Thousands of women have protested in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and other cities against remarks by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, that it is un-Islamic for women to join men in the demonstrations against his rule.
The women, many clad in black dress with full face veils, said their role in protests was religiously sound and called on the president to step down in line with nearly three months of demonstrations demanding his resignation.
“It seems that President Saleh failed in all his efforts to employ tribes and security to strike at those seeking his exit, and so he resorted to using religion, especially after he saw that thousands of women were taking part in protests,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a leader in the protest movement.
Saleh, who has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced out before organising an orderly transition, urged the opposition on Friday to reconsider their refusal to join talks to resolve the crisis.
But he also struck a defiant tone, calling the opposition liars and bandits, and appealing to religious sensitivities in the conservative Muslim country by criticising the mixing of unrelated men and women among Sanaa protesters.
About 5,000 women demonstrated against the president in the capital on Saturday, with similar numbers in the industrial city of Taiz, south of the capital.
The protests have had the support of the main opposition coalition, whose largest member is the Islamic party, Islah.
“Oh youth, the honour of women has been slandered,” the women chanted, referring to Saleh’s remarks.
Some women brought their young daughters to the protests, including one with her face painted with the image of the Yemeni flag encircled by a heart on her cheek and the word “Leave” scrawled on her forehead.
“If Saleh read the Quran he wouldn’t have made this accusation,” said one protester, who gave her name only as Majda. “We ask he be tried according to Islamic law.”
In the southern port city of Aden, armed men tried to storm a police station and then battled with security forces on Saturday for half an hour before being driven back by rooftop sniper fire, a local official said.
Officials said protesters in Aden tried to shut down traffic in the city in support of a strike call, but security patrols were removing makeshift roadblocks. Most shops were closed.
Saudi and Western allies of Yemen fear a prolonged standoff could ignite clashes between rival military units and cause chaos that would benefit an active al-Qaeda wing operating in the poor, mountainous Arabian Peninsula country.
In the southern province of Abyan, where both al-Qaeda fighters and southern separatists are active, an armed man on a motorcycle shot dead a soldier as he walked in the street, medical sources said.
A local official blamed al-Qaeda.
Armed also attacked a security patrol overnight in the southern province of Lahej, wounding two soldiers in an attack tentatively blamed on separatists, a local official said.
In Amran province, north of Sanaa, armed men attacked a prison late on Friday, killing three guards and freeing 20 death row inmates, a local official said.
He said authorities managed to recapture all but one prisoner.
Saleh, who has already lost control of several provinces, was struggling to quell separatist activity in the south and cement a truce with Shia Muslim fighters in the north even before the start of the protests.