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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 13:57 GMT
Somalis learn to follow the law
By Yusuf Garaad
BBC Somali Service editor, Mogadishu

Women in Mogadishu
The Islamists say women will be allowed to work
Fear of a good lashing or having one's head shaved is keeping drivers in Somalia's capital on the straight and narrow.

A few months ago, Mogadishu's chaotic roads were ruled by red-eyed, open-shirted militia, speeding along in their technicals - the open vehicles with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back - weaving from one side to the other to avoid the potholes.

Today, one of the world's most dangerous cities has been tamed: law-abiding men and women motor along without a gun at their side, keeping steadily to the speed limit, and not daring to swerve for craters.

Why can't we use our brains to solve the political stalemate instead of fighting?
Female student

This transformation is down to the rule of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which took control of Mogadishu in June and much of southern Somalia since then.

They have imposed Sharia law and are at lengths to show that no-one, no matter their clan or influence, is above God's law.

Trials are swift and punishments public: publicity is their policeman.


Most are astounded by the changes - restaurants are opening, business is booming - and people are proud to show off to visitors their new-found security.

Islamic courts chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
I am happy a woman is asking this question - at a university campus
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
UIC chairman
But with reports that Ethiopian troops are in the country backing the beleaguered interim government in Baidoa and peace talks deadlocked in Khartoum, the calls for jihad grow.

It is talk that may win approval amongst the young at rallies after Friday prayers, yet behind the rhetoric the city's residents are sick and tired of the 16 years of fighting Somalia has experienced since the fall of Siad Barre.

"Jihad will mean more deaths. Why can't we use our brains to solve the political stalemate instead of fighting?" a female student recently had the temerity to ask UIC chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in a debate broadcast on the BBC Somali Service.

The 400-strong audience burst into applause before Mr Ahmed had a chance to respond.

Questions then flowed thick and fast from other women.

"Will you allow women to work in the media? Are you the Taleban?"

A known moderate, Mr Ahmed sought to allay their fears: the Islamists, he said, did not want to stop women working.

"Actually, I am happy a woman is asking this question - at a university campus," he said.

Yet it is this uncertainty about the UIC's intentions that marks life in the capital.

Elopements banned

Loud music no longer blares from taxis: it has not been banned, but it is felt best not to test the waters.

Mogadishu street
Mogadishu's streets are now more orderly

In Kismayo, 500km south of the capital, Islamist hardliners have banned the chewing of the mild narcotic khat - an afternoon ritual across the country.

On Tuesday, a distraught football fan phoned up the BBC Somali Service from Jamame, near Kismayo, begging them to include La Liga match details in their sports reports the next day as he said the screening of football matches had just been banned in his town.

These creeping edicts may be the courts' undoing as Somalis have always had a fairly liberal interpretation of the holy scriptures.

Agaran, which means green in Somali, is the perfect example. The coastal town is Somalia's Gretna Green, where couples eloping from the capital can go for a quick marriage.

According to local Islamic tradition, a woman must get her father's consent to marry if her father or guardian is within 50km.

On the map, Agaran is just over 50km south of the capital with many a willing sheikh at hand to perform the nuptials without dowry objections and saving the young couple wedding expenses that can ordinarily cost up to a year's wages.

Agaran's days as Somalia's romantic capital, however, are over, as Islamic leaders banned elopement marriages as unlawful on Monday.

Dissenters argue that this authoritarian attitude is eating away at Somali culture and traditions, from dulling their dress code to muting their music.

But for most this is an argument for another day.

For now, Somalis are basking in the novelty of moving about freely, the novelty of seeing a woman behind the wheel, the novelty of militiamen greeting them politely at checkpoints, the novelty of leaving their guns at home.


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