Somali women escape to the gym

Women in Somali gym

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 Islamists, 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 the 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.

Mogadishu market
Mogadishu streets are safer now they are controlled by African Union and Somali troops

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 punchbag 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.

Painting of camel
A new art gallery has opened with colourful paintings of traditional life

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.