Defying Al Shabab: Somali women basketball team in Qatar (Source: Bestsocialsubission.com)
By James Dorsey
The Somali national women’s basketball team hard fought defeat last week of Qatar in the Arab Games constituted more than just a badly needed morale boost for the country wracked by an Islamist insurgency: it put Somali women on par with soccer in standing up to the Islamists’ brutal suppression of sports for both men and women.
"Words can't 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 Shabab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group that controls significant chunks of Somalia, threatened much like they did with soccer officials and players, women 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 soccer and alongside soccer and handball only one of three sports played by women in Somalia.
Like the Somali national soccer 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 Colonel Ahmed Hassan Maalin – the city’s barrel-chested, thinly moustachioed, fatigues-clad police chief -- to escape the wrath of Al Shabab.
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 that they are covered in a bid to remain unnoticed.
Paradoxically, the anti-basketball campaign puts Al Shabab at odds with Al Qaeda. It contrasts 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 the Shabab's extreme interpretation of Quranic guidelines on sports that in recent years focused primarily on efforts to ban soccer for men as well as women.
The Shabab’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 sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
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 but also militant Islam’s love-hate relationship with ball games.
Soccer doesn’t fit into Al Shabab or, for that matter, the Taliban’s vision of an Islamist society. Soccer distracts the faithful from worshipping Allah, competes with the militants for recruits and lends credence to national borders at the expense of pan-Islamist aspirations for the return of the Caliph who would rule the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as one. It also celebrates peaceful competition and undermines the narrative of an inevitable clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
Al Shabab mentor and Taliban ally Osama Bin Laden, like many jihadists, nonetheless worshiped the game only second to Allah. He saw it as a useful bonding and recruitment tool that brought recruits into the fold, encouraged camaraderie and reinforced militancy among those who have already joined. The track record of soccer-players-turned suicide bombers proves his point.
The Al Shahab'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 that condemned it as "a heritage of old Christian cultures" and "un-Islamic."
Initially an armed wing of the courts, the Shabab emerged as a force in their own right with the US-backed Ethiopian invasion that forced the courts out of power.
Suweys Ali Jama, the captain of the Somali national women's basketball team captain is one of Al Shabab’s favourite 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. Now, I am a player, but even if I retire I hope to be a coach - I will stop basketball only when I perish," Ms. Jama told InterPress Service last year.
Ms. Jama's deputy, Aisha Mohammed, whose mother once played for the national team has in Al Shabab’s view two strikes against her. Not only is she a woman athlete, but she plays for the Somali military women's basketball team.
Ms. Mohammed, according to IPS, quotes the Shabab 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 wherever you are."
In a feisty retort, Ms. Mohammed asserts that "I am a human being and I fear, but I know that only Allah can kill me."
Somali Basketball Federation deputy secretary general Abdi Abdulle Ahmed told IPS that some women had left the national team as a result of the Al Shabab threats. Sport executives estimate that some 200 women stopped playing basketball when the initial 2006 ban was announced.
As a result, Somali Basketball Federation president Hussein Ibrahim Ali argues that his national women's team plays for much more than a trophy when it competes internationally.
"The world knows that Somalia has undergone hardships. When our women play internationally, it is great publicity for the whole country and, in particular, for the basketball federation," Mr Ali said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.