Why we need a women’s revolution in Somalia

‘At the “Vision 2016” National Conference in September 2013, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud committed to deliver a nationwide “one man, one vote” election by August 2016’

by Yasmin Maydhane

Today my uncle sold his youngest daughter – a 16-year-old – to the highest bidder (yes, I mean quite literally sold – whereby the father is approached by the would-be-husband and they negotiate a price – you can still sell girls here), the highest bidder being of a political background, with strong connections to international NGOs and a member of parliament. It should also be mentioned that my uncle works for the government.

Know that these two men are educated, powerful, influential and dare I say, 21stcentury crooks and abusers, yet at the same time maintain the claim that they champion women’s rights.

The purchase of my cousin has brought shock, loathing and dismay – there is absolutely nothing I or anyone else can do for her. But you see, my uncle – like all men in this godforsaken country – have absolute and unchallenged power over their female family members, and, to be frank, women in general. For this privilege they have decades of religious and cultural manipulation and violence to thank.

My cousin will soon be moved to the house of her buyer. She will face physical and emotional assault. She will fall pregnant and soon enough, after a year or two of abuse, will accept her faith and fears. She will no longer exist. Her legacy will become satisfying her buyer’s physical needs and breeding him an army. She will soon realise that her life was never really hers to determine, that she was born on this earth to serve. She must be religious, and righteous, but most importantly: she must serve a man.

Girls are sold all over the world; Somalia is no different in that. But I write this piece because, for Somalis, this is a topic that we speak of over a cup of tea on a sunny day under a tree – but never expect to change. We are a private people, with a deep sense of pride; to object to what is accepted by the majority will hinder one’s place in society. Our brand of patriarchy is built around sexual control. Everything and everyone is silenced with deference to ‘God’s plan’, a phrase that indicates that indicates we are done thinking and talking.

For decades our men have been given the green light to violate us with the aid of our public officials. They’ve collectively built a system which is maintained on ensuring that we are frightened and silenced. A system that lets us know that our place in this world is at home, with them between our legs. Street sexual harassment and assaults happen everywhere, but it’s the silencing through shame that is particularly distinctive. This Ramadan there has been talk of arresting anyone who’s not fasting, so if a women is pregnant or on her period, God forbid she would go outside and been seen with a bottle of water. Meanwhile the current discussion in Somaliland to introduce amendments to the FGM Act justifies the cutting of girls through religion. Hatred for women is instilled and sanctioned by state legislation, but there are no incentives for recognising our humanity.

This tyranny has led to an acceptance amongst women that husbands may punish us as they see fit. An acceptance that mutilating our bodies is the only way to secure a partner, and early marriage is just – all thanks to a skewed religious zealotry. We live in a country where our own forms of worship have been tossed away to make way for an Islam that preaches power and control. Wahhabism migrated from Saudi Arabia and found a home in Somalia during the early 1990s, leaving our mosques and streets swarming with born-again Imams and Sheikhs who have molded the faith to work for men. Again, this isn’t particular to Islam or its preachers. Seemingly all religions, if you strip them down, are all about controlling women’s sexuality – for example, Christians that perpetuate the abortion debate in the US. Men use religion to police our vaginas, to control what it looks like, what it feels like and who is allowed access to it.

So in Somalia religious and cultural practices teach women to distrust our bodies and our minds. We are forced to obey, to be afraid, but more importantly to be submissive. And because of this we have grown up confused and in desperate search for belonging. For over 25 years – since the collapse of the Somali government, we have laboured for men. We have cared for and loved men, but what do we have to show for it? Well, we don’t even rank on the World Economic Global Gender Gap. Unemployment for women is 74%, compared to men at 61% – statistics that are used by Imams and politicians to justify violence against women. Women and children comprise 80% of refugees and internally displaced people. There are only three women members within the Somali cabinet and 12 women in the Somaliland Parliament, of which I am yet to hear one of them speak out.

I realise none of this is surprising considering women’s subjugation all over the world. But you might be wondering why I am taking about women’s revolution and what that has to do with the upcoming elections. Just this: it’s time for us to stop sipping our tea in the sun, sighing about God’s plan. It is time for action.

We need to spread our rage across all sectors of society. As long as men control every bit of what we do and say, and as long the power to make laws – which impede on our humanity – remains in their hands, then our change, our liberation has not begun.

I’ve recently been asking myself, what would mean to a society such as ours to have women judges?

What would this mean to the young girl or woman, who on the night of her wedding, her husband opens her up, with her flesh bleeding, and he inspects whether or not she is a virgin by forcing himself on her? Would the government of Somaliland have decided that it is religiously required to cut a girl if women made the decisions? Would our sisters in mental institutes who are raped face prosecution for ‘illegal sex’ if there were women making the laws? Would our young boys in elementary schools be taught to discipline their mothers and sisters because as men it is their role to keep them in check? Would our girls be forced to marry their rapists or accept a couple of hundred dollars of payout as justice? Would our girls be told not to attend school when they are on their period because they are unclean and/or haram? – what, pray, is haram about periods – something so natural and beautiful?

It is only when we have equal representation within all sectors of society that injustices such as these, which occur every day, can be quashed.

Our fathers, brothers, sons and political and religious leaders cannot allow us to have an ounce of representation, let alone power, because once they do, they know that women will start to demand more. But all of the above happens everyday and continues to show that when we look at the status of women in Somalia, it is better you not even think about it, otherwise you’ll find yourself, like I did, threatened to be silenced forever.

These threats make it is safe for our men to have us covered up, anchored to beds, deprived of access to civil society, unable to do and seek what we want, when we want it and how we want it. Our current condition arises from a deep belief that without methodic control, women are sexual predators ready to wage their temptress nature on innocent God-fearing men. In my view we are taught and encouraged to cover up for the sake of men; it is required for all women to cover up by law and by religion. We are told to lower our voices because it will tempt a man; after all laughing in public is enough to set a man off. So here we are, in the private and public spaces, barely alive.

September 2016 will be our first democratic election since the early 1950s and we must seize this opportunity to bring about a women’s revolution.

Already the question of how many women can stand for office is gaining momentum in public debate. We need to rise up because social and sexual revolution starts with women; it starts at home. We need a sexual awakening in Somalia. We need to be open. We need to grow and develop our society and what it means to be part of the 21st century. For the love of all that’s holy and womanly, stop saying it isn’t so bad. It is bad. For women here, it’s a nightmare – ready and waiting 24/7. Creeping up on us from every corner. Invading our homes, our minds and bodies.

We can no longer remain silent when we are losing too many of our girls and women at the hands of these fanatics, so-called morality police appointed by God. Somalia will fail unless we truly recognise that our women and girls have been literally fighting the system for decades on everyone’s behalf and against everyone. So this year, I want people to imagine the impossible in Somalia – absolute and total equality for women.

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Yasmin MaydhaneYasmin Maydhane is a 25 year old Human Rights Officer working for the Somaliland National Human Rights Commission. Born and raised in Mogadishu, she later migrated to London in 2000. She has interest in human rights, education, social justice, race, identity and all things related to women. An aspiring journalist and writer. Find her on @YMaydhane

This article was edited by Henna Butt

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