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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Veils come off in Somali - Paradise for Women

By Eva Krafczyk Jul 7, 2011, 2:06 GMT

Hargeisa, Somalia - Fatimah Ibrahim has dedicated herself to women's rights in her Somali homeland. The head of a non-governmental organization in Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway republic of Somaliland, she champions better educational opportunities for girls and women and improvements in their legal status.

But not only that.

'Women also have the right to look good and be pampered a little, don't they?' Ibrahim asks with a mischievous smile.

The women's rights activist has become a businesswoman on the side by opening a beauty salon.

'Janno Dumar' ('Paradise for Women') is written on the wall enclosing the salon grounds, which are totally off limits to men. All of the employees and customers are women. This is the only way the small spa-like enclave can hold its own in the Muslim country, where foreign women must also wear a veil and headscarf in public.

Somalia does not immediately suggest itself as a spa destination. While Somaliland is by and large peaceful, Ibrahim's salon would be shut down immediately and accused of being Westernized and un-Islamic in south-west Somalia, where radical Islamic groups control the countryside. In Somaliland, too, the lives of many women are anything but intact.

'There's domestic violence but it's not reported to the police,' Ibrahim says. 'And if a married woman goes to the police after being raped, she's seen as an adulteress, not a victim, and hauled before court.'

Once the women are by themselves in the salon, the veils come off. They sip tea and coffee, nibble on sweets and giggle.

Leila, 25, flops into a comfortable, upholstered chair with her legs apart. She would never dare to sit that way in a cafe in the presence of her father or one of her brothers. But she remains wary even behind the walls of the 'Paradise for Women,' declining to give her last name or allow herself to be photographed.

'It's a good thing there's a place like this for us women,' Leila says after leafing through several fashion magazines. Although she could never wear the clothes pictured on their pages on the streets of Hargeisa, she enjoys imagining how she would look in them.

'The men have their cafes and rounds of khat,' she notes, referring to a popular narcotic plant whose leaves are chewed. 'Usually all that women can do is to get together with girlfriends in private homes. Here we've got our little domain.'

Leila's girlfriend Hamida, soon to be a bride, is shown clothes in the salon's showroom for her big day. She wants as much glitter, ruffles and candy colours as possible. Some of the necklines are quite revealing and would likely be seen only by the female wedding guests and groom.

Hamida needs to book her beauty treatment in time, too, because the wedding would be preceded by many hours of massaging, plucking, hairdressing, putting on makeup and, of course, applying henna dye.

'One has to plan on an entire day at least,' asserts Emem, a make-up artist.

Malika does not have that much time to spare. She allows herself two hours of relaxation, though, and has her hands, feet and forearms painted with intricate henna patterns. The scent of incense hangs in the air. Malika lays on a chair, eyes half-closed, while the make-up artist applies a thick paste of henna from a tube and places a fan closer for faster drying.

'No, I'm not going to a wedding or a party,' Malika says. 'Today I'm simply indulging myself. I've got enough obligations to my husband and family.'

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