Anab Dahir, a medical clinic interpreter and 42-year-old mother of six living in St. Cloud, Minnesota, came to the United States from Somalia in 1997, seeking asylum in the Chicago airport. Now an American citizen, she is active in the rapidly growing Somali community in her Midwestern state. She has become so civic-minded, in fact, that she has decided to run for office — not in the U.S., but in her birthplace. Dahir is running to become the first female president of Somalia. “Men have led Somalia for 25 years and they’ve never done anything,” she says. “Now, it’s the women’s turn.”
Somalia has not held national elections in more than 20 years. They are currently planned for 2016. The country is plagued by rampant poverty and insecurity after decades of civil war. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited in May, he didn’t leave the airport. It was too unsafe.
Dahir’s experience in America has given her perspective on what a functioning government can provide, she believes, and she is confident that she has the executive skills required to lead Somalia by appointing others with the expertise and background to manage specific government entities.
Since 2013, she has played a role in setting out the practices and policies for housing and neighborhood programs as a member of the St. Cloud Housing & Redevelopment Authority board of commissioners. A women’s advocate, Dahir is the founder of Central Minnesota Somali Women and Youth Support. Started in 2012, the organization is dedicated to assisting female immigrants and youth by providing the resources to help them become self-sufficient. Once a month her organization and the NAACP meet with the St. Cloud area police chiefs to discuss the relationship between law enforcement and the community.
“I understand how the people have rights, what everyone’s roles are when the police stop you,” she says. From 1991 to 2012, Somalia did not have a formal government. “Because I live in the U.S., I see what the people need,” she continues passionately. “They need leadership, they need someone who understands these areas.”
Dahir returned to Somalia for the first time in 2013. It was this trip that got her thinking about running for president in 2016. The country is still reeling from decades of civil war and famine. Seventy-three percent of Somalia’s population lives in poverty. An al Qaeda cell, al Shabaab, still holds swaths of land in the country and bombings in the government-held capital are a not-uncommon occurrence.
Women’s rights are also a prominent and pressing issue in the country. Somalia ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman and to bear a child. Sexual violence is rampant. “Here rape is normal,” a Somali woman told Human Rights Watch in a report last year.
Dahir embraces her status as a woman and mother, saying her personal experience makes her more qualified than men to make a difference. “You are the mother, you feel for what other mothers feel. You are the daughter, you feel for what other daughters feel. You are the auntie.” Dahir’s children are proud of her hard work and involvement, and joke that she is famous. But does her candidacy stand a chance?
The Federal Constitution that was established in Somalia in 2012 included several statutes related to gender equality and the presence of women in the political public sphere. But when asked if women’s rights are now being upheld there — it would have been unfathomable for a woman to run for president in the past — Dahir is a realist, saying despite the grand gestures, not much is different on the ground. “A little has changed. But it’s the same. There’s nothing for Somali women.”
There are two other women running for president of Somalia, joining more than a dozen men. Fadumo Dayib, a Finn of Somali descent and graduate student at Harvard studying public administration, has been the subject of the majority of the media’s attention on the Somali women candidates. Dayib has already received death threats.
She and Dahir are part of a vibrant diaspora that remains fiscally and politically engaged with the country from afar. In 2013 the U.N. Development Program estimated that more than 1.6 billion was sent back annually by Somalis living in North America and Europe. Dahir thinks that empowered women in the diaspora have a unique opportunity to influence Somalia.
If elected, Dahir’s first priority would be to address security and stabilize the country. Almost half of Somalia’s population is under 18, and 67 percent of youth are unemployed. Dahir agrees with the studies that say unemployment creates an environment ripe for young people to commit crimes, to act out violently or to be seduced by fundamentalist groups like al Shabaab.
The traditional clan system in the country persisted as it provided a semblance of structure and security during the decades of lawlessness. Though a central government is in place today, it’s fragile at best, and its presence is non-existent in much of the country. Somalia remains rife with clan politics and complex alliances that can erupt into violence and fracture the people, all of whom live within the same border, one pre-determined by their former colonial masters. In 1960 the British protectorate of Somaliland united with Italian Somaliland to form present-day Somalia, and the fault lines imposed by colonialism still impact community relationships.
Dahir envisions an army made up of youth from different clans who are paid a living wage and given benefits to work together to secure the nation. She also plans to target corruption. Her distance from the country is a benefit because she is not entrenched in nefarious relationships in Parliament. She presents as an outsider, above the fray. “If you don’t fight the corruption there is no justice,” Dahir says angrily. “There are a lot of opportunities in Somalia,” she continues, referring to the billions of dollars in international aid and investment in peacekeeping efforts donated to the country. Dahir says that money doesn’t go to the poor people, toward hospitals, education and development efforts.
For her part, Dahir plans to take her message to Somali communities throughout the United States. She’s also been invited to speak in Kenya and Dubai and talks of returning to Somalia for a number of months to conduct her campaign from there.
Dahir is not blind to the dangers of running for president, especially as a woman, in Somalia. And she feels her family’s concern for her safety and the pressure and expectations of her potential constituents. She knows there’s a lot of work ahead.
But she is deeply motivated: “When I see the Somali people dying, and human trafficking. Women die every single day without help, no doctor to help them, with no food, no shelter, and no place to stay. When I see people don’t have any education and no economic [opportunity] and no development, when I see those areas — I am talking [to] myself to say Anab, of course, you can do [it.] There is nobody can stop you. You have to survive. Just like these people.”