MOGADISHU, Somalia — At the afternoon market for qat, the leaves that Somalis chew as a stimulant and mild narcotic, the salespeople once were only men, sometimes wearing old-style robes, more often in shabby Western dress. But these days, women in bright-colored scarves are elbowing their male compatriots aside for the attention of the throng of customers.
It is one of many signs around town of the changed role for women in the wake of two years of civil war here. With their menfolk off engaged in ceaseless clan combat, women took on chores and made contact with the world outside their homes, far beyond what was usual in this tradition-bound society.
The freedom was born of necessity, and it is unclear that the new burdens and possibilities will lead to an improvement in women's status in Somalia. Still, among the outspoken, if numerically small, educated elite, there are stirrings of hope.
"It is too early to say whether the changes are permanent. It is safe to say it will be hard to send the women back home as before," said Raqya Omar, a Somali journalist.
In many parts of Africa, women have long played key roles in taking care of the physical and economic needs of the family. In Somalia, they farmed, sold fruit, cloth and charcoal at the markets, washed and reared the children.
But with bullets whizzing all around and men absent, the Somali women entered new realms. These have included: previously restricted commerce like the qat trade; negotiations with tough gunmen for passage on unsafe streets, and interchanges with foreign relief officials who favored them for delivery of food because women were considered more reliable than men.
The emergence of women in the midst of chaos has not gone unnoticed. Some of it is not welcomed by Somali men.
Omar recalls withstanding a harangue from men idling outside the office of an aid official she interviewed one night. "They thought right away that because it was evening, I was up to no good," she said. "Of course, Somali men can get away with anything day or night."
Not long after American and other foreign troops arrived to secure the delivery of food to starving Somalis, a group of men on a busy Mogadishu street beat and ripped the clothes off a woman they saw speaking to French troops. She was rescued by a Somali policeman and was taken to refuge in the offices of IIDA, a fledgling women's rights group.
"It is not accepted that women work at the level of mixing with foreigners," said Halima Ismael, an activist in IIDA, which trains refugee women in simple skills to try to make them economically independent. Its craft shop turns out straw mats that Somali rural people sleep on and clay cooking pots and stoves.
The group also tries to locate and help women who have been raped during the brutal stages of the war in the city. Rape victims "lose face" in Somali society; they are often made pariahs by their families and find it hard to marry. They become economic burdens and fear leaving the house for fear of gossip and abuse.
In traditional Somalia, girls undergo female circumcision; to ensure their virginity, many Somali women undergo a procedure in which their genitals are sewn shut until they marry.
Women have spoken out against the war, and it is not uncommon to hear wives complain about the unbridled brutality of their husbands. Last week, when a pair of warring clans engaged in artillery and street fights, a woman at a house near the battle zone railed at her husband as he left the house with his M-16 rifle.
"Fool! Crazy!" she shouted. "The Americans are here to make peace and you go off to fight. Fool!"
That is not to say the women are not partisan. Some worked as supply and message couriers for their clans, although there have been no reports of women bearing arms.
The status of women has changed gradually but precariously over the past 30 years. During the long dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, which ended with his ouster in 1991, educational opportunities and rights of divorce and property were granted to women.
In the 1960s, only about 10% of Somali women were educated. By the 1970s, the figure rose to 30%, although it dipped again during the chaos of the 1980s. Before the civil war, women made up 50% of the student body in some university departments, notably law and economics. In the sciences, the percentage was much less.
In 1975, Siad Barre declared women and men equal, attracting criticism from Muslim clerics who felt the statement violated religious law. In response, he executed 10 Muslim scholars and sentenced 23 more to long jail terms.
The ruthless leader also set up a woman's federation, but its function was mainly to provide an audience of women to applaud at his frequent parades and rallies.
"The fact that Siad Barre nominally championed women's rights has left a bitter taste in many mouths," said Dahabo Isse, a worker at the International Committee of the Red Cross.