HARGEISA, SOMALIA – “Why can’t you just stay at home?” the man shouted at the two young female runners as they darted by on the racecourse — wearing long skirts, arm-covering T-shirts and running tights in the 90-degree heat.
He was not the only person jeering at the women running in this 10-kilometer race, part of an annual event that includes a marathon, where more than 250 of the 320 contestants this year were men. But some spectators had kinder words.
“Run and beat the boys with the skinny legs!” urged a woman decked in a brown jilbab, a traditional loose-fitting robe, as a different pair of women sprinted past. All the female runners were dressed in line with Muslim practice in the region, which calls for most of a woman’s body to be covered.
The marathon began two years ago as a fundraiser for education in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, setting up its own parliament, currency and flag.
The breakaway region, in the northwest of Somalia, is not recognized internationally. But in contrast to areas in the south, which are plagued by clan infighting and terrorism, Somaliland is an oasis — attracting tourists, hosting a prominent literary festival and even enticing multinationals like Coca-Cola.
The running events are part of this cultural and commercial outreach, with athletes from all over the world participating. This year, runners from 16 nations came to Hargeisa, the region’s capital, to take part.
Each year, more Somali women have been competing, though only in the 10-kilometer event. The increased participation reflects how life is changing, albeit slowly, for women here.
In Somaliland’s male-dominated society, government, business and the media are still almost the exclusive preserve of men. Women are twice as likely as men to be unemployed and less likely to reach higher levels of education, and they face persistent obstacles in winning elections, according to a study published last year.
Still, in recent years, there have been hints of change, with women becoming doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers and human rights activists.
And some are running.
Hanna Mukhtar, 17, runs each morning at dawn on the outskirts of Hargeisa, usually with a teenage friend.
There are barely any sidewalks, let alone running tracks. But by leaving the city proper, they avoid the traffic that clogs its sandy roads, where donkey carts and SUVs jostle for space.
Here, the young women don’t have to withstand the stare and taunts from men and some women who disapprove.
“When I run, I feel strong and free,” said Mukhtar, who won the 10-kilometer run this year and last.
Asma Dhamac, a psychologist and mental health advocate, also likes to run with friends outside the city in the early, cooler hours of the day.
In 2018, the first year of the event, only 13 women competed in the 10-kilometer race, and only five of those were Somali. This year, 55 Somali women ran in the event, out of 63 female competitors.
Edna Adan, a former foreign minister in Somaliland and a pioneer activist in the struggle to end female genital mutilation, sees this as an important sign.
A former runner herself, the 82-year-old Adan, founder of a respected maternity hospital, said it was important to remind Somali female runners that what mattered was “the training they did, the preparation they made and the ability that they could keep up with women of different countries.”
Many say it will take time before a full cultural shift supporting female running takes root. But Mukhtar, the 17-year-old runner, isn’t waiting.
Next year, she’s aiming to become the first Somali woman to compete in and finish the marathon itself. And her ambitions after that: “I want to run for my country.”