What Manliness is to Me
“My mother will beat me if she sees you with me,” she used to say when I asked her how she was. The neighbor’s daughter, the second of ten children, never attended school. While her five brothers did, she woke at dawn to do house chores and would not rest till late at night. At 29, she was not allowed to own a mobile or talk to young men. Her mother would beat her frequently for minor offences. Once, I remember she was clobbered with a stick for being late with dinner for her brothers who had come in from playing football.
One day, her mother came to tell my sister to stop her daughter from schooling, because eventually she should get married and leave her mother any way. Before my sister could reply, I said “You want to make my niece like your daughter? This will never happen.”
I began to dig into girls’ education and women’s rights. As a young man, I witnessed my younger sisters being violated verbally in a shocking manner by school boys of a young age. As the only boy in my family, it was my responsibility to defend them. But I also felt the need to empower them and make sure they understood that it was not their fault and those acts were not acceptable.
My parents never had the opportunity to go to school. In traditional Somali families education is not given much priority, but they sacrificed a lot to have us educated. They left us in Somalia to go and work in Saudi Arabia. My mother suffered violence and humiliation during 15 years as a migrant domestic worker. My father who worked in construction, fell from a building one day and lay in hospital paralyzed for two years before he passed away. My mother became the only caretaker and breadwinner. Seeing her work so hard to better our lives inspired me and I could not comprehend why society mistreated women. This contrast spurred my interest in investigating gender inequality.
Traditional Somalia is a patriarchal, male- dominated society where women are second class citizens. They are not considered mature adults, but are dependents of their male guardians. When a baby girl is born, it is common for families to be unhappy, and to express preference for a boy. From an early age, a Somali girl labors at home: washing, cleaning the house, cooking, but she eats her brothers’ leftovers. She will not go to school or, if she does, she will drop out at puberty when she marries a man she has never met before. If her husband mistreats her, going back home is not an acceptable option. The family is likely to send her back.
My uncle was different. He is also a well-known and respected man in our community who promotes gender equality in education. He managed to enroll two of my sisters at school even though several members of my family opposed him. They believed that it is a shame for girls to go to school and accused him of trying to change tradition and our culture. All three of my sisters attended school, and two of them eventually obtained a Bachelor’s Degree.
Watching how my uncle countered traditional beliefs that reject education inspired me to take my own education seriously. It also taught me the benefit of having an education to do positive things around you and help build a better society. He taught me to work hard in every aspect of my life. It is due to the education I enjoyed that I can differentiate between culture and religion. This is key for my work as a women’s rights activist.
SWDC, the Somali Women Development Center, a local organisation promoting women’s human rights, access to justice and participation in politics and decision making was my gateway into women’s rights activism. Working in a predominantly female environment is nothing strange for me. I have always been surrounded by women: my mother and my aunt who raised me for a long time, my three sisters, my wife, and now I have a baby girl. I think it opened my eyes to their realities.
Society confuses tradition, culture, and religion. People falsely believe women’s subjugation to be part of a Muslim man’s identity. The Qur’an clearly shows that Islam intends to uplift women and has a high regard for them. Islam supports my work of promoting women’s rights. As a Muslim in Somalia, being a man is an advantage. It gave me the opportunity to learn about my religion and practice it without being hindered by misinterpretations of it. Women here do not have that privilege.
Some men think I should do a more ‘manly’ job than defending women’s rights. In several situations I have been insulted and humiliated by fellow men. Once, when travelling downtown, security officers at a check point asked me if I was perhaps cleaning women’s clothes because my ID card says Somali Women Development Center.
Growing up in Mogadishu life was affected by a war which lasted more than 22 years. Like many Somali, I have been in and out of displacement camps from the age of three. War and the collapse of community structures render women particularly vulnerable. Mass displacement due to ongoing armed conflicts exposes women and children to grave living conditions and poses multiple threats like poverty, lack of education, and gender-based violence. Sexual violence has become an epidemic within the Somali society. It is accelerated by a lack of access to justice. The perpetrators’ clan power and supremacy results in their impunity, backed up by traditional beliefs.
It saddens me to see women being treated like that. It makes me feel ashamed. Ultimately, it means stripping someone of their basic human rights and it just feels wrong to me.
There are men who criticize the work I do. They do not understand why I work to better women’s lives. Most of them do not even know that women are subjugated. They are unaware of the concept of gender altogether. Even educated men still believe in traditional norms which ascribe a subordinate position to women and restrict their freedom of movement. Those who allow women to work believe in a limited capability of females which qualifies them for care- oriented jobs only, like teaching and nursing, which are not far from their roles as mothers and home makers. Technical and decisive professions like Engineers, Police Officers, and Military Officers, are typically seen as male jobs.
Some fellow men think I should do a more ‘manly’ job than defending women’s rights. In several situations I have been insulted and humiliated by fellow men. Once, when travelling downtown, security officers at a check point asked me if I was perhaps cleaning women’s clothes because my ID card says Somali Women Development Center. Being a women’s rights defender has been very challenging in this patriarchal context but I am willing to accept this challenge as I strongly believe that a change needs to be made and equality to be reached.
Traditional attitudes change slowly. After extensive advocacy of local and international pressure groups, the 2012 Garowe Principles were adopted, a governance framework for Somalia, which provides for a 30% quota for women’s political participation. However, this rate was not reflected in the road map and bylaws of the country and as a result in the 2012 elections, women MPs received only 14% of votes. This was influenced by clan elders and the local perception that women are meant to stay at home. Society expects women not to partake in social decision making and thus there are no women elders or female clan leaders.
I place my hope in working for change. Despite their subordinate position, women in Somalia are very resourceful actors in their families and communities. For the last two decades, due to the war, they were the bread winners and heads of households.
Women have gained grounds. Indeed, an ongoing political and gender revolution in Somalia has opened new windows of opportunities for women. For the first time in history, a female Minister of Foreign Affairs was nominated, Fawzia Yusuf Haji Adan, who also served from 2012 to 2014 as Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia, a position which most African countries would not accept to be held by women.
More girls are now attending schools and in one university in Mogadishu over 90% of students are girls. Civil society organisations play a more crucial role in advocating for women’s political participation and provide training to young women, preparing them to be political candidates in the 2016 elections.
Manliness to me is about being a good father, a respectful and attentive husband and son, and a good brother; to feel responsible for my family and everyone around me. I try to make men more aware of women’s rights and use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to highlight issues which affect women. I have also received many encouraging comments and my family supports my work although they are concerned about my safety.
In 2013, two of my co-workers, both lawyers engaged in women’s issues died in an explosion at the courthouse in Mogadishu. Working in Somalia is risky and it is even riskier for those working on women’s rights issues. But I have to help my people even if death knocks at my door. I dream of a Somalia where women are given priority, can live free from all kinds of violations, become leaders, and have equal rights with men; a Somalia where women will be the change makers. I believe in that better society.
From Women in Islam, Issue 2 (2015)