Gao, Mali. It was just six months ago that Toula, a young woman from Gao in northeastern Mali, could swim and do her laundry in the nearby Niger River. Not anymore.
Since late March, her dusty desert town and others like it across Mali’s massive north have been under the control of hardline Islamists who have imposed tough sharia law.
“These barbarians have refused everything. They don’t want to see girls bathing,” says Toula who, like other residents, asked her last name not be used.
The freedoms formerly enjoyed by Toula and other women in Gao, previously one of the region’s most cosmopolitan and lively towns, disappeared almost overnight.
Most noticeably, women are now forced to wear the hijab, a broad scarf that covers the entire head and neck but leaves the face exposed.
“I can’t stand how I am at the moment, covered in a veil from head to toe. It’s as if I was in prison,” 15-year-old Aicha said.
Toula and Aicha were part of a group of girls and young women who recently spoke to AFP in Gao, one of the key cities to have been seized by the country’s Islamist advance after a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako left Mali’s army in disarray.
“We are no longer free. That’s all there is to it. Nobody for the moment wants to free us,” Toula said.
“I don’t want sharia. Mali is a secular country and should stay that way.”
Mali this week asked the United Nations for authorization for a West African-led military force to seize back the massive north, an area larger in size than France or Texas. When that mission could begin has not been agreed.
All the girls who spoke to AFP said they have been living a nightmare since the introduction of sharia law.
Among the many new restrictions: They cannot smoke or drink alcohol and anything considered “haram,” or against Islamic law, is forbidden, including publicly listening to Western music or having sex outside marriage.
Transgressors have suffered punishments unthinkable in the West.
Suspected robbers in Gao have had hands and feet amputated. In the small town of Aguelhok, the armed Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) publicly stoned an unmarried couple to death, and have whipped smokers and drinkers.
Three main Islamist groups control northern Mali, though other armed rebels are also playing a role.
Gao is ostensibly under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but is under the de facto control of another Al-Qaeda-linked boss from Algeria.
Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) itself are the other main players, but delineations between the groups are often porous.
Suffering in silence
“We are totally against the implementation of sharia. But we can’t say that in public, for security reasons,” says Mimi, her eyes hidden behind a black veil.
Her neighbor fled town “because she could no longer handle the situation. Even at 45 degrees (Celsius, 113 Fahrenheit), we have to dress up as if it was cold. It’s just too much,” Mimi said.
Another of the girls, Fatoumata, said they send supportive texts to each other as they endure the new regime.
“Keep well, thanks to God this will end,” one message states.
“Our brothers from the South must soon free us,” reads another.
Another of the group, Amina, said just a few months ago she would go to the hairdresser and show off her latest styles in the street. Not now, thanks to the veil.
Residents must express their anger in private, for fear of raising the ire of their new Islamic overseers.
“I’ve told my friends that we must have the courage to march with our heads uncovered to protest all this. But we are afraid,” one resident said, asking her name not be used.
In June, at least one person was shot dead and 10 or so were wounded during a march against the Islamists.
The demonstrators were protesting against the killing of a local official who had been slain by armed men.
External observers have accused the Islamists themselves of summary executions of Malian soldiers, rapes, massacres of civilians, the enlistment of child soldiers and torture as well as the destruction of state buildings, churches, mosques and mausoleums.