- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - With an AK47 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’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 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 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. They also often carry heavy backpacks.

Somali army officials report female army recruits have increased following the ouster from the capital in 2011 of the Islamic extremist rebels of 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 Islamic militants. With support from the U.N. and the African Union, Somali forces pushed the extremists of al-Shabab out of the capital.

The army now controls Mogadishu, the sprawling seaside capital that 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 woman 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 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 their dedication to the army cost them their marriage and some family relations.

Story Continues →