When al-Shabab controlled Mogadishu, women could be punished for playing sports. As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, we meet the young female ballplayers who are challenging lingering Islamist ideology in the city.
MOGADISHU, Somalia – Her name is Mulki Noor Mudey, but she introduces herself simply as Coach. Standing at the side of Mogadishu’s dilapidated basketball and handball stadium, her bright blue “Hagen” team jersey shimmering under the unrelenting Somali sun, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but an athlete.
Only a few months ago, Mudey had stood in that same spot, teeming with nerves. It was the Somali women’s handball championship game. With only four minutes to go and the stadium’s seats packed with spectators, the score was tied.
“When the game is happening, you’re so nervous and so anxious,” she says. “And as a coach, there’s only so much you can do.”
A slow 60 seconds passed. Then another. With two minutes left, a Hagen player scored, winning the championship game.
Thirty years ago, women playing sports at the Wiish Stadium was nothing remarkable. But over the past 26 years, Somalia has experienced a brutal civil war and the emergence of an extremist Islamic insurgency, both of which reversed women’s rights across the country. Today, as relative peace returns to the capital, the resurgence of female athletes is itself a symbol of defiance.
Since the appointment of the first special advisor to the United Nations secretary-general on sport for development and peace in 2001, sports have been recognized internationally as a means of peace building and reconciliation. In Somalia, basketball has been used to defuse clan rivalries and revive gender equality in the aftermath of the civil war.
But the country’s female athletes also play a role in the ongoing battle to delegitimize the claim by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization born out of the rubble of Somalia’s civil war, that it offers a viable alternative to the federal government. On the crumbling concrete court in Mogadishu, the simple act of young women shooting hoops dilutes al-Shabab’s attempts to spread its extremist ideology, influencing the attitudes of the young men in the stands – potential recruiting targets for the terror group – in the process.
“Somali women, we have always been powerful,” says Ridwan Abdullahi Ali, her bright green headscarf draped over her Hagen T-shirt. “Our playing basketball is making people talk in our society about girls’ roles and how we can do these things, like physical things, that the boys are doing.”
Ali began playing handball and then basketball when she was 20, after she passed by the stadium and saw her neighbor, Fatuma Ahmed Warsame, a respected basketball player among young people in Mogadishu, playing with her team. After sitting down to watch their practice, Ali came back the next day, and the next, until Warsame convinced her to pick up the ball and join them.
“That day I just carried the ball with me. You need to dribble it, but I ran with it instead and people were laughing, telling me I couldn’t just run with it,” Ali says, smiling and bouncing a slightly deflated basketball expertly between her legs.
At 22 years old, Ali is part of a younger generation in Somalia that grew up during the country’s civil war, which began in 1991, and the subsequent rise of al-Shabab. The group once controlled much of Mogadishu and – despite the presence of roughly 20,000 African Union peacekeepers – still controls large swaths of the country.
Under al-Shabab’s rule, women’s rights in Somalia, once a beacon of gender equality in the region, were nearly completely reversed. Prior to the civil war and insurgency, women wore bikinis and sipped cappuccinos at Lido Beach, a popular hangout just down the road from the sports stadium. By 2012, at the height of the al-Shabab insurgency, women were banned from wearing bras, working and walking or talking in public with nonrelated men. In the large pockets of Mogadishu that were controlled by al-Shabab, women wearing pants – much less playing sports – was an offense punishable by death.
“When al-Shabab came suddenly, we were not allowed to play any basketball,” says Mudey. A veteran of the court at Wiish Stadium, she started playing basketball in 1982, when she was 15, and went on to play for the Somali national women’s basketball team. At that time, she would walk in her sports clothes, hair uncovered, to the court to play.
“Life was normal, people here were peaceful and open-minded,” she says. “That was a different era, very different from today.”
Now Mudey’s players walk to the stadium with their sports attire hidden under colorful abayas, their bright orange and yellow trainers peeking out from beneath long, loose-fitting skirts. At Lido Beach, women have to swim in their full dresses. The socially imposed dress code is a testament to al-Shabab’s lasting impact on the city. Though the group no longer controls many neighborhoods of Mogadishu, after African Union peacekeepers pushed them out of the city in 2012, religious leaders – who became hard-line at the height of the insurgency – are still speaking out against female athletes. Since the girls began playing again, Somali clerics have been releasing public statements admonishing young women for playing basketball, declaring the act “un-Islamic” and “a threat to their faith.”
“Some people still say … religion doesn’t allow a woman playing ball. Their argument is that the coach is a man, the referee is a man, the audience are men. That’s their justification,” says team captain Fadumo Ali Abdirahman, 30. “It is difficult for the community to accept us playing, but you need to force your way. Most of the girls you see here are probably sneaking out of the house to come and play.”
And with 70 percent of the country’s population under the age of 30, much of the discourse surrounding women’s roles in Somali society is being held not in the halls of government offices nor in soft-carpeted mosques, but in the parks and on the beaches and basketball courts where young people are once again beginning to gather and talk, as their parents’ generation did before the civil war.
Today, at the sports stadium, both the women’s and men’s teams practice together. As Abdirahman blows her whistle and the girls run to the side to huddle, a member of the boys’ team grabs the ball Nimo Abdullahi is dribbling, starting a spontaneous one-on-one game.
“You always have people who have that negative attitude about women playing, but when you play all the guys will cheer for you and clap for you,” Abdullahi says. “They are happy during the games.”
Al-Shabab’s hold on the capital may be diminished, but the group’s influence can still be felt everywhere. And the young men filling the stadium seats to watch the women playing are still at risk of being lured into fighting for the insurgency. But the hope for many in Somalia’s basketball community is that the more Abdullahi and her peers play ball with those young men, the less appealing al-Shabab’s extremist messaging becomes.
“A lot of change is coming,” Abdullahi says. “You’ll find in empty areas women are playing basketball now, more encouragement is there. A lot of things for women are starting to improve.”