AL-QAEDA-linked militants in war-torn southern Somalia have banned unrelated men and women from shaking hands, speaking or walking together in public, residents say.
People who break the rules could be imprisoned, whipped or even executed.
The insurgents already have banned women from working in public, leaving many mothers with a terrible choice: risk execution by going to sell some tea or vegetables in the marketplace, or stay safely at home and watch the children slowly starve.
“It’s an awful rule. I feel like I’m under arrest. I’ve started to ignore the greetings of the women I know to avoid punishment,” Hussein Ali said by phone from the southern Somali town of Jowhar.
The edict is also being enforced in the town of Elasha.
Gunmen are searching buses for improperly dressed women or women traveling alone, said student Hamdi Osman in Elasha. She said she was once beaten for wearing Somali traditional dress instead of the long, shapeless black robes favoured by the fighters.
The Islamists’ insistence that women wear the long, heavy robes also forces many women to stay at home because they can’t afford the new clothing.
Al-Shabab controls most of southern and central Somalia, and the group is trying to overthrow the weak UN-backed government. Analysts believe many Somalis don’t support the insurgency because of the harsh punishments and severe restrictions it imposes, and because it often kidnaps children to use as fighters.
But after 20 years of civil war, the government is too weak, corrupt and divided to present a credible challenge to the insurgents. The Somali government is protected by 8000 heavily armed African Union peacekeepers but has failed to deliver any security or services to the population.
The insurgents even control parts of the capital, brazenly carrying out amputations, whippings and stonings in public places. The list of forbidden things differs from town to town and commander to commander.
In Jowhar, the insurgents are now also insisting that men grow their beards but shave their moustaches, said another resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
The Islamists have also banned the cinema, music and bras because they say they are all un-Islamic. Such restrictions are influenced by foreign fighters practicing Wahhabi Islam, which is much stricter than Somalia’s traditional Sufi Islam that incorporates a long tradition of poetry and song.
“The last time I listened a song or music was two years ago, before the insurgents managed the full control of my village,” said Bile Hassan. Now, he says, even the memory of music makes him feel afraid.