Elman, 24, is not just a soldier; she is a captain commanding a heavily male force in the Somali National Army (SNA).
And her unit’s work is among the army’s most dangerous — searching for al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked group and U.S.-designated terror organization that wants to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia.
“I had to be more brave [than the men]” she told Refinery29 from Somalia. “I had to earn their respect.”
The terror group has been behind a number of deadly attacks in the region. In September 2013, al-Shabab, whose fighting force numbers are unknown, claimed responsibility for an onslaught on a Kenyan mall. Gunmen methodically murdered 67 people there. They killed 147 people in an assault last year on Garissa University College in Kenya. In January, an attack on a seafront hotel on Lido Beach killed 20.
Elman is among many of those fighting al-Shabab.
“Nobody wants to die,” she said. “[But] I would take my breath in and move forward.”
Climbing the ranks and gaining that respect wasn’t easy. When Elman was in line to receive her military uniform — alongside the men — she was handed two pairs of pants and told to sew them together to make a skirt.
It was an early indication of the significant barriers she would face. She lightly rebuffed them, saying that the pants would suit her just fine.
“I just didn’t think I would be able to run [in a skirt],” she told Refinery29.
Elman didn’t grow up with aims of joining the army. In fact, she is the youngest of three daughters born to a well-known Somali human rights activist, Elman Ali Ahmed. His slogan was, “Put down the gun, take up the pen” — Qoriga dhig Qalinka Qaado — Elman noted with a hint of amusement in her voice.
Following the collapse of the Siad Barre military regime in 1991, Somalia became engulfed in civil war. Soon after, Elman’s mother, Fartuun, took her girls to Canada. Her husband stayed behind and, in 1996, he was assassinated in the night — shot in the back. The family believes he was targeted because he worked to save children from warlords.
Over the years, members of the family returned to Somalia and opened the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu to carry out the legacy of Elman’s father. The center works to counter violent extremism and provide reintegration and rehabilitation support. They also began programs for victims of gender-based violence. Elman, who remained in Canada to finish her education, began to visit and volunteer, teaching English to girls who had been victimized by terror groups. Some of them were younger than Elman, and some were her age.
“I had a reality shock,” Elman said, adding that she didn’t realize just how bad things were in her ancestral homeland.
The girls she encountered didn’t believe they were as capable as boys, whereas, she said, “I never had limitation based on my gender.” She wanted to help the girls feel confident in their lives.
Then, one day, she happened to have a conversation with a group of male soldiers in the Somali army. She asked them, “What if I joined the army?” The conversation proceeded with “you can” and “you can’t” responses; as well, she was told that she could perhaps cook or clean for the male soldiers.
“I wanted to prove a point,” she said. “I never considered myself as someone who is a risk-taker or brave,” but she could see the effect that al-Shabab was having on the people.
Elman registered for basic training. She spent nine months in Uganda, one of only two women in the battalion. They were treated the same as the men, but, “there was a constant teasing.” When Elman returned to Somalia, she experienced “harsh” treatment. The men were critical of her wanting to carry a gun. “They thought I was disrespecting their culture and religion,” she said.
She joined a fighting force made up of 1,300 soldiers, of whom only 2% were women. Many of the female soldiers were cooking and cleaning for the male fighters, “and then you had me,” she recalled.
“Many times I broke down,” she said. “I didn’t think I could continue.”
The general force commander told her, “I am proud of what you are trying to do, [but maybe] this is a fight that is bigger than you.”
But if Elman was “in” the fight, he was going to treat her the same as the men. It was his “tough love” that worked.
Now, Elman is a logistical leader in a critical time. Al-Shabab lost much of its territorial claims after an African Union offensive a few years back, but the group still holds ground in parts of the country. And while there has been significant political progress in Somalia, notable challenges remain. Early this year, for example, al-Shabab attacked a base in Somalia, killing more than 100 Kenyan troops.
In March, the Pentagon said it killed up to 150 suspected al-Shabab fighters in an operation that Elman said also resulted in civilian casualties, the number unknown. Those air strikes, both manned and unmanned, in which civilians are also killed, feed the “terror ideology,” and serve a propaganda purpose.
Elman acknowledges there will be setbacks as the terror organization changes their tactics, but, she said, “We need to look at what we have done.”
And to her, fighting the ideology of al-Shabab and like-minded terror organizations, is in many ways more important than killing its members.
“It’s so much stronger…It’s complete rubbish what they preach to the people,” she told Refinery29.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Elman’s current role in the army.