The first time Zainab Hassan voted, the experience was “near and dear to my heart,” she said.

Born in Somalia, and raised under a dictatorship, Hassan had grown up believing she would never have the right to elect her country’s leadership. But after immigrating to the United States in her late teens and waiting years to become a citizen, she finally cast her first ballot at a polling site outside Washington, D.C. It was a midterm election, but the lower profile of the voting did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm.

“It was exciting,” she said. “You’re practicing democracy.”

After two decades of civil war and a more recent Islamist insurgency, Somalia is working to rebuild and is on track to hold a parliamentary election in 2016 when President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s term ends.

Amid the momentum, Zainab Hassan, who lived in Minnesota for 14 years, is working to make sure women in Somalia are granted access to this fledgling democratic process.

In June, she launched the Somali Gender Equity Movement (SGEM) with nine other leaders from Somalia and the diaspora. The meeting, which brought together more than 150 ­people in a St. Louis Park hotel conference room and was live-streamed around the world, was seeking to get women into positions of power — the first step in a larger movement to improve equality in a country that has been criticized for high rates of rape and other violence against women.

“We want to raise the way women are perceived in society as well as in politics,” Hassan said. “We need women to participate.”

Chasing a better life

After 32 years living in the United States, Hassan returned to Somalia in 2013, one of a wave of Somalis to do so in the hopes of making life better in their birth country. A former Minneapolis Foundation program officer, she was drafted to revive the National Library of Somalia, which had become a shelter in war-torn Mogadishu in the 1990s. She has overseen the donation of more than 20,000 books and journals.

This spring, frustrated by the dearth of women invited to meetings about Vision 2016, the Somali federal government’s new framework, Hassan started a Facebook group for women to discuss the country’s political transformation.

“Men are getting ready,” she said. “If you exclude us, maybe we should start our own” group.

She was overwhelmed by the response. Hundreds of women joined the group seemingly overnight. In June, SGEM was officially launched with the Minnesota conference. Among the featured speakers were feminist independence leaders, a local imam and well-known Somali performers, including one who wrote a song for the movement.

The goal is to increase women’s representation in the tribally appointed Somali Parliament to 40 percent (from 14 percent). There are only a few women serving in the Somali federal cabinet, and SGEM wants to change that, too.

Part of that is educating voters “about not only the importance of voting, but who to vote for,” Hassan said. “We really need to educate them about not voting for this person just because you are [from the same] clan, but because this is the best person to do something for your community.”

And that education begins in Minnesota, where the number of Somalis falls between 23,361 (according to U.S. Census estimates) and 100,000 (according to local community members).

“We don’t just need their vote,” said Ifrah Farah, a Minneapolis-based leader of SGEM. “We collectively have to unite. We can break rocks; we can do so much together.”

Because of the difficulties behind voter registration and districting, leaders say it is unlikely there will be a one-person-one-vote structure in time for the election.

“No one in their 50s or 60s [or younger] has ever voted,” Hassan said. “So it’s not easy to prepare an election after so long.”

But those who do gain the right to choose their parliamentarians are expected to return to Somalia from the diaspora to vote, Hassan said, which is why the group is focusing on galvanizing the local community to take an interest in Somali government.

At a time when there is so much “negative media reporting” on links between Somalis and terrorism, Hassan said, the movement can bolster the community. The organization “is working to empower Somali women, and promote peace and reconciliation, and condemn terrorism in the strict sense,” she said.

A bad track record

Through decades of chaos, Somalia established a dismal reputation for its treatment of women.

It was declared the fifth worst country for women in a 2011 report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation; at the time, women’s minister Maryan Qasim said it should have come in dead last. She called Mogadishu, the capital, “a living hell for women,” with famine, high-risk pregnancy, rape, female genital mutilation and displacement among the rampant problems. Key cities were controlled by Islamist militant group Al-Shabab, which had forced implementation of sharia law.

But Hassan said the country’s reputation is changing, especially as Al-Shabab’s influence has begun to retreat in recent years. A new constitution set to be ratified next year prohibits female genital mutilation, and Hassan expects that other new laws will ensure protections for women.

“There is a significant difference in the country between 2011 and today,” she said. And in comparison with other Muslim countries, “Somali women are very strong, very independent.”

Hassan admitted, however, that she has to be diligent, as a woman whose name is at the forefront of a movement.

“Some people might see us as aggressive, maybe diaspora. Everything that you do, you have to take risks,” she said. “There are going to be challenges, because it’s not easy to change society.”

Women still struggle with recognition for their contributions in Somalia, Hassan said. There is lingering disappointment that the women who fought for Somali independence in the 1950s were largely left out of the resultant early government. Today in business, women have a hard time ascending to leadership positions.

“We want women to get what they deserve,” Hassan said. “The world is changing. More females are educated. The country cannot move forward without them.”