UN PhotoMilton Grant - Somalia Civil War

Women and Al-Shabab: Between False Empowerment and Terror

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Written by Anne-Yolande Bilala, Guest Contributor

Without doubt, the frequent bomb attacks in Mogadishu have been a major blow for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which backed by the African Union (AU) peacekeepers, managed to previously gain control of the city. The upsurge clearly indicates that the end of the two-decade war did not restore peace. On the contrary, fear and terror has become part of the daily life for thousands of people, more so for women and children. The Islamist group Al-Shabaab, newly joined with al-Qaeda, continues to control significant parts of the country despite ongoing efforts to stop the ruthless militants. Worst, details on the April Mogadishu attacker, who took the life of 10 people, are rather alarming since the perpetrator is a woman. This is the second time a woman has perpetrated such an attack in Somalia shedding light on a new trend in Somalia of women’s enlistment as Jihadists, following the footsteps of other terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab leader Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee’aad, or “al-Afghani”, issues statements urging women to join the insurgency. Every day, hundreds of women are trained in camps such as in Kamboni or Marka in the quest of the so-called martyrdom. While some may voluntarily enroll, others face the hard choice of life and death.

A staggering 80 percent of Somali women are presently illiterate, including some members of parliament, demonstrating that women’s empowerment and gender equality in the country falls short. More so, women — who lived under the harsh rules of al-Shabaab — are banned from walking or chatting in public with non-related men, wearing bras, and working — to name a few restrictions. So why the interest in women? Female terrorists are likely to pass through security checks unnoticed, and to some extent, attacks perpetrated by females attract more media attention, which is what Al-Shabaab hopes for.

The diverse propaganda tactics including using humanitarian aid, social medi,a and mosque outreach as recruitment tools have a common denominator: targeting the disadvantaged. Once enrolled, the “Jihad Janes” are trained, hold key roles from fundraisers, cook to intelligence officers and even have the option to become suicide bombers. They are no longer nurturers but fierce combatants who at times can be crueler than their counterparts, mostly driven by the desire to be respected by their peers. Whether their participation is attributable to holy war, grievances against the current government, or the fight against the “Kuffar” — the disbeliever — women are undeniably victims of Al-Shabaab doctrine.

Using emancipation as the main motivation for enrollment seems rather too simplistic, and deeper issues, especially violence against women, leave them deprived of other options. The pictures of women armed with weapons supposedly suggesting self-empowerment are certainly smoke and mirrors.

A stated earlier, Al-Shabaab’s terror is felt by many women each day. Al-Shaabab, which presents itself as a morally righteous faction, is known to kidnap women and girls, gang rape and abuse them as part of its sway in some parts of Somalia. Ultimately, women have become commodities with the purpose of bolstering militants’ morale. Worst, insurgents force families to hand over girls for arranged marriages which do not last more than weeks, enough time to become sexual slaves. Sources often reported that those who survived and dare to report the assaults end up beheaded. Even more disturbing, militants’ widows are not precluded from mistreatment. According to various sources, Al-Shabaab has also introduced its version of widow inheritance (dumaal) for which all militants are brothers and therefore can marry the widows of fallen fellows. Neither a woman nor her family has a say.

Somalia is now at a critical point, as TFG mandates are expiring on August 20th and a permanent government must be in the worka. Certainly, the focus will be oriented toward political concerns. However, to reach its optimum, the government along with the international community must include women rights in the agenda. This will not only curtail the recruitments of women by insurgents but will also improve gender equality. As stated by Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the prime minister of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) “Somalia is moving into an era of peace, stability and normalcy”.

One should not forgot that many women continue to endlessly risk their lives fighting for their freedom; particularly in a country already shattered by violence. Al-Shabaab is not just the enemy of Somalia, it is Somali women’s nemesis.

Anne-Yolande Bilala currently manages Market Research and Strategic Planning for DRS Technical Services Inc. In this capacity, she provides analysis of market and industry trends that influence corporate investment and business thrusts. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Business from Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Rouen, France and an MBA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey California. She is currently completing her Master’s studies in Law in International Security & Defense at the Université Pierre Mendes France-Grenoble II.