Voices from the community

Anṣār Allāh: The Formation of a Political Ideology and the Transformation of their Cultural Capital in Yemen

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By Mona Saif


            Historians often describe Yemen as one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Aelius Gallus, a missionary sent by the first Roman emperor to Yemen,  described Yemen as  “Eudaemon Arabia” which translates from Latin to English as Arabia Felix. Also, the phrase means the fortunate and the happy Arabia.  Aelius Gallus was not the only historical figure who described Yemen as the happy land, the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy mentioned that Yemen was established on land that is fertile, has adequate rainfall and a moist climate that sustained the life of the population.[1] However, a prominent characteristic of the Yemeni civilization was the rivalry between the six kingdoms that controlled different parts of Yemen, namely the  Saba’, Ma’īn, Qatabān, Hadhramaut, Kingdom of Awsan, and the Himyarite Kingdom. These kingdoms often fought each other to control trade revenues and gain hegemony. This division continued to characterize the political scene and the daily life of Yemenis.[2]

Today, Yemen is undergoing one of the most brutal civil wars in its history with more than 100000 casualties, nearly 2.2 million facing acute malnutrition and more than 21.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.[3] The Yemeni war began in 2014 when Ansar Allah started as a guerilla campaign against the Yemeni government and controlled the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. The guerilla campaign turned into a full-scale conventional war when Saudi Arabia in response to the Yemeni government’s request launched a coalition to assist the Yemeni government to defeat the Iranian-backed movement.[4] As the war marks its sixth year, it is becoming more clear that Ansar Allah’s campaign did not aim to pressure the Yemeni government to better the living conditions of Yemenis as claimed by the leader of the movement Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi. Rather it is a campaign combining  military, political and ideological aims to re-engineer the cultural capital of Yemeni society. This paper tests whether or not Ansar Allah aims to engineer the social structure and the embodied cultural capital of the Yemeni society to align with their ideological discourse. The paper argues that the shift in power dynamics of  Yemeni society that occurred as a result of the civil war has provided Ansar Allah with the political instruments to deploy their knowledge and assisted to directly change the embodied cultural capital and indirectly influence the objectified cultural capital of the Yemeni society. To do so, the paper first explores the formation of the movement and their ideology. Second, the paper asserts the Iranian  influence on the movement and its material support for the movement. Finally, the paper analyzes the methods in which Ansar Allah used their ideology, political power and military power to reengineer the cultural capital of Yemeni society. This research uses Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory and Andre Gingrich’s cultural historical model to study the formation of Ansar Allah’s discourse and unpack the difference in cultural  and political factors influencing the cultural capital of Ansar Allah and its transformation to Yemeni society.    

Ansar Allah: The formation, Ideology and politicization

To understand the motives behind Ansar’s Allah hostility against the Yemeni government and why Zaidism is  situated at the heart of the movement, it is essential to understand the anthropological and topographical nature of Yemen’s extreme north, namely Sa’dah, al-Jawf and northern Amran. Topographically, Yemen’s extreme north is divided into three zones: the western mountain range, the Central highlands and the arid east.[5] These three zones are disconnected from the Central and southern parts of Yemen because of the steep terrain, continuous security deteriorating situation since 2004 and  the Yemeni government’s unwillingness to initiate serious projects to develop the extreme north.[6] Even though Yemen’s extreme north, Sa’dah,  is underdeveloped, it is very fertile and important to Yemen’s agricultural production. Most of  Yemen’s livestock of vegetables and fruits comes from the extreme north. Additionally, important transportation, trade and pilgrim routes have been led through Sa’dah basin since ancient times.[7]

Another important characteristic of Yemen’s extreme north is the domination of tribal customs and norms. [8] Due to the fluidity of the term “tribalism” and the negative connotation associated with it, it is important to define the meaning of the term. In this paper, the term “tribe/tribalism” is used within Andre Gingrich’s cultural historical model. In his essay, “Connecting and Disconnecting: Intentionally, Anonymity, and Transactional Networks in Upper North Yemen”, Gingrich suggests that tribes in Upper Yemen are  social units that were founded based on a common ancestry linkage and are connected to their environment.[9] In other words, Yemeni tribes in the upper north are acephalous entities that have common characteristics including association with land, descent from a common ancestor and they are not self-isolated entities rather interactive with other tribal and nontribal entities. Additionally, this means that Yemeni tribes are not merely a form of social presentation and do not have any political agency to rule over the upper north. However, the lack of political agency of Yemeni tribes does not imply a lack of influence. Tribal chieftains (mashyayikh or shaykhs) in Yemen are respected,  hold  special social positions and have the ability to influence their tribes’ members.[10] Moreover, Yemeni tribes adhere to a common code of conduct, namely tribeless (qabyalah). The tribeless is a system of ethical values and a set of ideal characteristics connoting honor (Sharaf). [11] Often Yemeni shaykhs have to ensure that the code of honor has not been broken and if so, they have to intervene to resolve any conflict. Thus, shaykhs do not hold any coercive power and cannot enforce their leadership on the tribes’ members. It is up to each tribesman to agree or disagree with the opinions and actions of his tribal shaykhs.[12] Another important Status group to the analysis of the formation of Ansar Allah movement is the Sadah. Yemeni Sadah are the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed through his two grandsons Husseyn and Hasan.[13]

