Somalia: Women feel power slipping

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For 15 years, Somalia was ruled by clan-based strongmen, each with his own private army. Over that period of chaos, violence and war, the women of Mogadishu have risked their lives time and again -- and in the process changed their country.
First they became the wartime breadwinners in this male-dominated society.
"Women had to help the family to survive. That's when they got their voice, when they shared the life of the family with the men," said Malyun Sheik Haidar, 31, who publishes a women's newspaper.

This spring, women stepped up again. Weary of suffering stoically, they jammed the switchboards of Mogadishu's independent radio stations with angry protests about the warlords' violence.

It marked a stunning shift in Somali culture. People here call it a popular revolution that helped defeat the warlords and ushered in the reign of the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts.

But now that women have helped end the brutal power of the warlords, they may be forced to abandon their newfound status.

Already women are swapping traditional Somali dress, which is open at the face, for the Saudi-style black hijab, which covers the face and body.

As the family breadwinner, Ms. Mohammed was a part of the economic revolution, but she was too preoccupied with the raw business of survival to worry about the political revolution of recent months.

Like many young people raised in the warlord era, she has little education, just three years of school, because her father couldn't afford to send her to private school. There was no government, thus no government-provided schools, hospitals, police, water, electricity or sanitation.

Her brother, a militiaman for warlord Muse Side Yalahow, taught her how to fire an AK-47. After he was killed in a fight more than a year ago, she approached local women for advice on how to trade khat. She ended up on the airport run.

"I was trembling. I knew the militias could attack us at any moment and kill me and steal the khat. But the problem of our daily survival drove me to do it," said Ms. Mohammed, who made $2.50 a day.

Before the warlords' defeat, militias and freelance gunmen were some of the most regular khat customers, but they did not always pay.

Sometimes they'd shoot khat sellers in the market or ambush them on the road. In one such ambush, Ms. Mohammed's friend was shot and killed beside her.

Nine months ago, Ms. Mohammed, under pressure from her family, quit the dangerous trade. She joined a militia, thinking it would be safer, but three months later she found herself in the recent battles for Mogadishu.

"I don't like to kill people. I don't like to fight. In battle, you die or kill," she said. "I was very frightened in battle, but I had to do it for the money."

Like many women in Mogadishu, she feels less vulnerable to violence nowadays, but she is afraid it will be harder to find work under the Islamic regime.

"I don't see them as something good," she said. "I'd like to leave Somalia if I can and do business, have a small shop or even a job with a decent salary, like a secretary or a cleaner."

Anab Mohammed Isaaq, 35, has five children ranging in age from 7 months to 10 years. She wears a white band on her head to signify mourning for her husband, who was killed by a stray bullet in the Mogadishu fighting. She supports the family by selling clothes in the market, earning 50 cents to a dollar a day.

She has lived in fear for her two daughters, Nasteexo, 10, and Hamsa, 7. In her neighborhood of metal shacks, militias armed with machetes have come at night and hacked through walls, stealing girls. A neighbor's 4-year-old was kidnapped, raped and killed.

"The problems are all on women. That's why they were complaining and talking to the media," she said.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic courts won popular support in the mid-1990s by trying to enforce a degree of order, reducing theft and crime. When the courts' militias recently drove the warlords from Mogadishu, they had the support of the majority.

The courts represent various strands of Islam, some more fundamentalist than others, but there are fears that the recent rise of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys as chairman of the group could mean more repressive, Taliban-style rules. Aweys took over from the more moderate Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who is now chairman of the group's executive committee.

Ms. Haidar, 31, the women's newspaper publisher, was recently warned by a figure in the courts to give up working and stay home.

"If this continues, it will close down my newspaper," she said. "This is our only expression. We are talking about children's rights and women's rights, and if they stop us from doing that, it means we lost our rights."

Even under the more moderate leadership, Islamic guards had been stopping minibuses to check women's clothing and men's hairstyles.

By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
Sunday, September 03, 2006