Published On: Sun, Apr 22nd, 2012

Somalia and Somaliland women escape to the gym

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Somalia is often described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, with violence, drought and restrictions from al-Shabab Islmists, who controls much of the country. But the BBC’s Mary Harper found that some Somali women are doing surprising things, and their future may be looking a little brighter.
Every morning in a building in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, women can be found pumping iron, pounding running machines and spinning furiously on exercise bikes.
Unlike in the bullet-scarred streets outside, where suicide bombers are a constant threat, these women are not completely covered in veils and robes. They are wearing track suits and T-shirts.
The BBC’s Mohamed Dhore in Mogadishu says the women-only workout sessions at the gym are becoming increasingly popular – an indication that things are changing in the city.
People feel a little safer now that Mogadishu is no longer an open battleground between al-Shabab and government troops backed by African Union peacekeepers.
The fact that growing numbers of women are going to gym suggests al-Shabab is losing its grip on their minds. They no longer feel forced to so completely restrict their behaviour, hiding themselves away under thick, dark robes.
Locked doors
But things are not entirely normal at the gym. The women may appear relaxed and happy indoors, but the windows are all shut and barred. In front of the tightly locked door stand security guards, who are paid above the market rates by the gym’s owner.
He says he needs the best guards in town to make sure men do not burst in and rape the women, and to stop suicide bombers from striking.
There are no such guards outside the doors of another Somali gym, the Bilxeeh Bodybuilding Centre, which is adorned with images of muscle-bound men and bodybuilding machines that look alarmingly like instruments of torture.
This is because it is hundreds of kilometres away from Mogadishu, in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, a far more peaceful part of Somali territory.
But like the Mogadishu gym, the door and windows were firmly closed when I visited. It took several minutes of hard banging on the metal door before a slim woman opened it and let me enter.
Inside it was a world apart from the streets of Hargeisa where women dress modestly and do not have much of a voice in public life.
Loud music blared out as skimpily dressed women sweated away on an impressive array of exercise machines.
A young woman with short hair and an aggressive expression thumped a large punch bag swinging from the ceiling. Dressed all in black, she delivered high kicks at the bag, thwacking it loud and hard. She looked strong, fit and slightly terrifying.
‘Fat is the enemy’
An older woman worked the running machine at a sedate pace. Like the other women in the gym, she was open and keen to talk, an attitude very different to that prevailing outside.
She clutched a large roll of fat on her belly, encouraging me to give it a squeeze. “Fat is the enemy,” she said.
“I come to the gym every single day for five hours at a time. I arrive at 10 and leave at three – just before the men get here.”
A group of young women burst in through the door. They tore off their long dresses, petticoats and veils, to reveal tight, shiny Lycra outfits in bright oranges, yellows and reds. They stood in front of large, unforgiving mirrors, squeezing each other’s bits of fat, and collapsing in fits of giggles.
“This is my first day at the gym,” said a teenager called Nimo as she was on the running machine. “I already feel better. I would like to have a go on everything in here, on all the machines.
“I need to start exercising so I can lose some of this,” she said, pointing to the wobbly bits on her body, patting them and smiling. “I also need to get fitter because I get out of breath easily.”
Unlike southern Somalia, which is still torn apart by conflict, Somaliland has rebuilt itself from the rubble of civil war. It is moving beyond the economy of recovery, and people are starting to spend more money on non-essential activities.
It is women who are catering to some of these requirements, starting all sorts of imaginative projects and businesses.
A short walk away from the gym is an art gallery, the first of its kind in Somaliland. It was opened this year by a young woman called Ebony Iman Dallas.
Bright paintings hang on the walls, with images not of war, but of the positive and beautiful things in Somali life, including women dressed in rainbow colours, and nomads herding their camels across sandy landscapes.
Women have also set up beauty parlours, the buildings decorated with images of intricate henna designs, neatly manicured fingernails and eyes made up in a sultry, seductive manner.
Shops selling fashionable clothes are also opening in Hargeisa. One is Nannies’ Superstore owned by Hodan Hassan Elmi.
She caters for the young, fashionable crowd, selling a vast range of shoes, bags, hats, dresses, jeans, brightly coloured lingerie, and abayas – long, loose fitting gowns.
Biggest breadwinners
“Abayas are the most popular at the moment,” she says. “Most young women wear abayas these days because they’re comfortable, relaxing and flattering. They hide all sorts of bumps and lumps.
“You might not think it, but tight tops and jeans are also popular. Girls like to wear them hidden under their abayas. They also like the colourful lingerie because they like bright, cheerful things.”
Somali women do far more than cater for the lighter, brighter side of life. Even though they are under-represented in politics and other areas of public life, their voices often drowned out by men, they are in many ways the backbone of the economy.
A former first lady and foreign minister of Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail, who has set up a maternity hospital in Hargeisa says: “Somali women are the biggest breadwinners. Many of the men died during the civil war, so many women became heads of families.
“Most of the small businesses, most of the trading that takes place in the markets is either part owned, entirely owned, or managed by women.”
Despite this, says Ms Ismail, women remain marginalised in many other areas of life. “Somali women feel that they are not getting a fair share of what this country is giving to its people.
“Having contributed so much to it, they are being denied many privileges that women have a right to have. A right to authority, a right to inheritance, a right to making decisions about their marriages, a right not to be physically molested, a right to be treated as equal partners, equal people with men.”
It is possible that, in the not too distant future, Somali women will gain more rights.
Somalia’s long period of political transition is due to end this August, and according to a set of agreements about the country’s future, known as the Garowe Principles, women should hold at least 30% of seats in the new Somali parliament.
If this new parliament ever becomes a reality, it is likely that women will start pushing for and achieving more rights and that the vibrant, noisy confidence of those women in the gym will be seen in public.

