Sexism on the Battlefield: The Story of Iman Elman, Somalia’s Youngest Female Commander

Iman Elman is a 26-year-old, born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and raised in Ottawa, Canada. She is now a female captain in Somali National Army. At her age (26), she is the youngest in the position she serves in Somalia.

At a tender age, she left Somalia and moved to Canada with her mother and older sisters. This was after the collapse of the Somali government under Siad Barre, resulting in the assassination of her dad, a human rights activist.

Elman eventually made her comeback to Somalia in 2007. The impact of the Al Shabab activities on the country is what propelled her to join the army. As a captain, Elman commands a troop of several soldiers, a vast majority being men. Women make up an insignificant part of the Somali military, most of them serving basic roles.

Iman is dedicated to defeating Al Shabab for the benefit of Somali women. She joined the army in 2011 and has since risen to become the most distinguished woman in the Somali army.

Of course, her journey was tough. This is usually the case with anyone who has ventured into a field dominated by the opposite sex. Women are the victims in most cases. She experienced sexism and discrimination because of her gender. The department in charge of handing out uniforms once gave her two pairs of trousers to sew together into a skirt instead of her regulation uniform.

Also, Somalia being a conservative and religious country guided mainly by strict Islamic laws, women are expected to dress in a certain way. Their society considers it inappropriate for women to wear trousers. But according to Iman, it would be impossible to emerge victorious in the war against the Al Shabab if she went to the battlefield wearing a skirt.

Many people thought that [a woman wearing trousers] was unacceptable and disrespectful, but I wanted to be at the front with my fellow soldiers and wearing a skirt in that situation was just not realistic.

With Al-Shabab’s ideology, they changed the mindset of the people and you can see it’s really affecting the local people because now you have to dress a certain way.

A lot of the ways Somali women are dressed now is not the way they dressed 25 or 30 years ago.

Somalia was ranked the fifth most dangerous country to be a woman in 2011, but Iman was bold enough to join the Somali army in the same year. She is hoping to join the policy wing of the military. Elman is also planning to recruit more women into the field and to mentor younger girls who would like to be part of the army someday.

I know I have already inspired women and men, but I would like to see more women who are in a position of power also encourage girls by being mentors. That is why I always try to prioritize young girls who come to me and ask me questions. We need to build those ladders of support between women.

Related: Islamic Terrorist Group, Al-Shabab, Says They Attacked US Military Base in Somalia


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