A shift is underway in Somaliland, where women are demanding more space to express themselves. They are building gyms, joining leagues, and running races – exuding a new boldness and camaraderie while embracing their faith.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Hamda Abdi Daahir (left) and Hannah Mukhtaar Abdilahi (right) approach the finish line of a 10K race in Hargeisa, Somaliland. They are vying for first place among women runners.
t had been 17 minutes since the winner of the men’s 10 kilometer race crossed the finish line when the two figures appeared on the horizon. “Girls!” someone shouted, and the crowd outside the stadium parted to let them pass.It was still early in the morning, on a Friday in late February, and the city of Hargeisa shimmered with dust. Running side by side, the two young women cut a striking profile. The three dozen or so men who had finished before them all wore the standard international uniform of distance runners – stretchy athletic shorts and sweat-wicking T-shirts. The women, on the other hand, were dressed in long blue leggings under gauzy dresses, with baggy race T-shirts pulled over the whole ensemble. Their hijabs fluttered behind them.

Just a few years ago, the two women sprinting for their podium finish couldn’t have imagined this moment. They couldn’t have envisioned the crowds or the cheers or the oversized winners’ checks that could soon be shoved into their hands. They couldn’t have imagined it because there was simply nothing to imagine. Because four years ago, women in Somaliland didn’t run races.

But something is quietly shifting. Across the capital of Somaliland, a self-declared nation in the Horn of Africa, women are increasingly demanding space to move. They are building gyms and starting sports leagues, going on predawn runs at the edge of the city and to evening Zumba classes. And by doing so, they are proving that there is no contradiction in being a Somali, a devout Muslim, and a woman athlete, all at once.

“Now, this is shocking, but soon it will seem normal,” says Hannah Mukhtaar Abdilahi, one of the two young women racing for first place in the 10K run, ahead of about 60 other women who had entered the event. “This year [women] were many and next year we will be even more.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor

Spectators watch runners finishing an annual 10k race in Hargeisa, Somaliland in February. Over the past three years, the participation of women in the race has increased exponentially.

Try to find Somaliland on a map, and you will struggle. Because as far as the world is concerned, this is a country that doesn’t exist. Not to the United Nations or the World Bank. Not to the International Olympic Committee or FIFA.

But Somaliland has been not existing this way for nearly three decades now, since it declared its independence amid the chaos of Somalia’s civil war, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Despite not being recognized by a single country in the world, Somaliland is running a fiercely DIY nation, with a national government that collects taxes and patrols its borders. It has an army, a national police force, and a currency.

Everywhere you travel in its low-slung capital city, Somaliland seems to brazenly deny its nonexistence. Glossy, blue-glass shopping centers line the dusty roads, and billboards announce daily flights to Dubai and Addis Ababa. There is even a Coca-Cola plant.

But for a nation that doesn’t technically exist, Somaliland is a place of many invisible borders, particularly around the lives of women. For the most part, laws here don’t dictate where women can go, what they can wear, or whom they can marry. But the rules are there all the same. Cover your hair. Listen to your father. Don’t take up too much space.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A sign welcomes clients to Get Fit, the first women-only gym in Hargeisa. Owner Shukri Dahir, who moved back to Somaliland from Canada, opened it after struggling to find a good gym.

Space of their own

While that’s the only set of rules young Somalilander women have ever known, their mothers grew up in a different world.

When Khadra Mohamed Abdi was a teen in Hargeisa in the late 1970s and ’80s, for instance, she was a star athlete who ran track and scored a coveted slot on the region’s all-star women’s basketball team. Her father, who drove her proudly to practices, used to tell her that “having a daughter was no different than having a son,” she says.

At the time, Somalia was ruled by a brutal dictator, Siad Barre, whose regime was known for pushing progressive policies – women’s rights, education, an end to clan-based politics – at the barrel of a gun. In 1975, his government publicly executed 10 sheikhs who had preached against a new law that gave women equal inheritance rights.

The paradox was not lost on young women like Ms. Abdi. “In those days we could play basketball in shorts and T-shirts, in front of mixed crowds of men and women, but we were afraid to practice our own religion freely,” she says.

