Yemeni Women Sign Up to Fight Terror


By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Yemen

Farah, a Yemeni woman in the Counter Terrorism Unit

Afrah and her colleagues are challenging people's attitudes to women

Afrah pulls back her camouflage jacket to show me the pistol strapped to her belt.

Her military uniform is specially designed to meet Islamic principles of modesty, with a long, loose tunic and long sleeves.

She travelled to work this morning wearing a veil and a full-length black balto, an all-encompassing cloak which is traditional dress for women in Yemen.

But now she is dressed in fatigues, heavy black boots and shades.

Afrah, 23, is one of 20 women recruited to join Yemen's elite counter-terrorism unit (CTU) last summer.

Only 13 recruits have stayed the course, after a rigorous training programme that has taught them how to enter a house by force, drive a Hummer military vehicle and shoot.

Yahya Saleh, chief of staff of Yemen's Central Security Forces, sponsored the creation of the women's unit and supervises the CTU.

He says the women's main purpose is to follow their male colleagues on house raids and search any women they encounter.

"Male terrorists often disguise themselves as women in order to evade detection and arrest, but Yemen's strict social code means that women suspects cannot be touched by the men on the unit," he explains.

Yemen's Political Security Organisation runs a separate team of women, trained to gather and assess intelligence, but Afrah and her colleagues in the CTU are the only women to put themselves at the sharp end of Yemeni counter-terrorism.

"At the beginning, we were afraid," she says, "but now we're getting used to our job."

Family values

The CTU is barracked in a special compound at the Central Security Forces headquarters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The grounds are bristling with uniformed men carrying AK-47s. Access is tightly restricted.

The women are housed separately from the men but they study and take part in training exercises alongside their male counterparts.

At the beginning, my family was divided about my new job. My father opposed me but my mother supported me. Gradually, my mum convinced him


As part of the programme, they learn first aid and study English on-site at the Frances Guy Academy - named after a former British ambassador.

Afrah, Saba and sisters Kfaih and Faten are resting in the locker rooms during their lunch-break.

All in their early 20s, they were recruited from the military police.

Nine of their peers are away studying in the United States for additional training, but this group of four were refused permission to travel by their relatives.

Yemen is an extremely conservative society, where a woman's honour reflects on her whole family.

Leaving the country without a chaperone was a step too far for worried parents who had already struggled to accept their daughters' employment in the police force.

"At the beginning, my family was divided about my new job," says Saba.

"My father opposed me but my mother supported me. Gradually, my mum convinced him that we have separate rooms from the men, and that we're not mingling with them unsupervised. Now he accepts my choice."

Afrar agrees she is a pioneer who is "challenging people's ideas about what is possible for women in Yemen".

In a country where unemployment runs at 40%, these women are evidently proud of their jobs and pleased to take a regular income home to their families.

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