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Married in the Shadows: The Wives of al-Shabaab

Editor’s note: Within the context of the Al-Shabaab insurgency, wives of the militants often find themselves trapped in a cycle of oppression and coercion. These women are frequently subjected to strict interpretations of Islamic law enforced by the group. In many cases, women are forced into marriages with Al-Shabaab fighters, often at a young age and without their consent, perpetuating a system of exploitation and abuse. Once married, they are expected to adhere strictly to the militant’s interpretation of Islamic law, a rigid codes of conduct, which dictate everything from their clothing to their daily activities. Any deviation from these rules can result in severe punishment, including physical violence or even death, highlighting the brutal reality faced by women within the Al-Shabaab insurgency.

The pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation prevents women from asserting their rights or seeking help, trapping them in a cycle of oppression and violence. WardheerNews would like to share, the reportMarried in the Shadows: The Wives of al-Shabaab”, written in 2020, by Dr. Orly Maya Stern, Rehabilitation Support Team Adam Smith International, which covers the role and treatment of women within Al-Shabaab-controlled territories, characterized by systemic oppression and discrimination perpetuating the dependence on men within the group.


By Dr Orly Maya Stern,


Waging a successful insurgency, requires an enabling community. Militants tend to have wives and families who support and facilitate them. Fighters and their families form a complex web – an interconnected system that needs to be understood, to truly comprehend the workings of an armed group. A key – yet under-studied – part of this picture, are the wives of militants.

 This report looks at the wives of al-Shabaab’s militants; members of the Somali Islamist group embroiled in a conflict with Somalia’s government and people; the group responsible for one of the deadliest insurgencies in Africa.

This report explores the roles that al-Shabaab’s wives play in supporting their husbands and the group. It asks, to what extent are wives also ‘members’ or ‘participants’ of al-Shabaab? Do wives support their husband’s membership, or do they oppose this? Where they oppose this, are their voices able to influence their husbands? Can wives leaving, or threatening to leave, play a part in encouraging men’s defection from the group? Does the prospect of leaving wives behind in al-Shabaab territory, form a barrier to men defecting? How can we harness this knowledge in programming aimed at degrading the group?

This report seeks to understand what wives’ lives are like when living in al-Shabaab territory, while their husbands serve the group. For those wives who eventually leave – leaving their husbands and leaving al-Shabaab territory – the study seeks to understand why they left, what was the catalyst for them leaving, what their journeys out were like and what awaited them in government-held territory. The study looks at the limited programming available, aimed at assisting al-Shabaab wives, and considers how best assistance may be provided to this group – and how assisting these women might contribute to efforts aimed at promoting defection of male al-Shabaab members.

The focus of this report is on those wives of al-Shabaab members, who are primarily wives – rather than on female ‘members’ or ‘participants’ of al-Shabaab, who are also married to alShabaab men. The author of this report wrote another study, specifically focussing on women actively contributing to the group (see, The Invisible Women of al-Shabaab, 2019). This report builds on that earlier work, this time focussing its lens on those wives who are not actively involved with the group.

This study is written as part of the work of the Rehabilitation Support team (RST), a team of technical specialists, funded by a donor pooled fund, which provides support to the National Programme for the Treatment and Handling of Disengaged Combatants in Somalia (the ‘National Programme’), a Federal Government of Somalia led initiative, that encourages defection of al-Shabaab militants. The National Programme oversees a series of rehabilitation centres for male defectors. During the past years RST had begun to consider the best ways to incorporate women into this programme – both in terms of treatment of female defectors, as well as thinking about how to deal with women otherwise associated with al-Shabaab; as wives and family members of militants. This study – and the preceding study on female militants – form a part of these efforts.

Al-Shabaab and marriage

Marriage is central to al-Shabaab’s project. A religious group at heart, marriage is fundamental to the Islamic way of life the group supports. Marriage is also essential to the group’s recruitment practices – the marriage prospects the group offers are key to its ability to attract recruits. Al-Shabaab uses marriage as a tool for advancing its socio-political interests, including harmonising clan interests. that, “The group promises male recruits enhanced access to wives and greater social mobility, including by abolishing customs that prevent men from minor clans from marrying women from larger or more prominent ones. It uses marriage to advance relations and procure loyalties across a wide patchwork of clans. Many militants marry two to three wives from different clans. Levels of intermarriage between dominant and minority clans have increased under Al-Shabaab’s rule.

In the past, as a means of attracting foreign fighters, al-Shabaab promised them wives on arrival. The group pressurised local clans to offer their young women to incoming foreigners. Somali families and clans resisted this, as this went against a core Somali tradition, in which marriage is seen as a practice that secures clan relations. Some families refused to hand over their daughters to foreign fighters. Between 2007 and 2012, girls were married to foreign men – with their children identifiable due to their paler colour, and reportedly having difficulties integrating, often becoming al-Shabaab fighters at an early age. This practice receded as the number of foreign recruits went down.

It seems that wives have differing experiences with the group, depending on, who their husbands are; their ideological support for al-Shabaab; their locations; and their personal circumstances. “There is a status of men within al-Shabaab. Then there is a hierarchy of women, because of who their husbands are and their clans.” In most of the interviews conducted for this research, women reported difficulties in being married to men in the group and described being unsupportive of their husbands’ activities. This was probably due in part to the research sample; women who had chosen to leave al-Shabaab territory and wives of men who had defected. In contrast, ‘Khadija’ and Harley’s research with a small group of wives in Kismayo concluded that, “Women who are married to Al-Shabaab fighters exercise a great deal of autonomy in their daily lives and are strongly committed to the cause of AlShabaab and the jihad.”

Many al-Shabaab men marry at least one woman. A key informant from Somali government provided his view that, “Every defector has a wife. Sometimes they have two or three or four. No al-Shabaab has just one wife.” However, despite the commonly held view that all al Shabaab militants have wives, interviews revealed there are many in the group who cannot marry. The location where a man is stationed, influences his likelihood of getting married. A defector explained, “When al-Shabaab captures a town, they marry women. They encourage the men in the group to marry women. When they are in the bush, they discourage marriage, because they are not in town, so they will not access basic needs. Older men can continue their marriages. They stop young men marrying when they are in the bush.” A younger man who served in ‘the bush’ said, “I did not have access to find a woman, because where I lived it was the bush. There were no people who lived there.” Age is a factor too – with younger men less likely to marry. A senior former member of the group said that, “80% of them [members] are not married. Only a few are married – and these are not the young ones. These are the ones who married before the start of the group.”

Read the full report: Married in the Shadows: The Wives of al-Shabaab

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