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Somalia: let’s talk about women.

by Farhia Ali Abdi
Monday, October 08, 2012

“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance”.  Kofi Annan                                                                                                         

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Every culture encompasses a broad spectrum of norms, myths and perceptions that people adopt as individuals living within a local region. These practices, stories and points of view are later accepted as social expectation, or social fact within the larger society. These constructions of social and cultural expression vary from one culture to another. In this context, Somali society for example, is structured on clan-based social organs, with male clan leaders wielding greater traditional authority than that of the national government. As a consequence, men have gained almost unlimited control over socio-economic, political and cultural powers within the Somalia state of affairs, and rendering Somali women at a significant disadvantage.

Many Somali men still consider themselves as the head of the family, with the concurrent belief that members of the family, including spouses are nothing but possessions. And although Somali women tend to have an education and more independence than women in other parts of the Muslim world and gender rights have yet to materialize in Somali society. Within this complicated paradox, Somali women do continue to contribute socially, politically and economically to their communities, regions and the country at large. Most of these efforts, however, are done in silence and behind closed doors due to the historically imposed cultural limitations. Their contributions have not yet enhanced the status of women, nor earned them respect in the Somali society. Women are still expected to look after family members while men decide the future of social-economic and political development of the country without women’s input or consensus.

The general discourse in women narrative often assumes that they (women) are one of the most vulnerable, victimized and impacted groups in a society, and this undermines the crucial role of women as actors and equal partner in the decision-making process. In this regard, Somali culture, in particular, has downplayed women’s roles in socio-political and economic development, which has subsequently resulted in gender disparity and systematic discrimination against women. A good example is the current selection process on parliamentarians of where Somali women have once again been undermined by the lack of respecting for the stipulated 30% quota. 

Exclusion of women from the current political process in Somalia, clearly illustrates disrespect and discrimination against women, and undermines the agreed upon the constitutional principle. It is through such practices that Somali women’s talents, skills and experience continue to go unrecognized, under-valued and under-utilized. Somali society must therefore find alternative polices that will address gender equity issues and increase participation and representation of women at all levels of the decision-making process.  Somali leaders and the international community should not ignore the concepts of gender biases and the influence of dominant cultural practices that renders women at a disadvantage and disables their talents, creativity and their visions for an inclusive, democratic and prosperous society. The already huge and growing number of well-educated and talented women should not be denied equal participation in nation building of their beloved country simply because of their gender. The time is here and now to acknowledge and recognize the talents of Somali women and to genuinely respect their desire to be an equal partner in all walks of life within their particular communities and within leadership roles at all levels of Somali governance.

Historical Contributions:

Women in Somalia have participated in and contributed extensively to the history of the country. Women were instrumental in the struggle for the country’s freedom and independence. As active participants in the Somali Youth League (SYL) movement throughout the 1940s and 1950s, women organized and recruited new members, promoted and raised patriotic awareness, collected funds and membership fees, secured housing and concealed nationalists from authorities.  Many were imprisoned, tortured and killed, as they fought for the Somali flag. These remarkable contributions and struggles of Somali's women freedom fighters were notably cited by the death of Hawa Osman Taako, who was killed 1948 in a Somali Youth League headquarters.  Notwithstanding such outstanding sacrifices at the forefront during the fight for liberty and freedom of Somalia, women were and continue to be excluded from any meaningful contributions within the political leadership roles.

Thus, there is genuine discontent, among Somali women today; that they are suffering from this problem of exclusion, a problem not of their own making, but that they are forced to endure. Even so, Somali women are and have been the backbone of Somali’s economy and remain as caretakers of family, children, and extended families since the start of the civil war in 1991. Women continue to contribute tirelessly to maintain a sustainable and a viable state in Somalia, including the remittance by Diaspora's women to alleviate family's suffering and to the NGOs that are helping refugees inside and outside the country. Somalia without Somali women, therefore, cannot be considered a sustainable society that can strive for socio-cultural and political change.  One can argue that, if Somali women knew what worked in wartime, they should know what can work in peace time, and if this is the case, they should be at the forefront in rebuilding their country as advisors, policy makers and peace builders. Indeed, Somali women are not interested in war, but in the peace and security of their families, regions and the country at large. Somali women believe in dialogue as the only method to achieve lasting peace.

