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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

October 2004

Signs of change in Somalia as a result of international and local actors

Women as victims, survivors and custodians of identity.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | Somalia

Somali-women all over the world are uniting to be heard, demanding respect and physical integrity. Examples are the Wajir Somali-women peacemakers network or the Somali Diaspora women peacemakers in the Netherlands, where I am residing myself. I must add that the work of these women is revolutionary, phenomenal and inspirational in that they are not only igniting a fire and setting it ablaze but also they are globally fighting together to keep that fire alight. I would like to write about this example because I am involved in and inspired by it.

Roles of men and women:

I think that the role of women in peace building all over the world has always been underestimated. But of course we can not compare the roles of western women to that of women from the third world. Western women reach higher on the scale of emancipation, in the feminist movement and also in the intellectual capacities. Western women have greater opportunities, rights and advancements, which are nationally encouraged. For different reasons; cultural, religious or social. Most women (especially Africa) in the third world are expected to be subordinate and obedient to their husbands. This of course is a major handicap for women but also an obstacle that is challenging to eradicate or even alter somewhat. So even if women are empowered, well-trained and given the opportunity (by WID, WAD, etc), often their husbands don’t allow them to flourish. Examples are too many (see among others GAD and HDI reports). For many women their marital status and affinity is so very important that they don’t dare disturb that.

Changes in identities:

Somali men, convinced that heaven lays under their feet, have over the years convinced Somali women that complete submission and total obedience actually is in the Koran. And so women have grown to believe this rhetoric. Gender roles in Somalia are as clear as plain water; Women must be at home, bear many sons and function well in bed. Men on the other hand are encouraged not to show any emotions, to be aggresive and even told to give their wives a good beating in case they ‘misbehave’. Women, on their part pass on the tradition to their daughters. This vicious cycle and these rituals are kept alive ironically by those who suffer its side effects, namely women. So how do we approach this problem? How can we empower women effectively? How could we also involve the men in this process? Obviously we can’t only work with women. I think the answer is in ‘gender mainstreaming’ whereby the men of any given society are also made part and parcel of any operational work. By involving the men they are made conscious how they are hindering women and how they could sustainably alter that. This is of course easier said than done.

Impact on rights:

Honestly, growing up in Somalia, I wasn’t aware of or even heard of any Somali women’s rights movement. Maybe there were some but not to my knowledge. Since the war in Somalia men and women have fled the country and continent. In many cases to the benefit of women. Women have rights abroad. They found opportunities and made optimal use of them. They gathered themselves and are unitedly fighting for their rights. These women are doing a wonderful job which truly inspires me.

An example of effectuating change:

An example of how Somali women are being systematically hindered by men in the Somali culture is genital mutilation. How can media lead to change and lead to greater agency among women? During a seminar I recently attended on “harmful cultural practices”, the women hosting the day and giving the presentations showed the audience two plastic vaginas; a circumcised one and non-circumcised one. Most of the Somali men present couldn’t bear to see the circumcised vagina. They were so shocked that they were turning their heads away. They uttered disgust and disbelief. Why? Because, according to them they have never seen one from up-close and never really realized the hardships that circumcised women go through all their life. But why didnt they know? They could know from intimate moments with their wives or girlfriends. The answer to this question takes us to the Somalian lovemaking scenery and intimacy, which is done in complete darkness, silence and while covered (only women). And yes, because Somali women preferred to suffer in silence. It is only in the last decade that Somali women are talking about their silenced grief and sorrows, through poetry, novels, videos, magazines and other tools.

I mention this example to demonstrate how ignorant men sometimes are about their own contribution to hindering women. This happens sometimes indirectly e.g. women inflicting pain on young girls so that they later could be married. Tactical media to me means media projects that people use opportunistically to seize available resources to claim or reclaim some communicative channels or some expressive space to pass a message. Tactical media is creative solidarity in the fight for justice and democracy. Coming from a culture where women are literally encouraged to be only ‘good housewives’ and where that is justified by law, religion and culture, I fully realize that a great struggle awaits Somali women .

However, if we want progress we have to use multifaceted struggles to be successful. We must be prepared to form alliances both locally and internationally with men. There have been many instances where Somali women have thrown their weight behind broader struggles both nationally and internationally confronting men. Very often it has been the right thing to do. But with hindsight, we have realised that these struggles have worked with gender and power in ways that have not transformed gender relations as we might have hoped they would. So we need to be more discerning about the alliances that we make with men.

Men have to be part and parcel of that struggle. But how do we do that? I really think that confronting men with tangible examples of the hardships women face, the obstacles society has created for them, the hinders men cause them, might to some degree make them feel the suffering of women and young girls face. But in order to do this, Somali women have to let the world know of their suffering.

One important element is looking at what really matters to women locally.

I think it is extremely important to define what exactly one means by the concept of ‘empowerment’. One can not empower you entirely; you have to empower yourself. You have to be willing to want to come out of that oppressive man-dominated system of utter subordination justified through cultural practices and rituals. I am very much aware that this may sound idealistic and not realistic, and that it may best apply in a western context, where society has been individualized from birth and where individual agency is highly stimulated, in contrast to many other nations.

But then, in order for African women to be empowered and in order for them to be recognized and taken serious, they must be willing to break the chain of routine. They must be willing to collectively show strength, resistance and breakthrough the cycle. For many (western) feminists empowerment is about wanting to be men’s equals. However empowerment as defined in local African terms is about basics; having the right to divorce, physical integrity, refusal to arranged marriage, FGM, to movement and own-decision-making. For this reason empowerment has to be redefined using local women’s priorities.

For me empowerment is a collective process which aims to enrich and equip a person with the necessary tools and skills, but most importantly it is about creating space for that person to implement and put those skills and tools into use. Empowerment is process of appreciating, nourishing and experiencing trusting ones’ own power-within. Empowerment signals a refusal of oppression, and a commitment to struggling for women\‘s liberation from all forms of oppression—internal, external, psychological and emotional, socio-economic, political and philosophical.

Impact on relationship:

As a result of their fighting and solidarity, Somali women’s voices have been heard; Just a few weeks ago the newly-elected Somlia president has allocated 35 seats to Somali women!!. This is a great accomplishment for humanity which will have a great impact on the relationship between men and women both in Somali and abroad, within the household and at the work place.


Somali women have, for a long time, been systematically excluded from participation of any kind; social, political, economical or in any other way. Decision-making processes have always been reserved for men. But this is changing. The author reflects on necessary ingredients for change and a healthy relationship between local actors and international organisations.


  • The author of the file is : Sahro Mohamed.