Yemeni Sadah trace  their descent back to Yahya al-Husayn who was a descendant of the Prophet’s family and a follower of the Zaidi sect of Shi’ism.  Imam Yahya al-Husyan came to Yemen in 879 from Al-Medina . Imam Yahya al-Husyan was invited to Yemen to meditate tribal conflict in Sa’dah according to Sharia law. After Imam Yahya al-Husyan successfully mediated the conflict, he settled down in Sa’dah and established the Zaydi state under the Zaydi Hadawi school of Sharia law. [14] One important implication of the establishment of the Zaydi school was the restoration of the role of the Sadah as leaders in religious and secular affairs. Hence, the Sadah continued to hold administrative, religious and military leadership roles in the Yemeni imamate.[15] However, according to the Yemeni costumery laws (‘urf), the Sadah were still considered as  immigrants, non-Yemeni communities that required protection from tribesmen.Zaydi tribes would protect the Sadah because they believed that Sadah brings blessings for the whole tribe. Sadah often acquired lands through the (waqf ) system in return for religious scholarship, and meditation for tribal disputes.

The three different groups namely; Sadah, Yemeni Qahtani Arabs and abl al-thulth are important to the discussion of social status and privileges in Yemeni society. However, it has to be mentioned that these groups do not represent a caste system similar to that of India because of the increasing urbanization of city centers and the migration patterns within Yemen, but people still hold pride in belonging to different groups, especially the Sadah.  These social groups determine one’s decedent, political authority and social status. For example, the Sadah  are considered superior to the Qahatani Arabs and abl al-thulth . In a similar manner,  the Qahatani Arabs are superior to the abl al-thulth. Geographically, most of the Sadah inhibit the Upper North while the Qahatani Arabs inhibit Central and  Southern Yemen. The Qahatani Arabs are considered to be the original Yemenis. However, the Sadah are considered to be an immigrant community genealogically because of their alleged non-Yemeni origin.[16] Traditionally, the Sadah exercise endogamy to maintain a coherent descent among Yemeni Qahtani Arabs.  Nonetheless, endogamous traditions are strictly applied to females while males are allowed to marry from tribal women and their offspring become part of the Sadah as well, but they cannot marry from a third category in Yemeni society called people of third (abl al-thulth) who hold an inferior status in Yemeni society.[17]

The Sadah had always enjoyed a superior status and held a heavy weight in Yemeni society. However, the Sadah lost their importance in Yemeni society with the establishment of the Yemeni republic in the north and the overthrow of the imamate in 1962. The democratization of North Yemen and formation of the republic established a political institution with a new set of norms that opposed the beliefs of the Sadah and ultimately deprived them from power. In his book, Power/knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, Michel Foucault argues that the dominant knowledge is a set of norms that consider certain actions right and others wrong. Consequently, as a large portion of society agrees on those norms, they turn into a dominant discourse, which enforces a common way of thinking in regard to specific concepts.  On the other hand, Foucault suggests that only those who decide to act against this dominant discourse acquire subjugated knowledge.  He explains that subjugated knowledge is the type of knowledge that was disguised within a specific social system and became regarded as inadequate and insufficient.[18] When applying Foucault’s subjugation of knowledge logic to the Zaydi’s case in Yemen, one can say that the new political institutions that  were deployed by the republicans to suppress the Zaydi’s discourse and depict their authority to be inadequate and insufficient.  In other words, the establishment of the republic had created a new set of social and political norms that made the  Sadah lose  their political and social status and considered their ideas of governance to be backward and unacceptable.  Thus, there was a shift in the power dynamics between the traditionalists/Zaydis, especially the Sadah and the republicans in which therepublican discourse became the dominant discourse and the  traditionalists’/Zaydis’ discourse became the subjugated one.