The question of gender equality:

Societies, where people feel free to seek and hold their dreams, regardless of their gender, prosper democratically with greater social equality. This does not imply that Somalia in the future with greater gender diversity will be perfect, utopian. However, it might well become an ideal for the region, or at least represent a better option than that of the present and the past eras. As a country, we are in dire need to talk about the elimination of social injustices, including unequal gender participation and discrimination.  We need to talk about Somali women and their place in Somali society.

The recent draft constitution recognizes Somali women’s rights and grants more equal participation in future Somali governments by designating a 30% quota.  The inclusion of women in the constitution is a welcome sign that has ignited excitement and hope among Somali women who are geared to take part in the decision-making process of their country’s affairs.  At the sometime, the inclusion of gender in the constitution has brought to the surface the views of some Somali men who resist the progress of women and who hide behind religion and attitudes from a pre-dated cultural era. Consequently, women’s movement among Somali women has begun today, both inside and outside of the country, as more Somali women are speaking out and taking center stage in the affairs of their country. The issues and concerns over the gender divide, and biases have also came to the surface in every region in Somalia, as witnessed by the recent demonstrations all over the country and the public outcry in which women demand their rights be respected, and that they be allowed to take their rightful place in the socio-political and economic development of the country. It appears that society’s cultural consciousness is awakening and that this emerging social awareness, may lead, hopefully, to a host of other social movements as was the case with the women’s movement during the sixties in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

The way forward:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to play on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”   Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Compared to the recent past, Somali women today are well-educated and constitute an ever burgeoning portion of the talent pool available within the country. To not fully utilize Somali women’s talents will hinder the country’s future competitiveness. Regardless of cultural views, gender equality should be every country's priority. Somalia is no different than any other country on this planet in this respect and must provide the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities to all its citizens. Somalia as a nation, therefore, has a number of cultural attitudes and political perceptions to adapt and adjust for the benefit of all. 

The following points are keys to making progress in this regard:

i.   Recognize the effective contributions of Somali women in the country’s leaderships within both public and political organizations.

ii.  Approve the right of Somali women to partake in the current and the future Somali government (s) with a guaranteed 30 % quota and consideration given to increasing the quota to narrow the historical gender divide in the country.

iii.  Accept Somali women’s involvement in all leadership roles within the Somali government without reference to cultural or gender biases that render ineffective their contributions to the country’s affairs.

iv.  Utilize Somali women’s talents more broadly in public office and private- enterprise.

v.  Engage in social political and cultural awareness campaigns to promote the effective and potential contributions of Somali women in all aspects of political, social and cultural development of their country.

vi.  Treat women’s rights as a shared responsibility of rightful citizens of the land.

vii. Support Somali women in the workplace as equal partners building a safe and vibrant society.            

viii. Reconcile religious and cultural attitudes and points of view that limit women’s rights and abilities to effectively contribute in Somali community.

ix. And finally, consider women issues in Somalia as a core human rights concern supported by the government and by international community partners.

Somali women have committed themselves to the nationalist cause both in the past and in the present by raising political consciousness, yet they continue to find themselves outside of the very political institutions they are fighting for and outside the history upon which the country was built. Women have struggled for recognition and equality in all aspects of their lives. Today, Somali women continue to struggle for the basic rights and recognition they deserve.

Today Somalia is, at a critical juncture in terms of achieving recognition for women. Accepting the women’s quota and taking action to increase future participation in government to an even greater extent is a crucial plank in achieving equality for women in the political arena and in other influential leadership positions. My hope is that we all join as strong advocates for the creation of an inclusive government and a country that is free of all discrimination against women.

Farhia Ali Abdi
[email protected]


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