When war broke out in Taiz city, militias recruited thousands of female fighters. Many of those women have since joined the police force but are facing resistance.
TAIZ, Yemen — Asmaa al Sharabi, 28, is an accounting graduate who worked in Taiz's Dubai Mall as a shopping assistant for two years, selling women's clothing. When the war broke out in the southwestern city in March 2015, the mall was closed. That was when she took up arms, joining the pro-government forces — which go by the name of the Popular Resistance — as a female fighter.
Sharabi started her work with the pro-government forces writing news from the frontlines for a local pro-government newspaper, The Sound of the Resistance. When the leader of the pro-government forces in Taiz, Sheik Hamoud al Mikhlafi, asked women to join the Popular Resistance Forces (PRF), loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, she was among the first to join in August 2015. War had come to Taiz five months earlier, when Houthi rebels tried to take over the city.
Sharabi and her friends received basic training for two months in the Zaid al Moshki School, originally a state-run school that, like many Yemeni schools, has been transformed into barracks or training grounds. Now the women, most of whom are in their twenties, can all use different kinds of assault rifles and have basic fighting skills.
The female fighters then went straight to work, raiding households suspected of aiding the Houthis where women were present — something their male colleagues were not able to do because of local customs. They also did investigative work, which includes arresting women suspects and handing them in for questioning by the Taiz police force. Though originally recruited by militia leaders, the women have become increasingly professionalised.
"We worked shoulder-to-shoulder with men on the frontlines, storming houses, because the Houthis were disguising themselves as women to flee," Sharabi said. "Having women fighters is crucial."
She spent eight months working as a fighter without her family knowing anything about her new line of work. Only when her photos were published in local media was her secret revealed.
"My family thought I was still working at the mall, but when they discovered the truth, they were upset and tried to stop me from doing this work," Sharabi told TRT World.
"I insisted on continuing with my work and persuaded them that I'm fighting for the sake of Taiz, providing them with religious arguments so that they would allow me return to fighting. Finally they agreed.
Volunteers at first, the female fighters officially became part of the police force eight months ago when the Taiz police chief assigned them to each of the police stations in Taiz city to work on investigations involving female suspects, and to perform the arrests of women.
Not receiving salaries
In early July, some of the policewomen blocked the main roads in Taiz city, protesting after the Yemeni government stopped paying their salaries. They were reacting after the government announced that some of the female officers' names had been deleted from payrolls. Protests lasted for several days, until the government promised to examine their grievances and give salaries to those who were really working.
Most of the women employed in the security forces have official police ID cards, yet they only received pay for December 2016. Their male colleagues, however, are continuing to receive their regular salaries.
"Earning a salary was not the reason why we joined the [PRF], we joined for the sake of liberation [from the Houthi rebels], but we need the government to pay our salaries in recognition of our efforts," Sharabi said. "I was shocked to know that our names were deleted from the payroll."
Some people think that male officers can replace the women, so there is no real need for policewomen.
"It is not fair that the government wants to get rid of us after the all work that we did over the last two years. We appeal to the coalition countries, the government and the [the police and military leadership for the southern governorates] to take our issues into consideration and make them a priority," Sharabi added. "I don't want to hear the officials tell us ‘we no longer need your services', as there is no real justification for such a decision."
Sharabi stated that she would not leave her work even if the government ignores the existence of female fighters and officers, and she will continue her work, demanding recognition from the government.
Following Sharabi's enlistment with the first batch of women fighters, which numbered 27, more than 2,000 women are believed to have joined the security forces, although the exact number is difficult to confirm.
Amal al Wafi, 30, the leader of the policewomen unit for the whole of Taiz city, is the mother of two children and a qualified secretary. When the war arrived to her neighbourhood in the north of the city, she fled her house to seek refuge in the heart of the city.
Wafi joined the PRF at the same time as Sharabi. Now they work together in Al Modhafar police station and deploy female officers to the other police stations as and when needed.
"When the Houthis exiled me from my house, I decided to leave my children with my mother and join the [PRF]. I am lucky that most of my family members supported me doing that."
Wafi agreed with Sharabi that the government was marginalising the women officers. She says that she won't keep silent about being sidelined, "the government deleted our names from the payrolls. Why did the government delete them? Does the government not accept women in Taiz being police officers?"
"If it does not accept us as policewomen, then this means Taiz women are being marginalised," she says.
Wafi confirmed that she will continue her work as the head of the policewomen unit in Taiz, despite not receiving any salary since December. She will keep demanding that the government give women officers the same status as men, she says.
"I am a public employee and will demand my legal rights, just like other employees. The women of Taiz have supported the government since the first day of war, so I appeal to President Hadi to look into our predicament," Wafi says.
Ad-hoc recruitment process
Although Wafi is the leader of the policewomen in Taiz, she doesn't have a clear idea of the total number of policewomen in Taiz because most of the militia brigades in Taiz recruit women randomly, without first informing the government. So although the payrolls include more than 2,000, even Wafi can't confirm whether or not this number is accurate.
An official in the Yemeni government told TRT World on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media that there is a misunderstanding about the policewomen. The government is not against the policewomen per se, he says, but they are a novelty in Taiz, and the recruitment process has been chaotic.
"The government is not against the policewomen, actually we encourage them to continue," the source told TRT World. "But the main problem is that most of the militia brigades in Taiz recruit women themselves and we've received lists including more than 2,000 policewomen, even though Taiz doesn't need more than 300 policewomen."
The other issue, he says, is that some of the names of policewomen are fake — they are ghost employees, according to the source — so the government had to delete all names from the payrolls to audit the new policewomen and prepare new lists of verified female officers.
Some of the women in the security forces are working in the conflict zones at checkpoints to inspect and frisk women, and the government appreciates their service, according to the source.
"No one can deny the role female fighters played in Taiz during the war; we appreciate that and promise to pay their salaries. The women in the security forces in Taiz are an example that the other provinces should imitate," the source added.
Society slow to accept
Yemeni society is a conservative one, unaccustomed to women working as police officers. Many of the policewomen in Taiz have faced criticism from members of the public who object to women working in the police force or military.
Mamoon Mohammed, a professor of sociology, stated that society can accept women working as policewomen inside buildings, but it is difficult to accept them at checkpoints or on the frontlines.
"It is a good step by the pro-government forces to break the Yemeni traditions and establish policewomen in Taiz, but they should take into consideration the culture of the society and not to ignore criticism," Mohammed told TRT World.
"I advise the [female security officers] to limit their work on investigation and dealing with female suspects inside buildings and stop working at checkpoints or on the frontlines, as this will trigger a negative reaction from people."
He agrees that the policewomen are needed, and that the government should encourage them.
Sharabi, the policewoman, disagrees with Mohammed that they should only work inside buildings, saying that she doesn't care about the criticisms from conservatives about whether or not women should do such work.
"I believe in my work, whether it's on the frontlines or at the police station. If society does not accept my work that is not my problem," Sharabi says.
"My example is the friends of our Prophet Muhammad, who as women participated in the battles against unbelievers," she says, referring to famous battles in the early seventh century in Arabia , where Muslim women fought alongside men.