Yemeni has two conflicting religious discourses namely Sunnism and Shiism. However, within these discourses there are sub-sects. For example, Shias in Yemen are split into Zaydis, and Ismailis while Sunnis are split into Salafi jihadis and Wahhabis. Geographically,  Sunnis inhabit most of South Yemen while Shias inhabit Central and North Yemen. These different discourses have different ideas of political authorities. While Sunni including Salafi and Wahabi believe that the only authority is the authority of God. On the other hand, Zaydis believe that the Sadah has the right to rule because they are the descents of the prophet. These two conflicting opinions about political authority have always laid the grounds for political turmoil in Yemen starting with the revolution of September 26th, 1962 that overthrew the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in North Yemen and resulted in a decline in the Shah’s political representation and power. Moreover, the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic on a non-madhhab principle had weakened the influence of the Sadah, undermined their social status, and Zaidism in Yemen’s extreme North. The republicans insisted on forming a new identity for the state that merged Sunnism and Zaidism . Nonetheless, the Saudi influence and the socialists’ threats from  People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) stood as obstacles. As a result, Yemen’s extreme North became a sphere of influence for three conflicting Islamic sects namely, Salafi jihadism, Wahhabism and Zaydism. In the 1980s, Salafi jihadism began to spread to Sa’dah through the educational system. Similarly, Saudi Arabia financing of the Scientific institutes to oppose the spread of Marxist socialism from PDRY had  forced the spread of Wahhabism in North Yemen through mosques and schools.[19] One can argue that the fragility of the Yemeni security system made Yemeni society easy to penetrate. For example, South Yemen has always been a sphere of influence for Western powers namely Britain and the Soviet Union while North and Central Yemen have been a sphere of influence for regional superpowers including Ottoman Empire, Iran and Saudi Arabia. These superpowers have often used marginalized groups and religious sects to obtain their interests including the Saudi need to secure its borders with Yemen, oil, exhibiting power, and containing their rivals. The intervention of superpowers has resulted in the politicization of different social groups including the Houthis.

 The increasing sunnization of the Zaydis’ madhhab due to Saudi religious missionary activities in the upper North made the Zaydis  feel marginalized and triggered them to revive their tradition. In the mid 1985s, the Zaydis started to counter the spread of Sunnism in the upper North by re-inventing Zaydi rituals and holding educational activities.[20]The revival movement did not maintain an apolitical status, after the unification of the Yemen Republic in the North and the PDRY in 1990, the movement formed its own political party called Zaydi Hizb al-Haqq. The formation of the political party was mainly a tool to encounter the Saudi influence in Yemen, represent the voices of Zaydis against the discriminatory  policies of the Yemeni government and contain the influence of the Muslim brotherhood (Islah). [21] However, the party was not successful in obtaining enough seats in the Yemeni parliament. Additionally, factional disputes within a Zaydi educational movement named Believing Youth escalated, led to the split of the House of the Houthis from the party, and the emergence of the Houthis as a separate political and ideological movement in 2001 which changed their name to Ansar Allah in 2011.[22]

The Houthis are Yemeni Sadah who are descendants of the Prophet and follow the Zaydi school of Islamic thought. The father of the Houthi’s house is Badreddin al-Houthi who married four women from four different tribes in Yemen’s upper North and had multiple children with each of them.[23] Nonetheless, Badreddin did not play a major role in the politicization of the Houthis, his elder son Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi played a critical role in the politicization of the Houthis and in the Houthis insurgency in 2004. The exact reasons behind the internal fraction within Hizb al-Haqq are unknown. However, in an interview, Muhammed Izzan, a Zaydi political and religious leader, mentioned that disputes in the political party occurred when Hussein attempted to inject new ideas into the curriculum  of the Believing Youth movement. He explains that Hussein started to emphasize on the superior role of the Sadah which undermined Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) and seemed like reminiscent of the Iranian Ja’fari doctrine.[24] Thus, the movement split to two sides, on one of those sides named Follower of the Slogan (Ashab al-sha’ar) led by Hussein.

