Women fall victim to Somalia's prejudice

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The Independent Online
LEILA HASSAN is an 18-year-old mother, but she speaks with the high- pitched voice of a child. Her eyes shift back and forth like those of a cornered animal.

Last month, in the early days of the US-led military intervention in Somalia, Ms Hassan was stripped and beaten nearly to death by an angry mob in Mogadishu in an incident that was captured by photographers and television crews and broadcast around the world.

Today she is on the run, under constant threat in this overwhelmingly Muslim society by Somalis who view her as a prostitute for French soldiers and shunned by relatives who accuse her of disgracing the family. She is obsessed with getting hold of the television film shot of her so no one else can see it.

Ms Hassan's descent into a personal hell began with a sweet. She was standing with a crowd of curious onlookers watching a column of French troops arriving in the early days of the intervention, when the soldiers tossed sweets to the crowd. 'A young boy standing there asked me and another girl why beautiful Somali girls were accepting candy from foreign troops and smiling at them,' she said in an interview. 'I said, 'what does it matter, they behave better than you'. Then he told the crowd to start beating me. There were women doing it too.'

The French troops pulled Ms Hassan into their vehicle with the angry crowd in pursuit. A traffic jam halted their progress, however, and the crowd's stones began finding their mark on the soldiers' backs and heads. They motioned to Ms Hassan to leave the car.

'Before my feet hit the ground I was attacked. The French vehicle moved on. While my clothes were being ripped off, I could see the journalists on the roof of the hotel taking pictures,' she said. 'I was naked and a crowd of people came to watch. Hundreds and hundreds of people. Finally, I grabbed a knife from a watermelon stall, but I did not mean to harm anyone else. I wanted to kill myself.'

Somali police officers rescued Ms Hassan from certain death. The pro- Islamic daily newsletter, Qaran, later said that if the accusations against Ms Hassan of sleeping with foreign troops was true, then she should be killed. The main warlord in the southern port town of Kismayu, Col Ahmed Omar Jess, recently ordered that any Somali woman seen entering or leaving foreign military barracks should be shot on sight.

'The attack was meant to show opposition to the presence of foreign troops in the country, but the attackers were not bold enough to face the foreign soldiers so they tried to cut them off from the public,' said A M Ali, a Somali journalist working with the UN children's fund, Unicef. 'The attack was motivated by religion. In Islam, adultery is punished with stoning to death.'

Sterling Arush, 36, who works at Ida, a women's self-help group in Mogadishu, said the US-led intervention had brought many problems for women. 'There is an assumption that all women are potential prostitutes for the troops,' she said. 'The irony is that this was just after the worst atrocities carried out by Somali men against Somali women.'

Rape increased in recent years as the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991 sparked a civil war between rival clan-based militias for the spoils of power. 'It started with the wars. War makes people crazy,' Ms Arush said. 'Rape is a way to demoralise and weaken the enemy.' Ms Hassan's case, said Amina Haji Abdullahi, a university lecturer and head of Ida's education department, 'highlights the powerlessness and lack of respect for women in this society'.

When she heard about the young woman who had been beaten, Ms Arush decided to go to see her. 'No one wanted me to go alone without men. But it was important for a woman to go to show that we abhor this kind of behaviour and will not stand for it. If we do not fight it now, it will mean just storing up problems for the future.'

Ms Hassan's mother, Murayad Ali, was told by neighbours that her daughter had been beaten to death because she was in a car with white men. She was to collect the corpse from the police station. 'I was overwhelmed by the idea of going to find the body of my own flesh and blood,' she said. 'I had to drag my feet to go.' The news so upset the family, that they did not notice that Ms Hassan's three-year-old son, Zacharria, had gone downstairs and spilled a pot of boiling water on himself.

When Ms Ali reached the police station, she found Ms Hassan, though badly beaten, still alive. With Ms Arush's help, Ms Hassan came home. The trouble continued, and now the family is trying to move.

Relatives condemn Ms Hassan for having disgraced the family, and neighbours accuse her of sleeping with foreigners. 'Even my daughter, who looks like Leila, cannot go into town because everyone points at her and says 'there she is', or that she is the sister of the woman that went with the Frenchmen,' Ms Ali said. 'Every day Leila comes home with tears in her eyes.'

(Photograph omitted)