'They are suffocating us': Amnesty condemns Houthis' stifling male guardianship rules

'They are suffocating us': Amnesty condemns Houthis' stifling male guardianship rules
The Houthi rebels enforce strict guardianship rules in areas of Yemen under their control, limiting the ability of women to travel across the country.
3 min read
01 September, 2022
The new restrictions make life much more difficult for women amid a severe humanitarian crisis [file photo-Getty]

Yemen's Houthi rebels must end their "suffocating" male guardianship rules which limit women's ability to travel in the country and worsens the already dire humanitarian situation, Amnesty International has said.

The Houthis have enforced 'mahram' ("guardianship") requirements in parts of Yemen under their control, which require women to be accompanied by a male relative or carry written permission from one when travelling. 

Amnesty International said this is having a negative impact on Yemeni women needing to travel for work and particularly aid workers who are required to access different parts of the country. More than 20 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance.

"The Houthi de facto authorities must immediately lift the mahram requirement. This restrictive rule constitutes a form of gender-based discrimination and entrenches the discrimination faced by women in Yemen on a daily basis," Diana Semaan, Amnesty's Acting Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a press release.

"Yemeni women urgently need to be able to move around the country freely in order to work, to seek health care and to give or receive humanitarian aid."

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Yemen is in the midst of the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the UN has said, with millions at risk of starvation or disease, despite a marked decrease in violence recently due to a ceasefire.

The obstacles women aid workers face from the new rules, which are not officially written into Yemeni law, could spell disaster for families across Yemen reliant on humanitarian assistance.

"The international community should pressure the Houthis to stop imposing mahram restrictions on women. Yemen is already facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and there is now a very real risk that women and girls will stop receiving aid if women humanitarian workers continue to be banned from travelling without a male guardian," said Semaan.

Although the restrictions are not codified in Yemeni law, the Houthis - who control the capital Sanaa and northern Yemen - have since April enforced the restrictions rigidly on women travelling in the country, insisting they are accompanied by a male relative.

Five women spoke to Amnesty about the impact this is having on their lives and work, with one accusing the rebel group - closely aligned with Iran - of trying to "suffocate" Yemeni women.

"The mahram restriction gives men more control over our lives and allows them to micromanage our movement and activities. They are suffocating us," one woman told the rights group.

She said her husband had to take time off work and her child out of school, just so she could meet the stifling requirements of the Houthis when travelling to her job in Aden, which lies outside the control of the rebels.

Another said she had to formally ask her brother, ten years younger than her, to give her permission to travel.

 "When he gave me his written approval note, he apologised that he had to do this for me," she said.

The Houthis took over the capital Sanaa in September 2014, forcing the government to flee south and leading to the intervention of a Saudi-led Arab coalition.

The rebels have been accused of gross human rights abuses, including torture, assassinations, and detaining journalists, activists and even social media influencers.