Entisar Al-Hammadi 'punished for challenging social norms'
Nasr Al-Hammadi stands in a small shop facing its door, in front of him a pile of Lahoh on a table. In the shop's corner, an African female client sits on a chair ordering five Lahohs (pancake bread).
"I suffer from a pain in my head," Nasr, the brother of Entisar Al-Hammadi, tells The New Arab, pointing his right hand to his head while withdrawing a plastic bag with his other hand. He puts five Lahoh pieces inside the plastic bag for the female client and adds: "I sell each one for 200 YR (35 cents)."
The family sells Lahoh in the small shop made by Entisar's mother. In the families shop, Entisar used to sell Lahoh before becoming an actress and model.
Entisar Al-Hammadi was detained in February by plainclothes personnel in Sanaa, where the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control the Yemeni capital are enforcing a morality campaign.
According to rights group Amnesty International, the 19-year-old was "interrogated while blindfolded, physically and verbally abused [and] subjected to racist insults". She was also "forced to 'confess' to several offences, including drug possession and prostitution", the London-based rights group said.
Born to an Ethiopian mother and a Yemeni father, Entisar had several thousand followers on Instagram and Facebook, where she posted sessions with local stylists and designers.
Khaled Al-Kamal, Entisar’s lawyer, said that during her detention, rebels “woke her up in the middle of the night” and drove her to several houses. He added they were “asking her if she used to work there as a ‘prostitute’”.
Amnesty also revealed that her lawyer had learned of "plans to subject her to a 'virginity test' within days" from "a member of the prosecution team".
Nasr, the only brother of Entisar, said his family did not know about her kidnapping. "We heard [about Entisar's detention] after they [media] published the news," the 12-year-old said. "I had last seen Entisar on the day of Eid [Al-Fitr]," he added.
Nasr said his mother's health situation has deteriorated after she heard the news of Entisar's detention. "My mother suffers from heart problems," Nasr told The New Arab. He noted she was at the hospital last week to get treatment and has been in an inconsolable state since the arrest of her young daughter.
The New Arab spoke with Entisar’s neighbours. Sharhan Saleh says the family been living in the same area for a long period. “I've known Entisar since she was working in a cafe,” Sharhan adds.
"Before becoming an actress, Entisar used to work with her mother in the small shop selling Lahoh. She then joined a cafè in Sanaa before becoming an actress and model to help pay rent."
Speaking more about the rebel's accusations against her, the neighbour stated that there was nothing substantial in them and that they were false. "Entisar was supporting her mother with household expenses and house rent. Her father is blind and lives in Eriteria. The mother has only Entisar and her young son Nasr who is sick."
Entisar regularly appeared in photographs online, including in social media posts, without a headscarf defying the strict societal norms in Yemen.
“She is being punished by the authorities for challenging the social norms of Yemen’s deeply patriarchal society which entrench discrimination against women,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for MENA at Amnesty International.
Local media and neighbours said Entisar took part in two drama series broadcasted on two Arabic domestic channels last year as an actress.
To the east side of Entisar's mother's shop, there is a small store where we met teenager Belal Al Haimi. He sat to speak with us about Intisar and her mother.
“Entisar stopped supporting her mother in the shop since the war started [in 2015],” Belal said.
“The last time I saw Entisar near the shop is during Ramadan last year when she worked as an actress in The Strange Dam drama series,” Haimi noted. “She was coming here in a taxi along with other female actresses. Entisar was very kind until she left the shop and broke Yemeni norms by not wearing the hijab,” Belal told The New Arab.
Amnesty's report also pointed out that “women living in Yemen face rampant discrimination and subject to highly conservative cultural gender norms.”
Since early May, some human rights activists have expressed solidarity with the model on social media and by visiting her in the Central Prison in Sanaa .
One of them is Abdul-Wahab Qutran who learned of Entisar’s arrest from Ahmed Saif Hashed, a member of the Yemeni Parliament.
"Humanity motivated my solidarity with her and my professional, moral and legal conscience,” he told The New Arab. “I have dedicated myself to defend every downtrodden, recessive, marginalised, and oppressed [person].
“I’ve received dozens or even hundreds of threats, threatening me of death and assassination,” Abdul-Wahab added, pointing out that he received verbal abuse and insults for campaigning on social media to release Entisar.
He said the threats were made through Houthi media - headed by the Al-Hawyah Channel - and by their top journalists, such as Osama Sari, Mohamed Al-Emad, Salah Al-Dakak, Hussein Al-Malhi, and others. He also said some threats come out to him through private messages on Twitter and Facebook.
Abdul-Wahab said the pressure that can force the Houthis to release Entisar “must be political on the leadership of the group, a widespread solidarity [with Entisar], and by covering the case in the media”. He stressed the importance of shedding light on the violations and breaches of the Houthi group and a fair trial per international standards.
The director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Lieutenant Abdullah Al-Faqih, told Houthi-run Al-Hawyah Channel that they weren’t aiming to arrest Entisar Al-Hammadi but were after Raof Al-Dubai, who is accused of drug charges. He claimed they didn’t even know Entisar was with him in his car.
During that interview, Al-Faqih showed an image of “Hashish, drug, and Methamphetamine (white crystalline drug)” he said they found them in the car of Raof Al-Dubai hat Entisar was travelling in.
He also confirmed what they confiscated from Entisar’s possession during the arrest is her “purse that contains a mobile and a makeup kit” but not drugs. He claimed that all those detained had acknowledged “drug use, drug promotion and prostitution” during the investigation, and also referred to a confiscated flash drive that contains “obscene videos.”
However, many argue that her kidnapping occurred because she voiced her ambitions of becoming a popular and famous model during a show broadcast on the Houthi channel, Al-Hawyah, which may have upset the more conservative audience.
Talking more about her detention, Amnesty International said: "On April 21, she was brought before public prosecution for questioning in the presence of her lawyer on charges including 'drug use, drug promotion, and prostitution' – all of which she strongly denies... At the end of the interrogation, her lawyer witnessed her being slapped by the prison manager."
The public prosecutor prevented Al-Hammadi's lawyer from accessing her file, and a gunman then threatened him on April 27 telling him to drop the case, Amnesty added calling for the 19-year-old's immediate release from prison.
The Houthis, Amnesty said, "have a deplorable track record of arbitrarily detaining people on baseless charges – to silence or punish critics, activists, journalists and members of religious minorities".
Naseh Shaker is a freelance journalist based in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
Follow him on Twitter: @Naseh_Shaker