SANA'A // Activists in Yemen say the establishment of a religious police force, under the banner of promoting virtue and curbing vice, is a war on women and their rights. Some two thousand clerics led by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, the hardline rector of the Islamic Al Eman University, and a number of tribal dignitaries met in Sana'a last week and announced the establishment of The Authority for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice.
Women's rights activists immediately condemned the move. "The objective of this commission is to wage a war on feminists and women's rights," said Hooriah Mashhoor, vice chair of the governmental Women's National Committee. "We are very concerned to see a religious authority or police working beyond the function of state institutions," she said. The authority will be run by a central committee of 42 clerics from the powerful Yemeni Clerics Association and will scour the streets looking for "immoral" behaviour, such as intimacy between unrelated men and women and the consumption of alcohol. The authority will then report the offences to police.
Hasan Abdullah al Sheikh, the deputy minister for Religious Guidance and Endowment, said the commission will not have the authority to imprison or otherwise prosecute "offenders". "The commission can just give advice and report on immoral incidents but cannot take action to prevent that," he said. A number of other non-governmental organisations also appealed to the government to prevent the establishment of the religious authority.
"The establishment of such a commission is an infringement on the constitution and law," Intellectuals for Social Peace and Stability said in a statement. "It means abolishing democracy and the multiparty system, and pushing the country into chaos and disorder, which subjects it to foreign intervention under the pretext of curbing extremism and terrorism." At the meeting, the clerics also issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning women from participating in politics and forbidding the implementation of a proposed quota that would guarantee 15 per cent of parliamentary seats for women. The quota was pledged by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, when he was running for election and is currently in discussion in the Shoura (consultative council).
Mrs Mashhoor condemned the fatwa and said it was a blow to the progress made in recent years to empower women in Yemen, particularly in the political sphere. She said the Women's National Committee will write to Mr Saleh urging him to fulfil his pledge. "We have made some good steps to make the people accept women's rights and a women's quota in elections, but this group of extremist clerics wants to undo all these efforts," she said.
Sheikh Zindani, who is accused by the United States and the United Nations of financing terrorism, said the religious authority will ask the government to shut down any workplaces where alcohol and prostitution is present. "We will never be silent towards any such place, wherever it is," he said. Hamud al Tharehi, a hardline cleric and leading exponent of the authority, said "moral corruption" in Yemen had become institutionalised.
"The sale and trade in alcoholic beverages, hashish, and drugs, the disappearance and escape of schoolgirls through middlemen to places to practise vice, and the spread of CDs of nude dancing with idlers coming from Gulf countries - all this has brought dishonour to Yemen and distorted its image," Mr Tharehi said. In a press release issued at the meeting in Sana'a, the clerics outlined a catalogue of "vices" that included: performances by female singers, alcohol, nightclubs, fashion shows, mixed-sex dancing, sending female students to study in foreign countries without companions from their families and coeducation in schools and universities.
Already vigilante groups have forced restaurants and hotels that serve alcohol or permit socialising between men and women to close. Mr Tharehi denied that he or any of his associates were involved in threatening the venues, but praised those who were. "They have good faith," he said. "There are individuals in [the cities of] Hodeidah and Aden who have good faith. But the establishment of a religious police and the possible abandonment of the proposed quota system are not the only setbacks facing women's rights in Yemen.
Last week the Committee of Islamic Sharia parliamentary group refused to incorporate amendments presented by the government that would have made men and women legally equal in blood money, the practice in which financial compensation is paid to the family of a person killed on purpose or by accident. As it stands, blood money paid for the death of a woman is half that for a man. Parliament is also debating a law that would introduce an automatic one-year prison sentence for both men and women who are found meeting in private, if they are not related.
"Women study to get jobs, and considering they will be forbidden from being alone with unrelated men at their workplace, this is really crazy. This is a backwards step for human rights in Yemen," Mrs Mashhoor said. Analysts said there are political motives behind the establishment of the committee. "The regime is ensuring its continuity in power through its coalition with the religious establishment," said Abdullah Obal, secretary general of the opposition leftist Yemeni Unionist party.
He said the virtue commission and the various amendments currently being discussed are driving Yemen backwards. "These amendments are frightening and are driving us towards a theocratic state," he said. "They mean men will not be able to go outside with their female relatives without having legal documents to prove [they are related]. Women will not be able to take a taxi, for instance, without a male companion. This is really horrible."