Somalia’s north had long been underrepresented in the country’s government, and as Mr. Barre’s regime grew more violent, so did northern resistance to it. In 1988, the Somali military bombarded the region’s major cities, razing them to the ground. “We were destroyed by bombs we paid for with our own tax dollars,” says Jama Musse Jama, a Somalilander mathematician and publisher. “Think of that irony.”

Like most people from the region, Ms. Abdi’s family fled, first to Eritrea, and later to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen, where they lived in refugee camps. By the time she returned home to her broken hometown – now the capital of the self-declared nation of Somaliland – in 1995, she’d been out of shape for many years.

She was a 25-year-old single mother living in a shell of a city where all there was for young people to do, she says, was “stay inside and watch Bollywood movies, or go out to pray.” Religious leaders had stepped in to impose order on the postwar chaos, and their influence brought new rules for women.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
“I realized that we can’t share space with men, because if we do, there is always the chance that they come and take it back and say it was never ours.” – Khadra Mohamed Abdi, who set up a basketball court for young women behind walls

But Ms. Abdi had always been religious. And she’d always been an athlete. She saw no contradiction. And she needed a job, badly. So she petitioned the government for a small salary and began teaching girls to play basketball on a fenced-off court at a U.N. compound.

A few years later, when she tired of having to beg and borrow for space to play, she bought her own piece of land, built a wall around it too tall for neighborhood boys to climb, and put in a basketball court.

“I realized that we can’t share space with men, because if we do, there is always the chance that they come and take it back and say it was never ours,” she says.

Now, she trains between 40 and 50 women and girls, organizing leagues when she has the money, and pickup games and informal trainings when she doesn’t.

On a recent afternoon, a group of teenage girls arrives at her compound and raps on the metal gate. Just behind them, a swarm of boys has scratched the outlines of a soccer field into the dirt road, and a pickup game is in full force.

The women, too, have come to play. So as soon as the metal door to Ms. Abdi’s property creaks open, they slip inside and bolt the lock.

Another group is already shooting hoops at one end of the court. Piles of headscarves and robes lie discarded nearby on the concrete stands. The girls’ shouts mingle with those of the boys just over the wall. Here, women can play without worrying about who is watching.

‘If we can hold on, we’ll win this’

On the day of the 10 kilometer race, none of the runners seemed to notice who was watching them. Dozens of women gathered on the starting line, their numbers pinned on dresses and baggy T-shirts, joking and jostling for a good position.

When the starting gun cracked, Ms. Abdilahi and her soccer teammate Hamda Abdi Daahir had surged forward together into the crowd of men ahead. It was early on a Friday morning, the Somaliland weekend, and the city around them was heavy-lidded and slow moving. Goats skittered out of the street as spectators gathered in small groups, watching the runners pour past.

It wasn’t long before Ms. Abdilahi and Ms. Daahir had established a commanding lead. “Each time I looked back, I saw there was no one behind us,” Ms. Daahir says. “So I told Hannah, if we can hold on, we’ll win this.”

Growing up, Ms. Daahir played soccer with the neighborhood boys so much that everyone joked she had an alter ego named Ahmed. But it never bothered her. And it didn’t bother her now, the men on the sidelines questioning why she was here. She knew why she was there. To win.

Ms. Abdilahi wasn’t cowed, either. The youngest of nine children, she’d been standing up for herself for a long time. On her soccer team, she was known for being cocky – but with good reason. She knew how to find the net. “I don’t listen to my exhaustion,” she says. “I listen to my belief in myself.”

By the time the two young women returned to the stadium, the sky overhead was a blank blue, hot and still, and their lungs burned from dust. Ms. Daahir was tired. Her only formal training for this race had taken place the week before, when she spent 90 minutes running endless laps of the small soccer field where she often played with friends. Ms. Abdilahi, who won the 10K the year before, was slightly more prepared. She sometimes ran at the edge of the city at dawn. Sometimes one of her coaches bought her a day pass to a local gym, where she ran for two hours on a rickety treadmill.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Players in a girls’ basketball program in Hargeisa, Somaliland, stand for a team photo in their uniforms. Basketball has long been a popular sport for women in the Somali world, though cultural norms mean they can now play only out of sight of men.