The Houthis’ slogan is an essential element to understanding their ideology. The Houthis’ slogan was catalyzed by the events that took place in Palestine during the second intifada. Especially the recorded scene of a father and a son pinned against the wall and barrel. The Child was killed and died in his father’s lap. The scene triggered Hussein to utter the slogan ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, a Curse Upon Jews, Victory for Islam’. Furthermore, the consequences of 9/11 helped give the Houthis the power to use their slogan to maneuver in Yemeni politics mainly because of Ali Abdallah Salah’s alignment with the U.S in the war against terror and his silencing of the Islah.  As a result, Hussein started criticizing the Yemeni government for its policies in lectures which helped the movement group into an anti-imperialist force. The graffiti of the Houthis’ slogan began appearing everywhere in upper North and in 2003, the slogan was drawn on walls in the old city of Sana’a and Zaydi mosques across Northern Yemen.[25] We see that Hussein’s charismatic character, adequate lectures and ability to relate to world events helped him to create a unique slogan that is anti-America and shows compassion to contemporary issues in the Islamic world. Additionally,  he was able to turn those events to a tool that enabled him to appeal and  mobilize Zaydis which successfully politicized the Houthis movement. Additionally, it helped him in reviving the Zaydi madhab by attaching a contemporary political ideology to the movement, namely anti-imperialist which appealed to many Yemenis in the North, especially that the Islah at that time were aligned with Ali Abdallah Saleh and forced into silence.  The slogans appeared to Yemenis because of the growing intervention of America in Yemen politics, its support to Ali Abdullah Saleh, its alliance with Saudi Arabia and American war against that killed many civilians in Yemen. Consequently, the Houthi movement emerged as the only Yemeni faction that was against American presence in Yemen and was actively concerned about the ideological implications of American presence in the Arab world. 

Another important event in the development of the Houthi movement was the Sa’dah insurgency. The Sa’dah insurgency was sparked in 2004, when the Yemeni government attempted to arrest Hussein due to his public criticism of the government’s alliance with the U.S.  The Yemeni army launched a campaign against the Houthis in order to arrest Hussein and limit his influence.Onemain outcome of the  insurgency was the consolidation of the Houthis political legitimacy and power in Sa’dah. The Houthis were able to establish an independent administration in Sa’dah and other parts of Yemen’s upper North.[26] Another important outcome of the insurgency was the death of  Hussein and his replacement with Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi as a leader for the movement. Abdul-Malik attempted to portray the movement as one with nationalist concerns. Unlike his brother, in his speeches Abdul-Malik has criticized government corruption and the poor living conditions of the Yemeni population. Also, he avoided any direct mentioning of the Houthis’ right to leadership, he always stuck to the fact that the government is incapable and should be replaced. We see that the Sa’dah insurgency helped the Houthis legitimize their control of Sa’dah and nationalize their concerns. After that they started to show support for Yemen’s social problems including poverty, corruption and the centralization of power in the hands of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family to appeal to the public and mobilize more youth to join the movement. In his article, “ Inspections of Violence in Northern Yemen”, Ayman Hamdi argues that the so-called the Houthi crisis is a product of the republicans’ political agendas that is focused on the delegitimization of Hashemite political activism, the manipulation of rivalry between different religious sects and the intention to limit Iranian influence in the region. [27] According to Hamdi, the  Houthis insurgency was not a reaction to the Houthis’ criticism of Yemeni government’s alliances or just a Houthi revolt against the Yemeni government’s discriminatory policies. Rather, it was a result of deeper ideological conflict between the Zaydis and the Sunnis in Yemen. In other words, the Sa’dah insurgency was a projection of a deeply rooted ideological dispute between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in regard to who has the authority to rule. In other words, the revival  of Zaydi’s madhab, popularity the Houthis cultivated among Yemeni in North Yemen and their direct connections with Iran have constituted an internal security dilemma for the Yemeni regime. Additionally, it has triggered international actors to intervene and stop the Houthis from establishing their own version of imamate in North Yemen.  The intervention of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Houthis insurgency escalated the use of violence and deepened the hostility between the Houthis and the Yemeni government.

The use of violence did cease with the end of the insurgency, the Houthis continued to attack Yemeni armed forces and strengthen their influence in the upper North which proves that the Houthis did not only want political representation, but they were determined to restore their political authority in the Yemeni society and establish the imamate. This became clearer in 2011, when the Houthis joined the protests during the Arab Spring.[28] However, by that time the Houthis ideological rival, Islah, was more powerful and had far more representation which ultimately meant that the Houthis would not hold any political weight unless they represented themselves as a political movement not guerrilla fighters. Consequently, the Houthis started to coordinate the efforts of different opposition parties, gave themselves a political name “Ansar-Allah” rather than their ethical name,  and planned a political agenda that included combating corruption, and support for the establishment of a democratic and non-sectarian government. [29] It is obvious that  the Houthis saw the Yemeni Revolution as their last chance to assert political power and gain proper political representation in the government. Nonetheless, the Houthis idea of representation did necessarily match with that of other political factions in Yemen. For example, the  Houthis rejected the outcomes of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC) by claiming that the deal did not fundamentally reform governance and that the proposed federalization of Yemen was just an attempt to divide Yemen into poor and wealthy regions. [30] In  his article, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment”, Thomas Juneau argues that the Houthis rejection for the November 2011 GCC deal’s provisions and the NDC outcomes was only a fear of losing their political hegemony over Yemen’s upper North.[31] In other words, the provision mentioned dividing Yemen’s upper North between three different regions which ultimately means Sa’dah, al-Jawf and northern Amran would follow under three different regional administrations and the Houthis would lose their influence in those regions. As a result, the Houthis repaired their relationship with the General People’s Congress and Ail Abdullah Saleh in an attempt to overthrow the interim government. This process started with the capture of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a and developed into a full-scale war due to the intervention of foreign powers.

