifting, and the message coming from mosque pulpits is that women must be reined in. In this difficult time, women’s bodies excite desires and thus uncontrolled women are a “serious threat” to society. In the Houthi-controlled areas in particular, religious doctrine is closely tied to government policies.

Groups of women activists, social leaders, and employees in Sana’a-based public institutions signed a petition in February addressed to the head of the Houthi-controlled authority, Prime Minister Abdelaziz bin Habtoor, describing a “systematic campaign against women, with the objective of excluding them from public office, restricting their activities, and isolating them in a manner that should not be tolerated.”

The letter listed numerous problems that women face, including “legal circulars that are published from time to time that restrict and hinder the movement of women, either by requesting a mahram or imposing administrative procedures that obstruct women’s ability to travel.” A mahram is a male guardian that must accompany a woman who wishes to travel. It also noted that certain groups within the Sana’a-based government have “proposed abolishing the women’s sectors of some ministries under the pretext of reducing government bureaucracy and job inflation,” and that “Friday sermons that are focused on inciting congregations against Yemeni women, intimidating their families and warning them not to study at universities or go to work out of fear for their modesty.” These activists warned that “segregation between male and female employees in some institutions and ministries, under the pretext of preventing gender mixing and a soft war, gives many the opportunity to dismiss women from their jobs.” Most of those who signed the letter live and work in Houthi-controlled areas, and some had close ties to the group. Women with connections to the group were subsequently pressured to condemn the petition and reverse their positions. Some courageously refused to retract their support and even went further, asking for their demands to be conveyed to the group’s highest political authority, the Supreme Political Council. The points mentioned in the petition were old complaints, but the fact that it was publicly signed by prominent women affiliated with the Houthis represents an irreversible step forward.

A few months after the petition was submitted, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement, broadcast a speech in July focused on women. He reiterated the group’s vision for women’s roles in society, saying it is “limited to tenderness, affection, and emotion, and if they have a contribution, it must be commensurate with their characteristics and circumstances,” defined by Al-Houthi as “affectionate” housewives.

Further violations against women followed his speech. On July 31, Sana’a University administrators dismissed Dr. Samia al-Aghbari from her position as the head of the Journalism Department, replacing her with a male colleague, Dr. Ali al-Buraihi, in response to her vocal rejection of a new policy that mandated the separation of male and female students. In late August, the Dean of the Sharia and Law department accused a female student of being homosexual, permanently expelling her from the university. On September 6, the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Sana’a University removed two female professors Dr. Khadija al-Haysami and Dr. Ashwaq Mughalis, and a male colleague, Dr. Ali al-Hawar, from the lecture schedule without explanation. They were replaced with unaccredited lecturers, including one without any university degree, handpicked by Houthi administrators.

The struggles women face in the areas under government control sadly don’t differ greatly from they face under Houthi rule. In government-run areas of Taiz, religious leaders, academics, politicians, and hardline activists led a massive campaign against Taiz University last June in response to its decision to include the topic of women’s development from a gender perspective among its Master’s programs. The campaign was led by Abdullah al-Odaini, a hardline cleric and member of parliament for the Islah party. Al-Odaini called for the Center for Women’s Development Research and Studies at the university to be closed for its adoption of progressive gender issues, which he claimed encouraged “the legalization of sodomy, adultery, homosexuality, moral decay, and rebellion against the family.” Al-Odaini added that the Council’s vote in favor of gender inclusion was, “a great crime, perhaps the most heinous crime Yemen has witnessed throughout its history.” Prominent Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, did not hesitate to cross party lines and express solidarity with a cleric affiliated with their wartime enemy, saying he supported Al-Odaini’s confrontation against the “soft war and conspiracy to target Muslim societies.”

Although the imposition of mahram requirements in Houthi-controlled areas has gained international attention, similar restrictions and violations have occurred in government-controlled areas without triggering the same level of alarm. Journalist and activist Wedad al-Badawi recounted being stopped at a government-run security checkpoint in Marib in November 2022 when she was returning to Sana’a for not having a mahram, despite obtaining travel approval from Sana’a-based authorities. A member of Musaala, a Yemeni human rights organization, also reported the unwarranted detention of a female employee at a checkpoint run by pro-government forces in Marib, where her phone was taken and she was aggressively searched and verbally assaulted. Women face increased risks of violence and unwarranted detention at checkpoints, and without functioning legal protections for women, authorities can act with complete impunity. In September 2021, security services in Marib raided the home of journalist and human rights activist Amat Allah Al Hammadi and arrested her without a warrant. Meanwhile, Security authorities in Aden have required women staying in hotels to have a mahram or a signed letter from their employer, though this is an informal practice and not a government policy. Several government officials noted attempts to address the restriction, citing a presidential directive issued in August to the Director General of Aden Police to formally remind hotels that they must allow women to reserve rooms unconditionally and that they are only legally required to present identification papers.

Civil Society Organizations: A Vanishing Resource

Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Yemen have historically prioritized women’s rights and have a long track record of speaking truth to power. Early in the war, CSOs banded together to release a statement warning that women and girls are “paying the heaviest price” for the war in Yemen, and underscoring the ways women could help in peacebuilding initiatives, particularly as mediators. CSOs continue to monitor violations against women, advocate for women’s access to the judicial system, and amplify their voices in media and society, at both the individual and collective levels.

However, as the war has dragged on, CSOs have been increasingly targeted. Many activists and employees have been forced to flee Yemen, while others who remained have stopped their activism, changed their fields, or shifted to other organizations. The work of CSOs has been further weakened by donors cutting financial support and directing funding toward relief activities at the expense of programs focused on human rights.

In response to these threatening conditions and ongoing violations against women, many activists have abandoned independent work and organizations in favor of establishing coalitions, networks, hubs, and group initiatives for women to work together on peacebuilding. These coalitions serve as a form of collective protection and are a step in the right direction, but ultimately greater protections are needed.

Power in Numbers: Reclaiming Rights

CSOs serve as the primary countermeasure to the oppression of women, and other stakeholders active in Yemen must follow their lead by normalizing the inclusion of women. Organizations like the United Nations must bring women to the negotiation table and hire more women, especially in rural areas. International organizations need to resume financial support of civil society organizations, particularly those dedicated to advocating for women’s rights, and protect them by bringing attention and condemnation – from the top down – when they are targeted.

If governments from both sides of the conflict are coming together to keep women down, civil society within Yemen and concerned organizations all over the world should unite to lift them up. This requires international censure and the organization of constructive dialogues to promote consensus among all parties. Yemeni women must be included throughout this process as they tirelessly push to claim their due legal protections and rightful place in society.

This commentary was produced as part of the Supporting Women at the Table (SAWT) program, implemented by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in partnership with the Arab Reform Initiative, and funded by the European Union.