On the Appointment of Women to the Somali Cabinet
This article is taken from Issue 1 of Women in Islam, published in 2014
In the 2017 elections, women's representation increased from 12% to 24% in the Lower House, and to 22% in the Upper House. But the central question of this article remains of vital importance: how can the rise of women in politics be translated into genuine advances in gender equality in wider society?
While the nomination to key ministerial posts shows commitment of the government to involve women, it must not mask the massive day-to-day persecution of women in Somalia. A drastic ideological change is needed.
On 4 November 2012, the new Somali Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, announced the composition of his first Cabinet with two women appointed as part of the ten-member executive. Of particular note, Fowsiyo Yusuf Hajji Aden was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs while Maryam Kassim was appointed as Minister of Social Development. Fowsiyo’s appointment marks the first time in Somali history that a woman has been appointed as head of the foreign ministry.
The role of women in rebuilding Somalia
The Somali legislation entails a quota of 30% for women’s representation in parliament. The August 2012 elections saw women win 38 of the 275 Parliamentary seats available, equivalent to 13.8%, far less than the quota required. Nonetheless, the nomination and appointment of these two women alone demonstrates a serious recognition from the newly elected Somali government about the role of women, particularly under the current circumstances of the country.
On the face of it, we should celebrate the elevation of women into senior political positions; however, it is important to acknowledge that, across Africa, engaging women in high-level political offices does not automatically translate into real commitments to women’s equality. Although there are notable exceptions across the continent, African governments have used the recruitment of women to high offices to project an impression of good governance, commitments to diversity and respect for both sexes. The harsh reality is that the elevation of women in politics has not generated the same elevation of women in society or real and tangible changes in achieving gender equality on the ground. This is not to undermine the brave decision taken by the elected Somali government and the courageous women who accepted the task while they are faced with a society that has been infused with a combination of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.
Since the early 1990s, Somalia has been held hostage to brutal conflicts based on clan and religious militancy and was turned into the backyard of an imported fundamentalist ideology, which is backed by foreign wealth and equipped with dogmatic conceptions of religious beliefs. There has been mass displacement, breakdown of social protection mechanisms, the proliferation of small arms alongside weak police and governance, giving rise to impunity, and women have found themselves subject to gross violations of their human rights.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced/early marriage and domestic violence are still rife while women in Mogadishu IDP camps have found themselves increasingly subject to rape and sexual violence. Women street vendors have recently found themselves proxy targets for groups such as Al Shabab in lieu of legitimate military targets, with vendors murdered for having sold tea to pro-government forces. According to the UN, around 20 incidents of sexual violence are reported each day, and between July – September 2012, the incidence of sexual violence quadrupled -a period which coincides with the transition to the formally elected Somali Federal Government.
Having said that, it is important to understand that the suffering of women in Somalia is backed by a deep seated ideology which has dominated the Somali society for years. Unless the newly elected Somali government addresses the ideological beliefs that justify the persecution of both men and women, change will remain problematic. The circles of religious militants in the Horn countries like Somalia and Sudan present their agendas in a religious idiom and project themselves as the only true mantle bearers of Islam. What needs to be understood and put into perspective is that what these groups are presenting is not religion, it is political movements working towards gaining political power at the community, national or international levels.
These actors control people by silencing all dissenting voices, including other religious voices. They do so by black-mailing people into silence, spreading fear and persecution of men and women and by crushing dissent predominantly through legitimising practises of violence against women and capitalising on the traditional subordination of women in the Horn societies. (1)
The rebuilding of Somalia requires a comprehensive approach towards peace and security beyond armed fighting. This includes the different forms of violence prevailing in society and the inherent systematic social inequalities of clan, gender or religious nature. The quest for equality is at the heart of a just and stable country. It is very important to secure channels of awareness and accessible means of knowledge and to empower enlightened Islamic thought. This task of rebuilding awareness inside new Somalia is as important as constructing schools and health centres. The Somali government and its partners should focus on emphasising policies which support youth, men and women; committing to enforce laws that are guided by international and regional mechanisms and seriously seeking to ensure women’s safety and human rights in the country.
Over the past twenty years the role of women has changed in Somalia. They assume a central role in supporting the livelihoods of their families and their communities. The role of Somali men has changed as well. Many men have become unemployed or are unable to work. Others became directly involved in the conflict and war. Women have been steering development processes at the heart of initiatives and organisations aiming to provide support to the victims of violence. It is only natural that when discussing the future of the country these women should be part of the political and decision making process. Their presence or their absence would speak of the kind of society to be built.
Farida Shaheed (2008) Violence against Women legitimized by Arguments of Culture: Thoughts from a Pakistani Perspective