By Yasmeen Maxmuud
Traditional Somali history has not been kind to Somali women and has often associated the term “Naag” with their weakness. All the demise of the family would be associated with the limitation of women. A countless number of proverbs as well as Somali poems has traditionally portrayed women as weak beings that are not to be consulted for a great deal of family affairs.
” Nin naagi u talisay tagoogahuu ka jabaa- Man who takes women’s order breaks the shin”.
History’s injustice to Somali women has overlooked the fact that they are strong, resilient, adventurous, tolerant and embrace change with ease. These exceptional traits have always been tested throughout history, but more so in the aftermath of the civil strife that has resulted in the influx of refugees all over the world. The measures Somali women undertook across the board and the creative solutions they embarked on to bring their society out of the demise inflicted by colonialism, tribalism and a dictatorship is nothing less than a miracle. Their mental and moral strength to withstand traditional oppression has prepared them to endure harsh environments such as the challenges of resettling in a Western culture very different from their own.
In the US Somali women found themselves in a foreign land in the early 1990s as a result of the civil unrest that ensued in Somalia . There were many obstacles marshaled against them as they found themselves at the realm of a new life. Being called immigrants, burden and culturally unfitting, they endured all the negativity that is associated with new immigrants in America . They arrived in groves with limited language skills, no education, and a lifetime of gender bias against them.
These women were only equipped with their God given minds, the will and ingenuity to survive and the want to have their families realize the American dream. They quickly figured out the systems of this country to make it work for them so they could help their families here and abroad.
Among the countless number of impediments against them such as limited work experience and the grim job prospects as a result of their status as women coming from a traditionally male dominated society where women did not work outside the home; never stalled their desires and goals to achieve.
Although many were traumatized by the civil war and have witnessed rape, killings and torture by different faction groups, they gave grieve no time. Instead they went to work to contribute to their families here in the US and those devastated by the civil war in Somalia .
Viewing every job as a prospect to improve their lives, these women literally threw themselves at double shift factory jobs, janitorial services and other odd jobs. Those who could speak some English went to work at retail establishments and as clerks in business offices.
They organized their finances to make sure money was sent home to their relatives on a continuous basis. As a result hope has been restored for many families as children went back to school, families began to eat and life began to resemble normal.
The Somali culture is a community oriented giving, and generous culture where families lift each other by the boot strap and assist each other selflessly. This magnificent unique element is what has saved the whole country from extinction. Somali women in the Diaspora were at the forefront of such generosity.
Now that the groundwork has been laid for their future, a group of Somali women of diverse statuses and age groups have come together in a social gathering organized by Zainab Mohamed of the Confederation of Somali Communities in the Brain Coyle Center in Minneapolis Minnesota . The aim of the gathering was to discuss the past, present and the future of these extraordinary women.
I posed questions of various degrees to these women. Khadija Axmed a middle aged woman was astonished by moving escalators, and men wearing earnings when she arrived in America . Jewelry such as earrings is only worn by women in Somalia . Others said they were confused by the heavy snow they encountered; they were confused by its mere appearance. They have never seen anything like it. Canab Maxamed a single mother and a very strong hard working woman in her forties thought if there was a way to transport the cold, pleasant looking snow to the dry, drought stricken climate in Somalia as rain or anything resembling it, is a sign of prosperity in the Somali culture.
Maxamed mesmerized about the good old days when the situation was more stable in Somalia . She expressed her gratitude for having the opportunity to work and take care of her family here and at home. She is excited about the future prospects for her children in the US . They have an opportunity to go to college here and hopefully give back to their community.
These women may have encountered difficult situations upon their arrival to a new land with an entire different culture, the struggle of learning a new language, the cold weather and hectic lifestyles that cuts into family time, but that has never swayed them from working as hard as they could to realize an opportunity never known to them. Their strength came from the grim reality of realizing the need to bring stability for their families. The goal for these women has always been to accomplish decent living for their families here and abroad, one which many are still working hard to realize.
Khadija Xirsi a woman in her fifties lost her job because she did not comprehend the need to inform her supervisor when she left the premises to go for a doctor’s appointment. This certainly was her first job in America and the last as she is unable to secure employment due to lack of experience and language barrier. These women may seem simple and yet there is nothing simple about their achievements and the lives they touch on a daily basis.
Displaying their multi colored religious/traditional garb and while adhering to religious and traditional practices they are defiant to adapt to a new foreign culture and yet are part of the American melting pot. They are part of the American work force by day and businesswomen or students by night. They are grateful for the peace and prosperity this country offers them and despite the many cultural, religious and language divergence; they are a constant in their community.
Challenging American popular culture, they add a flavor of multiculturalism to the mix to achieve their American dream. They are unapologetic for being different and have forced mainstream American culture to accept them as law-abiding taxpayers and major contributors to society and demand respect as such.
