The most recent press release by the Somali Women’s Circle Network (SWCN), a female activist group lead by a Somali Canadian female researcher and activist Dr. Idil Ladane Salah, urged the Somali government and traditional leaders to honour and respect the newly agreed constitution which allocates a minimum of 30% of all parliamentary seats, including cabinet positions, to women. It is a miracle that it even passed the constitutional vanguard made of tribal elders for whom this would have probably been unthinkable in the past. But it did and women now theoretically will make up 82.5 of the possible 275 future law makers in the Somali Parliament.
The good times
Surprisingly, before the war, Somalia was quite a liberal nation for a Muslim state. Women had equal access to employment and education and were paid similar wages in most public and private companies as men for the similar roles they performed. They were in every employment sector imaginable, including the national and local civil service, engineering, teaching and medicine. My own aunt Anab was an electrical engineer, who after her graduation from Mogadishu Polytechnic was trained with male colleagues at the Somali Post Office before she secured a position with UNICEF as a an advisor. More shockingly to a western observer today, Somali women were part of the national sports teams in basketball, volleyball and athletics. They also ran their own organisations, pressure groups, businesses and one was even a fighter pilot in the male dominated Siad Barre Air force.
More controversially, today where young Somali lovers engage in courtship in secrecy before marriage, in Somalia the generation before them did it openly at communal dances, in restaurants, theatres and mixed weddings. Even more striking, men and women mixed even more freely in the many beautiful beaches of Somalia and neighbouring Djibouti. “In Jazeera and Lido beach where I used to go on Fridays and other days off young beautiful Somali girls used to swim in diraacs and the braver ones among them, bikinis,” remembers a man from London who did not want to be named. “It was a time of freedom, fun and excitement. I pity the poor kids growing up here today.”
To illustrate the liberal credentials of his youth another man stated that the headscarf women wear today in Somali and increasingly in the Diaspora was an Arabisation of our own culture. He does though acknowledge that the holy Quran instructs women to cover up and be modest in dress but in his day this did not happen. He argued that it was easy then for potential suitors to know the relationship status of women from their hair as they were hardly ever covered. If a woman had a scarf she was married, if she had braids she was engaged and if her hair was cut short, she was under aged and not to be approached as she had an older sisters waiting to be married off.
Education was free and both sexes were encouraged to learn skills, trades and knowledge that would enable them to achieve their ambitions. Before 1969 there was sex segregation in schools but after this date this was abolished and boys and girls sat next to each other in classes. “You would not believe me but I married the young girl that I used to sit next to in class because she was kind and allowed me to copy her when the teacher was not looking,” confessed Ahmed, a London cab driver laughing without any regrets. “She was very bright and I thought since you’re not you need a breadwinner.”
From all the above,it is easy to assume that post colonial Somalia was even decades ahead of many developed nations in terms of women’s rights and treatment, both in public and private life. However, some critics admit that some parts of Somalia and some groups within the Somali people were more conservative than others and that women’s progression was not as celebrated or accepted as it would have been in the larger, more cosmopolitan cities of the then Somali Republic under Siad Barre. Despite this, it is easy to see why many Somali women now living in the four corners of the world as immigrants, refugees and naturalised citizens feel that had the war not started and the state collapsed, Somalia might have been a shining example of gender equality for the rest of Africa if not the world.
The collapse of the dream
Instead of leading the way for gender equality, today Somalia is a war ravaged broken nation surviving on aid from any donor nation that is able to assist it. It is a place where women and children are killed almost daily in large numbers by those fighting to impose their ideology on them and where the state that once guaranteed them their rights is unable to even protect itself, let alone them, from the onslaught of Al-Shabaab. Where once they were allowed to work, had protection from the law, choose their own suitors and even go to the beach with their friends, most of the Somali women today still living in Somalia are poorer than their male counterparts and bear the responsibility for child rearing with very little support from dead or absent husbands. The majority of Somalis in the east African refugee camps like Dhadhaab are women, many with their children and aside from the hunger and the humiliating and degrading intrusive TV cameras in their faces hoping to catch that all important image to broadcast, it has been widely documented that they are raped and sexually violated. Some have even turned to prostitution to survive.
Some women in parts of the peaceful regions of Somalia and Somaliland, the self declared independent state, fair better than their counterparts in the east African refugee camps. They have access to education and the scarce employment there is “thanks to a drive by Aid agencies to recruit more of them to help meet some of the Millennium Development Goals” as one Hargeisa based reporter put it in a telephone interview.
