Meet the Tank Girls Taking on al-Shabab
Somalia’s fight against jihad will be decisive for women’s rights — and may be decided by female soldiers.
Driving through the Somali capital, it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago these streets were the front lines of the war against al-Shabab. These days, humid air from the Indian Ocean wafts over the shiny blue windows of brand-new office buildings and young girls jump around poorly painted but brightly colored playgrounds. The restaurant at the Beach View Hotel, a faded yellow building sandwiched between a wall of Hesco barriers and a white sand waterfront, is packed once again, only four months after an al-Shabab attack there killed at least 20 people.
Mogadishu’s peace is tenuous. In July, two suicide bombers tried to breach the AMISOM base where Kahindo and Basalirwa are stationed, killing 14 people. But for a country that has been at war for a quarter century, the change in the city feels dramatic. It just hosted its second annual international book fair, drawing hundreds of visitors and showcasing more than a dozen local and international authors. Residents can now stroll down the street and grab a slice of brick-oven pizza or watch a 3-D movie at the Pizza House Cinema.
Although most of the country outside the capital remains dangerous, the relative calm in Mogadishu has allowed a national discussion about gender roles and women’s rights that was impossible during the height of the war. The Parliament has drafted and debated — though not passed — a bill that would criminalize sexual violence for the first time, and the National Leadership Forum, which is overseeing preparations for the country’s upcoming general election, has endorsed a 30 percent quota for women in Parliament.
Peacetime has many obvious benefits for Somali women; among the hardships of wartime, they were disproportionately affected by sexual violence and inadequate access to health care. But there are some who worry that the end of war could mean a step backward for women. Women routinely became heads of households out of necessity during the war, and many started businesses in order to survive.
“You can always say conflict is an opportunity for gender roles to change,” said Tanya Chopra, a contractor with U.N. Women in Somalia. “In some areas women of Somalia have been more economically engaged because their husbands are fighting or have died, and women are wondering now if … they will have to go back to being in the house and have to give up their economic engagement.”
Some, including Chopra, are looking to the female soldiers in AMISOM to inspire Somali women to fight to retain their wartime freedoms. They also hope that the presence of female AMISOM officers in the street, in U.N. conference rooms, and in meetings with top Somali officials will change men’s perceptions about gender roles.
“When we say we have a leader who’s coming to meet you, [local leaders] expect to see a male and they are surprised when they see a female. Maybe because of the culture they thought as a female you can’t be a leader,” said Ugandan Capt. Mercy Ruhinda. “But I think that is starting to change, at least they see that women can be in leadership positions, and we are trying to help address the problems here.”
But where many see the presence of female AMISOM soldiers having the greatest impact is in changing the mindset of young Somali girls. According to Schwoebel, “It could have a great impact on young women in Somalia because seeing women, especially from African countries, in these positions, they become like role models to these young girls.”
Evidence from previous missions suggests that the example set by female peacekeepers can make a difference. In Liberia, for example, an all-female Formed Police Unit from India was credited by the U.N. with inspiring Liberian women to join the country’s police force, increasing the percentage of female officers from 13 to 21 in the five years after the Indian unit deployed in 2007. In Somalia, a similar trend is emerging, perhaps inspired by the women of AMISOM and perhaps by a 24-year-old member of the diaspora, Iman Elman, who as a captain is the highest-ranking woman of the Somali National Army (SNA). Elman was raised in Canada following the slaying of her father, the prominent human rights activist Elman Ali Ahmed, but returned to Mogadishu in 2009 to work at her mother’s center for victims of sexual assault, the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center.
“A lot of girls I talked to believed that they were physically incapable of doing what men could do,” Elman said. “I remember Googling woman bodybuilders and showing them the pictures because I wanted them to see that that wasn’t true.”
Elman soon realized the only way to convince young women of their potential would be to demonstrate it herself — by joining the military. When she enlisted in the SNA at the age of 19, she was one of only two women in her battalion of 350 soldiers. After a year of struggling through intense verbal abuse from her male colleagues, Elman went on to serve on the front lines of the war against al-Shabab, earning national recognition for her accomplishments. Though the number of women in uniform is still very low, she says, more young women are expressing interest in joining Somalia’s nascent military force.
“There’s been an influx of girls, young girls, joining the army, and the boys are a bit more accepting of it than when I joined,” she said.
But the SNA is still a long way from being considered a professional fighting force. It’s estimated that 16,000 troops are poorly trained and equipped, and they often go months without pay. That poses a host of challenges for female troops like Elman that the women of AMISOM don’t have to contend with. The Somali army doesn’t have proper barracks, let alone reporting mechanisms or disciplinary procedures for gender-based discrimination and abuse.
“We still don’t have a gender department, we don’t have a human rights department,” Elman said. “When I joined there wasn’t a single channel where I could lodge any complaints about how the guys were treating me.”
Somali female soldiers haven’t yet earned the same respect as their AMISOM counterparts, and young SNA recruits still complain about sexual harassment and mistreatment by their male colleagues, Elman said. But as AMISOM prepares to withdraw from Somalia and hand combat operations over to the SNA, perhaps as early as 2018, the role of female soldiers in both forces has never been more important. Gender norms are changing as Somalia inches toward peace, and women in uniform will play an important role in safeguarding what little progress was made toward gender equality during wartime — and leading the charge for full equality during peacetime.
For now, peace and equality seem a long way off. Though some stability has returned to Mogadishu, bombings and targeted assassinations are still commonplace. Outside the capital, al-Shabab still terrorizes huge swaths of the country and clan militias do as they please in the absence of government control. The outlook for women in these areas is grim; one out of every 12 women dies of pregnancy related-causes and nearly half of all Somali girls are married by the age of 18. Whether or not the government can wrest control over these regions will not just be decisive for women. It may be decided by women, since more of them are serving in uniform.
“Women raised this country; they have been mediating peace throughout the war,” said Leila Mohamoud Abdulle, a women’s rights activist in Mogadishu. Now women have a chance to fight for peace on the frontlines and help build a culture of respect and gender equality in the armed forces.
“If we want peace to last,” she said, “we are going to need the leadership from women.”