The so-called Zaynabeyat were created to repress women’s political participation, but they have gone much further, victims say
Abduction, torture, ransom, stigma: How female Houthi militias silence women in Yemen's war
It was a heartbreaking moment when the prisoners began to tell each other how their stories began: kidnapping, forcible disappearance, imprisonment and torture. Suddenly they start weeping, and the voice of one of them rises: "What do they want from us? They made us confess that we are prostitutes and drug dealers. They beat us, burned our bodies, made our families disown us. What more do they want?"
Houthi authorities told the young woman’s mother that she was imprisoned for prostitution.
“I'm not a prostitute,” she said. “They kidnapped us and forced us to admit that we are prostitutes. Tell my mother this charge is not true.”
Another young woman with scars on her chest was burned with cigarettes and electrocuted.
"My parents don't know I'm here,” the 20-year-old told Almasdar Onlinr. “Tell them that the Houthis kidnapped me." Her mother came looking for her and demanded her release, but was told to disown her daughter, as she was a hashish dealer.
Other families still don’t know their daughters’ fate or whereabouts. Many families with disappeared daughters wait for the release of female prisoners in the hopes that they bring messages from their daughters on the inside.
Based on interviews with a dozen current and former abductees and their relatives, two human trafficking activists, a lawyer and several security officials familiar with the abductions, Almasdar Online examined how the Houthi-run female security force known as Zaynabeyat has abducted women at an unprecedented rate in Yemen's war.
Exploiting social stigmas
Because Yemeni society generally considers women to be guilty before proven innocent, some parents threaten to disown or, in the worst of cases, kill their daughters, if they leave prison. Honor and tribal culture dictate these situations in most cases.
There are no official statistics on the victims of Houthi abductions, although media and human rights reports say that between 100 and 300 women have so far been abducted. The true figure is likely higher, however, since many disappearances are covered up out of fear of scandal.
Eighty Yemeni women, including underage girls, were detained in the central prison in Sana’a at the time of publication, as well as three Ethiopian women who have so far been unable to contact their embassy or any of their relatives. One of the Ethiopian victims was a food delivery person, who was abducted while working.
At the central prison, female prison guards and supervisors have been replaced by the Zaynabeyat, who mistreat inmates on a daily basis, according to abductees.
Female prisoners are subjected to various forms of verbal abuse and physical torture, including beatings, sexual violence, cigarette burns and electric shock. Unconfirmed reports suggest two women have died from torture, while others have been admitted to hospitals under fake names following the abuse.
A report by the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, issued in late September, found that "while the (Houthi) authorities launched a campaign against prostitution, information received indicates that accusations of acts of ‘immorality’ have been used to cover some politically-motivated cases. Social stigma renders women accused of such crimes very vulnerable to societal and family pressures and exclusion."
The report quoted testimonies of women were protesting against the deteriorating economic situation in Sana'a when they were assaulted with tasers and sticks by Zaynabeyat. After arresting and detaining the protesters, the Zaynabeyat verbally assaulted them and threatened them with rape by frontline Houthi fighters or Sudanese soldiers.
"I heard words I never heard before in my life,” said a young woman. “I cannot forget that day full of insults."
First deployed in Sana’a in late 2017, after the Houthis assassinated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Zaynabeyat were created “with the express aim of repressing women’s political participation and perpetrating attendant violations,” according to the report. The name Zaynabeyat refers to Saydah Zaynab, the sister of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein, a prominent figure in Shia Islam. Zaynabeyat forces have reportedly been deployed by Iran-backed forces in Iraq as well.
One evening in July, Zaynabeyat surrounded the home of a family known for its successful business, abducted two women and three men inside and confiscated their possessions.
During the raid, the wife of one of the abducted men managed to hide with her baby somewhere in the house and escape from Sana'a the next day.
The two abducted women were held in a house near the Al-Sawad camp in Sana’a and beaten, humiliated and threatened with rape, while the men were held in a criminal investigation prison and brutally beaten. During their detention the women were threatened with being transferred to the central prison if their family members did not pay a ransom.
After a week-long detention, the ransom was paid and the two women were released for 1 million riyals (about $2,000); the men were released shortly after for 800,000 riyals (about $1,600).
The UN group of experts investigated the abduction of seven women and girls by the Houthis in Sana'a and Hodeidah between 2017 and 2018. The report was able to verify that these women had been held for periods of up to eight months and used to elicit ransom payments. In one case, the female relative of a Houthi defector was held in order to secure his arrest.
Another case involves a couple abducted on the charge that the husband had contacted a relative working in Saudi using his wife’s phone. The abduction took place on Taiz Street in Sana’a. An armed Houthi unit surrounded the couple’s house before Zaynabeyat recruits abducted them. The couple’s family, including their three children, haven’t been informed of their whereabouts.
