MOGADISHU, Somalia – Maryam Ahmed Ali wasn’t allowed to go back to school after she turned 13; her parents said she might be too tempting for male students and teachers, now she was a woman. Instead, Ali was married off to a man 12 years older than her.
There was nothing unusual about this situation. Child marriage isn’t illegal in Somalia, and UNICEF estimates that more than 45 percent of girls there are married before the age of 18.
Ali says the man didn’t even want to marry her – he was in love with someone else, someone closer to his own age. But his family didn’t approve of the other woman, and his and Ali’s families decided the two were a good match.
The loveless marriage made both of them miserable; they were constantly angry with each other. Her husband was not physically violent to her, but the marriage was a nightmare. Two years on, when she was 15, Ali could take no more. She ran away. “I’m going to show everyone who Maryam is,” she remembers thinking.
When Ali returned to her childhood home, “My mom recognized there was a problem from [the expression on] my face,” she says. Her parents could have sent her back to her husband, but they didn’t. His family begged her to return – they didn’t want people to think he was a bad husband.
Ali told her husband over the phone that she was planning to leave him. He said to go, but warned her that once she was out, she couldn’t come back. She demanded a divorce; he refused.
“Fine. I’ll just stay un-divorced,” she said.
After leaving her husband, Ali stayed in her family’s home to keep a low profile. To stave off her boredom, she bought a used iPhone from her uncle. She couldn’t understand much on the phone because all the prompts were in English, but she ended up on Instagram where she discovered a buzzing community of Somali women, celebrating their country and embracing their style.
“[Women in Somalia] are almost nonexistent in traditional media. So a lot of them have found the freedom to express themselves online,” said Fatuma Abdulahi, founder of Warya Post, the country’s first women-owned media publication, in an interview for a feminist blog last year.
By tapping into social media, Ali, at just 18, has become one of Somalia’s most sought-after makeup artists, making a name for herself in a country where women are almost invisible in traditional media.
Online and ‘Out of Control’
For Ali, who can be shy and subdued, makeup has been a lifeline, offering her personal expression and professional opportunity. As she continues to build her public persona, she is pushing the boundaries of the spaces women are allowed to occupy in Somali society.
As Ali tells the story of how she went from child bride to makeup star, she works on one of her regular clients, Iqliim Mohamed. After finding Ali on Snapchat, Mohamed has come to her four times to have her makeup done, mostly for weddings. This time, the 22-year-old student is preparing for a party at Somali National University. She sits in a chair grinning as Ali spends 30 minutes working. Mohamed’s face is the canvas for the makeup artist’s signature style: thick, swooping eyebrows, shimmering eyeshadow, long false eyelashes.
Ali opened her Instagram account in 2016, mainly to follow beauty and makeup accounts. When her father died of cancer in a hospital in Malaysia, her mother bought Ali some makeup at the airport on the way home, and she started practicing on herself.
Ali’s father would never have allowed her to wear makeup. He accepted her separation from her husband, unable to see his “little girl being tortured,” as her friend Yasmin Belfaqih describes it, but he thought makeup might make a woman narcissistic and overly flirtatious.
Finally free to experiment with lipsticks and eyeliners, Ali developed her own style: striking and modern, with bold eyebrows that were not common in the Somali beauty community. She eventually launched her own Instagram feed, using selfies to show off her talents. At first, she kept her account private, but her friends encouraged her to make it public. They were convinced that if people saw what she could do with makeup, they would pay her to do it for them, too.
“She knows the shape of the person, the shape of [their] face. She [has] this chemistry with makeup, like she just knows how to do it,” Belfaqih says.
Ali worried that some of her family members would disapprove of her putting herself out in the world so brazenly. Even now her aunt says, “This girl is out of control.” She thinks Ali runs around too often by herself, accountable to no one.
When Ali took the leap and went public with her Instagram account, she added her phone number to her profile. The calls started coming in.
Today, Ali has 45,000 followers and a YouTube channel where she broadcasts makeup tutorials. Astaan TV, a popular national station, recently featured a 15-minute tutorial with her. She says she wants to do more TV to further her online brand and hopes one of the videos might go viral so that she can make more money.
Ali serves an upscale clientele in one of the poorest countries in the world. Party makeup goes for $5, and bridal makeup costs $50. Ali’s dream is to move to the United States, where she hears artists make up to $300 per face.
Today, people recognize Ali when she walks down the street, sometimes asking to take photos with her. “I am so happy that people appreciate what I am doing right now because they see the benefits of it,” she says.
As for her forced marriage, Ali eventually got the divorce she wanted. Her husband fell ill after she left him and was unable to get the treatment he needed. He thought maybe his bad luck was brought on by his cruelty, withholding from Ali the one thing she asked him for. He relented, and he’s healthy now.