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Women with headscarves in a bus
Women in some areas of Yemen are no longer permitted to travel without a male companionImage: Safia Mahdi/DW
PoliticsYemen

Yemen: Houthis curb women's rights

Safia Mahdi
December 8, 2022

In parts of Yemen, Houthi rebels have enforced a decree that allows women to travel only if accompanied by a male relative. The move is seen by many as a major setback to women's rights in the country.

https://p.dw.com/p/4Kbt4

The war in Yemen has raged for years, plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions. 

But perhaps one development can be seen in a positive light even if it was unintentional. Suddenly, many women enjoyed greater freedom of movement than before.

This was not the result of any official policies regarding equality but came about through necessity. The catastrophic humanitarian conditions meant that women had to actively contribute to the welfare of society far more than had traditionally been the case. Many traveled the length and breadth of the country in unprecedented manner.

Women now face losing that freedom, however. Lamia, a young Yemeni woman who has worked in a humanitarian aid organization for more than three years, is worried that this might soon no longer be possible for her. The Iranian-backed Houthis — who rose up against the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2012 and, after years of war, control the southwest of the country, including the capital, Sanaa — are enforcing "mahram" requirements, a guardianship system under which women must be accompanied by male relatives when they travel.

Urban view, destoyed parts of a building at the front, steel cables dangling
The war in Yemen has caused widespread damage to civilian infrastructureImage: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/picture alliance

The ruling has enormous consequences for the women. In Lamia's case, her father, a retired civil servant, would like to support his daughter, but he told DW he cannot accompany her on trips for financial reasons and because of his poor health.

Even if he was able to travel with her, the Houthi decree also requires permission from the authorities for every trip, whether for business or pleasure. And women must also be accompanied when traveling abroad.

Costly and complicated

The new directive creates huge problems for many Yemeni women. After her last trip to visit relatives in Sanaa, Umm Omar, a woman in her mid-50s who has been living abroad with her husband and five children since 2014, the car rental company told her she would have to be accompanied by a male guardian in the future when driving to and from Aden in the south, where the international airport is located. To avoid additional costs and complications, her family is trying to get in touch with the Houthis through intermediaries to somehow make future trips possible, Umm Omar told DW. She added she has no idea whether the plan will work.

According to human rights reports, women's freedom to travel has been increasingly restricted by the Houthis for more than a year based on various gender-segregation requirements. The problems are aggravated by the fact that male escorts need to verify their identity, too, to determine the legality of their guardianship. The process can take several hours at certain checkpoints and can also involve harassment for the male escorts.

'Treated like immature beings'

The arrangement is frustrating, according to Samar, a human rights activist (name changed by the editors). It is impractical to have men accompany women, since many male family members have to work and hardly have time to do so, she told DW. It is also random because it deprives women of their natural right to freedom of movement, which is protected by the constitution, the activist argues. The ruling "treats us women like immature beings," she says.

Men in long robes holding rifles up into the sky
The Houthis control much of southwestern YemenImage: Hani Mohammed/AP/dpa/picture alliance

She feels it sets back by years what women, but also men, have achieved. "It puts the brakes on our struggle for progress and development, prevents female education and promotes the increase of gender-based violence," Samar says. In turn, she says, that causes psychological damage and "increases the social and health burden on society as a whole."  The new requirement makes women vulnerable to blackmail because it gives men much more power over women, according to Samar

The new requirement goes against the constitution, current laws and international agreements on the protection of women's rights, including their right to freedom of movement, says Huria Mashhour, a former Yemeni minister for human rights and human rights activist. The requirement does not fit in at all with the reality of people's everyday lives today, she told DW. The dangers women would have been exposed to 1,400 years ago, when such rules were first made, no longer exist, she says, and argues that today, in a world full of transportation and communication options, such decrees no longer make sense.

Authorities justify requirement

The ruling is, in fact, currently being reviewed, says Sanad al-Sunaidi, spokesman for the Houthi authorities' so-called Human Rights Ministry. He argues, however, that it does not aim to impose arbitrary restrictions on women but rather to protect them and to combat human trafficking, too.

Sanad al-Sunaidi stands outdoors, with a stone building with decorative flags and two cars in the background
The requirements are meamt to protect women, says Sanad Al-SunaidiImage: Safia Mahdi/DW

He says the government decided to issue the decree in view of the "despotism" to which many women were subjected during the war, citing various cases in which women were victims of exploitation and abuse of power, especially in those areas not controlled by the Houthis.

Even critics do not deny that, given the precarious security situation, travel in Yemen is risky for women in particular. However, the women and their families are aware of the danger and take appropriate security measures, they say. They say restricting women's freedoms and development opportunities cannot be justified by this argument.

This article was originally written in Arabic.

Edited by Richard Connor

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