in partnership with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Somali women rarely get the chance to emerge out of their usual media image of passive victims of conflict. But earlier this year a conference that took place in Nairobi cast a different spotlight on them, challenging the usual stereotypes.
During the event, part of a new research project titled ‘Gender in Politics in Somalia: access and influence in a post-conflict state’ (GENSOM), delegates discussed the diverse ways through which Somali women are civically engaged in society, including through their literary production.
It might come as a surprise to some that there is in fact a vibrant women’s literary scene in Somalia, but GENSOM research suggests that Somali women are increasingly turning to writing to carve out spaces where they can express their thoughts on a variety of issues.
Somali women’s oral poetry and literary prose are not new phenomena. In fact, Somali women have a long literary tradition that predates both the independence of Somalia in 1960 and the introduction of writing script for the Somali language in 1972. For centuries, Somali women performed poetry to share and transfer knowledge and to celebrate monumental events in their communities, such as marking peace agreements between clans.
A long history of women’s poetry
Poetry is regarded with high esteem in Somali culture, and is considered the noblest form of literature and expression of self and community. In his First Footsteps in East Africa, British explorer Richard Francis Barton upon visiting the Somali Peninsula observed that, “the country teems with poets... every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions...”.
Somali women have also been great orators, exhibiting a mastery of language and of poetic expressions, albeit not as celebrated as their male counterparts. It would not be until the early 20th century that a handful of Somali poetesses become noted in history.
Recent narrated (and to a certain extent written) history of women’s poetic tradition is replete with examples of women who used their art to fulfill important social and political functions. For example, women composed and performed poetry to galvanize support for national independence movements of the 1940s and 1950s. Hawa Jibril was a renowned poet and leader who used her poetry to mobilize women and men to rise against colonial oppression. Jibril continued to compose poems to advocate for the rights of suffrage for Somali women, and their constitutional rights after independence.
Historically, women used poetry as an entry point into hostile patriarchal political arenas. Using oratory skills and poetry they promoted both inter and intra clan peace deals, and called for national reconciliation and healing in the aftermath of the civil war and state collapse in 1991. Whereas women’s poetry had traditionally been performed for primarily female audiences in somewhat private spaces, contemporary poetesses believe in the merits of making their work public to broader readership and listeners, including Somali men.
Halimo Ali Kurtin and Hawa Aje Mohamed were two Somali poetesses whose poems were broadcasted on Radio Mogadishu in 1970s. Kurtin’s poems explored the role of women in Somali society, and Mohamed tackled themes relating to socialism, self-sufficiency, and equality.
In 2000, Djibouti hosted the Somalia National Peace Conference, otherwise known as the Arta Conference. Drawing unprecedented extensive participation of unarmed civil leaders, including women, Arta showcased the Sixth Clan movement led by former Member of Parliament Asha Hagi Elmi. The movement called for Somali women’s formal political representation outside of clan structures. This was a seminal point in Somali women’s history, during which some women demanded to be considered members of a clan of their own: 'the women's clan'.
Khadija Dirie, who later became a minister, documented consequential events which were unfolding in Arta. She composed a poem that urged for reconciliation and peace, and advised Somali leaders to address the particular concerns of minority communities in Somalia.
While poetry is still very important, contemporary women writers have also produced many volumes of both fiction and non-fiction with the aim of incorporating Somali women’s experiences into histories of the Somali region. The overwhelming focus of Somali history on men’s experiences and legacies has marginalized Somali women’s valuable contributions to society. Now, scarce existing records of women’s experiences and achievements are threatened amid growing orthodox views that seek to shun women out of domains of engagement and history.
Thus, women across the Somali region are increasingly writing to address this exclusion. Women are writing memoirs, autobiographies, as well as other non-fiction to preserve their own legacies and thoughts. In the process they also reconstruct the histories of the Somali region by offering alternative explanations to significant geopolitical events.
The writing of Dr. Hawa Abdi, Nobel Prize nominee, is an excellent example of this. In her autobiography Keeping Hope Alive, Dr. Abdi documents her childhood in Mogadishu, her adult years first as a medical student in the USSR and later as a courageous humanitarian par excellence providing protection and assistance to thousands of displaced people just outside of Mogadishu throughout the 1990s.
More and more, women like Dr. Hawa Abdi, whose lives and remarkable work have been sidelined by male-dominated history, are also writing to inspire others to give back to their communities. They hope to become role models to future generations of Somali women and men, and imagine a time when these generations will read about the sacrifices and achievements of women alongside those of men.
Today, young Somali women are writing to reclaim recognition for their creativity as well as their contributions to society. Growing up in difficult circumstances marked by conflicts, poverty, displacement, and scant opportunities for education, young Somali women are writing fiction and nonfiction that act as social commentaries about some of today’s major issues. They tackle topics such as girls’ education, sexism in the work place, motherhood, migration, politics, and even animal rights among many others. These young writers include, Zahra Qorane, an Arabic language writer from Mogadishu; Muna Ahmed Omar, the Hargeisa-based author of the short stories ‘Baadi Doon’; and author/poet Sahro Ahmed Kooshin, who is based in Garowe, Puntland. Like their ancestors in their use of poetry, they seek to communicate important messages about where they stand on these issues, and suggest adequate responses.
Often, we fail to understand just how central women are and have been to the survival and prosperity of Somali society. Literary works, whether poetry or prose, become instruments of change for women who want to be recognized and remembered. The Somali region is undergoing rapid socio-political transformations today, motivating women to continue to be engaged in diverse ways. Judging from their long history, Somali women will continue to reject being framed either as passive bystanders or oppressed victims. And similar to yesteryears, literary expressions will once again serve as a tool to document such experiences
"Somali women's Civic Engagement: Past, Present and Future" features extraordinary interviews with key female politicians, civil society actors, and artists from across the Somali region today.
Illuminating and insightful, this documentary film reveals the motivations behind these women's civic and political engagements. The film also highlights few structural challenges to women's public and decision-making roles.
This film is part of the GENSOM research project and is directed by Abdiaziz Elmi. The GENSOM research project is a collaboration between the Heritage Institue for Policy Studies (HIPS) and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) funded by the Research Council of Norway.