Displaying 39 Comments
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  1. reer khaatumo says:

    somalia is not whether they live in hargaisa or mugadishu… united we stand

  2. osman5 says:

    Folks, as you can see at the bottom, the article was originated in the UK. It gave me a clear indication that the British media is insinuating Somaliland & Somalia drawing near with each other.
    Either this BBC correspondent has been misinformed or knows something isn't made in public yet..
    The another point I picked up in the article was that Somalilanders are the bread-winners of Somaliland. This did not catch me in surprise, primarily for 2 reasons:

    A) Somali women are the main property in glue that holds everything together in our society. It's been that way for decades..the trend is only going upward.
    B) women roles even in the developed world are surpassing at high rate higher over their male counterparts. Women in North America and Europe are holding more executive positions in mega corps than ever before. They're also dominated fields such as medical, aviation, engineering, accounting and law that traditionally used to be male roles.
    Thus, the way I see it the world is changing dramatically, so are the gender responsibilities.

    Osman Qaal

  3. osman5 says:

    reer khaatumo,
    Please try to relate your comments on the subject matter..

    No need to post clickable links, thank you….

    Osman Qaal

  4. ComeAgain says:

    Get it ladies! Somali women are the most beautiful creatures. I think the one on the punching bag could kick my butt.

  5. MsSomaliland says:

    That's right "fat is the enemy"…baruurto ha dhacdo!

  6. mahad farmajo says:

    "He says he needs the best guards in town to make sure men do not burst in and rape the women"

    kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk this article is clearly not for informed somali people. yeah right, men will come in the gym during the day light to rape Mogadishu. rape women is the last thing Somali man think about.
    even Ugandan soldiers can get booty in Mogadishu let alone Somali men. most of the men in Mogadishu who can string two words together have multiple wives. i been there in november. wbtf

  7. Kayse says:

    I know exactly where that gym is in Hargeisa…across the central bank and one block from Daallo Airlines' office.

    Abayas are not popular in Somaliland. The abayas are usually worn by girls from the Diaspora specially those from the Middle East and local girls who wear it are usually stereotyped by the youth as "Dhaqaan aan dhoofin"…the one whose never been abroad but with foreign culture…

    Local girls wear shiid/baati which is the cheap version of dirah or the everyday thing. But dont be fooled some dirah costs more than any abaya in Hargeisa. The silk dirah which is digital print usually worn for weddings and parties cost $150-$200 while the most expensive abayas are $50.

    They usually wear gogarad with it and the top end gogarad in Hargeisa is Khadra Haid hehehehe…by now your wondering how I know all these stuff…well to be honest my general knowledge in almost every field is good but my boy imports clothes and supplies most shops in Hargeisa…I was hanging with him for few days to learn his trade.

    Hargeisa is liberal city but there are certain guidelines even in this open society. For example if a girl wears jeans or panties…its big shock…if a guy wears shorts or singlets out…its even worse.

    Hargeisawis aint afraid to speak their minds, they will say it to you as if your not there hehehe.

  8. Kayse says:

    Women are given great credits in Somaliland and almost every brother, husband or son entrusts his life long savings with his wife, sister or mother. I'll use for example one of my relatives who now owns and runs a very successful business in Hargeisa. All my relatives give the credit to his wife…"when he married her he became blessed," is their line.

    In ten years she built him a very successful business and just this week bought a land in the city center for $110,000…

    Women do play important role in Somaliland society. I am firm believer.

    • Abraham says:

      You are right, our Somali women probably have the greatest freedom among all Muslim and African societies. The only difference in the representation of the sexes in our society is in politics and war, and those two fields are the least productive or successful in the Somali history.

  9. mahad farmajo says:

    i never been to harga or burco

    why use my usernaame? lol not that i can stop you but just wondering have some imagination bro/sis

  10. Hargeisawi-in-London says:


  11. Ahmed says:

    @ Mahad kkkkkkk "even the Cat", i guess only women go to the gym since guys chew Mirraa and Mirra chewing Men cannot run or lift weight. I heard Mira chewing guys cant even last long in bed, its the rummors from the women.

  12. ComeAgain says:

    For the guy acting like rape wouldnt happen in zoomalia, just refer to what happened to the xamar cadcad in xamar especially in the mosques you guys are animals thats why they need armed guards to protect the women.

