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Somalia’s recent election gives Somali women a glimmer of hope

The election of a new Somalia President on the 8th of February, 2017 was paradoxically historic and yet business as usual. Pre-election speculation was that the incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will win re-election for four more years in part because he was believed to have deep pockets and rumoured to have the tacit support of key players in Somalia politics including some oil rich Gulf Arab states and regional powers such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Not only did he not win, he conceded defeat before the third and final round of voting where he would have squared off against the final victor Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed nicknamed Farmaajo.

This was indeed a promising sign for Somalia’s nascent democracy especially for women and members of minority groups to dream of becoming President of Somalia one day. The elections were promising in the sense that the incumbent lost by a wider margin than anyone had expected, despite having all the advantages of incumbency such as money, influence and connections. In other words, money played lesser role than in the past at least as far as the final results are concerned. It is also promising because Mr. Farmaajo was popularly believed to be the least corrupt among the candidates, a reputation he earned during his brief eight months tenure as the PM of the country. Since graft, corruption and intimidation are among the main obstacles to Somali women’s chances of getting elected to high offices such as the presidency and membership in the Parliament’s two houses, it is a hopeful sign for women and other marginalized groups that someone can win the presidency partly due to their competence. Whether this is a one-time miracle or the beginning of a merit-based democracy is something only time will tell.

Give credit though where it is due. President Hassan was savvy enough to see the writing on the wall and was gracious in defeat. To see the incumbent and pre-election favourite as well as his predecessor President Sharif holding hands with the newly elected President, in a peaceful transfer of power in an African country let alone in Somalia was indeed historic given what has been happening in Somalia in the last 27 years.[1]

There were celebrations in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, as well as other parts of Somalia and in areas populated by Somalis in neighbouring countries such as Nairobi’s Eastleigh. More importantly, the celebrations did not appear to be clan-based. Furthermore, anyone who participated or watched on television the spontaneous celebrations that erupted after Farmaajo was announced to be the winner could see the largest number and loudest celebrants were women dressed in blue and white, Somalia’s national colours. Anyone unaware of what has just happened, could be forgiven for thinking Somalia had won a great war against an arch-enemy. 

Persisting obstacles against the political participation of women

On the other hand, it was business as usual as far as Somali women are concerned. The outgoing Federal Government has not implemented a Federal Gender Policy passed by cabinet last year mainly due to alleged resistance from conservative groups .[2]

Despite a requirement of 30% women representation in all political institutions, in practice this has proven easier said than done. Even the Parliament’s two Chambers have been unable to attain this goal.[3] This has in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy and perpetuated a vicious cycle. First, not being included in the decision-making process reinforces the belief on the part of some that women have no place in politics. Second, it means their agenda is often not on the table and as a result not enough resources are allocated to issues that affect women specifically despite women carrying the heaviest burden when disaster happens whether it is natural disaster like the current drought or “man” made one like the protracted civil war. Consequently, Somali women lag behind Somali men in all human development indicators, according to UNDP Gender In Somalia Brief for 2011 to 2015.[4]

Yet this was not Jeffersonian Democracy. The President was elected by members of the House of the People – Somalia’s Lower House and those in the Upper House of whom only 64 (24.24%) and 12 (22.64%) respectively are women despite 30% of seats supposedly reserved for female candidates.[5] Moreover, all of the final 22 candidates were men. There were two women who in the early stages of the campaign expressed interest in putting their names forward as candidates but withdrew their names later, citing what later the UN and other international observers confirmed as wide-spread bribery, intimidation and other irregularities.[6] One of the female candidates who briefly campaigned for the presidency, Fadumo Dayib, says that “female Members of Parliament would not stand a chance if they try to assert themselves because they were sent there by male clan leaders who expect them to toe the clan line”.[7]

Having said this, it is important to note that any discussion about gender politics in Somalia has to take into account three important factors – Islam, Somali culture and traditions and the country’s political history. The impact of these three factors on Somali women’s participation in the politics and power-sharing of Somali is complex and multidimensional and affect women’s health, wealth and their ability to participate meaningfully in the socio-economic development of the country.

Somalis are nearly 100% Sunni Muslims and overwhelmingly belong to the Shafi’i school within Sunni Islam. The question of women and political roles has always been a contentious issue within the Islamic faith. Several majority-Muslim nations such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh had female leaders.[8] In the case of Somalia, some conservative clerics oppose women holding leadership positions basing their opposition primarily but not exclusively on a Hadith that says “a people led by a woman will not prosper”.[9] Others inside and outside Somalia, however, argue women can vote and hold leadership position. [10] In an interview with the Imam of Abubakr Al-Sadiq mosque in Nairobi on 18 February 2017, the Imam stated that “Islam allows women to be consulted as part of the Shura (The compulsory consultations before a decision is taken on behalf of the Ummah – Muslim nation) and can hold leadership positions especially those concerned with women’s issues as long as it does not encroach on their ability to perform their Islamic duties”.[11]

