Saudi-style volunteer virtue patrols scour Hodeidah for “sinners” [Archives:2008/1169/Reportage]

July 3 2008

By: Alia Ishaq and Emad Al-Sakkaf
Since 2007, religious extremist morality guards have begun policing Hodeidah governorate in the name of protecting virtue. However, some residents claim that the self-appointed guards, who aren't affiliated with government police, began roaming the streets looking for vice activities years ago.

Such morality guards, who have practiced their virtue policing publicly and freely over the past year, are said to be supported by former Hodeidah Governor Ahmed Abdullah Al-Hajri. However, the new governor of Hodeidah, Ahmed Salem Al-Jabali, has been cracking down on religious vigilantes, who have been arrested and charged with violating the law for taking on a responsibility belonging only to police.

One of the group's activities is to keep an eye on men and women who are together at the beach, in marketplaces or any other public places. The religious vigilantes will demand the man and woman produce documents proving that they are related. If they can't, the group of them then goes to the police, which has the authority to arrest the pair if they deem it proper. Because of this, some accuse these morality guards of harassment.

Since they began policing the streets, these vigilantes have “arrested” numerous men and women, charging them with prostitution.

According to the government-affiliated October 14th newspaper based in Aden, morality guards have even set traps to arrest girls. According to its report on the phenomenon, “The religious group has telephoned some young women, claiming that they want to have a forbidden relationship with them and then making an appointment to meet them, waiting for them to arrive and then taking them to jail, in addition to testifying against them [in court].”

Khaled Ayesh, director of the National Human Rights Forum, calls such morality guards a joke. “What gives these people the right to interfere with others' freedoms and personal lives?” he asks, noting that the majority of Hodeidah residents are angry and believe that these morality guards are hampering their personal freedoms.

But, in fairness, Ayesh admits, “I have to say that a few people in Hodeidah are happy about some of what this group is doing.”

Who are they?

Members of the morality guard maintain that they are volunteers working on behalf of the community, which they claim is filled with sins that must be fought. Their leader, Daoud Al-Jeni, says the reason for their work is the increasing number of sins within the community, including prostitution.

He adds that he and his fellow volunteers keep an eye on those suspected of such sins in an effort to prevent “obscenity,” although he points out that their role focuses on alerting police to such incidents.

Al-Jeni admits that morality guards arranged with local police to storm three homes suspected of being brothels, which led to the death of one homeowner during clashes with police. He adds that several women in the homes were jailed and referred to court.

However, he claims that one woman was released after paying a YR 50,000 bribe, further accusing some police and criminal investigation officers of cooperating with such individuals in covering up for them.

According to Ayesh, these groups aren't volunteers at all, but are paid and supported by certain businessmen and several extremist sheikhs in Hodeidah. He says that those who now monitor others often were just like their targets before taking up the cause. “Many of them were sinners themselves who suddenly wanted to do something good for Islam,” Ayesh says.


Abdullah Al-Kawlee, director of Hodeidah's tourism office, says these so-called morality guards have affected tourism in the area because they harass people, sometimes blackmailing them for money in order to leave them alone. As a result, this has discouraged both travelers and citizens alike from walking around freely with their families.

Hodeidah governorate's new security director, Abdulwahab Al-Rathi, describes such youths who monitor others as “a group of vagrants on the streets.” He maintains that their activities have been stopped, adding that their leaders have been arrested and referred to prosecution, as Yemeni law allows no one except police to conduct such activities.

Al-Rathi declares that he wants to stop the group's harassment and get citizens back to walking around freely without fear.

Col. Ahmed Al-Jeed, general director of criminal investigations in Hodeidah, explains that the group was being supported and backed by influential individuals, noting that his department has tried several times before to arrest these religious vice patrol groups, but that it wasn't possible because they were backed by those in power.

The director adds that even though members of the morality guard group have been arrested, they will continue to try and conduct their previous monitoring activities, although he vows that his department will do whatever it can to stop them.

Al-Kawlee has noticed several changes since this group first appeared; for instance, a disco and a bar at one tourist hotel were closed and four Arab female dancers were deported to their countries. The hotel owner and its manager also were arrested by order of previous Hodeidah Governor Al-Hajri.

A growing trend

According to citizens, this trend can be seen in other areas, such as Aden, and that anti-vice volunteers are sprouting up in other governorates as well.

According to the Yemen Observer newspaper, six university students – three males and three females – were attacked this past May in Aden after several volunteer morality guards in that governorate saw them walking together on the street.

The students told police that the men intercepted them and began beating them on the street after arguing with them. One girl claimed that she was attacked, telling the paper that one morality guard held her arm and started screaming at her, saying, “Why are you walking with this boy? Haven't your parents told you that it's shameful for a girl to walk with a boy?”

Some citizens are concerned that these volunteer morality guards will increase or follow the controversial Saudi or Iranian models, where such guards are state-approved.

Hodeidah resident Hadi Al-Showia says he's scared the morality guards will show up again and become even more extreme. “It's ridiculous that each time I go out with one of my female relatives, I should have to carry documents proving that we're related!” he complains, adding, “I just hope this is the end of this phenomenon.”