Somaliland Women: Oppressed breadwinners and silent peacemakers
By Bashir Goth
March 9, 2005
"...Nin deeqba haween leh baan ahay
As Somaliland joined world countries in celebrating the International Women's Day on March 8, it may be incumbent on each and every one of our people and particularly our government to take stock of the social, economic, political and educational status of Somaliland women.
It is remarkable to see how the day is traditionally marked by holding meetings, making speeches, singing praises for the valiance and heroism of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and co-workers and wrapping it up with ringing words of promises and ambitious plans that everyone knows would dissipate into thin air the minute after the euphoria of the day is over. Women are then left facing the same torturous journey of suffering in ignorance, lacking their rights, shackled by social taboos and body mutilation and all their efforts rendered useless due to lack of power and gender discrimination both at the workplace and at home.
The undeniable fact in Somaliland is the conspicuous role of women as breadwinners in almost every household in the country. The traditional open markets are overpopulated by women vendors selling every conceivable product such as Qat*, foodstuff, household items, clothes, jewelry, money exchange, wood, water and other merchandise. On top of this they still remain loyal homemakers, loving mothers, dutiful wives, lovely sisters and daughters and silent victims. Our women also continue to carry out their traditional role of being the glue of peace and harmony by marrying across tribal lines, repairing ruptured relationships among clans and holding society together; thus strengthening and consolidating peace from the grassroots and without any pomposity and bravado.
Our women have a long tradition of not relying on government as a source of income. They have known for a long time that government jobs belong to men; hence they have made it a habit to rely on their business acumen and their feminine instinct to feed the children and keep the family home intact amid backbreaking economic burdens. One may ask where are the men and what do they do? The answer is they do what they are good at doing and always do; loitering around streets, Qat outlets and government offices trying to secure money for their daily dosage of Qat or splurging the meager income of their women folks on their personal luxuries, thus squandering family resources and depriving children of having good food, clothing, medical care and education. As if robbing them of their hard-earned money and neglecting parental duties towards their children is not enough, many men also insult their wives and break their pride by holding the sword of polygamy over their necks to coercion them for more allowance and more silence to their abuse.
Celebrating the International Women's Day should make us ponder how we can stop abusing our women both physically and emotionally, providing them their rights and empowering them in social, economic and political spheres.
Although the present Somaliland government is the first to appoint women in the cabinet, a commendable step indeed, it is important to remember that holding a political post is only a small step of the long march waiting for us to undo the enormous injustices suffered by women. We may suggest to our government to commemorate the International Women's Day by reliving our women of the following burdens:
1- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM):
This physical torture and mutilation of women's God-given sexual organs also causes enormous and life-long psychological scar to our women. It is a cruel and abusive practice aimed at putting women in their proper place from a very early age; teaching them that they are property and like any other property they have to be kept in lock and latches. It tells them that they are not trust worthy even with their own bodies and deprives them of having a healthy and comfortable sex life. They learn that they are only worth the scar and the stitches they carry, making them to recoil with shame and embarrassment in every encounter with a gynecologist. This Pharonic practice should be banned and Somaliland should join other pioneer African countries including neighboring Djibouti in ratifying the Maputo Protocol that seeks to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM). If Somaliland can ban plastic bags for being an environmental disaster in a Ministerial decree, it is indeed capable also of outlawing FGM for being human rights disaster in a Ministerial or Presidential decree as well.
Another equally abusive practice is the misuse of the Islamic tradition of polygamy. It is not uncommon in Somaliland to see an unemployed man without any source of income; who relies on his wife to feed him and his children and also to give him daily expenses for his personal luxury to marry another woman. A man like this often justifies his action by marshalling hackneyed reasons and always putting the blame on the poor woman for pushing him to this end. However, the real reason is an economic one as a second or third marriage would enable him to diversify his income and allow him to increase his daily Qat portion. Lately, it is has become a trend among Somalilanders in the Diaspora to leave their wives and children in their host countries, return home and marry young women as second or third wives. The government doesn't have to look far as some of the cabinet members have done this and are proud of their action. It means little to these men whether their wives burn out their entire lives caring for their children in the freezing weathers of Europe and North America as long as t hey sleep in the warm bosoms of dutiful young wives who are at the age of their daughters or grand daughters.
The government of Somaliland has to follow suit of other Muslim countries such as Morocco, Malaysia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh to include ‘No-Polygamy' clause in the marriage contract. It should also take the lead in demanding its cabinet Ministers and government officials to shun polygamy and stay monogamous as long as they remain in their government posts.
Despite being the breadwinners of every household, women in Somaliland have the highest rate of illiteracy and only a few girls are enrolled in school. It is also quite disheartening to see these few lucky girls who got the chance to go to school shrouded in gloomy black Talibani garments and exiled to the end row of the class as if they were lepers. Their pathetic status in schools reminds them again and again that they are inferior beings whose appearance in schools or playing with boys is a social taboo. There is nothing that provokes sympathy for the sorry condition of our women more than watching small girls at the very tender age of three to five wearing this flowing, tip-to-toe covering tents; shuffling towards schools or Quranic madrasas amid the simmering heat of the African weather. These young girls should have been running, jumping around, hip hopping towards school, playing hide-and-seek on the way and enjoying their free spirit and joyful childhood like other children of the world. It is at this very impressionable age that irreparable damages are inflicted on their ego, their pride, their ambitions and their character. Seeing these kids' healthy cultural growth stunted by these layers of clothing one may wonder whether we live in a society of pedophiles or lascivious maniacs that Queen Arrawelo might have been right after all in her castration drive of Somali men.
The real tragedy, however, is when the fledgling universities of Somaliland, institutions expected to cultivate a culture of freethinking and enlightenment, condone this oppression of women. All over the world, a university is considered to be a place where every imaginable topic under the sun could be debated, a place where no topic or subject is considered to be a taboo or above academic research. It is imperative for a healthy academic institution of higher learning to encourage free expression in every sphere of the student's college life. But Somaliland universities seem to have chosen the to play the conformity card and move with the herd; skirting the challenging task of leading the way in questioning, assessing and looking at all issues through times tested method of academic skepticism.
It is the responsibility of the Somaliland government, particularly the Ministry of Education, and the academic community to constantly assess the education situation and adopt curricula that encourage personal freedoms and safeguards young girls against being victims of ancient and retrogressive social traditions. Somaliland government and people should know that without educating women and unfettering their minds, we could not dream of building an enlightened and progressive society.
4- Political empowerment
Although Somaliland's present government has set the tone for women's participation in politics by giving them several Ministerial posts, the reality is that our women are still underrepresented in every realm of the political spectrum. It is not healthy to see only two or three faces of women in a cabinet of almost 50 Ministers and no women representation at all in the two houses of parliament. As women in our tribal and male dominated society are seen as neutral elements who cannot extend full allegiance to a single tribe, it may not be a great feat to demand the allocation of a reasonable number of seats for them in both houses.
Celebrating the International Women's Day with the intention of improving the social, economic, educational and political status of women and keeping these issues and many others in mind will surely give a real meaning to the Day and the commemoration a more rewarding enterprise.