Looking at the development of Ansar Allah, one can argue that movements have gone through three main phases. The first phase was marked by Hussein’s formation of the followers of the slogan. The second phase is the Sa’dah insurgency and the third phase is the Yemeni civil war. The first two phases have radicalized the movement mainly because of misrepresentation. However, the third phase is the most important phase in the political development of the movement because the Houthis were able to assert their power, weaken the Yemeni government and to some extent,  restore their  authority.   Additionally, in each of these phases, the Houthis deployed different tools to strengthen their ideological discourse or spread it in Yemeni society. At the same time, they have received different forms of support from their ideological supporters outside Yemen, namely, Iran.

The Impact of the Iranian revolution on the Ansar Allah

            One important factor in the evolution of Ansar Allah ideology is the Iranian revolution. In this section, the paper examines the extent to which Ansar Allah ideology was influenced by the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran. However, it has to be noted that the influence and educational support Ansar Allah received from Iran should not be mistaken as military support or the main drive for the Yemeni civil war.

            Iran has a unique way of conducting its foreign policy. Since the rise of the Islamic Republic, Iranian political leaders, especially Ruhollah Khomeini believed that Iranian revolution was exceptional in nature because it presented to the Middle East a new unique combination of Western democracy and Islamic values. This perception of Iran’s exceptionalism made Iran come off as an ideological entity who tries to spread its revolutionary values to the rest of the Middle East. Even though under Khomeini’s influence Iranian foreign policy was influenced by ideological values, soon after the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1989 and the American military intervention during the Gulf war. Iran had switched its approach to foreign policy to pragmatism in an attempt to challenge the status quo in the Middle East and contain its rival, Saudi Arabia. The shift in its attitude was obvious from its strategic alliances with non-state actors in unstable countries. One of those countries is Yemen in which Iran supports the Houthis. In his journal article, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment”, Thomas Juneau argues that Tehran’s support for the Houthis has always been marginal and even in recent years it has not reached a significant level.[32] In other words, Juneau suggests that Iran’s involvement with the Houthis from 1979 to 2011 helped shape the Houthis political ideology. However, it was not the cause of the Yemeni civil war.

            Right after the Iranian revolution, many Houthis left Yemen to study Shi’a Islam in the city of Qom in Iran. Among those students was Hussein  and Abdul-Malik, the current leader of the movement and the  founder of the movement. During his stay in Iran, Hussein learnt more about the Shi’a Islam and was greatly influenced by Iran’s anti-Western ideology and the revival of the Shi’s’ authority.[33]For example, when Hussein traveled back to Yemen, he started a camp named the Believing Youth, when young Zaydi children would join and they would be taught about Zaydi principles. However, Hussein’s strong influence by Iranian belief in Shi’a authority led to the split of the Zaydis and the creation of the Houthis as a political entity. [34]

Iran was not directly involved in forming the Houthis’ opposition to the Yemeni government.  The Houthis’ opposition to the Yemeni government stemmed from the government’s political marginalization of the Zaydis and its discriminatory policies against them. However, Iran played a role in influencing the formation of the Houthis’ anti-American political discourse by injecting ideas like Shi’a right to use violence to assert their authority, leadership and encounter the Yemeni government whose support of America and Saudi.

Even though after 2011, Iran has increased its logistical support to the Houthis to weaken Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are not a proxy of Iran and Iran was not the reason behind the Houthis’ military mobilization. In his article, “ Iran’s involvement in Yemen”, W. Andrew Terrill argues that the role of Iran in assisting the formation of the Houthis should not be taken mistakenly to consider the Houthis as puppets of Iran. He explains that Iran has its own strategic and geopolitical interests that it seeks to achieve out of involvement with the Houthis.[35] In other words, Iran’s support for the Houthis is marginal and its involvement with them is very minimal. Iran is just using the Houthis as a tool to achieve its geopolitical interests including bleeding its ideological rival Saudi Arabia, exhibiting hegemony, and curbing out American presence in the region  with minimal cost possible. However, the Iranian use of the Houthis does not mean that the Houthis are proxies of Iran. One can even argue that each of the  Houthis and Iran are just using each other as shield to strengthen their political legitimacy and achieve their goals, when in fact there has been no absolute evidence of a direct interactions between  Iran and the Houthis behind the financial support during the Sa’dah insurgency and Iran’s early ideological influence on movement.

