A tall figure in a black hijab and face veil strides confidently towards 20-year-old Ahmed Noor’s computer terminal. Only her dark brown eyes and eyelashes, thick with mascara, are visible.
On reaching Noor, she lifts her hijab to reveal manicured nails and gold rings on her fingers. In her hand she’s holding a folded white piece of paper. With a wink she passes it to Noor and walks off into the busy street outside.
Noor unfolds the paper. There’s a Facebook profile link and an email address written on it. It’s now up to him to take the next step.
This is post civil-war courting, Mogadishu-style.
In the conservative Muslim society, social networking is a popular and easy way through which Somalis can interact with members of the opposite sex.
Slow internet speeds – fibre optic cables are yet to reach us – and expensive internet café rates of up to 60 US cents per hour do not deter Somalis from staying connected. Internet penetration in the country is only at about 2% but it’s growing, especially among the youth. Currently there are more than 130 000 Facebook users in Somalia and more than half of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.
Despite the hardline al-Shabab group no longer controlling the Somali capital and imposing its own version of Sharia law, many women still wear the face veil. The only place their faces are visible is on their Facebook profiles. Even then, they’re a step ahead in concealing their real identity thanks to photo-editing software.
“Many girls come to us to have their photos altered. We exchange, for example, the head of an actress with theirs so the picture has their face on an actress’s body,” says Sharif Hussein (24) who runs Satellite Photo Studio. It’s conveniently located next to an internet café.
“They usually tell me they want me to photoshop their pictures so they can send it to potential boyfriends or husbands on Facebook.”
Some university students and working professionals prefer studio shoots instead of what Hussein calls a ‘virtual body part swap’. They stop at the Mogadishu Beauty Salon a short drive away to have their hair and make-up done professionally before arriving at his studio.
Saida Ahmed, a colourful woman in both appearance and personality, runs the popular beauty salon. She’s wearing a bright orange dress, her hair is dyed orange with henna and her ear lobes stretch under the weight of gold earrings.
“Some girls come here black and want to look white, so I make sure they leave the salon white. I’m here to help other sisters succeed with their Facebook missions,” she tells me while applying cream on a client’s face.
But Somali guys aren’t impressed with the visual tricks girls are employing on Facebook. “They look like Iman [the Somali supermodel] on their Facebook profile and they sound like Farxiya Fiska a [popular female singer] on the phone, but in reality they are neither,” complains Noor.
Back at the internet café where I’m hanging out with him and his friends, all the females are wearing face veils. One of them, Amina (19), is chatting on Facebook and showing off her two Chinese-made smart phones to friends over a webcam.
I ask her about Somali women’s preference for digitally enhanced photos and she retorts that Somali men shouldn’t complain.
“Men in Mogadishu tell lies to your face, we at least tell it behind a screen. They have two, three, four wives and still tell you they are single,” she says, breaking into high-pitched laughter.
Her friend Shamsa calls me over to her terminal and shows me her Facebook friends list. Most of the men on it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than typical Somalis.
“Guys do the same thing that we do! And worse,” Shamsa points out, clicking through the men’s photos. “They all look like wrestlers. You will not find a skinny Somali man on Facebook. They don’t look like Mo Farah.”
Hussein concurs with Shamsa and admits to helping many men doctor their photos. “Plenty of them come to my studio too. They usually ask me to swap their torsos with those of bodybuilders.”
With these tricks up their sleeves, courting on Facebook can be entertaining and exciting but religious leaders in Mogadishu aren’t happy about it. Sheikh Abdi Haji, a religious studies lecturer at Mogadishu University and imam of Zobe Mosque is vocal in his opposition to youngsters searching for life partners on the social network.
“There is a guy who wanted to marry a lady he met on Facebook. He paid the dowry only to find out on the wedding night she is a cripple. She didn’t tell him before they got married, nor did the pictures on her Facebook show she is a cripple.” Youth should stay away from Facebook, Sheikh Abdi says, because it’s full of “hypocrites”.
Noor, Amina and Shamsa wouldn’t reveal whether flirting on Facebook has paid off for them. They, like other young Somalis, are ever wary of the “religious police” and prefer to keep their relationships quiet to avoid trouble. There’s no way they’ll give up Facebook, though.
Noor takes out the piece of paper that the mysterious young woman had handed to him earlier. He’s going to take the next step. And, he tells me quietly, he’s come up with a solution to avoid being duped by Somali ‘supermodels’.
“I don’t go for girls with very pretty profile photos. They’re photoshopped. If she’s average-looking with spots on her face, I talk to her.”
Hamza Mohamed is an independent Britishi-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter.