by Farhia Ali Abdi
Saturday, July 11, 2015
"The world is wasting a precious resource today. Tens of thousands of talented women stand ready to use their professional expertise in public life; at the same time, they are dramatically underrepresented in positions of leadership around the world.” —Madeleine K. Albright
Democratic institutions and practices promote government legitimacy around the world, while at the same time allowing legislatures to adhere to the democratic values of transparency, representation and accountability. While Somalia does not yet have democratic representation within government, it aspires to realize this principle. However, an image of a Somali culture that is not women friendly has been lately projected to the world, reflecting a society created and dominated by men. The purpose of this article is to share my observations on the prevailing narrative of a Somali culture that is biased against women, highlight some of the underlying causes of gender inequality and enhance the debate on the urgent need to achieve gender equality.
Currently, the role of women in national affairs is either marginal or absent altogether. Discussions concerning Somali affairs, whether they take place inside or outside of Somalia, or are private or public committees organized by government officials, academics or local communities, remain almost exclusive to men - as though there are no women in Somalia. On those occasions, when women do attend important gatherings, instead of being at the podium or sharing the platform with the men in the room, they are most often huddled at the back and do not participate in the deliberations. In instances, however, when they do partake in a panel discussion, the quality of their contributions is no less rigorous than that of their male colleagues. Some Somali media choose to obscure or hide this image of women, which begs the question: is the exclusion of women done purposefully or subconsciously by men who grew up in an overtly patriarchal culture? I have written several articles, as have others, concerning the significant historical contributions made by Somali women to their country and their availability to take part in Somalia’s reconstruction; however, I have come to realize that there are forces at play, both overt and insidious, against changes to the status of women in the country.
Subordination of women in Somalia
The status of Somali women in their society is neither new nor a fully sorted one. Most of us who advocate for and support women’s rights in Somalia can attest that gender mainstreaming in Somalia is a taboo subject; despite the fact that Somali women have shaped a vibrant national network of women’s social and humanitarian organizations in response to the devastating impact of twenty-five years of inadequate government and institutions. While women of Somalia have been successful in managing social issues, they have been stone-walled on the political, leadership and decision-making front. Somalis are aware of the infamous 30% quota for women in Somalia’s Parliament, which later produced only 14% members nationwide. Somali society in general and males in particular, will confirm the unblemished commitment of Somali women with regards to their families and country. In addition, Somalis of all ages will agree that women are crucial to the country’s development; yet when it comes to participation in the decision-making process, the acknowledgement and testimonials seem to evaporate into a thin air, and women are excluded.
A greater inclusion of educated Somalia women in the country’s affairs can facilitate much needed resources for Somalia’s rebuilding effort while narrowing the gap between women and men in terms of access to decision-making authority and political power. More significantly, however, it will help reshape the broader perception of women in this patriarchal society with its underlying bias against women. As L. Beaman et.al, illustrated, in their 2007 report for UNICEF: The State of The World Children, when women are empowered as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living, and positive developments can be seen in education, infrastructure and health’. “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." http://www.hiiraan.ca/op4/2012/oct/26286/somalia_let_s_talk_about_women.aspx,
Most Somali men are silent on the issue of gender imbalance in the country, partly because of the cultural norms that privilege them and partly because of poor educational awareness. The latter became more prevalent since the collapse of the State. While deep-rooted cultural norms of male hegemony has always been widespread, the co-education of boys and girls that was in operation in Somalia’s post-independence, and particularly during the two decades of military regime, introduced a low level acceptance of equality between boys and girls. However, the degree of accepted inequality in society today made this educational effect almost insignificant. Moreover, the reality that took hold in Somalia following the collapse of the state is the segregation of genders in schools, classes and the workplaces. The labour market transformation made easier by the fact that most, if not all, employment opportunities are now found in the private sector. More importantly, the fundamental shift in the religiousness of Somali society further facilitated the maintenance of the status quo on issues of gender imbalance.
Nonetheless, there are a few enlightened men who do understand this pervasive gender imbalance and indeed encourage social reform and inclusion of women in the Somali national dialogue. The absence of national gender policy has contributed to the slow progress in empowering women in Somalia; therefore, the government needs to bring about a realistic gender mainstreaming programs that will ensure equality at all levels, in research, legislation and policy development.
Moving forward with gender awareness:
Recent images coming out of public and private spheres in Somalia, though disturbing and contradictory to women empowerment, amplify the need to rethink the country’s gendered culture. As it has been said many times, Somalia needs both men and women to rebuild. The systemic pervasiveness of gender-blindness allows inequality to be perpetuated and if not checked, will further restrict and harm the young generation of Somali women whose voices seem to be silenced or ignored. Before gender bias and the subordination of women can be rectified, and creating a lasting impact on women empowerment, there must be a deeper awakening of consciousness across society. Change will require all Somalis to be critical of gender imbalance and to challenge cultural bias against women.
Suggestions to aid women empowerment:
a) Legislate constitutionally guaranteed balanced gender representation in all public offices at all levels of central and regional governments.
b) Implement awareness training to promote gender equality and raise societal consciousness by educators and through central and regional governments.
c) Establish school curriculum with a focus on Somali women’s history and their contributions to society. Teaching gender equality will lead to a new consciousness, gender analysis, and greater access to Somali women narratives.
d) Increase advocacy and visibility of Somali women and women’s agencies as the spokes people for change and for Somali women’s rights. It is not enough to just be there; it is crucial to speak up and be heard. This includes women parliamentarians and women at all levels of governments who are currently absent from the country’s dialogue.
e) Rather than focusing exclusively on male-dominated political affairs, Somali academics (young and old, inside and outside of the country) must address the cultural gender gaps that are deepening in Somalia.
f) “Governments at all levels have to assist in building women’s confidence and to strengthen their capacity to fulfil their national duty appropriately; which is a crucial ingredient for both government and society at large” (Click here for more)
g) Greater focus by Somalia’s nascent and sometimes ill-equipped media on the issues, concerns and the rights of women to help facilitate a democratic transition of governance and to empower women. Equally important is the need for the media to be fully aware and cautious of gender-blinds and to the images sent out.
h) Central and regional governments need to produce legislation that pivots on favourable economic empowerment for women over economic resources, which strengthens women's economic security.
With stability in Somalia there is a growing optimism for the country’s future. However, all the talk about vision 2016 and beyond seems to have left Somali women behind, as they are not notable participants at the national decision-making table. If gender remains a major component of structured inequality, women will continue to have less value, power and security. It is imperative, therefore, that the deep pool of talented women available is used to its maximum potential in the country’s development. Somalia can no longer afford the absence of women from the socio-political picture. It is equally important that the media does not abuse its influence by keeping women behind walls, out of sight and away from the public sphere. In order to have a productive and just society, we need to have dialogue on our deepening patriarchal culture and women’s place in it. Good and constructive images give hope to society and make gender equality possible.
Farhia Ali Abdi