Somali women ballers team defeats jihadists
James M. Dorsey - Hürriyet Daily News
Somalia’s Run Chama passes the ball during a Women’s Basketball match against Egypt at the Arab Games 2011 in Doha. REUTERS photoThe Somali national women’s basketball team’s hard-fought win last week over Qatar in the Arab Games constituted more than just a badly needed morale boost for a country wracked by an Islamist insurgency: It put Somali women on par with football in standing up to the Islamists’ brutal suppression of sports for both men and women.
“Words cannot describe how I felt. We were all jumping up and down. There were tears in the girls’ eyes – history was made right there,” CNN.com quoted Canadian-born Somali team member Khatra Mahdi as saying after her team’s 67-57 victory.
The sky blue-clad team’s triumph in the tournament came three months after al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group controlling significant chunks of Somalia, threatened – much like they did with football officials and players – women’s basketball players with death if they failed to give up the sport.
The focus on basketball was no coincidence. Basketball is Somalia’s second most popular sport after football and, alongside football and handball, only one of three sports played by women in Somalia.
Like the Somali national football team, the women’s basketball team is forced to train at home in the heavily fortified, bullet ridden police academy in the Somali capital Mogadishu under the command of Col. Ahmed Hassan Maalin, the city’s barrel-chested, thinly mustached and fatigued police chief, to escape the wrath of al-Shabaab.
Odds with al-Qaeda
Inside the academy, team members sprint across the court, dressed in loose fitting tracksuits, T-shirts and headscarves, in the presence of hundreds of policemen. When they leave to return home they make sure they are covered, in a bid to remain unnoticed.
Paradoxically, the anti-basketball campaign puts al-Shabaab at odds with al-Qaeda, contrasting starkly with al-Qaeda’s efforts in recent months to project a kinder, gentler image in Somalia by distributing aid to famine victims.
The emphasis on women constitutes an expanded enforcement of al-Shabaab’s extreme interpretation of the Quran’s guidelines on sports, which in recent years focused primarily on efforts to ban football for men as well as women.
Al-Shabaab’s focus not only contrasts with al-Qaeda’s effort to project a different image after having lost much of its appeal with its attacks on Arab residential compounds and luxury hotels in the first half of the last decade and being even more sidelined by this year’s Arab revolt; it also highlights differing attitudes not only with al-Qaeda but also with other militant Islamist groups such as Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as militant Islam’s love-hate relationship with sports.
Al-Shabaab’s revived effort to impose a ban on women’s sports harks back to a decision in 2006 by the Somali Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist group that briefly ruled Somalia and condemned women’s sports as “a heritage of old Christian cultures” and “un-Islamic.”
Initially an armed wing of the courts, al-Shabaab emerged as a force in its own right with the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion forcing the courts out of power.
Suweys Ali Jama, the captain of the Somali national women’s basketball team, is one of al-Shabaab’s favorite targets. “I will only die when my life runs out, no one can kill me but Allah … I will never stop my profession while I am still alive,” Ms. Jama told InterPress Service last year.
Ms. Jama’s deputy, Aisha Mohammed in al-Shabaab’s view, two strikes against her.
Ms. Mohammed, according to IPS, quotes al-Shabaab as telling her: “You are twice guilty. First, you are a woman and you are playing sports, which the Islamic rule has banned. Second, you are representing the military club who are puppets for the infidels. So we are targeting you.”
In a retort, Ms. Mohammed said, “I am a human being and I fear, but I know that only Allah can kill me.”
Basketball Federation Deputy Secretary-General Abdi Abdulle Ahmed told IPS some women had left the national team as a result of threats. As a result, Federation president Hussein Ibrahim Ali argued his national team played for much more than a trophy. “The world knows Somalia has undergone hardships. When our women play internationally, it is great publicity for the country and for the federation,” he said.