In early January, Ebtisam Abu Dunya, an activist living in Yemen, posted a video on social media protesting the Houthi militia’s decision to ban the use of newly- printed banknotes issued by Yemen’s internationally recognized government. With her witty tone and evocative gestures, Ebtisam exclaimed: “If Houthis don’t want civil servants to receive their government-issued salaries with the freshly printed money, then they should pay it themselves.” Her video, which went viral, embarrassed the Houthi authorities. Within three days, 15 men stormed Ebtisam’s house on Houthis’ orders and beat her until she was unconscious.
Ebtisam, a mother and widow, is one of the Houthis’ latest casualties, although not the only one. The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which stormed Yemen’s capital in September 2014 to overthrow the official government of Abed Rabbeh Mansour Hadi, has violated women’s rights, despite informal customary or tribal norms that have often been protective of women.
For centuries, tribal laws that governed the rules of conflict considered it a “Black Shame” to put women and children at risk. However, the Houthis regularly shame women who do not conform to their ideology in order to render them voiceless.
In their quest for greater power and control of Yemen, Houthis are justifying the use of violence as a means to a greater end.
Claiming that they are descendants of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, the Houthis believe that they are ordained to govern Yemen. As such, they make regulations to shore up their power and entrench their ideology within society. In their quest for greater power and control of Yemen, Houthis are justifying the use of violence as a means to a greater end. Houthis’ cultural and ideological document emphasizes the importance of revering the family of the prophet, known as Ahl al-Bait, and following their orders for the betterment of the Islamic nation. In pursuit of their mission, the Houthis sidelined customary tribal norms and long-held values with a perverse interpretation of religious texts that exalts them.
Public abuses against women first appeared after the Houthis killed their one-time ally, ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since Saleh’s death, Houthis arrested several hundred members of his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), which sparked women’s protests in December 6, 2017. In response to the protests, Houthis fired live ammunition in the air and deployed an all-female police force, known as al-Zainabiyat, to intimidate and beat the protesters. By the end of the day, seventy women were arrested and threatened to stay in prison indefinitely. The women were forced to sign affidavits, giving up their rights to participate in future protests.
In addition, silencing women on social media has become a regular practice. On October 6, 2018, the Houthi militias arrested 34 female students for their role in planning a protest on social media. That same day, Houthis used the Zainabiyat to disperse “The Hunger Protests” led by women in Sanaa University after confiscating their phones and banners, and detaining an additional 33 women.
The protests were meant to show how people living under Houthi rule in some areas are dying from hunger at the hands of the rebels. Those released reported severe physical abuse because the Zainabiyat used batons, belts, and shoes to beat them. One protester reported being bitten on her cheek and face. Bail was set between $1,500 to $2,000 USD, which was difficult for families to pay. Not surprisingly, the number of political protests and public gatherings that are not sanctioned by the Houthis diminished and almost disappeared due to the consistent clampdown on freedom of assembly.
“If a woman does not work under the umbrella of the Houthis, if she does not work to execute their directives or repeat their violent Anti-Semitic Anti-American slogans, she will likely be pressured, intimidated or worse.”
Women who do not conform to Houthis’ monolithic mode of governance remain vulnerable and under threat. According to Noura al-Jarwi, a GPC activist who fled the capital last year: “If a woman does not work under the umbrella of the Houthis, if she does not work to execute their directives or repeat their violent Anti-Semitic Anti-American slogans, she will likely be pressured, intimidated or worse.” On the other hand, women who support Houthis’ religious dogma are often given a strategic position that would allow them to further the movement’s agenda, such as the recent appointment of a woman as a Minister of Human Rights, or the use of Zainabiyat to abuse other women.
Before the Houthis took control of the capital, Yemeni women enjoyed freedom of assembly and political participation. Customary rules further protected them. During the 2013 National Dialogue Conference – a centralized process to regulate Yemen’s transition after the overthrow of Saleh in 2011 – women and men were beginning to carve out a promising path towards gender equality and empowerment. Under the Houthis’ current system, many rights are now unattainable.
Other grave abuses reported by a local Human Trafficking Organization in Houthi areas revealed the abduction and torture of women in secret prisons. Although the Houthis initially denied these allegations, their leaders ultimately acknowledged the existence of detention centers to fight “immorality.” The Mufti of the Houthi militia, Shams al-Din bin Sharaf al-Din, justified the detention in a religious sermon in Feb 2019, explaining that women were kidnapped for their “indecent behavior.” The Mufti cautioned that those who question the punishment of these women are complicit in such “vices” and need to be “deterred.”
Shaming women activists and accusing them of prostitution has led to restricting women’s role and movement. In a propaganda documentary titled “Red Lines” released by the Houthi’s official TV channel, al-Maseera, Houthis attempted to exonerate themselves from any wrong doing related to the unlawful imprisonment of women and praised the security forces for protecting Yemen from women’s “moral vices.”
A woman who was detained for eleven months and released last year said that two of her friends were not able to cope with the abuse and killed themselves.
The documentary claimed that Houthis intercepted a drug and prostitution ring, arresting sixty-four women, for what they claim was the sole betterment of society. The video showed several women in a private villa cooking, cleaning, and reading religious texts. Nora Al-Jarwi reported that 288 women who belong to the GPC were abducted and accused of several crimes, including prostitution and aiding the Saudi-UAE coalition (aka the Arab Coalition). None of them were granted access to a lawyer. A woman who was detained for eleven months and released last year said that two of her friends were not able to cope with the abuse and killed themselves.
Under duress, the Houthis extracted on-camera confessions from the abductees to extort their families and subdue their opponents. Rasha Jarhum, the founder of the Peace Track Initiative, explained that “women arbitrarily detained usually lose their family support after their release, as some male relatives believe they brought shame to the family by being detained. ” Adding that some family members “will even chase the women and threaten to kill them.” Moreover, in the cases were Houthis allow representation, lawyers are threatened or arrested according to a Yemeni organization, the Women’s Solidarity Network.
Women who work in the field of human rights or peace building remain closely monitored and under excessive scrutiny. In December 2019, Houthi authorities in Ibb Governorate released a memorandum governing the behavior of personnel working or training in humanitarian organizations. Stipulations included banning gender mixing, including attending roundtable discussions, the exchange of personal information between men and women, as well as prohibiting activities that lead to “laughter and fun.” These restrictions are bound to bring a level of discomfort that ultimately contributes to the further marginalization of women.
Yemini women are increasingly finding themselves ensnared by an armed group that systematically targets their freedom, sense of identity, and right to self-determination.
Yemini women are increasingly finding themselves ensnared by an armed group that systematically targets their freedom, sense of identity, and right to self-determination. Unfortunately, since the Saudi-led Coalition intervened militarily to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government, the focus shifted to the regional proxy war between Iran and the Saudi-UAE coalition rather than the national conflict.
The longevity of the war and the monopoly of Houthi power led to a brain-drain in the country. An overwhelming number of women activists have either been forced to flee the country in fear for their safety, or remain in their homes, and choose isolation to cope with their new reality.
As a non-state actor and a proxy of Iran, the Houthis’ main goal is survival at whatever cost, even if it means violating long-held customary norms. Their posturing, imagined sense of self-importance, and collective delusion that they possess a divine privilege in applying the rule of law are all undermined by the fact that they are willing to beat an innocent woman senseless inside her own home.