The key to loosening al-Shabaab’s hold on Somalia? A female revolution.
Kenyan government plans to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, and home to over 300,000 Somali refugees, comes after decades of violence and political uncertainty within the region. Having been erected in 1992 by the UNHCR as a transit camp for those fleeing civil war in Somalia, many have spent their entire lives in Dadaab. With the Kenyan government unwilling to provide protection for its inhabitants, 80% are women of which and children. Sexual violence at the hands of terror group al-Shabaab is a reality for many. It has been widely reported that al-Shabaab have been utilised the camp as a means to smuggle weapons and recruit more members; catalysing the government’s decision to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees back into Somalia. But what does this mean for the scores of women and children, already vulnerable to the threat of religious extremism? Well, by various accounts, Somalia is considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with rising levels of illiteracy, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). It could be suggested that women in the region have little option but to comply with government measures, and thus face their repatriation and the subsequent uncertainty regarding housing, welfare and safety. However, under the surface of rising tensions between government and terror groups, the exploitation of women under terror highlights just how significant women are to al-Shabaab’s endurance and expansion.
In February 2015, Luul Dahir drove into the courtyard of the hotel where she worked and detonated a bomb during Friday prayers. She was known by the community as the widow of a fellow suicide bomber, who had left her struggling with six children. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. In a strikingly similar case, Samantha Lewthwaite, dubbed the White Widow by British media, has been widely reported to have had an involvement in the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013. Germaine Lindsay, responsible for a 7/7 London Underground bomb, left her a widow in 2005. Clear trends in al-Shabaab’s recent tactics point towards a reformed policy towards women. Targeting widowed women to carry out terror attacks in their name suggests an exploitation of vulnerability by al-Shabaab, but also serves to provide protection to the women involved by the ability to re-marry a fighter; considered more honourable than to die a single mother.
The environment that has enabled women to join a group which oppresses their rights can be linked to Somalia being widely considered a ‘failed state.’ The country has yet to elect an effective national government since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. Famine, war and terrorism has ensued, providing the social conditions for al-Shabaab to cultivate a following. The organisation rose from branch within the Union of Islamic Courts, which once controlled Mogadishu but was forced out by Ethiopian forces in 2006. With reported links with Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda, they are thought to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters. To date, their most gruesome attacks include the mass shootings at Kenya’s Garissa University in April 2015 and Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre in 2013. In both cases, the groups were reported to have spared Muslims and massacre those unable to recite from the Quran. Current demographics show that al-Shabaab dominates mostly rural areas and advocates Wahhabi Islam, whist most Somalis follow a Sufi doctrine.
It can be argued that women now count for three uses to al-Shabaab in Somalia: as fighters, as wives and due to the high numbers of forced child marriages, as a currency. All three provide significant aid to al-Shabaab’s reign of terror across rural Somalia. Women are thus targeted for their weakness, radicalised and trained as fighters, supposedly liberating themselves from their previous lives. Such female liberation could be deemed triumph for women deciding their own futures and purposes in one of the most volatile countries in the world. Although, if we consider what if they choose not to, they are likely to face forced marriage and an uncertain fate, it highlights a sense of false liberation advertised by al-Shabaab to enlist women under a false pretence of becoming a respected peer. Women still fall victim to their own liberation. Ultimately, given that al-Shabaab only emerged in 2006 and have managed to garner support in order to carry out such large-scale attacks emphasises their strength. This year has seen various car bombs and as well as direct strikes upon the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping operating bases, killing 170 people; suggesting sophisticated bomb technology. Such power argues a case for a strong counter operation, which AMISOM hopes to provide.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is a peacekeeping mission operating in Somalia with approval by the UN. There are approximately 500 women within the 17,000 members, often occupying roles women within the US military have only just been permitted to serve in. An encouragement of the inclusion of female peacekeepers has been a policy used by the UN in efforts to reduce cases of violence towards women by military forces and to counsel victims of rape and FGM. The inclusion of women in high combat roles should not be overlooked, as it proposes a legitimate means of liberating thousands of women misplaced by civil war, as well as providing an alternative to those who believe they have little choice but to turn to al-Shabaab.
Just last month, AMISOM announced that it plans to withdraw 22,000 troops from Somalia by 2020, with hopes of an election bringing about reformed democratic ideals. Other reforms made by Somali government include a bill to criminalise sexual violence for the first time, as well as endorsing a 30% female quota in Parliament. Small steps towards gender equality in Somalia suggest a heightened consideration of the importance of women in tackling Islamic extremism. Complete gender equality in Somalia is a long way off, but steps towards the inclusion of women in leadership positions highlight a change in tactics. Peacekeeping missions must become aware of the risk women have towards being exploited by al-Shabaab, whether it be by recruitment or force, and must advocate equality within the armed forces. A need for women in leadership positions is vital for the liberation of women’s rights, especially for those facing a disorganised repatriation in their hundreds of thousands within the coming months. 2020 is an ambitious target, but it calls for a revolution worthy of women.