ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Afrah Ali Said often recalls the days when she could go out with her family in just a shirt and trousers to enjoy a cool evening breeze on Aden’s beaches.
That was two decades ago. She lived in what was then the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Many women’s rights guaranteed by that southern state have been chipped away since it merged with the more conservative tribal north in 1990.
“It was such a beautiful time. Now I mostly stay at home. If I go out I have to cover my hair and dress in an abaya,” Said, a journalist, said, tugging angrily at her shapeless black robe.
Some Adeni men also lament the post-unification erosion of women’s rights in Yemen’s once socially liberal south, where people say the Sanaa government treats them unfairly in a host of ways, including property disputes, jobs and pension rights.
The authorities deny the charge, citing committees set up by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to look into southern grievances.
But southern citydwellers chafe at what they see as the imposition of the restrictive customs of the north, where tribes and Sunni Muslim clerics play a much stronger role in society,
“Women don’t have rights any more,” said Abdulrahman al-Wali, an activist in a southern movement increasingly focused on independence from Saleh’s northern-dominated government.
Often violent protests have become prevalent in the south in the past couple of years. Hundreds of people demonstrated in several towns on Thursday, opposition sources said.
Southern secessionism represents a potent threat for Saleh, already struggling with a Shi’ite revolt in the north and a resurgent al Qaeda network which drew world attention after it said it was behind a failed December 25 attack on a U.S. airliner.
Saleh forged north-south unity in 1990, but four years later a southern breakaway was crushed by government forces stiffened by Islamist militants who had once fought in Afghanistan.
Like the Shi’ite rebels, some southerners complain that Saleh’s ties to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s biggest donor, have led the president to tolerate inroads by the kingdom’s puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.
Islamic observances and conservative dress codes have spread across the Middle East, not just Yemen, in the past few decades, but many Adeni women find the changes frustratingly regressive.
In contrast to the rest of the Arabian peninsula, the former socialist south Yemen enforced many reforms for women. Girls went to mixed schools with boys, women were encouraged to work and leave the headscarf at home, while polygamy was banned.
But the newly unified government in Sanaa soon moved in the opposite direction, introducing a family law that favors men, said Wafa Abdulfatah Ismail, who teaches law at Aden University.
“In the south, a husband could file divorce only for defined reasons such as disease,” said Ismail, one of the few local women who refuse to wear a headscarf, defying harassment.
“Now he can get a divorce without even telling his wife.”
Aden, whose port had its heyday during British rule, has always been more outward-looking than the rest of Yemen. In the socialist era, the city had women prosecutors, judges and senior government officials. Many women studied in the Soviet Union.
Since unity, Islam has made a deeper mark on Aden.
Mosques have sprung up on almost every street, while other buildings decay in a city neglected for years.
“Here, look at this new mosque,” Said said, pointing to a gleaming construction in a street crammed with rundown residential units built before the British departed in 1967.
Restaurants and even beach cafes now have “family” sections banning single men, emulating a practice in Saudi Arabia.
“So many bad things have happened,” said Radia Shamser, who has twice run for parliament and keeps a copy of the family law of south Yemen to remember the rights she was once entitled to.
Saudi money has funded Yemeni mosques, religious schools and universities that stress strict Islamic social codes — and are seen by some analysts as a breeding ground for militancy.
The Iman University in Sanaa, which denies teaching radical ideas, is producing graduates who want to curb women’s rights, said Ihsan Abid Saad. She runs a women’s group that teaches professional skills and encourages women to speak out.
“Women paid the price of unification,” Saad said.
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Elizabeth Fullerton