    Somaliland however is chillaxing!

  13. Kayse says:


    Yes definitely, I went every corner of Hargeisa when I was there. I would wake up for salat, go back for two hours then hit the city for all day, either cruising or learning things from them.

    Maybe we should go back together if you going to pay for the tickets :)

    I'll invite you for Summer Time hehehe, lots of Diasporas but people like it because its clean and good cooks. One problem I had with them is 9 kittens invaded my table because I was having some spicy fish…they need to handle those damn cats.

  14. ahmed jama says:

    No meeting will happen it was mistake s/land should go back it’s cages which They belong.

  15. Kayse says:

    Mohamed Cheers since when did you became into qabyalaad? War calm down and I am not cidagale I am biiyogale.

  16. Kayse says:

    If you havent heard of Biiyogale, I recommend you to google "Scooper Diver"…I am that. Ciid maxan ka doonaya? I am not freaking lizard.

  17. Kayse says:

    Mida Kale sxb dont see Biiyogale as a marginalized group or a disadvantage…ti iga soo horbaxdaba I tell her I am biiyogale then usually waxay tidhahda "ALLA jabaay oo sided uu neefsata?" then my usual reply is "have you heard the rumors that there are xuralcayns under the water aka mermaids? Wa kuwa ku eeg si kastaba markas quruuxdoodan ku neefsada….adigaba hadan organic oxygen ka helaaya" …then sxb you can imagine the rest hehehehe

    • mohamed cheers says:

      Kayse shanba cayn..U r becoming more problematic. Yr horizons r all the more fascinating.
      I hereby seek the expertise help of Amal and Gobaad to this new developments from happy go
      lucky Kayse biiyogale then usually waxay tidhahda? and this Xuralcayn mermaids? Kayse OMG kkkkk

  18. amal says:

    Kayse, Mohamed Cheers

    Looooooool “biyogale” You two are jokes.
    Mohamed cheers, everyone is cidagale to you man lool I don't know what Kayse or Gobaad are. But I know Kayse is in a world of fantasy under deep blue ocean, I'm sure you don't want to join him before aad hafatid unless you ask him to introduce you to his mysterious mermaids.

    Kayse, I’m jealous as I didn’t make the most out of my holiday, I went with boring mum who would just sit there chit chatting with families and whenever I asked her to lets go this place and that place she would just reply “dee maxan ka doonayna wa ku side” kkk Maybe if I would have went with my sis we would have enjoyed much. I didn’t know my way around the city much so was limited. But next time you can be my Tom Tom :) lol

    About the cats, now you are making us all think that our cats actually do chew mirrah with such aggressive invasion lol

    • mohamed cheers says:

      Amal, all granted. Your advice is well taken. Halkad nin ka qadatiid ninba kaga takta miya sheekadadu?
      Congrats but myself being an old Tom Tom B)lol..all the same nabadaayyy.

      • amal says:

        Mohamed Cheers, are you sure know you Know your way around or you will get me lost in hargeisa?
        “Congrats” thanx, and you can always be his best man ;) hehe
        Or am I adding too much basbas (spice) on the joke lol

        • mohamed cheers says:

          Amal, His best man..hehe..this hehe is also the latest after mohahaha and hahahaha.
          Am not sure how I could be a fan of hehe! All the same, See you kicking around,
          life's full of fun, take care, tt Kayse's Waraabe geed is maris…you know what I mean baby.

          • amal says:

            Mohamed Cheers, I called you his 'best man' to see how you shoot and knock down with your shooting gun, but I guess you are not a good Tom Tom lol. But you got good warning, I should take heed. I don't want to be lost under blue ocean with sharks and worst of all geed ismaris, scary, no no no!

            By the way, just thought to let you know. I kind of hate the word 'baby' in a kaftan, it's not very Somalish if you know what I mean.

          • mohamed cheers says:

            Amal, the worst thing for a gentleman is to harshly embarrass the godly given
            beautiful attributes of the female gender. I thought the best man in any given situation
            has his limited roles which couldn't be exceeded! .Depends though..hwy roads have
            their multiple exists..I guess, nevermind. Sorry if you didn't get amused by the Word baby.
            Just wanted to amuse you for conversational sake…no offence intended. What else, I guess
            now am a dameer debedeed yea? OO yea, it just struck my Kayse is not only
            Waraabe geed ismaris but he's ugly curi madax wayne iska jiir Nabadaayyy.

          • amal says:

            “I guess now am a dameer debedeed yea?”
            Looool now that is funny. You are not any more dameer debedeed than your friend Kayse (both dameer dabadeed yaal) so don’t worry :) I will iska jiir your warning (now you're shooting at the right direction) hehe
            all fun and games
            take care

          • mohamed cheers says:


  19. testing says:

    testing testing

  20. hi,

    we should all encourage the Somalian women to be free, but when we say free, it must include also the will to wear hijab or even niqab. The violence is the worst nightmare for every women out there, especially the sexual one, and in these cases, hijab and niqab may be able to save allot of womens.
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    caftan marocain pas cher

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