For more than 20 years there has been a continuous stream of bad news where Somalia is concerned with images of war, famine and piracy. Now with Al Shabaaab driven out of Mogadishu, and the Somali Transitional Government and African Union in control of the capital, Somalia seems to have joined the Africa Rising tide, and interestingly the image of Somalia’s new era of a peaceful future seems to be largely women.
Indeed, a dominant narrative in rebuilding Somalia seems to focus on women, not only the women in refugee camps who are struggling to support their families and husbands, but also those in the Diaspora who are coming back to do their part in rebuilding the nation.
Through the Fire is a documentary film and photo essay that showcases the resilience of Somali people, with a focus on women, as they do their part in rebuilding their country. Aimed at providing a different perspective on Somalia by portraying Somalis not as helpless victims but as people who have managed to thrive in difficult circumstances, Through the Fire is a dedication to the strength of Somali women who have found ways to rebuild the country regardless of the severe restrictions imposed on them by Al Shabaab.
Through the Fire focuses on women because “the courage of the Somali women is something to behold,” with examples such as Dr Hawa Abdi, a human rights activist and physician who opened her home to 90,000 people, mostly women, for more than 10 years even as Al Shabaab threatened to kill her, and Shamso Abdule, a woman who was able to set up a secret trading network among women while hiding with her family during the fighting. There are countless Somali women who took responsibility for the survival of their families following the breakdown of the economy and the absence of men during the long civil war. Now with the retreat of Al Shabaab from Mogadishu, more women are pursuing ambitious outside trade and commerce and have been presented as the face of the “new Somalia,” as the important aspect that will revitalize their country.The BBC especially has through various reports shown the role Somali women are playing: for example, this article on the new independence Somali women are enjoying from being able to drive through Mogadishu thanks to the relative peace that has settled in the city, and this photo-essay on a samosa seller whose business provides income for her family. While this report focuses on specifically on the British Somalis who are hoping to rebuild Somalia by returning there, yet another report from the BBC claims that Somalis in the Diaspora are returning to Mogadishu by the “plane-load” and that many of them are women from the USA, UK and Canada, women who may not be used to wearing a veil and do not necessarily fit into ideas of traditional roles of men and women in Somali society but who still want to do their part in Somalia’s rise. Like other returnees, they are optimistic about Somalia’s growth and future due to the removal of Al Shabaab from Mogadishu and the return of politicians to the city.
“How women are rebuilding Mogadishu” is a short video from The Guardian in association with the same people behind Through the Fire. It features interviews with enterprising women living in Mogadishu, such as Lul Moalim Keyrat, a businesswoman who is the sole breadwinner in her family. There has been a considerable rise in Somali women entrepreneurs with more women starting their own businesses and although the business scene remains small, the presence of women is felt and their contributions so palpable that despite the realities of living in a country that has been labelled one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman, Somali women are still pushing the workforce.
Other women who have received some attention for their part in revitalising Mogadishu are the Canadian sisters Iman and Ilwad Elman, and their mother Fartun Abdisalan Adan. While Iman Elman joined the military as one of the few female soldiers in Somalia to become a commander presiding over several men, Ilwad runs a rape crisis centre with their mother. The role they play is important are part of the returning Diaspora and in speaking out against sexual violence and rape thus challenging the stigma attached to talking about such topics.
With two women appointed as part of the ten-member cabinet by the new Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon, it looks like we’ll be seeing and hearing more about Somali women who are part of the country’s rise, which will bring a much needed breath of fresh air in the usual media focus on Somalia and Somali women.