In terms of Somali culture and traditions, Somalia is a patriarchal society like many African countries. The Somali language is replete with proverbs that belittle and demean women. For example, one Somali proverb says “A wisdom sought from a woman is like a fish sought from the desert” while another one says “A woman is like a child with big feet” and a third says “Lie to a woman when courting her but tell her the truth once she is your wife”. Patriarchal traditions such as these can often have a deleterious impact. As late as 14 December 2016, a 14 year old girl was gang-raped and video-recorded in the area of the central town of Goldogob. It was reported that elders in the area (all men and actually the Somali word for elders is “Odayaasha” which translates to “a group of older men”) were trying to resolve the issue through Heer, the traditional Somali conflict resolution process which is seen as lenient compared to the formal judicial system.[12] Another good example of a non-Islamic traditional practice that is extremely harmful to Somali girls and has long lasting physical and psychological impact on their lives is Female Genital Mutilation also known as FGM.[13]

The political history of Somalia also demonstrates that women had not been given an opportunity to play high profile roles in Somalia politics. No Somali woman has ever held the position of President or Prime Minister although they had held ministerial positions from time to time and even a position as high as deputy Prime Minister. Even in those instances when women held relatively prominent positions in politics, they have faced intimidation, ostracism, and threats. Fawzia Yusuf Adam is a case in point. She was the first Somali woman to hold the position of Foreign Minister as well as deputy Prime Minister. “I get threats day in day out” she said in an Al-Jazeera interview “Yes it happens but I am not afraid about what may happen tomorrow. I am busy with today” she added.[14]

The cumulative effect of these factors is reflected in the statistics. According to UNDP Gender Inequality Index, Somalia has the fourth highest gender inequality levels globally with female literacy 30% below that of males, and Somalia’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.[15] Does this mean the struggle to mainstream gender issues in Somalia is lost? Fortunately not. For one the situation in Somalia has recently improved at multiple fronts and that is good news for Somali women as it is for all Somalis. Women have been actively lobbying for the 30% quota in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the number of women in Somali Parliament has more than doubled from eleven and half per cent in 2012 to twenty-four and half in 2017 .[16]

The civil war as brutal as it was and continues to be, for some women, has resulted in empowerment and new opportunities.[17] Wars often disrupt established norms and can lead to unforeseen consequences. In the case of Somalia, because of the disruptive nature of the civil war especially on the ability of some men to continue to be the bread winners, women had to step in to support their families. In particular, women have taken to running small businesses successfully.[18] This is one area where women can continue to advance if given resources and existing barriers are removed.

Conclusion

While continued advocacy to mainstream gender issues in Somalia is necessary and inevitable if Somalia women are to overcome the barriers that impede their human development such as clan structure, lack of resources, and societal and cultural beliefs, there are in the meantime important things that can be done to advance women’s issues in Somalia such as affirmative action where possible, raising awareness, education, and economic empowerment. More importantly, lobbying decision-makers and those in power will go a long way to remedy some of what ails the system that is not responding to current interventions.

And the good news is that if there is one thing Somalis are good at, it is self-preservation bargaining. As long as lobbying is done with wisdom, persistency and patience, those in power can be persuaded to support mainstreaming gender issues. Moreover, it is important to build on the gains already made. An important milestone has already been reached. For the first time in the country’s history, two women competed as candidates for the highest office in the country, a notion that would have been unthinkable in the past. The courage of these two females is commendable and their pioneering efforts are worthy of celebration. Finally, to paraphrase Michael Keating, the UN Special Representative for Somalia, there are many problems in Somalia, but it is not falling apart, it is a place coming together.[19]

Mohamed Amin is a consultant and researcher. He may be reached at amin35@yahoo.com.

Sources

[1].http://www.hiiraan.com/news4/2017/Feb/140429/what_we_can_learn_from_the_elections_in_somalia.aspx

[2] Telephone and email exchange with a scholar on gender political issues in Somalia on February 12 and 13 2017.

[3] http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2380.htm

[4] UNDP Gender In Somalia Brief – Country Program Document for 2011 to 2015 (UNDP Country Office for Somalia, 2016).

[5] http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2393_A.htm

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/africa/somalia-election-corruption.html?_r=2

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/08/somali-presidential-election-won-mohamed-abdullahi-

[8] https://egyptianstreets.com/2015/06/09/meet-the-nine-muslim-women-who-have-ruled-nations/

[9] http://iaislam.tripod.com/TSOWII.htm

[10] http://www.islam101.com/women/womlib.html. See also,

https://unsom.unmissions.org/somali-religious-scholars-defend-30-percent-quota-women

[11] 18 February 2017 Interview with the Imam of Abubakr Al-Sadiq and one of the most prominent Somalia scholars and widely consulted Imams among Somalis.

[12] http://www.voanews.com/a/five-detained-somaliag-gang-rape/3680104.html

[13] http://www.unfpa.org/resources/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-frequently-asked-questions.

[14] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/06/somali-women-struggle-make-it-politics-201461171019836712.html.

[15] Gender in Somalia Brief – UNDP Country Program Document for 2011 to 2015.

[16] An interview with Faisa Loyaan on 16 February 2017. Faisa has Master’s degree in gender studies and development from the UK and has over a decade of experience working on issues of conflict, peacebuilding and civil society participation in governance in the East and Horn of Africa.

[17] Gardner, Judith. (2017) – Gender Profile for Somalia: An executive Summary. http://africainequalities.org.

[18] An interview with Faisa Loyaan on 16 February 2017. Faisa has Master’s degree in gender studies and development from the UK and has over a decade of experience working on issues of conflict, peacebuilding and civil society participation in governance in the East and Horn of Africa.

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/08/somali-presidential-election-won-mohamed-abdullahi-mohamed?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other.

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