Ansar Allah and the Forceful transformation of Cultural Capital

 Every ideological discourse carries a set of values and openness to it. In the case of Ansar Allah, their ideological discourse is fundamentally rejective of  other ideologies in the Yemen society and strongly opposed to merging with the rest of the Yemeni society. As mentioned above, the Ansar Allah’s Zaydi ideology was disliked and unaccepted by the Yemeni state and most of the society. The rejection of the Houthis ideological discourse essentially meant that they were suppressed and subjected to the dominant discourse of the Yemeni society, namely the republic. However, the power dynamics between the Ansar Allah and the Yemeni government have changed since the start of  the Yemeni Civil war. Starting off Ansar Allah are not the guerrilla fighters who hide in mountains anymore, rather they are an organized and military equipped militia. Also, their sphere of influence has expanded to include areas beyond Yemen’s extreme North and the governmental institutions have not been functioning properly since 2015.  This means that the Yemeni government’s influence has shrunk, and Ansar Allah is more capable now of spreading their own ideological discourse or at least their norms into the Yemeni society. In other words, due to the Yemeni civil war, Ansar Allah has acquired the military power that enabled them to reengineer the cultural capital of Yemeni society. In his article, “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” Pierre Bourdieu defines cultural capital as  the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one’s cultural competence and social status.[36]Additionally,  Bourdieu states that there are three types of cultural capital, namely; objectified, embodied and institutionalized. Objectified cultural capital is the material goods that people acquire which help them cultivate their skills and often signal their economic class; embodied cultural capital is the knowledge and skills that people acquire through socialization and education; and institutionalized cultural capital is the rank and measurement of cultural capital including  academic qualifications, degrees, job titles, political offices, and social roles. [37]  For Ansar Allah being the only player in the Yemeni civil war that is stationed in Yemen and have direct access to the public have given them the power to change the three forms of cultural capital in the Yemeni society.  Being the only player that is stationed in Yemen means that Ansar Allah is responsible for the social and cultural reproduction of Yemeni society. Bourdieu theory of cultural reproduction through generational changes to the education system and cultural customs applies to the case of Yemen because the Houthis have directly involved in injecting their conservative culture traditions and education system to the rest of the Yemeni society through the use of violence.

However, before explaining the methods in which Ansar Allah has attempted to change the cultural capital of Yemeni society. It is important to analyze the cultural capital of Ansar Allah. As mentioned above, Yemen’s upper North, especially, the Houthis have a different sectarian ideologies and social customs. For the most part, due to Yemeni government’s discriminatory policies against the upper North, most of the upper North have had little to no funds allocated for schools or development.[38] As a result, most Yemenis in the upper North three provinces are illiterate, poor and work in agriculture. This too included the Houthis with the exception of their leaders. This means that Houthis’ embodied cultural capital consist of only the knowledge they have received from their leaders including basic fiqh principles, Zaydi traditions, and anti-American political propaganda. Similarly, it indicates that Ansar Allah lack objectified and institutionalized  cultural capital. Ansar Allah does not hold any important titles in the Yemeni society as scholars or professors and they come from the poorest region in Yemen and mostly dress up in a very traditionalist and primitive manner.  However, since the start of the Yemeni war Ansar Allah have effectively deployed  their new political and military power and their knowledge to directly change the reproduction of  embodied capital and indirectly influence the objectified and institutionalized cultural capital of Yemeni society to be identical to theirs.  

