Since the ouster of Somalia’s Islamic government, women have been caught in the crossfire. One woman who struggled with imams to keep a girls’ school open says freedom’s price came too dear. Third in a series on women and Islam.

Mulyun Osman, center, and her camp neighbors.

GALKAYO, Somalia (WOMENSENEWS)–One barometer of the security in south-central Somalia is the number of women and children sleeping on the rocky desert earth around Mulyun Ahmed Osman’s house, a shelter cobbled together from dry brush and rags at a displacement camp in the central Somali town of Galkayo.

Traditionally, Osman’s Bantu ethnic group has cultivated land in the relatively lush valleys bordering the Juba and Shabelle rivers in the south. When security in Somalia begins to fail, the Bantu–who are the country’s smallest and weakest clan–flee first. And, ever since the United States backed the ouster of a hardline Islamist government from Mogadishu a little over a year ago, every available patch of earth outside Osman’s house has been filled.

"My home has become another camp within the camp," she said.

But she can’t turn the women away or deny them what little food she has. She knows how bad Mogadishu can be when there is war.

"My husband was killed in front of me while I was delivering a baby," Osman said, remembering the chaos that drove her over 500 miles from her home in the Somali capital during the East African nation’s civil war 13 years ago. "All my children were clinging to me then: one on my belly, one was on my shoulders, one was on my chest."

Now it seems the United States, in its pursuit of the war on terror, unwittingly played a role in sending Mogadishu’s women back to an era they thought they had left behind forever.

In June 2006 the Islamic Courts Union, a front modeled along the lines of Afghanistan’s Taliban, took power in south-central Somalia, offering so welcome a respite from chaos that many women in Mogadishu preferred its extremely restrictive brand of justice to no justice at all.

As the Islamic Courts Union interpreted Sharia law, rape was a capital crime but a woman who accused a man of rape and failed to produce four male witnesses could be stoned for adultery. Watching the World Cup soccer tournament was heresy, police arrested women without veils and shaved men’s heads. Women’s groups were banned.

U.S. Opposed Islamic Courts

Fearing the influence of militant factions within the Islamic Courts, the United States backed a loose coalition of warlords who had the savvy to dub themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. Somali women took to the streets to protest the U.S. policy.

"Many women supported the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu because they received security," said Alia Adem Abdi, who chairs the Hiran Women Action on Advocacy for Peace and Human Rights Organization, based in Somalia’s restive central Hiran region. "They had an access to move freely in the capital city. Also the children had access to go to school. But not now."

Last Christmas, a weak Transitional Federal Government stormed Mogadishu with backing from neighboring Ethiopia and tacit support from the United States, sending the coalition of jihadis and militias who backed the Islamic Courts underground.

While insurgents have not been shy about using women and children as cover and even weapons–forcing some to carry remote control bombs alongside opposing troops–the Ethiopian and government soldiers have also been accused of raping and killing women and children.

One of Osman’s lodgers, Dahira Adan Ali, was already on the road out of Mogadishu with eight children when her bus was stopped in early December.

"Ethiopian forces were checking the cars," Ali recalled. "There were explosions and the Ethiopians opened fire on our car. One girl was shot."

Secular Government Foundered

In theory, the Transitional Federal Government’s secular constitution would offer women greater freedom than the Islamic Courts’ brand of Sharia law, but the greater imperative of survival has taken precedence. Unable to defend itself in Mogadishu, the government struggles to fend off attacks from its base in the small city of Baidoa.

Violence and the displacement of nearly 750,000 people since the fighting began last year have escalated incidences of rape and robbery. When it comes to justice, the best women can hope for is what the clans’ male elders may mete out in ill-defined traditional punishments.

In some traditions, a rapist must be killed to restore the woman’s family honor. Often, though, if the rapist agrees to marry his victim, her family’s honor remains intact. At the very least, the male elders must be compensated, and the amount varies according to their clan’s prestige and firepower.

"Compensation may be 44 goats in the north," said Osman. "It’s 25 goats in southern Shabelle region. But there are no goats for Bantu anywhere because we don’t have power."

Female leaders find themselves in a bind. On the one hand, Islamic groups like the Shabaab have been hostile to women’s education and leadership. On the other, rape, robbery and killings of women caught in the crossfire have surged since the transitional government’s advance on Mogadishu in December 2006.

Violence Snuffed Civil Society

Analysts say that the Islamic Courts had begun to dismantle women’s rights and the nascent civil society that had blossomed in recent years. But fighting wiped that out.

"The irony in Somalia is that, because there has not been a strong state, the media and civil society have been able to flourish in a way they could not have if there had been an authority," said Leslie Lefkow, an Africa researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The question is, would the trend of increased oppression by the Islamic Courts have continued? We’ll never know. But certainly the Transitional Federal Government and the Ethiopians with their intervention have brought a disaster by an entirely different lens."

When Hawa Aden opened a school for girls in Galkayo in 1999, it was hard enough to win over the town’s elders, who had generally resisted militant strands of Islam imported from abroad. Local men reacted sourly. In their Friday meetings, imams denounced Aden’s school. Boys hurled rocks at students and teachers and vandalized the school compound. Eventually, Aden managed to win local elders and imams over; by the end of 2007, parents were begging to enroll their sons in the school that excelled on state exams.

She doesn’t think that would have happened had the Islamic Courts Union taken Galkayo, which was just beyond its northernmost reach.

"I tell you the truth, if the Islamists would have taken Galkayo, we wouldn’t be here, that is so sure," Aden said.

Recently, though, extreme factions of the Islamic Courts have gained a foothold in places where they found little support in the past. In January, the entire staff of one radio station in Galkayo, Radio Daljir, were driven into hiding when a militia branded their broadcasts on women’s issues "un-Islamic."

It’s possible that without the intervention of Ethiopia and the United States the Islamic Courts would have taken the city. Still, as fervently as she has fought for her school, Aden says the cost of the intervention has been too high.

"For me, if they would have asked, I would have said stop the war," she said. "Because of the consequences of children, because of the consequences for women, because of the consequences for human beings."

Zoe Alsop is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. In December she traveled to Galkayo on assignment for Women’s eNews.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

For more information:

Hiran Women Action on Advocacy for Peace and Human Rights:

Human Rights Watch, Somalia:

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