Female soldiers in Somali serve in the face of opposition

A+female+Somali+soldier%2C+left%2C+searches+a+civilian+before+she+enters+a+police+station+in+Mogadishu%2C+the+nation%27s+capital%2C+on+Sunday%2C+March+30%2C+2014.+There+are+at+least+1%2C500+women+serving+in+the+Somali+army%2C+though+most+are+not+allowed+to+fight+on+the+front+lines.+

A female Somali soldier, left, searches a civilian before she enters a police station in Mogadishu, the nation's capital, on Sunday, March 30, 2014. There are at least 1,500 women serving in the Somali army, though most are not allowed to fight on the front lines.

Rebekah Wahlberg

A female Somali soldier, left, searches a civilian before she enters a police station in Mogadishu, the nation's capital, on Sunday, March 30, 2014. There are at least 1,500 women serving in the Somali army, though most are not allowed to fight on the front lines.
A female Somali soldier, left, searches a civilian before she enters a police station in Mogadishu, the nation’s capital, on Sunday, March 30, 2014. There are at least 1,500 women serving in the Somali army, though most are not allowed to fight on the front lines.

ABDI GULED
Associated Press

MOGADISHU, Somalia — With an AK-47 automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, Naeemo Abdi frisks people coming into a Mogadishu police station.

When she holds back a man who tried to enter unchecked, he scowls at her and barks, “Woman and soldier?”

She did not respond but directed the man to the security checkpoint.

It is unusual to see a female in the military in traditionally conservative Somali society, where women’s duties are generally at home and limited to family chores. But Abdi and other determined women are breaking down those barriers. About 1,500 females are now in the military of 20,000, according to estimates.

The lean 25-year-old Abdi explains that she has endured many challenges joining the army two years ago. She moved from a conventional domestic role as a wife and mother of three to work in the army because she liked the prestige. She said she faced massive opposition from her spouse and family, who thought she would be cast off should she decide to become a soldier.

“It was difficult, but I must do this to serve my country unreservedly,” she said.

Her work as a soldier receives mixed reactions from her fellow Somalis. A few approve, but many think women should not be in the military.

“Gender is not boundary,” said Abdi, tightening her bootlaces. “If committed, women can work far better than men.”

At work, they often wear camouflage trouser uniforms, boots and bright blue or purple headscarves topped by a beret with the military’s insignia. At other times, they wear long skirts to observe Islamic dress codes.

Somali army officials report female army recruits have increased following the 2011 ouster of the Islamic extremist rebels of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu, the capital.

Order is slowly being restored in Somalia following more than 20 years of chaos and violence. Somalia’s state largely collapsed after a dictator was overthrown in 1991, and the country was run by feuding clans and, more recently, by Islamic militants. With support from the United Nations and the African Union, Somali forces pushed al-Shabaab extremists out of the capital.

The army now controls Mogadishu, which has a population estimated at up to 3 million, most other cities and large parts of the countryside.

However, the militants are still a danger, killing government employees, including soldiers. For protection, the women in the Somali army hide their identities out of the workplace by covering their faces and bodies with hijabs.

To further protect her security after finishing her shift, Sadiya Nur, another female soldier, takes a circuitous route home to avoid being followed by possible extremists. Inside the bus, she chooses a back seat to avoid getting ambushed by assassins.

“My senses tell me to be suspicious because they don’t want to see me helping my country,” said Nur, a soft-spoken but resolute 28-year-old. “My husband, family and everyone wanted me to stay at home. It didn’t work for me.”

Other female soldiers say their dedication to the army cost them their marriage and some family relations.

In spite of their progress, women complain of discrimination and inequality in the army, saying they are restricted to menial jobs.

Officials said some female trainees want to serve as combat soldiers battling the al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia — but most of them are deployed to police stations to help provide security.

Nevertheless, the new female army recruits take pleasure in their gains so far.

“We hope equality in our army will make a better impression in our community,” Abdi said. “We want to show that we can serve for good in our country.”

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