SANAA (Reuters) - When Yemeni Arwa Othman took a dance at the headquarters of a political party in Sanaa, she exposed the kind of deep hostility that is worrying women’s rights campaigners now that Houthi rebels control the capital.
Othman presented an unusual sight in conservative Yemen, where most women are shrouded in black, but all she was doing was celebrating a national holiday last September.
Nevertheless, the prominent activist was immediately subjected to a barrage of criticism from hardline Islamists as well as supporters of the Houthi rebels, a Shi’ite group which had taken over Sanaa a few days earlier.
When Othman was selected as the new Culture Minister, Houthi activists and pro-Houthi newspapers ridiculed her. One front page headline proclaimed: “the dancing government”.
Other Yemeni women experience much worse, including threats of sexual violence they say come from supporters of the Houthis, who follow the Zaydi form of Shi’ite Islam and a conservative doctrine.
The rebels’ political movement rejects such allegations, and evidence of deteriorating conditions for women remains anecdotal. Nevertheless, the Houthis’ criticisms have raised concern among rights activists that they will roll back on the already limited freedoms women have in Yemen.
Yemen does not hold a monopoly on misogyny. For instance one campaigner in Britain drew death and rape threats when she called for novelist Jane Austen to be depicted on bank notes.
Nevertheless, the poor Arabian Peninsula country consistently scores low marks when it comes to women’s rights. On the streets of Sanaa, anecdotes of harassment abound.
“I got threats of rape on social media,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a rights activist who does not wear the traditional black abaya and allows a fringe of hair to slip from her headscarf.
Among the more bizarre comments are that the activists support Islamic State, the Sunni jihadist group called Da’esh in Arabic that is accused of rape and enslaving women, on top of mass murder.
One message said: “‘You are from Da’esh’. That is an invitation to kill (me),” Aghbari told Reuters. “Anyone who stands against the Houthis, they accuse them of being from Da’esh.”
Now she is trying to shrug off the attacks. “I was scared of the threats at first, but now I just leave it to God,” she said, adding that the messages generally came from Houthi activists.
Salah al-Sammad, a senior Houthi official, defended the record of Ansarullah, the rebels’ political wing. “Ansarullah respects the role of woman from a religious point of view,” he said. “We have a culture that ensures that a woman has a prominent role.”
Asked about the reported mistreatment of women in the street, Sammad said: “These are all rumors.”
Belkis Wille, Yemen researcher at the Human Rights Watch group, said that if the anecdotal evidence is true, it is very worrying. “In a society where women are already extremely vulnerable because discriminatory laws are pervasive in the legal system, we cannot afford to allow further erosions to women’s rights,” she said.
It remains unclear whether the Houthis aim to bring in strict controls over women. However, the anecdotes suggest that, at least on the rank-and-file level, Houthis in Sanaa are imposing their own interpretation of how women should live.
At the media studies college in Sanaa University, young women in colorful scarves said how they had started covering up even more because they did not want to be harassed by Houthi guards who stand at the entrance of the university.
A senior official at the defense ministry said that just after the Houthis overran the ministry, they stopped a woman typist from coming to work “because she didn’t have a male guardian”.
Two police officers said women have been detained by Houthis for mingling with men in public who are not direct relatives. “In early December, armed Houthis brought in a woman in her 30s and put her in detention because she was in a car with a man she shouldn’t have been with,” one of the officers told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp