For years war raged in Yemen, plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. An unintended consequence of this could at least be viewed positively: Many women suddenly enjoyed greater freedom of movement than before – even if not as a result of politically desired equality, but because of human need. In view of the catastrophic humanitarian conditions, women also had to do more than is traditionally the case for the good of society. As a result, many moved across the country in a previously unknown way.
But these freedoms are in danger of disappearing again, Lamia fears. The young Yemeni worked for more than three years in a humanitarian aid facility. But that is unlikely to be possible in the near future, she worries. Because the insurgent Houthis, supported by Iran, who rose up against the then government under Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi in 2012 and, after years of war, now control the south-west of the country including the capital Sanaa, have meanwhile issued a regulation in the areas they rule directed against women’s freedom of movement: the so-called guardianship system (“mahram”). This obliges women to be accompanied by a male relative on every trip.
This has enormous consequences for women. And it also leads to practical problems. He wants to support his daughter in every way he can, Lamia’s father, a retired civil servant, told DW. However, he could not accompany her on trips due to his poor health. The family budget also does not allow this.
But even if the father traveled with them, the requirements of the Houthi decree would still not be met. In addition, every trip, whether for business or pleasure, requires approval from the responsible authorities. Even when traveling abroad, women are officially dependent on an escort.
The new arrangement creates significant problems for many Yemenis, including Umm Omar. The mid-fifties woman has been living abroad with her husband and five children since 2014. After the last trip to visit her relatives in Sana’a, the local car rental company informed her that she would have to be accompanied by a male guardian when traveling to and from southern Aden, where the international airport is located. But because this entails additional costs and complications, Umm Omar tells DW that her family is trying to get in touch with the Houthis through intermediaries in order to arrange future trips based on other modalities. She doesn’t yet know if this will actually work.
Human rights reports show how the Houthis have been increasingly restricting the freedom of women to travel for more than a year based on various gender segregation policies. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the male companions also have to undergo an identity check in which the legality of the guardianship is determined. At certain checkpoints, this check can take several hours. Not infrequently, they are also associated with harassment for the male companions.
The arrangement is frustrating, says human rights activist Samar (name changed by the editor) in a DW interview. It is also difficult on a practical level to be accompanied by a guardian. After all, many male family members have to work and hardly have time to accompany women. Above all, however, the regulation is arbitrary because it deprives women of their natural, constitutionally protected right to freedom of movement, according to the activist. “The decree treats us women as underage beings.”
That’s why he not only throws back the achievements of women, but also those of men, she argues. “It hinders our struggle for progress and development, prevents women’s education and encourages the increase in gender-based violence,” Samar said. “This in turn leads to psychological injuries and increases the social and health burden on society as a whole.” In addition, the order would make women susceptible to blackmail, since men would have much more power over women through them.
Human rights activist and former Yemeni minister for human rights, Huria Mashhour, told DW that the new requirement contradicts the constitution, applicable laws and international agreements protecting women’s rights, including their right to freedom of movement. The specification no longer corresponds to today’s realities of life. The dangers that women were exposed to 1400 years ago, when such regulations were first issued, no longer exist today, emphasizes the former minister. “In today’s world with all its transport and communication options, such decrees no longer make sense.”
Sanad al-Sunaidi, spokesman for the so-called Ministry for Human Rights of the Houthi authorities, sees it differently. The decision is currently being discussed and reviewed again. In no way does it aim to impose arbitrary restrictions on women, but rather to protect them. They also want to take action against human trafficking.
The government decided to issue this decree because of the “arbitrariness” that many women were subjected to during the war, says al-Sunaidi. There have been “numerous cases” in which women have been victims of exploitation and abuse of power, he justifies the decree, especially in areas that are not controlled by the Houthis.
Even the critics of the order do not deny that traveling in Yemen, especially for women, is actually risky given the precarious security situation. But the women and their families are aware of this and are taking appropriate safety measures. The restriction of freedom and development opportunities for women cannot be justified with this.
Adapted from Arabic by Kersten Knipp.
Author: Safia Mahdi
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The original of this article “Women in Yemen: Travel only when accompanied by men” comes from Deutsche Welle.