The UN report noted that a large number of women have been detained on the basis of their political affiliation or perceived Houthi opposition, and the Houthi authorities “have used accusations or formal charges of prostitution to ‘legitimise’ this and dissuade the political participation of other women.”
In one case, a woman described being raped multiple times over a period of several months following pro-Houthi lectures and lectures on religion, the report said.
A victim told Almasdar Online that she and other women were taken to a villa, where they were read the Quran and texts written by the founder of the Houthi movement, Hussein Al-Houthi, before being transferred to the central prison eight months later.
Another victim, a supporter of former President Saleh, was kidnapped before Saleh’s death while standing near the Al-Mesbahi intersection in Sana’a.
Two men and two women forced her to get into a taxi and then blindfolded her and took her to an unknown location.
They asked her during the interrogations: “Are you with Ali Abdullah Saleh?”
"Yes," she answered.
They searched her mobile phone and found the name of the former mayor of Sana’a, Abdulqader Hilal, and immediately uttered it in profanity before saying to her: "You were working as a pimp for him," to which she responded, “I am a leader in the GPC and it is natural that these numbers are with me.” She was forced to admit that she worked as a pimp and numbers from her phone were used as evidence.
"They forced me to stand on a can of beans for an hour, which led to the bleeding of my varicose veins," she says.
In a separate case, a woman who supported the former president was arrested and charged with spying for him. Another woman who reported harassment by a Houthi member was then arrested. In both cases, the women were charged with prostitution and drug dealing.
Almost all of the abductions of women are carried out by members of the Zaynabeyat forces with the help of armed men. Victims of these abductions include female political activists, female GPC leaders, female media professionals, illiterate and underage women, doctors, female school and university students, and housewives. In most cases the women are abducted in front of their homes, or at schools and markets, on the streets or from taxis.
During the abductions, the women are subjected to various forms of verbal and physical violence, blindfolded and taken to unknown places–including secret prisons, houses and villas owned by Houthi leaders–for many months before being placed in the central prison.
Among these abductees is a 60-year-old woman with a heart condition, whose release was urged by doctors, but ultimately unsuccessful.
Her abduction occurred after she was falsely informed of having received aid for pickup from a humanitarian organization. Upon arrival at the agreed upon pickup location, she was abducted by Houthi gunmen.
In a statement in mid-December, Amsterdam-based human rights organization Rights Radar announced the abduction of a number of girls in Al-Mahwit governorate. The abductees were trainee seamstresses, who were drugged, forced into prostitution, and then detained at the central prison.
According to the father of one of the abductees, his daughter was kidnapped and forced to work at a brothel with 30 girls from different governorates.
Rights Radar documented more than35 girls who had been abducted from places of study and off the streets in Sana'a recently.
Mohammed Al-Dailami, a journalist affiliated with the Houthis, recently accused the Houthi director general of criminal research, Sultan Zaben, of spearheading a campaign abducting women. In a post, Al-Dailami said that he informed Rizk Al-Jawfi, deputy interior minister in the Houthi-controlled government, that Zaben had detained dozens of women illegally.
Zaben rented a villa on Taiz Street, turning it into a private prison where he held women and girls and “sold and traded” them, Al-Dailami wrote, noting that Zaben falsely accused at least eight women and girls with prostitution and transfered them to the central prison.
Al-Dailami claimed that Zaben built a house in the Asser neighborhood of Sana’a worth 150 million riyals (about $600,000) with funds he received from ransoming women and girls whose kidnappings he had ordered.
In an attempt to cover up Al-Dailami’s allegations, Houthi authorities announced a crackdown on 28 Sana’a-based prostitution networks linked to countries in the Saudi-led coalition. The same announcement suggested human rights and humanitarian relief organizations were involved with the prostitution rings.
A lawyer close to the crackdown told Almasdar Online that “all of the actions taken against these women are illegal, including kidnapping or arrest without permission of the prosecution and detention in secret, irregular prisons, enforced disappearance, torture and sexual exploitation.”
Most of the victims in the Houthi abduction campaign have no criminal records, he said.
“It’s clear that there are girls and women who were released after paying money, and others were imprisoned without being charged with anything other than communicating with the Saudi-led coalition and without evidence,” he said.
Most of the female abductees’ legal cases go unheard, and appeals are likewise ineffective or not heard, according to the lawyer.
Charges raised against female abductees that he has seen range from collaborating with the aggression, mobilizing women in support of former President Saleh, adultery, prostitution, selling hashish and other drugs, working abroad as dancers, and drinking and selling alcohol.
The lawyer said the Houthi investigation that led to the arrest of 28 prostitution networks is more of a condemnation of the Houthis than of the supposedly guilty women they abducted. "The laws in the country are broken, we are governed by the law of the jungle,” he said.