Meet the woman who may be Somalia’s only female auto mechanic

The World
A young Somali woman fixes a car; a rare profession for women in Somalia

Nasra Hussain Ibrahim was 11 when she realized she’d have to do something drastic if her family was to survive.  

They lived in Hiiraan, a rough region in south-central Somalia where al-Shabaab, a hard-line, al-Qaeda-linked group, and local clans clash. The militants force children to fight, they take over and shutter schools and rape and force girls to marry fighters, while imposing a warped, violent version of Islam. Those who don’t obey face execution by stoning.  

Growing up, Ibrahim and her family often didn't have enough to eat. Her father is elderly — she estimates he’s 90. Like most women in Somalia, Ibrahim's mother, who is at least half her husband’s age, has never worked outside the home.

Ibrahim, 18, the second-eldest of six kids, started selling snacks and farming when she was 8 to help make ends meet. Every day was a struggle.  

“When I saw the situation of my family, I saw I needed to leave,” she recalled.

Ibrahim's sweet demeanor, sparkling eyes and broad smile mask a layer of toughness. It’s this toughness that helped her survive, three years ago, when she snuck out of her parents’ house in search of opportunity. She found it in a place where women typically don't go in Somalia: a garage.

Somali female mechanic bucks stereotypes by fixing cars
Nasra Hussain Ibrahim has loved cars since she was 11.Courtesy of What took you so long

At age 18, Ibrahim is believed to be Somalia’s first and only female car mechanic.

It all began with a broken car. Ibrahim had hitched a ride east, her sights set on the Somali capital, Mogadishu, some 200 miles away.

By road, the trip usually takes two days and two nights. But car trouble stalled her journey, stretching out an already dangerous trip to 10 days, much of it spent along the side of the road, hungry, waiting for the car to be fixed.

Despite the very real threats of rape and robbery, Ibrahim said she was not afraid.

“I felt guarded because my parents always pray for me,” she said.

Her mother cried tears of relief when Ibrahim called to tell them she was alive and in Mogadishu.

They worried she had gone on the dangerous sea journey to Europe, like thousands of other Somalis before her, some of whom drowned before even making it to Europe.

In Somalia, youth unemployment is almost 70 percent; people are desperate for opportunity.

In 2012, Ibrahim's cousin Rahma died in the water off the coast of Libya on a boat bound for Italy. She was 21.

Ibrahim might not have jumped on a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean, but she took a leap all the same. Whether at home or in Mogadishu, Ibrahim faces grim statistics on the status of women. Somalia has among the highest rates of female genital mutilation, maternal mortality and sexual violence.

“Here, rape is normal,” a woman said in a Human Rights Watch report from 2014.

Today, 25 percent of Somalia’s female population, at best, can read.

Across the country, women are typically relegated to service jobs, in the back corners of shops, restaurants and homes. Doing anything out of the ordinary — from wearing makeup to running for president — can set women up for ridicule, abuse or worse.

Arriving in Mogadishu that January day, Ibrahim surprised an uncle who lives in the city, crashing at his house while she looked for a job. It took months.

“The things that were in my mind were — how to survive, where to work, where to go,” she said.

After months of hustling, Ibrahim discovered a garage in the center of Mogadishu. There, a group of kind mechanics taught her their trade. Ibrahim asked the manager if she could join the team after a monthslong apprenticeship.  

Today, she’s on call six days a week. Her life is either “sleeping or working.”

The vast majority of Ibrahim's earnings get sent back to her family in Hiiraan. She tosses and turns at night if she doesn’t have much to send.

In the past year, nearly 600,000 Somalis have been displaced by drought, forced to leave their homes to find food. Ibrahim's family hasn’t had to leave, largely thanks to her own hard work. And for that, she’s grateful, she says — a satisfied smile passing over her face, crinkling her almond eyes at the corners.

But working as probably Somalia’s first and only female mechanic brings its fair share of hurdles. When Ibrahim started, customers stared at her and said she was a “bad girl.” They said she was too “free.” Customers thought she could not be trusted.

But Ibrahim's work speaks for itself.

“I have proved to them that I can make it,” she said. “So, they have more respect for me than before.”

She’s become well known, too.

“When people come to the garage they say 'we hear there is a girl mechanic. Is that her?’ … I think lack of confidence is what keeps most women from doing jobs that are "different,"" said Ibrahim. “They believe they aren’t capable of doing this type of work.”

Ibrahim's extraordinary story spread, and the garage owner connected her to the organizer of Mogadishu’s fourth annual TEDx event in April.

There, in front of 150 people, with 20,000 more watching online, Ibrahim told her story.

“I want to tell all the girls in the whole world that they should believe in themselves and not limit themselves,” she said. “Anything a man can do, a woman can do.”

Amanda Sperber is a foreign correspondent based in East Africa, and a contributor to The Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization that reports on issues impacting women. Follow her on Twitter @hysperbole.

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