I assumed Somali women would be quiet and shy — a little tough to engage in an interview.
Maybe that wasn't very thoughtful or culturally aware of me, but Somalia is a conservative Muslim country with a rural lifestyle that has suffered years of violent conflict and desperate poverty. Our three Somali female staff all wear a full hijab, the traditional head covering and full-length dress worn in many Muslim communities. People even warned me not to wear short sleeves and not to try to shake hands with a woman. So hopefully readers can understand my assumptions, if not forgive them.
I spent an hour with the three women of Mercy Corps' Jamame office to get a better idea of what it means to be a Somali woman, and realized that all my assumptions were wrong. As the ladies walked in, the first thing Mulki, our finance officer, did was look me in the eye, extend her hand, and give me a good firm shake.
Let's get some basics out of the way. Where are you from, what's your educational background, what's your marital status?
Mulki Ali Mohammed, finance officer, 18: I am from Kismayo [a city about 25 miles from here] but I live here in Jamame for the job. I finished secondary school and had additional training in accountancy. I was also trained in HIV/AIDS counseling and human rights, through non-profits. I'm not married.
Asha Adbdulle, finance assistant, 24: I'm from Jamame and I graduated from secondary school here, specializing in agriculture. I'm also not married.
Fausiya Omar, administrative assistant, 22: I am also from Kismayo, but my family was in Uganda during the war, so I did my secondary school there. I am not married either.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for Somali women?
Mulki: Rape. Kidnapping. Torture. Threats, in general.
Fausiya: Men abuse women. Even in the city there is no difference — it's like that everywhere.
Asha: Everywhere in Somalia, women don't participate in meetings and things. Men say women are nothing, only housewives. There are some opportunities for women, but not much.
Fausiya: In other countries women give speeches and attend meetings — they have a voice — but that's not really the case here in Somalia.
Mulki: Women can participate, but they don't really have the education and knowledge for the men to listen to them. The lack of education is really the big obstacle.
What could you do about the lack of education?
Mulki: I think it could be solved with better government.
Fausiya: Better schools.
Mulki: Better security.
Fausiya: I think it really is about security — that's the big one.
Asha: We — women like us — can advise the other women and teach something to the ladies.
Mulki: It's hard because even if we advocate for women, lots of women will tell us, "No, we can't do that."
Fausiya: Yes, lots of women wouldn't want to hear the advice we give.
Fausiya: There is some hope though. There are women's groups in Kismayo who set up women's schools and study groups, so I am glad to see that at least in the city, the situation is moving in the right direction.
You all have good jobs at Mercy Corps. As a Somali woman, what are your prospects for having a career?
Mulki: Before I get married, my partner would have to accept my working. Only if he accepts that will I agree to get married.
Fausiya: They used to say that girls needed to stay inside — that God said we could never go outside. But it's different now. I agree [with Mulki] that you need to make it clear to [a potential husband] from the start.
Asha: About 80 percent of Somali girls don't go to school. They get married young, and if they don't finish school they wash dishes and sit around the house.
Fausiya: My mother runs a business transporting wood, so I see a woman doing business.
Mulki: And because of the war, there are no universities and bad schools, so it's hard for lots of girls.
What's so special about having a job?
Mulki: When I saw the job announcement for this job at Mercy Corps, it said that hiring women was a priority. That made me know this would be a great place to work. When I found out I passed the application's exam, I was very happy — and I have already had additional training.
I also had to move from Kismayo [her hometown] to take the job, so I am living on my own as well. My family was a little concerned, but I call my family every day and tell them I am OK.
Who do you admire?
Asha: I admire myself — I want to see the Somali ladies become more like us.
Fausiya: I admire people who are modern and well-educated — I want to be an educated woman.
Mulki: I want to be like the Somalia women who abroad. I can leave this situation — where nothing is suitable — but elsewhere I can get a great education, good security and get good jobs. Even if I stay in Somalia, I want to be like those girls.
What do you do for fun?
Fausiya: I listen to music — usually slow American music. I like reading novels. I watch Mexican telenovelas on satellite TV. When I am in Kismayo, I love to go sit on the beach for a few hours and go swimming with my sisters. We go on Fridays for a few hours.
The beach? What do you wear? Do you have a hijab for the water?
Fausiya: We don't have to wear the hijab because there are few men on the beach on Fridays — they are usually at the mosque. It used to be that girls would get kidnapped, but it's better now.
Mulki: That's interesting because I spent my whole life in Kismayo but I've only been in the ocean twice. I am kind of afraid of the sea; I don't really know how to swim.
Asha: I like to watch TV — mostly the news.
Mulki: I listen to the news on the radio. I love to watch football — I'm a Liverpool fan. I also attend football games in Kismayo. I even play football at my brother's house. When I go into the house, I throw my hijab off and then I can play. I also read history books and romance novels. It's one way to learn something about love, too. We all listen to radio call-in shows when they are talking about love. When I can, I like to go on the Internet and do instant messaging with Fausiya.
What do you see yourself accomplishing in your career? Do you want to run a business or a non-profit or be president?
Fausiya: I don't care much about politics. I just want to keep my job and become the admin officer for this Mercy Corps office. I always encourage myself to keep at it.
I want to advocate for other Somali women and girls. I want them to be able to carry themselves in a proud way, and if they see women doing important work here, they'll want to go to school more badly.
I want to be a big shot in Somalia!
Mulki: Saying you want to be president of this country is like digging your grave, so I'd like to be some kind of manager.
Asha: Now I am the finance assistant. Next I want to be finance officer, then I want to be a finance manager, here or somewhere else. We have a saying here:
If money is lost, nothing is lost.
If time is lost, something is lost.
If hope is lost, everything is lost.
I have hope — I have lots of hope about the future!