Skip to main content

Yemen war: Women play growing role for anti-Houthi forces

In spite of conservative nature of society, women are standing at checkpoints all day to inspect female passengers
Two women stand at Popular Resistance checkpoint in Taiz (MEE/Nasser al-Sakkaf)

TAIZ, Yemen - Shoulder to shoulder with male fighters stand Ra'afa Abdullah and Riam al-Ra'awi at the southwestern entrance to Taiz to inspect the women who come to the city from different areas and provinces.

The checkpoint is the only entrance to the besieged city.

Abdullah and her friend do not need to take up arms. Their duty is to check passengers for weapons and suspicious items.

They wake up daily by 5am to prepare breakfast for their families, and then they don their military jackets and caps and go towards their posts in al-Dhabab area.

Abdullah said she is working with Popular Resistance fighters to keep Taiz free from Houthi rebels who killed her brother last year.

"I do not prefer to live as a slave with the Houthis," Abdullah told Middle East Eye. "I am willing to take up arms and fight in the front lines, but our commanders told us that they only need us to inspect passengers."

When she worked at a checkpoint near the frontlines, Abdullah carried a machine gun (MEE/ Nasser al-Sakkaf)

War erupted in Yemen early in 2015 after Houthi rebels took the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition then began a bombing campaign to stop the Houthis, who, allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, are accused of being backed by Iran.

While Houthis managed early on to mostly encircle Taiz, Yemen's third-biggest city, they have been unable to capture it amid opposition from multiple armed factions, collectively known as the Popular Resistance.

Abdullah stands at the entrance from 6am to 6pm. She does not take any days off, not even on holidays. Four women work at the same checkpoint during the day, and they go home at night.

In September 2015, the Popular Resistance in Taiz began recruiting women. Abdullah welcomed the idea and joined the group to avenge her brother.

She is a mother of two boys, Ahmed, 8, and Ala'a, 4. Both Abdullah and her husband Omar work with the Resistance and rely on the boys' grandmother to take care of the children.

"My husband joined the resistance in May 2015," Abdullah said. "When I told him I also wanted to join, he encouraged me. He told me to sacrifice my life for the sake of Taiz."

She has worked at several checkpoints throughout the city of Taiz, including one in al-Robaie area, near the frontlines. There, she took up arms, as she was expecting an attack by the Houthis at any time.

"I do not have sons; God gave me four daughters. We all worked in farming. Riam was brave enough to join the resistance"

"Now we are working in a safe area, but last year I was in al-Robaie and I carried my Kalashnikov to protect myself," she said.

More than 30 women, including Abdullah and her friend, received training for using machine guns and inspections.

"We have found different kinds of weapons with female passengers, including bombs," Abdullah said. "We took the suspected women and men to the leadership of the Brigade 17. Some of them were released, and the investigation is still ongoing with others."

Resistance as a livelihood?

Abdullah was a housewife and her husband was a farmer in al-Akhmoor area, 20km from Taiz city. Now they are both full-time members of the Brigade 17.

"I stand all day under the sun to help in the liberation of Taiz, but we cannot live without money," she said. "What we get is hardly enough to take care of our families."

Abdullah and her husband each receive only YR1,000 ($4) a day, she said.

Al-Ra'awi, Abdullah's friend, receives the same amount. She joined the resistance in July 2016.

"I used to help the farmers in al-Dhabab, but the war destroyed some farms, and some farmers could not buy diesel for the pumps. They stopped farming," she told MEE. "I could not find work, so I decided to join the resistance to liberate Taiz from the Houthis, and then we can work again."

The leader of the women in the Brigade 17, captain Qaid al-Aliani, said female recruits have several roles in Taiz that men cannot fulfil.

He said sometimes Houthi operatives dress up as women to escape areas where the resistance is closing in.

Yemen’s conservative society limits interactions between women and men.

"We started to enlist women fighters to storm the suspected houses, where we think Houthis are hidden," Aliani told MEE. "Moreover, Houthis and arm smugglers are using women to smuggle weapons to Taiz city."

The Popular Resistance established a police station operated by women for female suspects. Aliani said the station’s work should continue after the war.

Some residents oppose women's involvement in the resistance (MEE/ Nasser al-Sakkaf)

Conflicting views

Al-Ra'awi's father, Abdulbaqi, sells vegetables to passengers coming into Taiz, about 1km from where his daughter stands. He said he does not feel ashamed by his daughter's work. On the contrary, he is proud.

"I do not have sons; God gave me four daughters," he told MEE. "We all worked in farming. Riam was brave enough to join the resistance."

He said only female members of the resistance should search women.

Some courageous women, including his daughter, have stepped up to the mission, he added.

"There are thousands of men [who] want to take part in the resistance, but there are not enough women," he said. "Our society does not accept women in the military field, but during war, we have to break the shackles."

Not all Taiz residents support the work of women in the resistance. Some believe that women have to stay at home and only men should fight.

Wael Hasan, who lives in Taiz city, said he hates seeing women standing at the checkpoints all day.

"All people need money to live, but this does not mean we joined the resistance for money but liberation" 

He said deploying women to checkpoints is provocative behaviour by the resistance.

"I know that sometimes the resistance needs women to inspect women, but this does not mean that women should stay under the sun from early morning until evening. The best place for women is their homes," he told MEE.

Hasan accused the resistance of exploiting the financial needs of women.

A Yemeni professor told MEE on condition of anonymity that stationing women at checkpoints is a flawed tactic by the resistance.

"We live in a conservative society," he said. "The resistance has to understand this. They can use help from female fighters, but women should not stay at checkpoints all day."

Abdullah, the female fighter, said other women want to join the resistance now, but the force presently has enough recruits.

She denied that women joined the resistance for the pay.

"All people need money to live, but this does not mean we joined the resistance for money, but for liberation." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.