Freedom returns to the storied city of Timbuktu

By Rukmini Callimachi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 9:55 p.m. MST

French soldiers are watched by local people, as they drive through the city streets of Timbuktu, Mali, Thursday Jan. 31, 2013. Many things have changed in Timbuktu since the Islamic militants ceased to enforce their law and relinquished power to French special forces who parachuted in several days ago, liberating this storied city, and now there is a growing sense of freedom. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)

Associated Press

TIMBUKTU, Mali — On the morning French commandos parachuted onto the sand just north of this storied city and ended 10 months of Islamic rule, Hawi Traore folded up her veil. On the next day, she wore heels. On the day after, she put on her sparkly earrings, got her hair braided and tried her mother's perfume.

Finally on Thursday, the 12-year-old girl dared to dance in the streets, celebrating freedom from the draconian rules that were imposed by the al-Qaida-linked militants on this desert capital for much of the past year.

Four days since French special forces liberated Timbuktu, there is a growing sense of freedom — particularly among women. The speed with which women have claimed back their freedom underscores one of the advantages the French hold against an elusive enemy on unforgiving terrain: The population here has long practiced a moderate Islam rather than the extremism of the militants.

Although Timbuktu has long been a code word for the ends of the earth, until recently its women led a relatively modern existence, where they were not required to be covered and could socialize with men. That changed abruptly last year, when radical Islamists seized control of the northern half of Mali in the chaos after a coup in the distant capital.

When they first arrived, Hawi, a tall, fast-talking, sassy preteen girl, was just learning how to put on makeup. She learned the hard way to wear the toungou, the word for veil in the Songhai language. Her slender arm still bears the scar left by the whip of the Islamic police, her punishment for not properly covering up.

Her once-free life became increasingly restricted, as did that of her sisters and friends.

The Islamists showed no mercy, beating everyone from pregnant women to grandmothers to 9-year-old girls who weren't fully covered. Even talking to a brother on the front stoop of a woman's own home could get her in trouble.

Smoking, drinking and music were banned. So was playing soccer. The worst punishment was reserved for love outside the rules, and an unmarried couple who had two children out of wedlock was stoned to death in one northern Malian town.

Fatouma Traore lives on Street No. 415 in Timbuktu, the road that runs directly in front of the building where the Islamic Tribunal operated in what was once a luxury, boutique hotel. A leaflet left in the dirt in the courtyard set out eight rules for how women should wear the veil.

Rule No. 1 is that the fabric should cover the entire body. Rule No. 2 is that it can't be transparent. Rule No. 3 is that it needs to be colorless. And finally, Rule No. 8 states that a woman should not perfume herself after putting it on.

The French military launched an intervention to oust the Islamists from power in northern Mali on Jan. 11, and rapidly forced their retreat from the major cities in less than three weeks.

The French arrived here before midnight on Monday in a platoon of 600 soldiers, accompanied by 200 Malian troops. They included paratroopers flown in from a base in Corsica, who landed in the north under the cover of darkness, as well as a convoy of 150 armored vehicles which simultaneously reached the town's western perimeter, according to a French military spokeswoman. The Islamists were no longer there.

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