Armed with assault rifles and scissors, al-Shabaab’s religious police are imposing a reign of terror — as well as crew cuts and bushy beards — on Somalia’s youth.
Wearing a T-shirt with a Western print, a pair of tight jeans and wavy gelled back hair, Ahmed Aydarus Abdi is a dedicated follower of fashion, but not the style advocated in al-Shabaab’s hard-line Wahhabi brand of Islam.
“I was stopped by al-Shabaab gunmen who asked me questions about my haircut. They said the way I designed my hair was very silly,” he said. “Without waiting for my reply, one of the gunmen pulled out a pair of scissors and cut off huge locks on one side of my head. He was dealing with it like it was grass, not human hair,” Abdi said.
As he recounted how he reluctantly had to finish the job himself, the 19-year-old cast worried glances around him, aware that his appearance was likely still offensive to the canons of al-Shabaab sartorial elegance.
His friends encouraged him to comply.
“If he had attempted to defend his right to wear his hair the way he chooses, he would have been lashed in public, so we restrained our friend,” 20-year-old Mohamoud Hassan said.
“He was humiliated and cried after we left al-Shabaab behind,” he added.
Fear runs high in the streets of Mogadishu, where residents are bracing for a huge offensive led by government troops and African Union forces against the al-Shabaab-led insurgents.
The al-Shabaab, whose leadership recently proclaimed allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, control about 80% of the country.
While al-Shabaab’s Jaysh al-Usra (Army of Suffering) is planting bombs and preparing to counter its enemy, the movement’s other branch, Jaysh al-Hisbah (Army of Morality), is keeping civilians in check.
Units known as the Islamic social mobilisation brigades criss-cross the busiest parts of town to blare instructions through loudspeakers: calls to join the global jihad, give to the poor and respect a pure Islamic clothing style.
The population is routinely reminded by preachers in mosques that a full veil is recommended for women while Islamic gowns, short hair and long beards are more becoming for men.
‘Most of us jumped out the windows’
Many youths are outraged but complaining too loudly is not an option.
“What is this? Al-Shabaab are claiming to have political authority but they are behaving like fashion designers. What do they have to do with the way we dress or do our hair?,” said one indignant 21-year-old in Mogadishu.
He asked to be named only as Abdullahi, however: “You see, I live in the Bakara market area,” he said, referring to the capital’s main al-Shabaab bastion.
Not all young people disagree with al-Shabaab’s strict dress code, at least not in public.
“I support the way of life being promoted by al-Shabaab. They are following Allah’s laws,” said Amina Abdurahman, a 23-year-old woman.
One youth in Adle village, near Mogadishu, recounted how his house was raided by al-Shabaab following a tip-off as he was watching a pirated copy of a film called Ninja Killer with a group of friends.
“Most of us jumped out the windows. Unfortunately, I was one of the six who got caught and flogged for misconduct,” Abdulle Moalin Hassan said.
Fear of the religious police has other consequences on people’s daily lives.
When buses drive into al-Shabaab-controlled areas, the driver only needs to shout “is hagaajiya” (re-arrange) for the men and women to hastily split and take seats in their respective ends of the vehicle.
“I tell the passengers to split in two groups when we approach al-Shabaab areas. They can’t be mixed, especially if they are not married,” Mogadishu bus driver Ali Mohamed said.
Local al-Shabaab “governor” Ali Mohamed Hussein recently explained to bus owners that the ladies should be seated at the back “to have enough ventilation because they are wearing the hijab approved by Allah”. — AFP