Al-Shabaab's policies lead some Somali women to support the organisation politically and in some cases to play key military roles, a new study indicates.
The group's “brutal insurgency” is generally oppressive to women but can also provide them with important benefits, particularly by punishing gender-based violence and by upholding women's rights under Islamic family law, says the analysis by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Women in turn play key roles in Shabaab's armed campaign, the Brussels-based NGO notes.
“Their roles range from simply marrying into the group, to actively recruiting and proselytising, gathering intelligence, smuggling weapons and raising funds,” the briefing states.
Somali officials do not perceive women as potential threats and consequently do little to prevent female members of Shabaab from transporting explosives through checkpoints, ICG adds.
But Shabaab does not take advantage of such security lapses by using women as suicide bombers, nor does it allow females to participate directly in combat.
Al-Shabaab's policies in these regards contrast sharply with those of Boko Haram.
That Islamist force in northeastern Nigeria regularly assigns women and girls to carry out suicide attacks, but in Shabaab's case, females have accounted for less than five percent of such operations since 2006, the study says.
In parts of Somalia it controls, Shabaab offers women and girls a “hardly complete, but still appreciable” degree of physical safety, ICG observes.
Decades of lawlessness in Somalia have made women highly vulnerable to sexual violence. In parts of the country where it can enforce its version of justice, Shabaab punishes rapists and sometimes intervenes on behalf of women in cases of domestic violence, the briefing says.
“Through its courts,” ICG adds, “Al-Shabaab upholds tenets of Islamic family law that, to some degree, protect women’s rights in matters such as divorce and inheritance in a manner the official justice system does not.”
Shabaab's enforcement of these tenets ensures that women can receive a refund of the dowry in cases of divorce or shares of an inheritance, the study points out.
“The even-handedness of Al-Shabaab’s judicial mechanisms should not be overstated, with women sometimes suffering cruel punishments on charges that reflect the group’s patriarchal ethos,” ICG cautions. It cites reports of Shabaab's stoning to death of women accused of adultery.
“But with no state institution in many areas, Al-Shabaab’s courts offer women the sole means of getting their just due from ex-husbands or male relatives.”
And while women and girls may be forced into marrying militants, “for some families marrying daughters into Al-Shabaab may bring a degree of financial stability,” ICG notes.
Some of the women involved in Al-Shabaab recruit other women.
Wives of senior Shabaab members go door-to-door in south-central Somali villages to cultivate support for the group's values and aims. These female proselytisers also encourage women who have married fighters to become active in Shabaab's campaign, the briefing states.