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Stability Comes to Somalia, but at What Cost for Women?

Let’s not wait until it is too late

Islamic militias known as the “Islamic Courts Union” recently took control over Mogadishu from the warlords who overthrew the ruling dictatorship in 1991. Both Somali men and women welcome the new stability the Islamic militias provide, but grave questions remain if Somalia is on its way to establishing a new Taliban-like government which will subjugate women under strict interpretations of Islamic law.
 
Not long ago, the Taliban were similarly welcomed for providing Afghanistan with “stability” after years of civil war and for imposing strict bans on drugs and “immoral” practices in Kabul. Immediately after taking power, however, the Taliban banned Afghan women from public life and relegated them to their homes, forbidding them from working, going to school or wearing anything other than a burqa.
 
The West has expressed fears that Somalia will become a harbor for terrorists or that it might inspire state-sponsored terrorism. Little, however, has been mentioned about the possible effect an Islamic government will have on Somali women, already burdened by years of hardship in the absence of a central authority.
 
Some of the new chiefs in Mogadishu are taking quick steps to enforce what they consider Islamic law. In some places, they prevented Somalis from watching the World Cup on the grounds that Islamic law bans Western films and television (and men wearing shorts!)—militia men even entered houses and brutally beat anyone watching the games. In addition to arresting men and shaving their heads, the militias have instituted a ban on coed beaches even when women wear full-length dresses on these beaches. These strict regulations are making some Somalis wonder if they are truly better off than they were with the warlords holding sway.
 
The militias are also targeting women by pressuring them to cover their hair and faces. Younger women in particular, used to freedoms without government restrictions, are distressed over the demands that they change their style of dress and conform—they worry that this is an ominous sign of things to come.
 
Fears engendered by these early signs of excessive zeal are balanced for many Somali women by their release from the arbitrary rule of the individual warlords. Under the warlords, there were several incidents where militias burst into houses, dragged girls away and raped them without there being any recourse for the girl or her family. In fact, the original reason for having these “Islamic courts” was that the tribes, and the rich merchants behind them, wanted to impose some semblance of order over the anarchy of the warlords. Somali women are waiting to see how these Islamic courts will evolve into a real central authority with a political and social program.
 
While the Islamic militias are attempting to reassure Western leaders that they don’t intend to impose a Taliban-like government on Somalia, their actions to date contrast starkly with their rhetoric. Their spokespersons, wise to the ways of Western media, are already claiming that the soccer ban was an “isolated” incident by a local militia. They claim that most of the coalition is moderate and that they, the moderates, will make sure that everything will be under control.
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The early history of the Taliban is not a good omen. Most of the moderates in any Islamic movement are quickly overtaken by the most extreme elements in their midst.  Moreover, ascertaining who the “moderates” are in Somalia may prove difficult. The Union of Islamic Courts is comprised of four groups: a group once considered a terrorist organization by the United States; a group which regards Osama bin Laden as a “moderate”; a group calling for a strictly Islamist state in Somalia and a group that has links to the Taliban.
 
The moderates of the alliance, if there are any, may still emerge and take charge. They may prevail over hard-line extremists who want to impose strict Islamic law and who have connections to international terror organizations. But as the Taliban proved, good intentions to provide law and order can turn very quickly into egregious human rights abuses. Religious interpretations can soon give way to archaic interpretations that allow offenses such as public executions for minor offenses, forbidding women from participating in public life and prohibiting kite flying.
 
While the dust hasn’t settled on the new forces ruling the streets of Mogadishu one thing is for sure: If strict interpretations of Islamic law are enforced, Somali women will undoubtedly be the first to suffer the consequences.
 
To avoid a repetition of the tragic pattern of Taliban ascendancy over Afghan public life, the international community, and aid donors in particular, must make it clear to the merchants who control the funding of the Court coalition that extreme behavior, whether in harboring terrorists or in restricting the freedoms of women, will be met with severe sanctions. Let us not wait until it is too late.

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Ms. Rassam is director of international policy at the Independent Women's Forum. She recently gave a lecture about "Women's Participation in the Democratization Processes in Iraq and Afghanistan: Achievements and Challenges."

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