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Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 13:04 UK

Yemen divided on vice and virtue

By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Sanaa

Yemeni women in conservative Islamic dress
Liberal women say the vice and virtue movement wants to impose strict Islamic dress codes

A hairdryer whirrs. Teenage girls reach for sequins, glitter and hairpins. It's the weekend in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and seven sisters are dressing for a wedding.

The eldest, Ashwaq, 21, a university graduate, wants to be a journalist.

Asked what she thinks about Yemen's new self-appointed morality authority, she looks up from styling her sister's hair.

A group using religion as a weapon threatens all the progress we have achieved
Rahma Hugaira, NGO activist
"The first thing they'll do is stop women from working. Then they'll force us to wear the veil."

Yemen is a conservative Islamic society, where parliament boasts only one woman out of 301 MPs.

The state is weak and the courts have limited reach. Instead, cultural practices - such as veiling and gender segregation - are enforced by neighbours, relatives and community leaders.

But on 15 July, a panel of Islamic clerics - supported by prominent tribal chiefs - announced the creation of a Meeting for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice.

The unofficial body will alert Yemen's police force to infringements of Islamic law and hold annual conferences to monitor progress.

"This new vice and virtue movement has the potential to undermine the government," says Rahma Hugaira, chair of Yemen's Media Women Forum.

"Civil society groups are working hard to modernise society, to establish a social contract grounded in our constitution and reflected in our laws. A group using religion as a weapon threatens all the progress we have achieved."

Vigilantes

The vice and virtue movement reportedly started in Hodeidah, where "morality guardians" began challenging women walking alone and driving without a chaperone.

Dresses on sale in Sanaa market (Photograph: Ginny Hill)
What not to wear: Dresses on sale in Sanaa are not for public view
Couples were asked to prove they were married or closely related. Similar reports began to emerge from Yemen's second city, Aden.

In June, security forces in Hodeidah arrested seven Christian missionaries. In Sanaa, a policemen accompanied by bearded vigilantes raided a Chinese massage parlour and a chain of restaurants.

The movement's figurehead is Abdul Majid Zindani - a popular but controversial cleric who claims to have invented a cure for Aids.

He runs al-Iman university in Sanaa and recently won a licence to operate his own television channel. He speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and plays a prominent role in the main opposition party, Islah.

In 2004, he was listed as a "specially designated global terrorist" by the US Treasury Department and the UN, but Yemen has taken no steps to freeze his assets.

Overplayed

Eighteen years after universal suffrage, Yemen remains a fragile democracy where party politics are still in formation.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh celebrated 30 years in power in July, and his General People's Congress increases its share of the vote in every public ballot.

Sheikh Zindani
Sheikh Zindani is a controversial figure - loved by many, but also feared
Mr Saleh has yet to comment on Sheikh Zindani's initiative, but Ms Hugaira believes his movement is a symptom of politics in flux ahead of parliamentary elections next April.

"Zindani's committee represents a big threat that could close the space for [women's organisations] in civil society," she says

Ali Saif Hassan, director of the Political Development Forum, thinks Sheikh Zindani has overplayed his hand.

"The media's response was so strong the fundamentalists have lost their case. They're in a weaker position."

The vice and virtue authority has already condemned a proposal allocating 15% of parliamentary seats to women in 2009 - and decreed a woman's place is in the home.

Its list of condemned practices includes night-clubs, mixed-sex education, concerts and fashion shows.

Young Yemenis are divided on the issue. "Zindani is massive!" grinned my teenage taxi driver, promptly shoving a cassette of the Koran into his stereo.

But others, like Ashwaq, fear his movement will reverse Yemen's tentative liberalisation - and place further limits on personal freedom and ambition.

When Ashwaq and her sisters are ready to leave the house, they cloak themselves in black to walk the 100 metres to the wedding where they will be separated from men throughout the celebrations.

Party gowns, elaborate hairstyles and make-up disappear under black gauze - just a few frills and high heels are visible. Ashwarq, among a minority of women in Yemen, leaves her face bare.

"We already have plenty of restrictions and obstacles. We don't need any more," she says.

Research for this article was made possible in part by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.





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