Houthi restrictions on women’s rights have become increasingly oppressive in recent months. Retrograde efforts to control women are ever more common, most conspicuously through the procedure of requiring the approval of a male guardian, or mahram, for all manner of activities. The mahram can be any male member of the family, including the father, husband, brother, or even a young son. Yemenia Airways has started to request not only a letter of approval from a guardian for women to book outbound flights, with a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but for a mahram to physically accompany them on the plane. This includes Yemeni women working for international organizations, who have been prevented from traveling outside their home governorates and so find themselves shut out of valuable training programs or unable to perform their jobs. Even in urban Sana’a, women are sometimes prevented from leaving their homes in the evening, and women drivers are harassed at checkpoints with threats to revoke their licenses. Houthi authorities have used the institutional levers of state to systematically oppress women and violate their basic human rights. It is high time that the international community uses what leverage it possesses, including within the ongoing truce negotiations, to force the issue onto the table.
The Houthis are consummating an ideological agenda that has been some three decades in the making. During the 1990s, when Islamist movements were ascendant throughout the region, founder of the Houthi movement Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi talked openly of replicating not Iran’s Islamic republic, but the antediluvian world of the Taliban’s Afghanistan. According to its particular vision, the Houthi movement would create a Zaidi Shia theocratic order, with a return to premodern values in the name of Islamic authenticity. The Afghan analogy is not spurious – mahram rules under the current Taliban regime are similar to those applied in Houthi-controlled Yemen. The Houthi heartland of Sa’ada in the far north has been a testing ground for this religious regime for over a decade, policed in part by its all-female security apparatus, known as the Zainabiyyat. With the entrenching of Houthi control over large swathes of the country since 2014, the draconian tentacles of its ideology have had ample time to spread.
The Houthi project has accelerated during the recent six-month truce. While numerous international actors took advantage of the de-escalation to engage with Sana’a, there has been a deafening silence from the international community on the unfolding plans to instrumentalize, discipline, and control women. This approach myopically ignores critical developments in the emancipation and widening role of women in Yemeni society that have transpired in recent decades.
While there is still considerable ground to cover in granting universal freedoms in the various political, economic, and social spheres of modern life, since the 1960s women’s status in Yemen has gradually improved in line with regional trends, with more women registering to vote and women in government acquiring ministerial portfolios. Most political parties now recognize the need for proactive measures to ensure women’s representation; the UN-led National Dialogue Conference of 2013-14 sought to formalize women’s representation with a 30 percent quota in elected bodies and government institutions. The Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the ensuing war disrupted that progress, but did not deter the struggle for women’s participation.
Despite efforts to direct attention toward the September 21 anniversary of the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, spontaneous celebrations in the capital and other areas under Houthi control instead marked the anniversary of the 1962 republican revolution, a testament to the appreciation ordinary Yemenis feel for the freedoms that were won. While the Houthi movement is hardly alone in targeting women in its ideological program, the general trend regionally and internationally is toward broadening women’s rights. Since the 1990s, neighboring countries have ditched bans on driving, eased dress codes, and ended some of the more coercive aspects of their mahram systems.
Policymakers who are committed to broadening women’s rights should consider a key driver of improving their material and social position: integrating women into economic development. Yemen is suffering severe economic deterioration nationwide, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and its impact on supply chains and energy markets – conditions that pressured political leaders to first implement the truce. But though Yemen still has one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the world, the war years have removed barriers to women into the workplace, including private businesses and the retail sector. Some women working for civil society organizations rent homes on their own, as their families’ primary earners.
The progress made on women’s rights must not be abandoned, but it cannot survive if not defended at every level of engagement. Women’s civic rights must be included in all further negotiations over the truce and its de-escalation measures. The international community must accept nothing less than the enshrinement of women’s pre- and post-war gains and consider every path to achieve this. The scope of the Houthi threat to women cannot be ignored: it is nothing short of an organized plan to coerce half of Yemeni society into rigidly circumscribed roles that run counter to the ideals of the republic and internationally established norms. This plan is already being enacted, and if nothing is done now conditions will only worsen. Women are already strikingly absent from the peace process. Without immediate action, they will become absent from Yemeni political and professional society. It is time for a new approach.