Women who are better educated and connected will always do better than their lesser advantaged counterparts and even some men too. Many point to Edna Adam, the former Somaliland foreign minister under the Rayale administration as evidence of female empowerment in Somaliland. The woman representing her nation to the world is a powerful image and one that was exploited effectively by the administration both at home and abroad. But what the propaganda machine forgets to mention is that she was the former wife of Egal, a former Somali Prime Minister and a Somaliland president in his own right. Can every woman match this in Somalia or even somewhere else in the world? Highly unlikely.
The 30% quota is admirable and will if achieved, enrich the Somali nation enormously. Some women in Somalia still contribute substantially as they run NGO’s, set up and manage businesses and teach in schools and universities. However, the reality is that since the start of the civil war the female brain drain has cost the Somali nation dearly and those that were left behind had to live with the consequences of a broken, failed nation. The ideological fight for their future roles between Al-Shabaab who wants them to remain covered up top to bottom and shackled to the gates of their homes and the more liberal but weak Somali government which at least in theory is committed to some gender equality is still ensuing with no clear winner as large parts of Somalia are still controlled by different factions.
An encouraging sign is that the new Diaspora led political Party’s such as HiilQaraan and Tayo are openly fielding women for the upcoming elections and have them as part of their governing bodies. This, while it is encouraging is just a small step as the vast majority of these female leaders in these new political groups are from the Diaspora. As recent as the day the constitution was formally agreed and the names of potential future lawmakers were been collected by officials in Somalia, many of the elders were still reluctant to field female candidates hoping that as one reporter present at the meeting put it, (translated) “the Christians who want this constitution and lost Somalis properly will send half naked Somali women from abroad who have lost their tradition, culture and religion. We must protect the respectable ones here.” This clearly is not an isolated view among the Somali elders tasked with selecting their future female leaders.
Globally there has been a greater commitment to gender equality. The rhetoric has been encouraging and in some places like Brazil has been matched with action. But as highly educated western female professionals fight to have a say in the boardrooms of Europe and America and their Japanese counterpart, equally as educated and professionally successful, battle to earn respect in the workplace and have their concern about issues such domestic violence taken seriously by law makers, Somali women’s groups just want to be heard in policy making circles. They want to be there to represent themselves and their communities.
The new constitution allows for this but there is a big gap between rhetoric and the reality on the ground. While it is easy to arrange all female dinners to commit to their cause as President Sheikh Sherif did recently or to sign a document guaranteeing their rights, it is an entirely different matter implementing it. Cynics may even say this is a trap as women with very limited experience may be placed in key institutions without the necessary support and upon their failure; the public will be notified that the government has tried. She is no use outside her home.
To avoid this trap and to permanently sideline the argument that they are appointed only because of a quota, women leaders and groups must be clever. They must make early sacrifices in order to safeguard their future public roles. Instead of rushing to Ministerial post in large numbers, those who are not qualified enough for their chosen role need to educate themselves and openly ask for assistance in carrying out their duties.
They must clearly indicate that they will work for their wider constituents and not just on female issues as is expected of them by many. More importantly, the female lawmakers must once again create the social, economic and political environment for women to succeed in the form of legislation that prohibits discrimination in education, employment and in public services.
Somalia will not leap into equality but the quota has at least opened the door for a better future for women in Somalia. Somali female leaders must be clever in their politics and realise that in order to make their mark permanently they must win over their own people and not the donor organisations. The public are already suspicious of these groups and blame them for bringing forward a non Islamic and Somali constitution. The people of Somalia are also frustrated and have for over two decades been the victims of what they feel is donor obsession with creating a nation in their own image. Many stressed that even in the Post colonial period of relative liberalism, Somali women did not seek high ranking positions in government because of cultural expectations which did allow them to work but not lead in politics because of their commitments as daughters, wives and mothers.
While there may not immediately be a Somali female president (in line with the majority of the world), women in Somali have been given the opportunity to participate in their own empowerment and the collective progress of society. 30% of lawmakers to many of them still seem too few but it is up to them to convince a very patriarchal society which has always been governed by men that they can do more by firstly building their own capacity and then representing their constituents effectively in a male dominated parliament.
Somali women need to be more than physically present in parliament. They need to be politically visible. This journey may take time but the wheels of change are already in motion.
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