[The following commentary discusses a recent attempt in Yemen to create religious police, such as are found in Iran, as an intrusion on Yemeni values and rights in the modern state.]

The paradox of “Mashaqir” and the religious police

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qadhi, Yemen Times

I think the best response to the establishment of a religious police force, under the banner of promoting virtue and curbing vice, is the mashaqir (traditional flowers women put on either side of their head) function run by the House of Folklore. I was extremely thrilled with spiritual joy with the function that revived in everybody nostalgia for a simple and pure life for both men and women free from extremism and fanaticism. The mashqour, a singular form of mashaqir, is a symbol of chastity and freedom women enjoyed in an ordinary rustic life. It also stands for an abused femininity now by a puritanical interpretation of life where everything is devilish and hellish and a male-dominated and masculine culture that considers women inferior to men.

See the paradox between a group of fundamentalist clerics that want to kill life and a function organized by Arwa Othman, director of House of Folklore, that wants to revive and breathe life into the society and women through restoring the culture of the mashaqir. I have so much respect for this woman who has been relentlessly working to preserve the Yemeni abstract folklore, collecting both verbal and nonverbal heritage that represents a very significant aspect of our society fabric. The irony is that some are devoted to life and its beauty and others to death and its horror.

Anyway, by this commission the regime is ensuring its continuity in power through its coalition with the religious establishment. It is a revival of the cozy marriage between the tribes, clergy and the rulers. The president is using those clerics led by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, the hardline rector of the Islamic Al Eman University, as an instrument to blackmail the US which has been exercising pressure on the regime to hand over terrorist suspects. They will be also an instrument in the political fights the regime is having now in Sa’ada and in the southern governorates as well as the upcoming elections in 2009. That is very clear from the statement of the clerics who opted for a military action in Sa’ada, condemned the protests in the south. They also rejected the accusations to Sudanese president Omar al-Basheer as well as called for dropping the name of al-Zindani from the UN and US list for terrorism financers. I do not know where virtue lies here. It is all about politics. We all know well some of the puppet clerics or tribal figures who set themselves as guards of “virtue” have no clean history either at the moral or political levels.

If these guys are serious about their objectives which are to promote virtue and curb vice, I guess the first thing they should do is to talk about corruption which is now the major headache of the country. It is corruption and the absence of law and order that have perverted our life and encouraged some immoral behaviors here and there.

These clerics are just concerned about sex and women and that is all. They do see only the sexual aspect of women and never think of them as human beings. I do not know why the quota system to support women political participation is against religion. . It was President Saleh who proposed quota that would guarantee 15 per cent of parliamentary seats for women and it is his job to respect his pledge.

To drive the point home, the establishment of such a commission is not only a war on women and their rights but on the society at large. It is an infringement on the constitution and law. Religious police is against democracy and the basic human rights. And therefore, it is the responsibility of the regime to tell the international community and above all, its entire people whether it respects the democratic values that protect the lives of the people or not. The international donors concerned with human rights should also speak loud that establishing religious police is a violation of human rights and that such a commission means encouraging religious fanaticism which is a threat to international peace at large.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qadhi (mhalqadhi@hotmail.com) is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.