Houthis step up their oppression of Yemen’s women
A group of high-level Houthi leaders convened a meeting last month with the proprietors of abaya shops across the city of Sanaa to present them with a series of directives dictating the required design of women’s attire. The new regulations mandated that only loose-fitting Abayas be sold. They should feature black colors only and be devoid of any frills (embroidery, lace, etc.) The production and sale of colorful, high-waisted or shortened versions of the abaya were strictly prohibited. The burqas to be sold were required to cover the entire face, leaving only a narrow slit for the eyes.
This imposition of restrictions on the attire of Yemeni women, who were already abiding by a conservative dress code, was met with criticism by women’s groups and civil society organizations. The measure, seen as intrusive and oppressive, has raised serious concerns about its potential impact on the fundamental rights of Yemeni women. The regulations come hot on the heels of the already-limiting Houthi decree requiring male guardianship, known as mahram, further curtailing the mobility and autonomy of Yemeni women.
These developments paint a bleak picture of the state of women’s rights under the militia and the discrimination women face through these excessive regulatory practices. They also perpetuate stereotypes and injustices that have often limited the ability of Yemeni women to make decisions about their own lives, including in areas such as marriage, education and employment.
In a recent briefing to the UN Security Council, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Martin Griffiths decried the impact of mahram policies on female staff, whose work was adversely affected and at times came to a complete halt. What these restrictions do is obliterate any sense of individuality through conformity. The abaya, which is not traditional Yemeni dress, now becomes a uniform representing the current political structure in the country. It also becomes a way of separating conformists from nonconformists, allowing the militia to punish those who do not comply.
Placing restrictions on women’s dress is a tactic often advanced by fundamentalists and nonstate actors, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Daesh in Iraq and Syria. These groups have imposed strict dress codes on women to exert control and create a more fanatical and regressive society, with the aim of building a sense of cultural separation between their territory and the outside world. The Houthis, whose ultimate objective is rebuilding Yemen as a theocratic state akin to that of Iran, are instituting their own traditions and image to support their vision.
While many women in Yemen wear the abaya, its imposition in the form that the Houthis have mandated is a clear method of political oppression that deprives women of their choice and freedom. The Houthis aim to reinforce a sense of political and cultural domination, in which they use their authority and military power to dictate what women should wear and how they should present themselves in public. These methods create a sense of cultural separation on multiple levels, whether between the genders or between Yemeni women and other Arab women in the region.
The abaya, which is not traditional Yemeni dress, now becomes a uniform representing the current political structure in the country.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
But the Houthis’ focus on women’s dress should not only be seen as affecting women — it should be measured for its impact on Yemeni society. The Houthis have set their sights on the reinvention of Yemeni society by reinforcing their own cultural and traditional norms.
Moreover, the timing of this restriction, which comes after eight years of conflict, represents a clear act of solidarity with the directives issued in the Islamic Republic of Iran on compulsory hijab and chastity laws, which have come under increasing criticism from the Iranian public and the international community after the death of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was brutally murdered for incorrectly wearing her hijab. The Islamic Republic has been funding and arming the Houthis throughout this conflict and advancing a transnational fundamentalist ideology in the region that has adversely affected Yemenis.
There is fear that prosecution will ensue for anyone who falls outside of these directives, including women with social media accounts whose faces are visible to the public. In 2021, Yemeni model Entesar Al-Hammadi was subjected to arbitrary arrest by the Houthi authorities, which charged her with the vague and nonsensical offense of “indecency.” This was in response to her decision to display her personal style through the use of colorful clothing in photographs shared on social media.
Her arrest was accompanied by a systematic campaign of harassment, which involved false accusations of prostitution and physical and verbal abuse. Ultimately, Al-Hammadi was sentenced to five years in prison in a sham Houthi trial. Her experience highlights the alarming trend of the use of social media as a tool for repression, as her personal profile and online presence were targeted by the Houthi militia.
The general coverage of the conflict in Yemen has often fallen short when addressing the sociocultural dynamics that are impeding people from living their lives with dignity and without fear of intimidation.
As the Middle East is moving gradually with the promotion of democratic values and the advancement of women’s rights, the actions of the Houthis stand out as a jarring reminder of the existence of regressive forces that seek to undermine gender equality. This unfortunate reality should serve as a catalyst for the international community to confront the larger issue of women’s rights in Yemen and advocate for an end to these human rights violations.
• Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.