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Somali Women Play Key Role in Islamist Takeover


The United Nations is warning of more conflict in Somalia, where Islamist militias have recently taken control of the capital, Mogadishu. A U.N. official told the BBC today that the flow of arms into the country has risen sharply in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Meanwhile, the people of Mogadishu are adjusting to life under the Islamist militias. Craig Timberg of the Washington Post reports that Somali women, at least older women, are happy with the new order.

Mr. CRAIG TIMBERG (Washington Post): There's a bit of a generational shift here. Women who are mothers in particular seem to be very pleased that their daughters are safe from being raped and robbed, which was very common under the warlords who ran the city for 15 years.

Younger women are feeling a bit of pressure to cover their faces in their sort of Islamic way, and they're not as happy about the change.

ELLIOTT: Are there concerns that the Islamists will ultimately crack down on social freedoms beyond, say, just having to cover your face? We've read reports of movie theaters being closed down and World Cup broadcasts banned, for example.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. You know, the thing that you need to understand is that this group that runs Mogadishu now is not monolithic. And there's absolutely been World Cup broadcasts that have been blocked and cinemas have been shut down. And I've interviewed a guy who was arrested and had his head shaved. So quite aggressive things have happened.

On the other hand, there are other parts of the city where there seems to be nothing like that happening and virtually no fear of crackdowns. So it's very hard to kind of bring it entirely into focus because it is so complex.

ELLIOTT: Now, from reading your article today, I get the sense that women actually played a role in helping the Islamist militias take over Mogadishu.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, I was very surprised by this. You know, as a Westerner you come in and you sort of assume that the women are not listened to very much in an Islamic country. And I think that that's maybe a bit unfair. What was happening in Somalia is that the women were listened to.

After the government fell apart in 1991, the formal economy collapsed. The men who had formal jobs lost their jobs. So the women became the breadwinners by selling clothes and fruit and such, you know, gasoline on the streets. And so in the last few years, they've been able to really force their way into the room when the major decisions were being made.

And in addition to that, radio call-in shows have become very popular in Mogadishu. There's no government to stop anything from happening. So the women would get on the phone, they'd call and they would complain about the warlords. They'd complain that their daughters had been raped and that the shells had knocked down their homes and they were, in many ways, really the dominant part of this conversation over the past few months as the warlords were chased away.

ELLIOTT: So they welcome the Islamist militias who would come in and help establish at least safety for their daughters.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, exactly. Again, there is real anxiety there that this Islamist shift could go too far, and I think that there's reasons - there's legitimate reasons to be concerned about that. But you're in a country that's had no police force, no army, no laws, no prosecution, no judges for 15 years. The thought that someone is going to bring guys with guns under control is deeply appealing. The fact that women can now walk down the streets or they can send their girls to the market without fear that they're going to be snatched off the streets is a very powerful thing.

ELLIOTT: Craig Timberg of the Washington Post. Thank you very much.

Mr. TIMBERG: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.