Two sisters from Ottawa, Iman and Ilwad have returned to Mogadishu, to join their mother, Fartuun Adan, in fighting gender violence and terrorism in their native Somalia.
Imam, is a military commander, an unusual role for a woman.
Her sister, Ilwad, speaks out for women’s rights and supports victims of violence. Their base and home is the Elman Peace Centre, named after their murdered father. The centre is run by their mother, Fratuun Adan.
Rape and violence against women is a serious problem. Somalia has been involved in civil wars; rape is often a tool of violence to shame the wives and husbands of opponents. For many cultures the value of a woman is either in her virginity, or her purity in marriage. Rape violates both.
A sign in the corner of the Elman Peace office reads: “Real Men Don’t Rape.” Iman has just come from work and is still dressed in her military fatigues, a black hijab discreetly tucked beneath the lieutenant’s cap. She turns heads on Mogadishu’s streets: it is rare, if not unheard of, to have a female commander, let alone one who is only 21.
When she joined the military two years ago, women were given two pairs of pants to sew together to make a skirt. Knowing it would be hard to fight in a skirt, Iman told them one pair of pants would do. Now she commands 90 men in her battalion.
“Being raised in Canada, I was taught you’re no different from any guy, you’re equal, you’re the same,” she says. “When I went into the military they said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not your job.’ I wanted to break some of the stereotypes here.”
Ilwad, 23, is smashing stereotypes, too, speaking out about violence against women and promoting their rights at the Elman Peace Centre, which she runs with her mother, Fartuun Adan.
She left Ottawa in 2010, to visit her mom. But she couldn’t leave. “A lot of people didn’t understand what compelled me to come back here, and even more so, what caused me to stay,” she says. “It’s hard not to be here. I’ve been back to Canada several times but every time I’m there I feel I’m just so much more of use around here. I feel guilty almost. “Things are changing so rapidly in Somalia. It’s like we’re in the middle of a revolution and I feel like I’m a part of that.”
Their father, Elman Ali Ahmed, would be proud. Ahmed was a well-known peace activist in Mogadishu during the early 1990s, when Somalia’s government collapsed and sectarian warfare enveloped the country. With his wife Fartuun Adan, he cared for orphans and ran community programs, including one called “Lights for Peace,” which lit the city’s dark corridors, controlled by rival warlords. On March 9, 1996, he was shot in the back by hooded gunmen in a crime that was never solved.
“Elman did not belong to any political faction and had been outspoken in criticizing all political leaders for the continuing violence,” read Amnesty International’s statement at the time.
Fartuun Adan raised her girls in Canada but returned to Somalia for good in 2007 to continue her humanitarian work.
This March, she received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State.
In 2010, when Ilwad and Iman returned to Mogadishu, Al Shabab controlled most of the city. While the Al Qaeda group still has a strong, covert presence and the ability to launch attacks — such as the assault on the Supreme Court last month — the capital is no longer a war zone.
“Now I can drive down the road by myself, I can walk, I can be out until 11 at night or even past that. When I first came the curfew was at 1 p.m.,” says Ilwan. “Flying bullets and stray bullets were the norm. Now when I hear one shot I flinch because I’m not used to it anymore.”
But there is still a long way to go before the Shabab is completely conquered, especially outside of Mogadishu, where Iman has fought or led security operations.