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Stalking Yemen's Streets: Self-Appointed Morals Police

Women walk in an open-air market in Yemen's capital. Conservatives are pushing for establishment of religious police in the country, and religious gangs have appeared to punish men and women for walking together on the streets.
Women walk in an open-air market in Yemen's capital. Conservatives are pushing for establishment of religious police in the country, and religious gangs have appeared to punish men and women for walking together on the streets. (Photo: Ellen Knickmeyer/Post)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

SANAA, Yemen -- Call them vice and virtue vigilantes: Even as Islamic scholars and lawmakers push Yemen to create a police unit to enforce religious standards, gangs of bearded men have appeared ad hoc to police public mores.

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Nader Abdul Kadoos, a 50-year-old returning student, was set upon by one such street committee last month in the southern port city of Aden, in a confrontation that received broad attention in Yemen's news media.

Kadoos's apparent offense was to stroll out of the gates of Aden University after class in a group of male and female students.

About five bearded men pounced on the students, grabbing one woman by the hand to hold her while two other female students escaped in taxis, Kadoos recounted. The men slapped some of the male students. "Is this a lover's lane?" the leader of the gang shouted, according to Kadoos.

More bearded men appeared from nowhere to upbraid the group, while some outraged passersby stopped to defend the mostly young men and women.

"Do you want us to wait until they start having sex in the street?" Kadoos recalled one of the bearded men shouting back at the crowd.

News reports of the incident in Aden came just after the country's newspapers reported that conservatives led by Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a religious leader accused by the United States of funding and arming al-Qaeda, had called upon Yemen's president to create official government bodies to promote virtue and prevent vice.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia, where official religious police armed with clubs roam the streets and shopping malls enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, also has vice and virtue committees. So did Taliban-era Afghanistan.

Yemen's people are overwhelmingly Muslim and religiously observant. Most women, for example, cover all but their eyes and hands when among male strangers. However, Yemen's population is made up largely of two sects with reputations for moderation and tolerance: the Shafi Sunnis, who form the majority, and the Zaidi Shiites.

Across the border, Saudi Arabia is dominated by the Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam, which enforces some of the strictest interpretations of Islamic law and custom in the world.

Yemen's government is facing public anger over rising food prices, which has led to riots in the south and a Shiite revolt in the north. Many in Yemen believe fundamentalist Sunnis, including Zindani, are pushing a Saudi-influenced religious agenda, including the vice and virtue committees, as a way of taking advantage of the country's instability to expand their own influence.

News of the campaign for vice and virtue committees and their unofficial emergence set off debate.

Conservative clerics argued that opponents of the committees were proponents of vice, the Yemen Post newspaper reported. Preachers said practices such as co-ed graduation ceremonies were responsible for drought and rising prices, the newspaper said.

Some journalists and civic groups condemned the initiative. "While the Saudis are now trying to curb the activities of this organization as a part of their fight against terrorism and religious fanaticism, Yemen is just starting to allow it," columnist Mohammed al-Qadhi wrote in the Yemen Times, referring to the vice and virtue committees.

Lawmakers backing the creation of the committees said the fears were overblown. Vice and virtue officials, seeing someone veer off the path of righteousness, would offer only well-meaning counsel, lawmaker Abdul-Wahab al-Humaikani said.

In his office, Humaikani held up a can of soda and offered a demonstration of how gently the religious police would approach someone they believed was erring by not following the true faith.

"It will be like, 'Do you want a Pepsi? Do you want to convert to Islam?' " Humaikani said.

To read more of these features, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/worldview.


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