The all-female battalion of the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah), Zainabiyat, has been committing abuses against women and families as part of its efforts to support the militia's hold on areas it controls, experts tell Al-Mashareq.
The battalion's actions came under scrutiny last December, when the Houthis stormed the homes of General People’s Congress (GPC) leaders after killing former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Zainabiyat harassed women and terrorised children, as well as confiscated women's personal property, including jewelry and mobile phones, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on January 15th.
Another report, published by sasapost.com, revealed widespread abuses committed against thousands of women in Yemen by members of the Zainabiyat battalion, ranging from harassment to torture.
Among its abuses, the battalion is responsible for killing human rights activist Reham al-Badr in Taez province at the end of 2017, the media outlet said.
Roots in Iran
The Zainabiyat battalion is not a new concept, lawyer and activist Abdul Rahman Barman told Al-Mashareq, pointing out that it has its roots in Iran.
The Yemeni battalion was formed by "copying the all-women units of the Basij paramilitary militia fighters", he said.
A number of women with ties to the Houthis' leadership were sent to Iran to receive training from Iranian and Lebanese trainers, he told Al-Mashareq.
These battalions have several objectives, he said.
Among them is "intelligence gathering, as many carry out monitoring and information gathering because it is easy for women to enter homes and visit families that are targeted for information", Barman said.
Another goal is "to have an online army of Zainabiyat to work on polishing the militias’ image", he added.
Battalion members spread news and rumours, and work to burnish the Houthis' image via social media platforms, he said.
But the Houthis' key use of the Zainabiyat battalion is in directing its armed female members to storm houses, detain and kidnap female activists, and to attack female-staged demonstrations -- as was the case in Sanaa, he said.
Many activists have been beaten by the Zainabiyat, including activist Salwa Ahmed, who told Al-Mashareq she was "beaten with clubs and rifles" when she marched with GPC activists in what was known as the March of Roses.
During the march, the activists carried roses to the home of former president Saleh after his killing.
'A tool of supression'
"The Zainabiyat have gone beyond their role of storming homes and terrorising and abusing families to looting homes and stealing valuables, gold and jewelry," journalist Munir Talal told Al-Mashareq.
The battalion's members committed these acts during the raids on the homes of GPC leaders last December 2nd, he said.
Zainabiyat do not operate according to any rules or laws, he said, and "are used as a tool of suppression to humiliate opponents and abuse their families and property".
The establishment of the Zainabiyat battalion also can be attributed to the "acute shortfall in militiamen" the Houthis face due to the loss of fighters on the battlefronts, political researcher Yassin al-Tamimi told Al-Mashareq.
Some women lost their husbands in the ongoing war and may be motivated by revenge, he said, a sentiment that is exploited when they are "directed to carry out violent acts that include storming, raids and psychological intimidation".