Women’s Movements in Somalia

Throughout the colonial period and the first decade of independence in Somalia, women’s movements were few and small in scale. Following the bloodless coup that ushered President Siyad Barre into power in 1969, things started to change. Debates about women’s legal rights and diya price (magg, or blood money) began to intensify among relatively small circles of urban women in the early 1970s.

The military government’s experiment with ‘scientific socialism’, at a time when all other social organizations and political parties were banned, led it to support the establishment of the Somali Women’s Democratic Organization (SWDO). Indeed, two of the communist icons Siyad Barre loved to have his portrait presented next to, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, had both written independently on the importance of women’s emancipation in socialist society.

Acknowledging women’s role in national independence and the revolution, on International Women’s Day, 8th March 1972, Siyad Barre publicly declared that women “should attain full emancipation in all aspects of life,” and that the “Revolution guarantees such rights and decrees laws to this effect.”

Subsequently the still male dominated regime championed various progressive laws and policies for women. Gender remained, however, a contentious issue in an otherwise quite conservative Islamic society. The enactment of the Family Law in 1975—guaranteeing, in part, equal rights to inheritance in contradiction to Sharia’h law and the customary (xeer) law—prompted outrage among the religious community. Following the execution of ten religious leaders involved in a protest against the law, the SWDO became tainted by an increasingly dictatorial regime.

In the words of one of our interviewees who described the period in great detail, “Somali women were never too radical to begin with”. In a crude attempt to force a foreign agenda upon Somali society, the regime managed to widen the gender gap resulting ultimately in a more conservative society that associated the women’s movement with the increasingly ruthless president.

Operating within very different political environment following the collapse of the Siyad Barre government in 1991, a new generation of Somali women have attempted to articulate a different women’s agenda. In stark contrast to the approach under the former regime, women started to fight for the rights their faith guarantees them, countering the male monopoly of the interpretation of Islam. Movements like the Sixth Clan, led by Asha Hahi Elmi, fought to consolidate the rights of women collectively and independently, regardless of clan affiliation.

In the current political configuration, however, Somali women remain marginalized. In today’s Somalia, women serve as breadwinners for their families, and are present in large numbers in the country’s higher education institutions, businesses, and NGOs. Their representation in government, however, both at federal and local levels, still does not nearly reflect their engagement with and contributions to Somali society.

The GENSOM project is enabling us to reconstruct knowledge about women’s movements in Somalia through the life histories we are collecting throughout the Somali region, and among diaspora communities in North America and Europe. But we need your help. This month’s blog opens up the discussion for debate.

What do you consider to be the achievements and failures of historic women’s movements? Moving forward, what will new Somali women’s movements look like? What will it take to raise the political consciousness of women? In an increasingly connected world, might there be new innovative ways to mobilize diaspora women’s movements alongside their counterparts in the homeland?

Please send us your comments.

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