The direct change of the embodied cultural capital of Yemeni society can be observed through Ansar Allah’s  deployment of military power to enforce their own values. For example, since the start of the Yemeni civil war, Ansar Allah has recruited an approximate of 50000 children as soldiers. The requirement process is not voluntary, there were many incidents where the Houthis have kidnapped children from their homes in Central Yemen provinces or threatened the parents to send their children to Ansar Allah camps.[39] In the camps these children are not trained to use heavy weaponry, they are also forced to learn about Ansar Allah’s Zaydi and traditional ideology and brainwashed to believe that Ansar Allah is fighting an outside occupation. Also, the children are forced to believe that Ansar Allah is the only legitimate political power that is concerned about Yemenis’ wellbeing. Beside the human rights violation that Ansar Allah is committing,  most of the children that are recruited by Ansar Allah come from a different background than theirs. The children come from a more open  background where the children are allowed to attend schools and often are from the middle class in Yemen. The recruitment of these children stops them from attending schools, acquiring any formal education and enforcing them to adopt values. The shift from formal education to Ansar Allah’s camps would naturally result in a change in the type of knowledge they children are acquiring. As mentioned above Ansar Allah has a limited amount of informal knowledge that accounts for their embodied cultural capital which means that the children are receiving the same type of ideological values. Consequently, the children recruited by Ansar Allah and others who can’t attend schools due to the war are not receiving any formal knowledge or cultivating their skills which means the Yemeni embodied cultural capital in the society is being replaced by that of Ansar Allah. Moreover, stopping these children from attending schools plays a role in changing their mentalities, stopping the reproduction of the Yemeni embodied cultural capital and enforcing the reproduction of Zaydi traditional embodied culture. In other words, the purpose of Ansar Allah’s camps is not only to train these children militarily, but also to stop the generational passage of the society’s cultural capital to these children and establish new foundations to the generational passage of Ansar Allah’s traditional form of embodied cultural capital. 

Additionally, Ansar Allah has directly influenced the objectified cultural capital of Yemeni society.  The areas that fall under Ansar Allah’s control have witnessed a massive change in the way people dress, behave and even interact with each other. One major change is abuses of female activists. Ansar Allah have taken their disapproval of female activities in civil society to another extreme. Since the Ansar Allah have tightened their grip on Sana’a and its surrounding provinces, there have been many reported cases of Ansar Allah’s fighters beating female activists and torturing them because of their opinions that disapprove of the movement. For example, early in January, Ebtisam Abu Dunya, an activist living in Yemen, criticized Ansar Allah’s ban on using  newly- printed banknotes issued by the Yemeni  government. As a consequence, Ansar Allah sent 15 of their fighters to storm her house and beat  her until she was unconscious.[40] However, Ansar Allah has not been very supportive of Houthi activists who cover their faces and believe in their mission either. Watching Almsira TV, the official TV network run by Ansar Allah, one can see that women lack any representation and even those who are interviewed appear to be fully covered, don’t show any skin, are very conservative and don’t talk about politics.   Similarly, Ansar Allah has been imposing dress-codes on women and policing females in Sana’a. Ansar Allah has been sending Zainabiyat, all-female battalion of Ansar Allah, to policewomen in universities and to force women to cover their faces. The imposition of new rules on women’s dress and roles in society essentially means that Yemeni  society’s objectified cultural capital is indirectly being changed to fit Ansar Allah’s discourse.[41] In other words, women are a central venue to the reproduction of cultural capital and passage of social and political ideas to their children, especially that women take on an important role in raising the children and  in the household. This means that suppressing women by terrorizing them would directly affect the ideas they pass on to their children. Also, it means that Ansar Allah are aiming to limit the role of women to the household by stopping their participation in political life and limiting their access to educational resources. Consequently, the limitation enforced on Yemeni women will produce a society in which women’s role is confined to serving men,  being illiterate and having no contribution to tangible contribution to the society outside the traditional parameters of the Houthis’ norms.


The politicization of Ansar Allah has been through different phases, but the most influential phase was the third (2011-present)  in which Ansar Allah developed a direct connection with Iran and obtained their own political and military bases. In subsequent events and especially after Ansar Allah asserted their political  leadership over North and Central Yemen, they attempted to restructure the cultural capital of the Yemeni society by imposing their traditional values and interrupting the generational reproduction of knowledge and cultural capital. 


Brandt, Marieke. Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict . New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Eriksen, Thomas Eriksen, “Connecting and Disconnecting: Intentionally, Anonymity, and Transactional Networks in Upper North Yemen” in Anthropology Now and Next : Essays in Honor of Ulf Hannerz edited by Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, Christina Garsten, Shalini Randeria, and Ulf Hanner, 48-69. New York: Berghahn, 2015.

Hamidi, Ayman. “Inscriptions of Violence in Northern Yemen: Haunting Histories, Unstable Moral Spaces.” Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 2 (March 1, 2009): 165–87. https://doi.org/10.1080/00263200802697084.

Retsö, Jan. “When Did Yemen Become “Arabia Felix”?.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 33 (2003): 229-35. www.jstor.org/stable/41223765.

