HARGEISA, Somalia — Rushing around in a white pharmacist’s coat, Sahra Ali tends to a bloodied young boy in a small room attached to the pharmacy she runs. “She’s the hardest working person in the country,” customer Abdelraheem Adil remarked.
The 34-year-old Somali woman has grown quite a reputation as a midwife, pharmacist and local doctor in this capital of Somalia’s autonomous region of Somaliland.
But it’s Ali's newest job — the region’s first female taxi driver — that has really caught the attention in the city of 1.5 million.
“Many people are surprised, they can’t believe it,” Ali said. “They stop my taxi in the street, look inside and see me and say, 'It’s impossible. You’re a woman!'”
In traditionally conservative societies around the globe where opportunities for women are suppressed, more and more pioneers like Ali are taking on the role of family breadwinner and challenging stereotypes about women in the workplace in the process.
Other female barrier smashers include Nadia Ahmed, the first Palestinian woman to drive a taxi, and an all-female mechanics team in Iraq. These women are not just breaking boundaries but are also thriving in traditionally male-orientated jobs.
Ali, a mother of eight, said she doesn't just want to provide more income for her family. “I want to be a role model for them, and teach my daughters how to be hard working,” she told USA TODAY.
“People that see me in my taxi may say it’s impossible that a woman is doing this job, but I want to show them that it’s not.”
Ali fell into the taxi business accidentally because of misfortune. Her family purchased a car year ago so her husband could work as a taxi driver, but just weeks after their savings had been spent on the vehicle, her husband had a stroke.
Ali, a self-confessed workaholic, decided not to sell the car but make local history instead.
“When my husband became sick, those were dark days. I was five months pregnant, and my mother-in-law had just broken her leg, as well, so I was taking care of both of them and my seven children,” she recalled. “As soon as he became sick I knew I had to work for the two of us to provide for my family."
Knowing she had to put food on the table, Ali got behind the wheel and hit the bumpy streets of Hargeisa, negotiating around wildly driven vehicles, meandering goats and camels and a lot of male sexism.
“Women are often happy to see me driving, but many men see me and refuse to get in," she said. "They don’t want a woman to be in the driving seat. It happens a lot.”
Despite the rejections, Ali said she’s proud to be carrying out a job that was previously done just by men. Female customers feel empowered when they stop the taxi on the street and see the driver is a woman, she added. Many now call her directly when they need a ride.
A general view of downtown Hargeisa on May 16, 2016. (Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab, AFP/Getty Images)
A typical day starts at 5 a.m., when Ali drives her taxi before starting work as a midwife at a local hospital at 8 a.m. After finishing her hospital duties at 2 p.m., she opens her pharmacy with help from her oldest child, Mohammed Ali, 13, after he finishes school. She then works in the pharmacy or driving the taxi into the night, often getting home at 11 p.m.
Ali often combines her jobs — picking up customers in her cab while delivering orders from the pharmacy.
The grueling work pace is uplifting, Ali said. “Now, I feel happy. When my husband had his stroke and I was pregnant, there was no one to help, life was hard. But I feel relaxed now that I’m able to work and earn enough for my family."
“Just recently I saw another female taxi driver,” Ali said with excitement. “We saw each other at a traffic stop and waved and said hello.”
“Before, it was just me doing this alone, to know another woman has decided to go into the taxi business as well, is a great feeling,” she added. “I’ll be happy if women here who are in poverty or who are widows or have a bad situation at home start working and doing the same as me.”