Her face is soft and round, cocooned in a loose blue cotton hijab. Her eyes, black onyx full of mystery: a Somalian Mona Lisa.
But Maryam Mohammed covers her smile with hennaed fingers, casts her eyes downward, a picture of shy anxiety, the last person you’d expect to do the most dangerous job in one of the most dangerous cities on Earth.
Until recently, Mohammed was one of the many women who made the daily khat run, braving a gantlet of gunmen on the airport road in a mad dash to meet small planes crammed with the highly addictive narcotic leaf and bring it to market.
“I was feeling proud of myself,” said Mohammed, 20, “and I felt brave that I was risking my life for my family.”
For 15 years, Somalia was ruled by clan-based strongmen, each with his own private army. The capital was divided among the warlords and controlled by their AK-47-toting fighters, many of them children.
In that decade and a half of chaos, violence and war, the women of Mogadishu risked their lives time and again -- and in the process they have changed their country.
First they became the wartime breadwinners in this male-dominated society, a shift as dramatic as when female munitions-factory workers in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia claimed new turf during World War II.
“Women had to help the family to survive. That’s when they got their voice, when they shared the life of the family with the men,” said Malyun Sheik Haidar, 31, who publishes a women’s newspaper.
This spring, women stepped in again. Weary of suffering stoically, they jammed the switchboards of Mogadishu’s many independent radio stations with angry protests about the warlords’ violence.
It marked a stunning shift in Somalian culture; people here call it a popular revolution that helped defeat the warlords and ushered in the reign of the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts in the nation’s capital.
But now that they’ve helped end the brutal power of the warlords, they may be forced to abandon their breadwinner status, just like women had to after WWII.
Many also fear that before women have a chance to enjoy their painfully acquired freedom, their wings will be clipped by the hard-liners of the Islamic council. Already women are swapping traditional Somalian dress, which is open at the face, for the Saudi-style black hijab, which covers the face and body.
Women’s roles changed after the overthrow of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, as civil servants, mainly men, lost their jobs and the formal economy collapsed.
“Everybody had to start from scratch, and that meant selling onions and tomatoes from small tables in the market. Men were too proud to do that,” said Shariff Osman, dean of the computer science department at Mogadishu University. “From the mid-1990s, people felt that women were the backbone of the family because they paid the bills.”
As the family breadwinner, Maryam Mohammed was a part of the economic revolution, but she was too preoccupied with the raw business of survival to worry about the political revolution of recent months.
She grew up a timid child. Her unemployed father, a former soldier in the Barre regime, died four years ago. Her 17-year-old brother, paid $1.50 a day as a militiaman for warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow, was killed in a fight more than a year ago. Her mother earned a few coins selling tea in the bazaar, but it was never enough.
So Mohammed decided to trade khat.
Like many young people raised in the warlord era, she has little education, just three years of school, because her father couldn’t afford to send her to private school. There was no government, thus no government-provided schools, hospitals, police, water, electricity or sanitation.
Her brother taught her how to fire an AK-47. After he died, she approached local women for advice on how to trade khat, and found herself, frozen by terror, on the airport run.
“I was trembling. I knew the militias could attack us at any moment and kill me and steal the khat. But the problem of our daily survival drove me to do it,” said Mohammed, who made $2.50 a day.
Before the warlords’ defeat, the militias and freelance gunmen were some of the most regular khat customers, but they did not always pay. Sometimes they would shoot khat sellers in the market or ambush them on the road. In one such ambush, Mohammed’s friend was shot and killed beside her.
Nine months ago, Mohammed, under pressure from her family, quit the dangerous trade. She joined a militia, thinking it would be safer, but three months later she found herself in the recent battles for Mogadishu.
“I don’t like to kill people. I don’t like to fight. In battle, you die or kill,” she said. “I was very frightened in battle, but I had to do it for the money.”
In a week’s fighting, 50 men on Mohammed’s side died. Afraid of leaving her family without a breadwinner, she left. But the family has only the dollar a day her mother makes selling tea.
“Now I’m not afraid of being killed, but I still have the problem of survival. I have no job,” she said. Like many women in Mogadishu, she feels less vulnerable to violence, but she is afraid it will be harder to find work under the Islamic regime.
“I don’t see them as something good,” she said. “I’d like to leave Somalia if I can and do business, have a small shop or even a job with a decent salary, like a secretary or a cleaner.”
Anab Mohammed Isaaq, 35, has five children ranging in age from 7 months to 10 years. She wears a white band on her head to signify mourning for her husband, who was killed by a stray bullet in the Mogadishu fighting. She supports the family by selling clothes in the market, earning 50 cents to $1 a day.
She has lived in fear for her two daughters, Nasteexo, 10, and Hamsa, 7. In her neighborhood of metal shacks, militias armed with razor-sharp machetes have come at night and hacked through the walls, stealing girls. A neighbor’s 4-year-old was kidnapped, raped and killed.
“The problems are all on women. That’s why they were complaining and talking to the media,” she said.
Osman, the university dean, said people in Mogadishu, particularly women, were pushed over the edge.
“I think they took as much as they could,” he said. “You accept things and believe you can do nothing, but you get to the point where you say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic courts won popular support in the mid-1990s by trying to enforce a degree of order, reducing theft and crime. When the courts’ militias recently drove the warlords from Mogadishu, they had the support of the majority.
The courts represent various strands of Islam, some more fundamentalist than others, but there are fears that the recent rise of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys as chairman of the group could mean more repressive, Taliban-style rules. Aweys took over from the more moderate Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
Even under the more moderate leadership, Islamic guards had been stopping minibuses to check women’s clothing and men’s hairstyles.
Islamic guards grabbed Ismahaan Ali Mohammed, 18, an aspiring actress, and hacked her clothing with scissors because it was deemed too tight and un-Islamic.
Wearing heavy eyeliner that exaggerates her beauty, she and her friend Nawaal Mohammed, 18, could not be more different from Maryam Mohammed, the former khat trader. They are self-confident, assertive and eager to soak up the pleasures of youth. But these days they must cover their bright dresses with a hijab.
Nawaal Mohammed has two boyfriends and used to wander the streets in a haze of love, holding hands with the favorite of the moment. They went to the movies. She even kissed them secretly, in their houses or hers.
“Now I’m afraid to be arrested or beaten,” she said. “It’s safer than before, but we have no freedom. We are not happy with this Islamic Sharia law.
“I used to wear pants and a shirt. It’s my style. I felt good. It made me feel beautiful.”
Dixon was recently on assignment in Somalia.