Why we must celebrate the power and resilience of Somali women

Ilhan Omar
State Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, takes the oath of office as the 2017 Legislature convened Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in St. Paul

It was a gloriously beautiful early-evening with bright orange and red sky in Buhotle. A full-grown Peregrine falcon can be seen over our home gliding through the air in an extravagantly elegant style, perhaps to enjoy the cooler air far above the ground or, possibly attack a spectacular flock of starlings swirling nearby. In our Buhotle family home, Koraad would always do housework with all of its arduous domestic chores including hand-washing my clothes.

She would then reinforce the folds of hems by creating deep creases out which immediately prompts jealousy-inducing reactions from my male friends. Koraad, which can roughly be translated in Somali as both gracefully majestic and charmingly well-formed, is my little sister. She’s exceptionally endowed with a combined compass of intellect and wisdom that keeps our family together rarely asking for help even when under immense pressure; she still manages to put up a smile that shines the sun with her angelic face radiating with confidence.

Somali women have always been the backbone of the Somali society and the indispensable bedrock of the nation since its independence struggles from the European imperial powers. Not only did they bring our own lives into the world, but even under the shadow of a catastrophic civil war and scorching Somali sun, the Somali women continued to venture out to feed their families dripping with beads hot sweat.

Just as Somali women back home push for greater representation in the political sphere, religious fanatics with their cancerous misinterpretation of what’s otherwise a just faith, are thrashing around like a wounded lion arguing that women should take the back seat in order to silence their legitimate voices.

The meteoric rise of Ilhan Omar at the United States Congress as the first ever Somali-American and Muslim woman has brought pride to the hearts of millions of Somalis and offered a powerful counter-narrative to the Islamophobic bigotry Muslim women face in the West.

Ilhan came to the United States when she was just twelve years old, knowing only two English phrases: “hello” and “shut up.” Her historic Congressional victory demonstrates what Somali women can achieve when unleashed their God-given power and given educational opportunity combined with a fair playing field, which sadly does not exist in Somalia.

The recent election of Rakhia Ismail as the first Somali-born female mayor in Islington north London is another indicative sign that winds of change are sweeping away the patriarchal nature of Somali society. Diasporic Somali girls are also out-performing their male counterparts in all aspects of educational attainment as boys are less likely to go to higher educational institutions and much more likely, to commit a crime with the possibility of imprisonment. In the last academic year alone, we’ve seen numerous Somali girl valedictorians and salutatorians in the United States and Canada whose educational excellences earned them prestigious scholarships and whose academic successes uplifted our communal spirit.

Just as Somali women back home push for greater representation in the political sphere, religious fanatics with their cancerous misinterpretation of what’s otherwise a just faith, are thrashing around like a wounded lion arguing that women should take the back seat in order to silence their legitimate voices.

Isaiah Berlin, who was one of the greatest philosophers and public intellectuals in the twentieth century once said, “freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.” These regressive forces are fearful of the valour and matchless resilience of Somali women and they are determined to reverse whatever small gains made in the country’s enacted 30% quota.

In a male-dominated patriarchal society with endemic and deeply entrenched forms of cultural despotism, the proud women of Somalia struggle to obtain the most basic of rights as profoundly ingrained clannish practices and misogynistic attitudes prevent them from fully participating crucial decision-making forums. Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, the Somali women have been the primary providers and caretakers of a vast majority of Somali families sometimes raising multiple children alone. How they have managed to navigate through the complexities of communal conflicts, pervasive gender-biased practices and institutionalised misogyny remains the mystery of our time.

In his famous book titled “To the mysterious Lorian Swamp,” the former British colonial district commissioner in Kenya and Jubaland, Captain C. Wight Haywood, wrote that during his numerous excursions into Somali-inhabited territories in Kenya and southern Somalia,

“amongst some of the up-country Somalis the bride is treated harshly by her husband during the first month of marriage. He ties her hands to a beam so that her toes only touch the ground, and then beats her hard with a whip made from the hide of a rhinoceros, frequently drawing blood, she is not supposed to utter even a moan.”

Captain C Wight Haywood observed this misogynistic cultural oppression in Wajir area in what is now North Eastern Province of Kenya. This is the same district that the disgraced Kenyan parliamentarian Rashid Kassim represents. Mr Kassim recently hurled insults at another fellow Somali-Kenyan female parliamentarian from the same county, Fatuma Gedi, and assaulted and punched her in the face as if nothing has changed since Haywood’s dark days in 1912.

Unlike my divinely perfect and intellectually-cultured little sister Koraad, whose father’s legendary push to bring down the tribal wall of male prejudice is celebrated, the majority of Somali women are effectively excluded from their clan’s decision-making involvement by either using a crude form of kinship affinity that unjustifiably favours men or, under the cover of misinterpreted religious grounds imported from the Middle East with all of its monstrosity.

While the filial piety is the core virtue of the Chinese culture, where ultimate respect for one’s parents and ancestors is both promoted and dearly revered, we have a mixture of societal customs that regards males as a supreme gender-blended with a toxic tribal decadence that protects men who gang rape school-age girls and then mercilessly murder them.

The recent horrific abduction, gang-rape and subsequent murder of 12-year-old Aisha Ilyas in the north-central Somali city of Galkayo is a clear testimony of a culture that tolerates gender-based violence against women. Equally, combinations of tribalistic customary law, controlling patrilocal residence and ruthless clan-based power-sharing are major barriers to women’s vibrant political participation in Somalia.

This patriarchal dominance has once been challenged by Somali queen known as Arawelo, who visualised a kingdom of women where matriarchal family structure remain supreme and where male chauvinism is never entertained. Arawelo, whose real name was Ebla Awad belonged to an influential family dynasty and at an early age around 15 AD, dared to question the tyrannical nature of patrilineal system that disproportionately give positions of power to men. However, dismantling an extremely deep-rooted social institution proved a tall order for Arawelo as her male subjects rebelled against her experimental social engineering and thus, rendering it a failure.

Their intersectionality of being mother, sister, wife and the historical significance of marrying-out from other rival clans to solidify exogenous alliances between warring communities should have earned them privileges.

Looking from a socio-historical perspective, the power struggle between sexes may well have been with us since the dawn of our species’ divergence from our primate heritage, even though, there’s a little empirical evidence for this ape-human behaviour connection considering our complex cognitive task.

Having said that, political as well as tribal leaders should confront this grave injustice head-on with clear conscience and initiate grass-root-based constructive discussions on how best to rectify it.

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