MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Women decked out in brightly colored gowns, gold jeweler and elaborate hairstyles dance with men to the slow tunes of Somali love songs.
A pianist, guitarist and female singer entertain the crowd packed into a small, stuffy hall for a wedding reception.
Such a scene would have been unthinkable in Mogadishu just months ago when a hardline Muslim movement ruled the seaside capital and much of southern Somalia, imposing sharia law and shutting down many forms of entertainment seen as un-Islamic.
But business is back after the interim government, with Ethiopian military help, in January ejected the Islamists and their strict form of Islam.
Reveling in their new freedom, excited guests cheer and shower the singer with scarves and a confetti of Somali money.
“I‘m very happy,” wedding planner Muna Omar said as the reception at a former military compound starts to wind down.
“During the Islamic reign we would never dare organize such a party,” she said. “They considered it unlawful.”
When the Somali Islamic Courts Council was in charge last year, they banned wedding parties, shut video halls screening foreign films and World Cup football matches, outlawed a hugely popular narcotic, khat, and harassed men’s barbers.
They also ordered women to wear the hijab, an outfit covering the body and head.
At first, many residents praised them for bringing relative stability to much of a country that had become a byword for anarchy since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.
But they were abhorred by others for imposing restrictions on a Muslim society that is traditionally moderate and they drew unfavorable comparisons to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
One guest taking a break from dancing recalls how he was at a secret party in Mogadishu last year that the Islamists heard of and decided to break up.
“We invited a few guests and the music was on low volume. I don’t know who tipped off Islamist troops, but they stormed in and disrupted the party,” he said. “They flogged and chased away guests. I was so shocked.”
Then he returns to the heaving dance floor, a group of young men looking on with grins, clapping his every twist and turn.
Mogadishu remains one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and remnants of the Islamist movement are blamed for almost daily insurgent strikes targeting interim government troops, Ethiopian patrols and African Union peacekeepers from Uganda.
A major peace conference under way in the north of the city has been attacked with volleys of mortar shells -- which missed and crashed down onto residential streets nearby.
But many were relieved to see the back of the Islamists, especially the Somalis whose livelihoods they choked off.
Deqo Afrah, another Mogadishu-based party planner, says business is booming again. She charges about $200 for most weddings, which includes applying the henna, the red dye used to decorate the bride’s skin.
“I organize at least two or three weddings per week,” she said. “I am very busy, unlike during the Islamic Courts’ rule. People can now party freely. It is good for business.”
Standing nearby wearing heavy make-up and a flowing semi-transparent gown, her fellow planner Omar heartily agrees.
“Nobody had the guts to dress like this,” she said with a laugh. “We were unhappy and bored. I hope the Islamic Courts do not hear me and come for my head!”