NAIROBI (Reuters) - Women living in areas controlled by Somalia’s Islamists say they are increasingly the target of more draconian rules meted out by the rebels bent on enforcing their ideologies.
In the latest decree by the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group that governs most of southern Somalia, women in the seaside town of Kismayu have been banned from carrying out barter trade with the male crews of ships calling at the port.
The women have also been told they cannot shake any male’s hands in public, travel on their own, sell anything or work in an office.
“A woman cannot be seen with a man from another country at the port. The punishment for any woman caught near the port or foreign vessels will be arrest,” a senior al Shabaab commander said in a statement this week.
The al Shabaab group — which means “the youth” in Arabic — have in the past banned movies, musical ringtones, dancing at wedding ceremonies and watching soccer.
Many Kismayu women, mostly widowed or divorced, have survived for years solely from selling or bartering vegetables and fruits for fuel and other commodities from ship crews.
“I have three children and raise them from the little I earn from exchanging goods at the seaport, but now I can’t do my job,” Hawa Olow told Reuters in a telephone conversation.
Al Shabaab has also prescribed that the women must buy and wear uniform robes that only it supplies.
It has banned khat, a mild stimulant popular with men in the Horn of Africa. Dozens of women in Kismayu caught smuggling khat have been sentenced to 20-day jail terms and fined one million Somalia shillings.
“During the war we used to have a life and a little peace. Now Islamists control much of the south and mete out punishments for the slightest thing. They say women should do nothing,” one khat seller told Reuters.
“Some women have no husbands, they are single or divorced or their men died fighting. It is totally destroying life.”
Women cannot sit next to a man in a bus and have to be accompanied by a male relative when travelling.
“We have been born and raised as Muslims and we don’t know where Islam says women can’t work. They have taken these ideologies from outside Somalia, from the Taliban and other militants,” said Abdiwahab Abdi Samad, professor of history at the University of Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya.
“If al Shabaab do not want women to work, they have to pay them money so that families depending on them can survive.
Another rebel group, Hizbul Islam, is taking a harsher ideological stance, bringing it more in line with the larger al Shabaab by imposing a strict form of sharia law.
Initially, Hizbul Islam had been seen by many Somalis as less severe in its interpretation of Islam than al Shabaab.
Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab, which used to be rivals but often fought together against the government in Mogadishu, agreed to merge in December.
In Afgoye, just south of Mogadishu, one old woman said she was publicly whipped by young men the age of her grandchildren for not donning the tent-like robes demanded of females.
“They said I cannot wear my old clothes,” said Fatuma Ahmed. “I am an old woman over 60 and there is no man looking at me, why do they force me to have those heavy clothes?”
Writing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by David Stamp