Foucault, Michel and Gordon, Colin. Power/knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Terrill, W. Andrew. “Iranian Involvement in Yemen.” Orbis 58, no. 3 (2014): 429–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orbis.2014.05.008.

“ Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN,” United Nations News, 14 February 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/02/1032811

“Outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference: A Step toward Conflict Resolution and State Building?,”Arab Centre For Research & Policy Studies, February 2014, https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/Outcomes_of_Yemens_National_Dialogue_Conference_A_Step_toward_Conflict_Resolution_and_State_Building.aspx.

Juneau, Thomas. “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment”. International Affairs. 92, no.3, (May 2016): 647–663. doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12599. 

Nash, Roy. “Bourdieu on Education and Social and Cultural Reproduction.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 11, no. 4 (1990): 431-47. Accessed May 7, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/1392877.

Varfolomeev, Anna. “Houthis recruit 50,000 Yemen child soldiers in 3 months, minister says.” The Defense Post, June 20, 2019, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2019/06/20/yemen-houti-child-soldiers-noammar-al-eryani/.

 Abo Alasrar, Fatima. “Iran-Backed Yemeni Houthis Abuse Women to Silence Opposition,” Inside Arabia, January  27, 2020, https://insidearabia.com/iran-backed-yemeni-houthis-abuse-women-to-silence-opposition/.

[1] Jan Retsö,  “When Did Yemen Become “Arabia Felix”?” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 33 (2003): 229-230.www.jstor.org/stable/41223765.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “ Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN,” United Nations News, 14 February 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/02/1032811

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 10.

[6] Ibid.,13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 15

[9]Andre Gingrich, “Connecting and Disconnecting: Intentionally, Anonymity, and Transactional Networks in Upper North Yemen” in Anthropology Now and Next : Essays in Honor of Ulf Hannerz . ed.  Thomas Eriksen, Hylland, Christina Garsten, Shalini Randeria, and Ulf Hannerz, (New York: Berghahn, 2015),49

[10] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 18.

[11] Ibid.,18-20

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 18-20.

[15] Ibid.,20.

[16] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 23-24.

[17]Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 18-20.

[18] Michel Foucault, and Colin Gordon, Power/knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 513-516.

[19]  Michel Foucault, and Colin Gordon, Power/knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 103-105.

[20] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 113

[21] Ibid. 118.


[23]Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),113.

[24] Ibid, 115.

[25] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 131-135.

[26] Ayman Hamidi, “Inscriptions of Violence in Northern Yemen: Haunting Histories, Unstable Moral Spaces,” Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 2 (March 1, 2009): 165. https://doi.org/10.1080/00263200802697084.

[27]Ayman Hamidi, “Inscriptions of Violence in Northern Yemen: Haunting Histories, Unstable Moral Spaces,” Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 2 (March 1, 2009): 166. https://doi.org/10.1080/00263200802697084.

[28]  Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment,” International Affairs. 92, no 3, (May 2016):647.  doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12599.  

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference: A Step toward Conflict Resolution and State Building?,”Arab Centre For Research & Policy Studies, February 2014, https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/Outcomes_of_Yemens_National_Dialogue_Conference_A_Step_toward_Conflict_Resolution_and_State_Building.aspx .

[31] Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment,” International Affairs. 92, no 3, (May 2016): No.657, doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12599.   

[32] Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment,” International Affairs. 92, no 3, (May 2016): 662 . doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12599.  

[33] Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment,” International Affairs. 92, no 3, (May 2016): 662 . doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12599.  

[34]  Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 116.

[35] Andrew W. Terrill, “Iranian Involvement in Yemen,” Orbis 58, no. 3 (2014):430.. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orbis.2014.05.008.

[36] Roy Nash, “Bourdieu on Education and Social and Cultural Reproduction,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 11, no. 4 (1990): 431-35. www.jstor.org/stable/1392877.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen : A History of the Houthi Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),11.

[39] Anna Varfolomeev, “Houthis recruit 50,000 Yemen child soldiers in 3 months, minister says,” The Defense Post, June 20, 2019, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2019/06/20/yemen-houti-child-soldiers-noammar-al-eryani/ .

[40] Fatima Abo Alasrar, “Iran-Backed Yemeni Houthis Abuse Women to Silence Opposition,” Inside Arabia, January  27, 2020, https://insidearabia.com/iran-backed-yemeni-houthis-abuse-women-to-silence-opposition/.

[41] Fatima Abo Alasrar, “Iran-Backed Yemeni Houthis Abuse Women to Silence Opposition,” Inside Arabia, January  27, 2020, https://insidearabia.com/iran-backed-yemeni-houthis-abuse-women-to-silence-opposition/.