HARGEISA, Somalia (AP) - Amina Jama was through answering questions about the textile shop she runs with five other women -- how much money it brings in, when she started working, whether selling the colorful bolts of cloth helps support her seven children.
"Are you going to buy something?" the 38-year-old asked, throwing up her hands. "Or what?"
Spoken like a true businesswoman -- and in this city, capital of the breakaway republic of Somaliland, there are plenty of women like her. Hargeisa's marketplace is teeming with female workers, challenging assumptions about the subservient place of women in Islam.
"Of course women are working, they are strong, they do not have the luxury of being anything but strong," said Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland's former foreign minister and founder of a women's hospital in this overwhelmingly Muslim region of the Horn of Africa.
The role of women in Somalia changed dramatically after the country's longtime dictator was overthrown in 1991, prompting the collapse of the economy and leaving scores of men unemployed. Women began earning money in large part by doing small tasks that men are too proud to perform, such as selling fruit, tailoring clothes or running beauty salons, said Shamis Barre, who works for the humanitarian group CARE International to help train Somali women in marketable skills.
"The jobs we have here, they are jobs that men would not do," Barre said. "So the bulk of women, they have to work. Most families depend on women."
Although Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has remained relatively peaceful -- unlike the violent chaos in the rest of the country -- men here still struggle to find work they will accept. Somaliland is not internationally recognized as separate from Somalia, severely limiting any industry or government work.
"A woman might get $1 and be satisfied," said Hussein Yusuf Duale, an unemployed 55-year-old man in Hargeisa. "A man is not satisfied with $1."
Asha Dahir, 50, said she feels more free to work in Somaliland than she would in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and much of southern Somalia, which is governed by Islamic fundamentalists who have set up strict religious courts in recent months.
Residents of Somaliland mostly practice the moderate Sufi form of Islam; many women wear long, colorful headscarves rather than the burqa-style dresses that leave only the eyes exposed.
"It's difficult because we believe that Muslim women should stay home, but since our husbands can't find jobs we are happy to work to feed our children," said Dahir, who works with Jama at the Allah Amin textile shop. Dahir's husband has been out of work since 1988, when a civil war broke out between the Mogadishu-based government and Somaliland rebels.
The number of female workers in Somaliland is not clear, said Hassan Adan Qalinle, general director of the Ministry of Health and Labor. "Our ministry has not so far conducted any research or survey about the exact number of men and women working in Somaliland," he said.
But younger women -- such as 24-year-old Kadan Ibrahim Ahmed, owner of the Panorama Beauty Salon -- said they want to work, and will continue to do so, even if their husbands have jobs.
"When I opened this business, I wasn't married," Ahmed said. "But my husband is an accountant and he doesn't complain, because only women run beauty parlors. We both get home at the same time at night, 7 p.m., and we have agreed that both of us should work."
Sudsi Abdi Rahman Yusuf, 21, also said she intends to continue working as a laboratory assistant at Hargeisa Hospital after she marries.
"I like this job, I can improve myself here," said Sudsi, who wears a white lab coat over her black hijab. "Every day, my knowledge increases."
Jama, who runs the textile shop, said it's no wonder the younger women want to work -- they aren't mothers yet. "For us," Jama said, "we can never be too far from the children."
Source: 2006 The Associated Press