The two women had run the entire distance together, but now the moment had come for them to run their own races. With about 100 meters to go, they seemed to exchange an invisible signal. Suddenly they came unclasped. Both women flung themselves forward, diving toward the finish. This was a race, after all. There could only be one first place.

Group power

Creating spaces for women to be active in Hargeisa extends beyond 10Ks and basketball courts. In another part of town, a group of women has formed a taekwondo club.

Some mornings at dawn, they train by running on the fringes of Hargeisa, where the city dissolves into scrub and camels with long delicate eyelashes eye the joggers from pens made of thorn bushes. Another group plays five-a-side pickup soccer games in a sports center started by a young woman, Amoun Aden, who believed sports could “give women the confidence to finally reach the highest levels of our society.”

But staying connected to that society was also important to women like Ms. Aden, who says she never saw anything un-Somali about encouraging women to be active. “We want them to feel safe,” she says. “We want them to thrive.”

For Shukri Dahir, too, being Somali was something she was fiercely proud of. So much so that three years ago, she and her husband packed up their house in Ottawa, Ontario, and moved back to Hargeisa with their two young children.

Ms. Dahir had lived in Canada for two decades, since she and her family arrived there as refugees in the mid-1990s. They had a good life: friends, work, good schools for the kids. But something was missing.

She wanted her children to grow up like she had, with year-round sunshine and a big extended family just down the road. She wanted them to experience a life that revolved around the rhythm of the five daily calls to prayer, which rose from the city’s minarets like a disjointed chorus. She wanted them to know the earthy taste of camel milk and what fruit looked like when it wasn’t pumped full of chemicals. She wanted them to speak their own language, and to be proud of it.

But she also wanted a good Zumba class.

“I looked all over Hargeisa but there was nothing like that,” she says. So she decided to start her own.

She hired teachers from Kenya and rented a small house on Hargeisa’s outskirts, surrounded by a tall fence topped with shards of broken glass. “GET FIT: LADIES ONLY GYM,” she printed on the sign outside. She laid down squishy, mat-like flooring and put up big mirrors. She stuck inspirational slogans to the walls.

“Age wrinkles the body,” reads one. “Quitting wrinkles the soul.”

Like many who run fitness outlets here, Ms. Dahir sees her gym as one part fitness, one part community. In Hargeisa, men gather in informal street-side cafes to drink camel-milk tea and chew khat, a local leafy plant that is a mild narcotic. But women socialize mostly behind tall walls – in their homes and the homes of others. Gyms are a rare shared space where women can meet other women.

And lately, that camaraderie has made them bolder. Ms. Dahir notices that groups of women who meet at the gym, who encourage each other through sweaty aerobics classes and monotonous treadmill runs, are beginning to form walking groups. When they finish their workouts at the gym, they slip their hijabs and flowing jilbabs back on and walk through the neighborhood.

Men still sometimes stare. They still sometimes make comments. But it is easier to ignore when you are part of a group. It is easier than simply pretending that what you are doing is normal – and maybe if you keep pretending it’s normal, one day it will be.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Hannah Mukhtaar Abdilahi is hoisted into the air by members of her soccer team after finishing first among women runners at the Somaliland 10K.

What matters most

In the end, it was Ms. Abdilahi who crossed the finish line first. She lunged just ahead of her friend, Ms. Daahir. She slumped against the nearby barrier, gasping for ragged breaths as a crowd formed around her. Someone slung a finisher’s medal around her neck. Someone else pushed a bottle of water into her hands. Journalists’ cameras clicked.

Soon, just behind the top two women’s finishers, the rest of their soccer club began to filter in. The third-place winner was a teammate. So were many of those who finished a short time later. Once they had reached critical mass, they slouched against each other’s shoulders and pulled out their phones to snap post-race selfies.

Someone suggested lifting the winners in the air, and suddenly Ms. Abdilahi and Ms. Daahir were being swung off their feet. But everyone was giggling too hard to hold them up for long. The whole group collapsed onto the grass, dissolving into laughter.

Later that evening, picking at a pizza in a Hargeisa hotel, Ms. Daahir considered what she would do with her $600 winnings.

“I think we’ll throw a party for all the friends from our soccer team who supported us,” she said. “At the end of the day, money is just money, but what’s important are the people who got you there.”

Asma Dhamac contributed to this report.