Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, which had earlier prohibited some foreign agencies like the UN World Food Program from venturing into drought hit areas of the country, has hit the newspaper headlines for banning Samosa (locally known as Sambusa), a fiercely popular fried snack made up of flour and meat or vegetable stuffing.
Last week, al-Shabaab cadres carried out announcements through loud speakers mounted over vehicles issuing warning to those caught selling, cooking or eating sambusas. The militant group finds the triangular shape of Sambusa as strikingly similar to the Christian Holy Trinity.
It is quite probable that given the al-Shabaab’s domination over a vast swathe of Somalian territory including most of southern and central Somali regions and a part of capital Mogadishu, Sambusas will no longer be available in public and will have to be made at home and eaten privately, by the fanatic Sambusa eaters.
In earlier times, al-Shabaab has banned music radio stations, interaction between men and women in public, women employment and forced women to wear Hijab. Men were barred from growing moustache and watching football world cup matches. In 2009, al-Shabaab took its decree making capacities to a new low by banning wearing of bras by women. Women were beaten, had their bras forcibly taken off and made to shake their chests in public. Al-Shabaab says bras promoted deception, which is un-Islamic.
Al-Shabaab certainly is not alone in bringing in such decrees aimed at establishing control over the lives of men and women within its held areas.
Closer to Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, the Yemen based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in March 2011 declared the country’s Abyan province an “Islamic Emirate” governed by Shariah and banned women from going outside “except under necessary circumstances”. It further decreed “she who urgently needs to go out, should be with one of her male relatives, and should have ID with her.”
Radical and fundamentalist regimes of all religious order have brought in the most regressive and unfathomable decrees that violate personal freedom and choice. And without any resistance worth its name from the existing government and its security establishment, have got away with it. Situation is even worse, when the militants are in power- real or parallel.
The Taliban, during its 1996 to 2001 rule, had banned music, art, kite-flying and pet birds in Afghanistan. They had banned television and had given summary public execution to TV sets, calling them un-Islamic. As soon as the Taliban regime was toppled in Kabul in 2001, the hidden TV sets were brought out of the closet.
Similarly, the Taliban had issued an edict banning make-up and high heels in the Afghan capital and set up the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to ensure strict compliance. The Ministry watchdogs routinely beat women who broke these laws on dress. The fear looms large even now and owners of the beauty parlors that have come up in Kabul do their best to hide it from the glaring eyes of the Taliban sympathizers.
As they were forced to flee Kabul and relocate into Pakistan, Taliban took their decrees along with them, making the lives of men and mostly women difficult in their new locations.
In South Waziristan region of Pakistan, which is a stronghold of the Afghan Taliban currently, the militants have banned see-through clothes for women. On July 26, Taliban members in Wana burned a huge quantity of cloth taken from shopkeepers, saying it was too thin to be made into suitably modest garments. Wana is the main town in South Waziristan. Additionally, Taliban militants in Pakistan have often targeted shops selling music and films that they say break Islamic moral codes.
In Swat district of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Taliban have imposed a ban on female education and warned teachers of severe consequences if any girl is seen heading for a school. On a fine morning of December 2008, a Taliban spokesperson announced on a pirated FM radio frequency a 15-day deadline to all the private and government schools to close down the female education facilities. Women were also banned from visiting markets. Schools automatically shut down.
In Jammu & Kashmir in India, militant groups in the past have banned local cable channels and brought in several restrictions on women using cell phones and visiting parks in public. In May 2006, the Harkat-ul- Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) published a statement in a local newspaper. “HuJI warns girls not to carry mobile phones and visit public parks. Parents should control their girls. This is our final warning”, the statement read.
Such enforcement of diktats is not restricted to Islamists alone, but is a rather common modus operandi to demonstrate a militant group’s domination over an area. In Manipur, India’s restive northeastern state, militants belonging to Hindu Vaishnavite (worshipper of lord Vishnu) order, have banned use of betel nut (a very popular chewing item among the locals), music and movies in India’s national language Hindi, use of jeans as well as “Indian” dresses. Internet cafes and dating of young men and women in restaurants too have been banned. Even with its relatively large security force presence, the government has not been able to persuade people to go against such diktats.
No militant group worth its name, it would appear, has failed to remind the civilized world that radical orders care a hoot for personal freedom, be it food, entertainment or any of life’s simple pleasures.
(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow (Counter-Insurgency Studies) at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached at email@example.com