Defending My Wife: The other story of sexual violence in Somalia

Hala AlKarib

Issue cover artwork by Amel Bashir

Muhildeen Sheikh Mohamed is one of the few Somali men who stood up to defend their wife, as she was raped by government security men. His story, raised by Hala Alkarib, is among the hidden aspects of sexual violence in Somalia – more men need to follow this man’s lead.

After more than ten years of working in the Horn of Africa region with women, from Darfur in Sudan to the coast of Somalia, the braveness of the Somali man Muhildeen Sheikh Mohamed, an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living in Mogadishu, took me by surprise.

At the beginning of January 2013, his wife, the 27 year old IDP woman Lul Ali Isman was gang-raped by government security forces and she was brave enough to come out and share her story publically with the journalist Abdiaziz Ibrahim, who conducted an interview with her. Yet before publishing the interview, both Lul and Abdiaziz were convicted by a Somali court and sentenced to a year in jail. Mrs Isman was accused of defaming a government body by making false claims while the journalist was similarly charged with insulting a government body. The two were arrested in mid January 2013. The rape survivor was subjected to two days of interrogation without a lawyer present. Following an international outcry, the charges against her were dropped on 3 March 2013, and the sentence against the journalist was first reduced to six months and two weeks later fully dropped – he was released.

A note of respect

Despite all the international coverage the case received, there was little mention of Muhildeen Sheikh Mohamed, Lul’s husband. After doggedly maintaining that his wife had been raped he too was arrested and intimidated during the 26 days he was held. In his own account, Muhildeen would do the same again. For me, as an activist seeking social change for years, the stand of Muhildeen cannot go unnoticed. When I sat to talk to him in Mogadishu last March, I felt nothing but great appreciation for the man whose life was never easy, yet he did not lose his sense of justice despite the power of misogyny in Somalia. Muhildeen by all means was not confused about his wife’s situation but was fully aware of what she suffers. “Just defending my wife” is what he kept saying. He said that during his detention he was humiliated for reporting his wife’s rape. He was also reminded that his wife was from a lower clan and not worth for him to defend.

Reaching out to other men to stand against sexual violence

Muhildeen is one of those men who choose to stand by their wives, daughters, mothers or sisters in Somalia. In another instance, a man refused to receive money and insisted on filing a case against the perpetrator who had raped his 13 years old daughter despite all the threats he was receiving. Another man was detained for a week for reporting the rape of his 6 years old daughter and refusing to drop the charges.1 The issue of sexual violence is a shared burden between men and women. The systematic rape of women and girls faced with undermining trends and impunity has great societal repercussions. It distresses communities and takes away society’s capacity to exist peacefully.

For the past 20 years, Somalis have suffered the impact of protracted armed conflict with the spreading of militant political Islamist militia presenting itself as an identity and the saviour of the Somali people. The dehumanization of women combined with the polarization war creates resulted in establishing patterns of systematic gang rape against women and young girls particularly inside IDP camps where women and families are exposed. Just within the span of three days from 16-18 March 2013, 22 rape cases were reported from one camp in just one of the districts in Mogadishu. 2

Justice has one face

Sexual violence in the Horn of Africa region is shaded with misconceptions and is being confused with culture, traditions and religion. It is perceived to imply that people of the Horn are born into adopting violence against women as their heritage. Culture, clan and religion are part of the Somali people’s identity but these should not be the only lenses to view them with. The prolonged conflict in Somalia and the spreading of gang-rape is largely due to the absence of rule of law, and the collapse of both the state and the Somali traditional system, Somalia needs a leading vision to overcome the current complex crisis. The paradox however is that, the only operating ideology that presents itself is militant political Islam. Yet what should be noted is that justice, peace and human rights as perceived internationally are a great desire for large segments of Somali men and women living inside the country.

1 Report from a women organisation working in Somalia

2 Interview with a local women’s organisation in Somalia