GENSOM: Contributing to a more balanced understanding of the Somali region, past and present

The ‘Gender in Politics in Somalia: Access and Influence in a Post-Conflict State’ (GENSOM) project was officially launched in March 2014, investigating the impact women have on public life in the Somali region. How have Somali women defined achievements throughout history? What factors have enabled or encouraged such successes, and which others served as constraints? Over a two-year period, a series of life histories, semi-structured interviews, and focus group discussions will be held with Somali women, both in the region and in the diaspora.

The GENSOM project consists of three sub-projects, focusing on different themes:

  1. the history of Somali women’s engagement in politics
  2. Somali women’s access to formal and informal arenas of power
  3. Somali women’s influence within formal and informal arenas of power

Somali women are often perceived as a homogenous social group perpetually living in destitution as victims of mutilation, sexual exploitation, famine, and war. Whilst we must not ignore atrocities committed against them, it is important to demonstrate that Somali women are not passive victims, and to not disregard a history replete with stories of extraordinary women.

There is a lack of awareness of the remarkable Somali women who have refused to accept patriarchy, and who have fought for women’s rights to engage actively and equally as stakeholders in Somali society. The diversity of Somali women’s experiences within society—as politicians, teachers, activists, or working in businesses or international organizations—must be widely acknowledged in our understanding of the Somali region.

Through the GENSOM project we hope to contribute to a more balanced, gendered understanding of the Somali region, past and present. The project will explore how Somali women have understood, accessed, and enacted power and influence from the colonial period up to today. Given the country’s turbulent modern history since independence and unification in 1960, tracking the evolution of these conceptualizations will be important.

By adopting a life history methodology with women from different generations, we hope also to consider the similarities and disparities between women who have grown up in different circumstances; fighting against colonial subjugation, enjoying the early fruits of independence, witnessing the slow collapse of the state, or living in a state of protracted conflict and growing fundamentalism.

The shared experiences of a prominent poet who had attended independence celebrations in Mogadishu in 1960 alongside a young writer who has spent much of her life in the diaspora should offer the GENSOM project an unrivalled depth of understanding on the issue. By piecing together different experiences we also hope to demonstrate how changing political and socio-economic circumstances, both within and beyond the Somali region, have shaped women’s experience and how, in turn, women have adapted to or addressed them.

To reflect the diversity of women’s lived experiences throughout contemporary Somali history, it will also be essential to look beyond formal domains of power and influence. The GENSOM project will adopt a broad definition of politics so as to also include the experiences of those driving change beyond positions in government and public life by, for example, working with women who have demanded education for children living in IDP and refugee camps throughout the region or established women’s associations in the diaspora.

We have now collected a number of life histories with women in southern and central Somalia, and with diaspora women in North America. We are currently working in Puntland and Somaliland where women’s experiences, particularly over the past three decades, have been quite different, and in Europe which also hosts a large diaspora community.

After weeks of collecting the life histories, I have realized that participants often approach this project with a particular objective in mind. Spending a significant amount of time discussing one’s own background and one’s own interpretation of the past and present is often itself an empowering process. Recording lived experiences will enable us to learn from them in the decades to come as the Somali region slowly recovers from prolonged instability. Participation also, however, suggests agreement with us that the painting of a more balanced picture in Somalia is long overdue.

Maimuna Mohamud
GENSOM Researcher

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