Once their favourite targets, Al Shabaab now turn to women to dodge crackdown

Friday August 18 2023

Somali women seen in the Hamarweyne market of Mogadishu, Somalia. PHOTO | AFP


On August 8, Somalia's military court, which usually tries high-level criminal suspects, witnessed a spectacle: four women, all married, were paraded as terrorism suspects.

Identified as Khadra Mohamed Isse, Aisha Muhyadin Mohamud, Zahra Hussein Isse and Naima Farah Sheikhdoon, they were accused of aiding Al Shabaab leaders in the Lower Shabelle region, south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

But they put up a spirited fight. Their lawyer argued that the state was criminalising association, and they said they did not necessarily know everything their husbands were doing behind their backs.

One of them admitted to being the wife of a member of the extremist group but said that didn't qualify her to know everything the militants were doing.

Another woman denied the accusation, arguing that her husband could be working for anyone, including the government, without saying so. 

Read: Somalia parades Shabaab 'brides' in court


"He could even be working with you. How should I know?" she said, pointing her finger at a prosecutor.

All that has been shown here is that the women are married to members of Al Shabaab. Being married cannot be a crime and they should be released, according to her defence lawyer.

Yet the case itself highlighted something that security experts in Somalia had initially ignored: How women support the group's activities.

Initially, Al Shabaab had one of the most draconian policies for taming women. First, they killed their husbands or sons, then they controlled what women wore.

For example, when Al Shabaab militants took control of Bakara Market in 2010, the largest trading centre in Mogadishu, they set up checkpoints to see if shoppers were wearing bras.

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