TIMBUKTU, Mali — On the morning French commandos parachuted onto the sand just north of this storied city and ended 10 months of Islamist rule, Hawi Traore folded up her veil. The next day, she wore heels. On the day after, she put on 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.
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, 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 bears the scar left by the whip of the Islamist police, her punishment for not properly covering up.
The Islamists showed no mercy, beating everyone from pregnant women to grandmothers to 9-year-old girls who weren't fully covered with a colorless veil.
"We even bought a veil for this baby," said 21-year-old Fatouma Traore, picking up her 1-year-old niece. "Even if you are wearing the veil and it happens to slip off and you are trying to put it back on, they hit you."
Smoking, drinking and music were banned. So was playing soccer. Even talking to a brother on the front stoop of a woman's own home could get her in trouble. The worst punishment was reserved for love outside the rules, and an unmarried couple who had two children out of wedlock were stoned to death in one northern Malian town.
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.
As the troops rolled into Timbuktu this week in a massive convoy, they drew crowds so thick that at times the armored personnel carriers came to a standstill. People waved homemade French flags sewn together from bolts of red, white and blue fabric. Hawi and her mother stood on the side of the road, screaming, "Vive la France!"
U.N. to consider new peacekeepers in Mali
A top diplomat says the U.N. Security Council will consider plans for a new U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali following France's ejection of hard-line Islamists from the West African country's northern cities.
The council last month passed a resolution approving a multinational African force to help stabilize Mali. But with the Islamist rebels in retreat, that plan has been overtaken by events on the ground.
The Security Council instead will discuss a regular U.N. peacekeeping force to replace the plan for the African-led force, according to a senior Western diplomat, the Associated Press reported.