MOGADISHU, Somalia: With an AK-47 automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, Naeemo Abdi frisks people coming into a Mogadishu police station.
When she detains 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’s 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 since 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’d 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 serve 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. They also often carry heavy backpacks with them.
Somali army officials report female recruits have increased following the ouster from the capital in 2011 of Islamist rebels Al-Shabab.
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 Islamist militants. With support from the U.N. and the African Union, Somali forces pushed Al-Shabab out of the capital Mogadishu.
The army now controls the sprawling seaside city, which has a population estimated at up to 3 million, as well as 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 woman soldier, takes a circuitous route home to avoid being followed by possible attackers. Inside the bus, she chooses a back seat to avoid being ambushed by assassins.
“My senses tell me to be suspicious because they don’t want to see me helping me 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 that their dedication to the army has 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.
“The only problem is women get relegated and don’t get promoted to higher roles,” said female soldier Shukri Hassan.
For female soldiers, the rigid backbreaking military training was their main obstacle and has forced many to give up.
“Some of them could barely run for a mile, others cried and gave up,” said Capt. Mohamed Hussein, a senior Somali police officer who supervised training for the military’s female recruits.
Officials say some female trainees want to serve as combat soldiers battling the Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia – but most of them are deployed at police stations to help provide security.
“Getting senior female officers would inspire more women to join the army,” said Halimo Maalin, a female soldier.
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,” said Abdi, the soldier working at a police station. “We want to show that we can serve for good in our country.”