They tackle multiple tasks and preserve the cultural and religious obligations for their families. Some are rearing children often alone as single mothers, others support husbands through education and businesses endeavors and through it all maintain the family unit in an environment often hostile to their own culture and religion. And yet others travel to Dubai and Bangkok on business trips to supply local businesses with merchandise. These women are the strength, stability and serenity in their communities.
Next time you encounter one of these women in what you may view as odd looking multi colored non western clothing, remember you are in the presence of a pious, dignified, proud and divine women that do not internalize the limitations set by their adopted country as a minority group or those set by traditional Somali culture as women.
The successes these women have achieved are not without controversy as some in the community perceive the economic independence and personal freedom these women have gained as detrimental to the Somali culture. More and more Somali women in the Diaspora are assuming roles traditionally held by men and the ultimate price these women pay for their new function in society is a backlash and alienation by their male counterpart who often associate their achievements as too aggressive and not conforming to traditional norms. Although the lack of support from the males is disheartening, they keep moving forward hoping to gain allies and approval from their community as a whole, as the community begins to realize the overall added value of their hard work.
It may seem these women are all work and no play, but after a hard days work, women in Minneapolis reward their hard work by gathering in social circles while attending multiple celebrative events such as weddings.
One may dismiss these events as vain and waste of precious time and some in the community even view them as a contributing factor to a changing Somali culture where women are having too much fun. These events however are networking events where women meet to forget their daily struggles and entertain with their peers while conducting business transactions and while exchanging imperative community information. Coming from a conservative society where mixed celebrative events are not the norm, Somali women prefer these exclusive settings where they can let their guard down and relax while catching up with current events.
They dress in elaborate elegant traditional attires called “Diric” or “Guntiino” and they adorn the outfits with matching lavish jewelry. They dance to tunes from the latest music remake of old Somali songs modernized by new artists. Nostalgic of more peaceful beautiful Somalia , these women escape their exile momentarily and speak of the desire to have peace and unity in the country of their birth.
The hope for the future of Somalia may lie with these women as their encounter with each other defy tribalism and as they are less inclined to shun each other on the basis of tribal affiliation. These extraordinary women across the Diaspora are the common thread that sews multiple communities across many Western societies.
On the issue of politics and the instability that still persist in Somalia, these women unanimously agree on the need for women in the Diaspora to have their voices heard. They say they are tired of the current situation and are mistrustful of the political leaders that continue the calamity of the country. They collectively agree women in the Diaspora need to unite and have a unified voice to have affect on social and political change in Somalia .
Among the group, I met with young women in their twenties who are students at the local University. These young women are very outspoken and extremely expressive in their feelings of the situation, as it presently exists. One young woman, Nimco, voiced her desire to take a positive active role in the forces that bring about change in Somalia by taking a proactive role to restore the country back to functioning state. She expressed her desire to return to a safe country and since she has never known a peaceful Somalia ; her children should have an opportunity to have a stable safe environment in Somalia . She said she is tired of being in exile and will personally get involved to bring about change. She was very unapologetic and very ambitious on her responsibility as a Somali female. Nimco is not a lone voice, she certainly represents the younger generation who have the advantage of formal education coupled with cultural independence. This group is undoubtedly one to watch for in the coming years, very patriotic, intelligent and progressive in their approach to bringing about change in Somalia . They want to keep the idea of a United Somalia alive and are not disheartened by traditional categorization of women which has hampered any political ambitions for women in the past.
The chaotic situation in Somalia has brought to life a diverse group of women professionals, poets, artists, activists, politicians, humanitarians and no doubt controversial figures such as Ayan Hirsi whom many loathe for her bizarre view on Islam. These women are not docile, and are active in their respective communities to bring about change at the local level.
Somali Women are an important segment of society, and play a crucial role in the country’s development. They should be recognized for their commitment to the stability of their communities and be given an opportunity to have a voice to bring about positive change in Somalia . Many wonder what the newly established government in Somalia will mean for Somali women. There are disappointments among the women as they witness the further marginalization of women especially as women were given only 8% of the parliamentary seats instead of the promised 12%. Many of these parliamentarians obtained their seats by compelling their male tribal leaders to afford them a seat and by constantly campaigning for their seats, not an easy task since that involves taking a seat away from a male clan member. Although the parliamentary cut is disappointing to many, the fact that Somali women are being afforded an opportunity to have a voice albeit a limited one is an exhilarating and promising prospect and one no doubt these strong women will use to benefit the society as a whole. There is also a Ministerial position given to a woman to head the Women and Family Affairs Ministry. History will judge and all eyes are on the current government, but as far as Somali women are concerned it is no longer business as usual.
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This article is part of an on going research based on interviews, observations and focus groups.
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