|'Terrorism has no religion'|
Khadija’s mind was not on her driving. The coastal route to Bosaso was less a road than a series of tracks over a broad swathe of semi-desert plain, where she rarely encountered another vehicle. The sun was low in a cloudless azure sky that stretched from the sea to the Karkaar mountains, their shadows tumbling into each other like colossal dominoes. That’s where al-Shabaab militants had their base. The authorities knew where they were, and regularly sent soldiers to raid their hideout in Galaga. Yet somehow they kept their foothold in Puntland. “They will not take my son,” she cried, gripping the steering wheel of her Land Cruiser.
Was anybody listening to the voices of Somali women? Like Khadija, most of them had endured intolerable tragedy in the name of jihad, orphans and widows who’d lost parents, siblings, husbands and children. The restrictions on women, derived from archaic tradition, demanded that they somehow endure it all in silence. Any Somali woman who stood up to her man was seen as wild and deviant.
But things were changing now. She was surprised to find a consensus among her “old girls” from Eastleigh Academy when she caught up with them on Twitter and Facebook. None was afraid to speak out any more.
“Somali women have been disturbingly silent for too long,” posted one. “It's time to stop the unbridled atrocities being perpetrated by our brothers in the name of Islam.”
“If you are brave, and love Somalia,” another tweeted, “form a united front against al-Shabaab, which is bent on destroying our culture and faith.”
“I don’t know of a single Somali woman undeserving of praise, nor one who doesn’t think she had a strong mother.”
“Somali women must be strong, in order to stay sane when our faraxs have gone insane.”
Khadija truly believed the common-sense attitude she found among Somali women could somehow be channelled towards genuine change in her country. Solidarity through social networks was a proven force in the world today, as ordinary people had clearly demonstrated during the Arab Spring. But Somalia lacked a recognisable government to demonstrate against, let alone a square in which to gather in protest. Change would have to come despite of that.
She checked her iPhone to see if there were any new messages, then her Twitter account – @QueenArawello – which had so far attracted a thousand followers. She slowed down. A familiar obstruction lay ahead, a lagoon about eighty metres wide, which flowed across the road. It appeared shallow enough, but during the rainy season it was impassable, and motorists were forced to take a bumpy detour that added a half hour to the journey. She could ill afford any delays now, so she accelerated and drove straight through it, sending a plume of saline water upward like giant green butterfly wings.
With the flat, empty landscape before her stretching from horizon to horizon, she put her pedal to the metal, and accelerated to a hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. Her rear-view mirror was vibrating so dramatically, it obscured her view and at first she didn’t notice the beat-up white pickup truck approaching from behind. She didn’t expect to find anyone else on the road. Soon it was tailgating her, swerving erratically from side to side, and blasting its horn. She tried to make out the driver but there was too much dust and grime on her trail. This had all the hallmarks of a terrorist kidnapping. She veered to the right to allow him to overtake, but he followed her, so she signalled for him to pass, but he remained on her tail. She could not shake him.
Suddenly the pickup truck accelerated and swerved around her, and Khadija saw half a dozen armed men seated in the back, wearing military fatigues with red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around their heads. She immediately screeched to a halt, tossing a plume of sand into the air that completely enveloped her Land Cruiser. Bosaso was at least five kilometres away. With no one else in sight, she had no means of escape.
When the dust had settled she saw her car was surrounded by armed men with their faces hidden by their keffiyeh. “Get out of the vehicle!” commanded one militant, rapping on her window with the butt of his AK-47. Khadija popped the handle of her door and, using both hands, slowly eased it open, forcing the men to back away. Then she stepped out and stood beside her car, next to the “No Weapons” sticker on her door. “Where are you going?” barked the militant.
“I have urgent business in Bosaso to attend to,” said Khadija, trying to remain calm.
“Why aren’t you wearing your burka?” he shouted.
“There is no fatwa in Puntland that requires it,” said Khadija.
“Women should wear the burka at all times when in public!”
“Wearing the burka is not a religious practice, and, as far as I’m concerned, it is the face of jihad. I am not a soldier in your holy war.”
“You conduct yourself like a Kafir! Since when does a woman drive a car? Sharmouta!” The militant spat on the ground and then stepped closer to Khadija. “Islam forbids a woman to drive a car.”
“No, it does not,” she said, easing back. “I have been driving a car for twenty years.”
“You should stay in your house, wear the hijab and abstain from showing off your adornments to non-mahrams, with fear of Allah.”
“I don’t need you to teach me my faith.”
“Where is your husband?” he barked.
“Where is your wife?” she snapped. The militant raised his weapon and aimed it at her chest. Then a voice from the pickup truck ordered him to cease. The men retreated and climbed back into their vehicle. Khadija slumped against her car and clutched her forehead. The fear she had dared not display now ran across her like a clutch of spiders.