By Jemal Oumar and Bakari Gueye
As the Islamist occupation of northern Mali continues unchecked, citizens say that women are paying the heaviest price.
Starting about a month ago, Islamist group Ansar al-Din began arresting unveiled women in Timbuktu. The Islamists established a special “women’s prison” for the purpose. Women have also been subjected to curfews, and are forbidden to be in the streets with men other than family members.
“Women are subjected to daily harassment and can no longer function normally,” Malian journalist Bilal Sidibé said. “The space for freedoms has narrowed considerably.”
“The suffering of the local population, especially for women, is unimaginable,” Timbuktu mayor Hallé Ousman told Magharebia on November 21st. “The city’s hospital is full of women battered by Ansar al-Din,” he said.
Ousman also noted the “contradictions” of Ansar al-Din. While claiming to the world press that they have abandoned the application of Sharia, their behaviour tells another story, he said.
“This is hypocrisy unworthy of people who call themselves Muslims,” the mayor added.
Al-Ahram reporter Ayman El Sisi confirmed the mayor’s report. “Women in Timbuktu are forbidden to walk in the streets without wearing Islamic modest dress,” El Sisi told Magharebia.
Citizens were optimistic earlier this month after an Ansar Al-Din delegation met with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) top mediator for the Mali crisis. The Islamists, however, quickly resumed restrictions on the population.
Indeed, as Timbuktu resident Sidiya Touré confirmed to Magharebia, there has been a recent acceleration in the application of Sharia. And the situation shows no sign of letting up.
In the months since Ansar al-Din militants seized northern Mali, they have segregated schools, forced women to wear veils, shuttered bars and night clubs, inflicted brutal lashings on smokers, drinkers and clean-shaven men, and stoned two young Touaregs in Aguelhok for having a child out of wedlock.
Days after the couple’s killing, the first Mali amputation was reported in Ansongo. Others followed in Timbuktu and Gao.
“What can we negotiate with these people?” Touré asked. “From the start, they announced the view that ‘Sharia is not negotiable.’ How can you talk with assassins who want to impose public stoning, amputations, and the burqa?”
For Malian university professor Habib Diarra, the situation is untenable.
“Today, the abuses have reached their peak with all sorts of crimes committed in the name of Sharia,” Diarra said. “Groups like AQIM and MUJAO must be eradicated as soon as possible. This is a duty for the entire international community.”
Other influential Malians are issuing the same plea.
In an open letter to the president of Mali on November 19th, governance and ICT expert Anasser Ag Rhissa wrote: “Co-existence in Mali, especially in the northern regions, between the Tamashek, Songhai, Fulani, Arab [and] Bambara was always accomplished… due to the historical links between these ethnic groups.”
“This time, the wounds have been opened more widely, with criminal acts committed by armed groups, and now have a significant impact on all of Mali,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned disconnect between Ansar al-Din’s words and actions was noted by a rival rebel group.
Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Saleh, a leader in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), told Magharebia on November 21st: “If it is confirmed that the movement of Ansar al-Din is continuing such practices, we will stop the negotiations that we started a few days ago, because this shows a clear contradiction.”
“At the moment we are busy confronting the MUJAO and don’t want to open a new front,” he said. “If, however, we notice an explicit contradiction, we will not hesitate to declare our unequivocal position.”