Gender-Based Violence Galvanized Warlords' Foes

Women such as this protester, denouncing a proposed deployment of foreign peacekeepers in her country, are playing an active role in Somalia's political life. When fighting broke out in January, women took to the airwaves on local radio stations and denounced the warlords who had controlled Somalia since the government collapsed in 1991.
Women such as this protester, denouncing a proposed deployment of foreign peacekeepers in her country, are playing an active role in Somalia's political life. When fighting broke out in January, women took to the airwaves on local radio stations and denounced the warlords who had controlled Somalia since the government collapsed in 1991. (By Karel Prinsloo -- Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 18, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 17 -- Sometimes, the women here said, it began with a knock on the door after dark or with a kidnapping in broad daylight. And sometimes, the gunmen who ruled this city would use a long, sharp knife to slice open the tin shacks of poor families and snatch their daughters away.

The girls would return -- if they returned -- in the morning, sobbing and marked permanently as castoffs in a traditional Islamic society that demands virginity at marriage.

"Four-year-old girls, 5-year-old girls were raped," said Anab Mohamed Isaaq, 35, a solemn, long-faced widow who has two girls among her five children. "I was scared for my daughters."

An epidemic of sexual violence during 15 years of lawlessness in Somalia was among the factors that strengthened opposition to this city's notorious warlords, residents said. The Islamic militias who drove them out in months of recent fighting were embraced as keepers of public order, as a force strong enough and pious enough to keep Mogadishu's daughters safe.

That helped the militias win the support of Mogadishu's increasingly influential women, who in recent years had joined the job market en masse to support their families in the midst of a collapsing economy. On streets throughout this ruined city, they sold vegetables, plastic jugs of gasoline and khat, a popular, addictive leaf chewed widely here.

"Women were doing what men used to do here," said Shariff Osman, 45, dean of the faculty at Mogadishu University. "They were paying the bills."

When fighting broke out in January, the airwaves suddenly were full of angry denunciations of the secular warlords and support for the Islamic militias fighting them. Most of the callers were women, said Somalis who monitored the political upheaval as it played out on radio talk shows.

And though it was guns and not words that chased away the warlords, the intensity of the public revulsion for them provided crucial support for the Islamic militias as they advanced through this oceanside capital, analysts, activists and business leaders say.

"Somalia was saved because of the Somali women," said Khadija O. Ali, 47, founder of a women's group here and a graduate student in conflict resolution at George Mason University. "I think it is even something that the men acknowledge now. Finally."

At the top of the list of their concerns, Ali and other women said, was curbing murder, robbery and rape in one of the world's most dangerous cities.

In the absence of a central government -- the last one fell to the warlords in 1991 -- city leaders chose to deal with these problems by establishing traditional Islamic courts, with one overseeing the members of each of the city's dozen or so leading families. The courts relied on Islamic law, which calls for thieves' hands to be amputated, murderers to be publicly executed and rapists to either die or face public lashings, depending on the circumstances of the case. (Residents say that, in practice, jail sentences have been far more common punishments for crimes.)

One such court was set up last year, Ali said, after four gunmen knocked on the door of a home shortly before midnight and demanded that the man inside turn over his 20-year-old stepdaughter. She returned the next day in tears, said a neighbor, who spoke on the condition on anonymity.


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