Women Beyond the Veil in Mali

Religion Fellows 2013

By Katie Orlinsky

August 18, 2014

Also published by The New York Times

Women gathered in the streets of Timbuktu to celebrate a three-day wedding. Less than a year ago, these women would have been put in prison for such activity.

There are no beds in the small concrete home Madame Gassamba shares with her four teenage daughters. When night falls, cushions pushed against the spotted walls serve as makeshift beds. Everyday items are strategically stored away for additional space in the one-room home.

This has been the family’s daily routine since 2012, when Islamic radicals forcefully occupied northern Mali, forcing thousands — including Ms. Gassamba’s family — to flee to the capital, Bamako, and seek temporary housing.

But for Ms. Gassamba, a women’s rights activist who abandoned her home in Timbuktu, getting her daughters out of the area was her primary concern.

Before France sent troops in early 2013, Islamist and Tuareg rebel forces imposed strict Shariah law across northern Mali for nine months. Along with looting government offices in Timbuktu, destroying century-old manuscriptsand defacing most billboards, women were forced to remain indoors and wear full body and face-covering veils. Infractions of the law often meant severe punishment, ranging from being jailed in cramped holding cells and being whipped. According to Human Rights Watch, reports of forced marriage and rape also rose.

Tanti Gassamba lives with her family in a one-room house in Bamako. Tanti was "Miss Timbuktu 2009" in a cultural pageant event organized by her mother, a prominent Timbuktu women's rights activist.

Katie Orlinsky, a New York-based photographer, had always been interested in Mali’s vibrant culture and wanted to understand how women were affected by the new laws. In the fall of 2013, she obtained a grant from theInternational Reporting Project that allowed her to travel throughout northern Mali for almost a month, speaking with women who had experienced the Islamic rule and were willing to share their stories of survival with her.

“The Jihadists inflicted so much on the women in the north of the country,” said Ms. Orlinsky, who has also documented the lives of women in conflict situations in Mexico and Nepal.

“It made just living almost illegal for women,” she said.

Almada Traore, 25, one of the few women from Timbuktu who did not flee during Islamist rule last year. She was attacked in her home during her baby-naming ceremony. "My hands weren't covered. So they came in and whipped my arms and forearms."

Ms. Orlinsky mostly traveled around Timbuktu and on the outskirts of Bamako, spending time with women at home, mosques, clubs and family events. She said she was looking for women who wanted to share their stories and didn’t want to pressure those who preferred to remain silent.

“Some had spent years in hiding, or silenced, and it was cathartic and meaningful for them to talk about what had happened,” she said in an email. “For other women, the trauma was too fresh, and they didn’t want to relive it by talking about it with me.”

Those who did speak with her expressed relief that they no longer had to live in fear. Northern Mali had always been a religious place, but their distinct practices had been known to blend traditional Islamic beliefs with indigenous ones.

In Timbuktu, Ms. Orlinsky spoke to a group of girls playing basketball who recalled several incidents when Islamists forced them to wear full burqas, even when playing in intense heat. The girls decided to wear the garment while walking to the courts, but stripped down to their athletic clothes while playing and then immediately put their burqas back on before returning home.

Niatata Traore, 28, was arrested in Timbuktu for refusing to wear a full hijab while working in the desert heat. "You couldn't leave the house without your husband," she said.

Another woman she spoke to had been jailed for several days for hitting a militant after he had slapped her for not covering her hair — while in her own home.

“There were all of these small acts of rebellion,” Ms. Orlinsky said. “They just didn’t want to stop doing what they had to do.”

In her photographs, she concentrated her images on finding semblances of this strength and resilience, including the photo of Ms. Gassamba (slide 6) standing tall in her temporary one-room home. Women are seen dancing in the streets adorned in bright, colorful garbs. Others are shown studying in school and attending food markets without any men around. Though seemingly mundane, just a few months before, these activities were completely banned in the northern Mali.

Although hopeful, Malians know there is a long road of recovery for their country’s future. For the women, Ms. Orlinsky said, the first step of their progress is to rediscover who they are again.

“It was a tough time for them,” she said. “It really wasn’t easy.”

Women sat outside the bride's family home during a rare moment of calm at a wedding celebration in Bamako.

This story was written by Whitney Richardson. All photos by Katie Orlinsky. Follow @KatieOrlinsky, @Whitney_Rich and @nytimesphoto on Twitter.

A woman rode her motorcycle across the Niger River in Bamako.

Women danced at a wedding celebration in Bamako. Weddings in Mali are traditionally large, joyous multi-day affairs.

The women's section of Friday Prayers at the Grand Mosque in Bamako.

The remains of destroyed manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. The Institute was home to thousands of manuscripts that were destroyed by Jihadists, who used it as their barracks during the 2012 occupation.

Madame Gassamba, 55, and her family in Bamako. The Gassamba family lives in a one-room house after they were forced to flee Timbuktu during the conflict.

A Malian military convoy made its way through downtown Timbuktu. Although Islamist rebels were defeated and cast out from cities of the north like Timbuktu, Malian, French and United Nations troops remain in northern Mali because of continuing sporadic attacks and threats from Jihadists.

A coed Islamic school in Bamako.

Women gathered in the streets of Timbuktu.

Girls played basketball in downtown Timbuktu as part of the Academie de Basket coached by El Hadj Adjanga, a local butcher in his 50s. “I can tell you this, the first week after liberation—as soon as they could do it—the kids were back here playing,” he said.

Madame Soumaoro shows her specially done henna on her hands for her baby-naming ceremony in Bamako.

Women at a bar in Bamako. A combination of fear after the 2012 conflict and a rising conservative Islamist wave in Malian society has led to the shuttering of many establishments that serve alcohol, even in the capital.

Tires outside a home in Timbuktu are meant to protect against flooding. Timbuktu and many of Mali’s northern towns still suffer from a lack of power, resources and food.

An outdoor hair salon in Bamako.

A large crowd of men and women at a comedy show in Bamako.

A clothing store in Bamako.

Girls prayed at a coed Islamic school in Bamako.

Nighttime in Timbuktu.

The streets of Timbuktu, where electricity is only available between 6 p.m. and midnight.