Women are expected to keep their mouths shut here in Somalia. But not any more

Somalia’s first woman to head a media house explains how she beat the odds to become a journalist and why Bilan was set up.

April 26, 2022

Nasrin Mohamed Ibrahim is Chief Editor of Somalia’s first all-women media team. Called Bilan, which means “bright and clear” in Somali, the unit is funded by UNDP.

I really do not care whether men are interested in our stories or not. They are already well provided for by hundreds of other Somali media outlets if their only interest is politics and the endless, unproductive squabbling it involves.

Bilan’s target audience is society as a whole, not just middle-aged men.

Our media’s obsession with politics is like a disease. It contributes to Somalia’s everlasting conflict because so many journalists take sides, provoking hatred and deepening divisions.

It is sad that our country needs a women-only media house but that is the reality here. Women are expected to babble all they like in the kitchen but to keep their mouths firmly shut in public.

For the first time, we have a space where we feel safe, physically and mentally. Never before have Somali female journalists been given the freedom, opportunity and power to decide what stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them.

I have been a journalist since I was a teenager in secondary school. In the 12 years I have been working, there have been stories I have never been able to tell. At last, we can report on the young girls who are brought from the bush to work as maids in the big houses of Mogadishu, where they are abused and beaten.

We will address taboo topics such as postnatal depression and child abuse. We will tell the untold stories of the remarkable women in rural areas who set up businesses to feed their families after their men go off to fight.

One reason why women’s stories are rarely told in the Somali media is that most reporters are men. Bilan will change that. Women will speak to us because we too are women. They will allow us into their homes, their prayer rooms and their private spaces.

I am a strong woman. I play football, ride motorbikes and manage a gym. But I have had to fight many battles as a female journalist.

One was related to the rape of a child. An 8-year-old girl was brought by her parents from the far north of Somalia to hospital in Mogadishu after she was raped. This was unusual as such abuse is usually kept secret because of the shame it brings to families and clans.

The minister for women visited the girl in hospital and vowed that justice would be done. This was also unusual as justice sometimes works the other way around in Somalia, where women have been arrested for reporting rape.

I decided to make this the headline. Male colleagues ordered me to put it at the bottom, saying it was “just a community story”. I refused, I stood my ground and I won. But it was a tough fight.

All journalists are in danger in Somalia. We are targeted by Islamist militants and face the everyday risk of being blown up by suicide bombs.

Female journalists have many other challenges, starting with their families, who often believe journalism is a shameful profession for women. They face sexual harassment in the office and abuse in the streets. The youngest member of our team comes from a rural clan. It tried to force her not to become a journalist but she has courage, and has left home for the first time to join Bilan.

My family did not resist when I told them proudly that I had got a job as a journalist, earning US$50 a month. But my mother told me recently, more than a decade later, that my father had criticized her for supporting me, asking: “Do you want to cry once she is dead?”

Now they admire me. They know I am ready to confront whatever obstacles and challenges come my way.

Nasrin Mohamed Ibrahim is chief editor of Bilan, Somalia’s first all-women media house, established with support from UNDP.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

One reason why women’s stories are rarely told in the Somali media is that most reporters are men. Bilan will change that.