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Generally, Somalia is principally a male-dominated society that integrates nomadic pastoral life and Islamic norms. Therefore, the overall culture of the Somali people has both elements (UNICEF, 2002, p. 5). The place of women in Islamic society depends on the holy book of the Quran, Islamic laws and traditions influenced by societal norms. According to the Quran, Islam liberates women from intolerable conditions of the tribal societies (Hussain, 2001, p. 3). Islam accorded women several rights. The rights accorded to women include a right to live and a right to own assets. Even though the religion does not prohibit polygamy, it restricts the number of wives to four. Men are required to treat their women justly and equally.
Also, Islamic law emphasizes women’s right to matrimonial contracts (Esposito &Natana, 2001, p. 10). However, in Somali culture, the patriarchal principle defines the identity and kinship of both genders. The system not only offers communal and personal identity to members but also doubles up as joint reminiscence. Though accommodative and vibrant, this system discriminately lays down both common and individual developmental paths for women as compared to men. For instance, women are supposed to leave their own family and join the matrimonial family immediately after she is married off. However, she is not entirely integrated into the lineage of her husband. This state of affair complicates the identity and allegiance of women in this society (UNICEF, 2002, p. 5).
Factors that have influenced Somali Culture
Over the recent past, the understanding and application of woman’s rights under Islamic law in Somalia have considerably been influenced by some socio-economic factors. Social practices, traditional beliefs, political instability, and illiteracy usually undermine the status of women in the society (UNICEF, 2002, p. 5). During the 70s and 80s, when the country was still under stable leadership, women’s participation in public affairs had increased. Women’s enrolment in schools and jobs had tremendously gone up. Also, some women were in charge of key institutions and armed forces. Several reforms to strengthen women’s rights were initiated. For instance, the Family Law of 1975 gave women equal rights with men. Regrettably, women did not enjoy these rights for long. A mass departure of men to the Middle East in search of job opportunities left women with more responsibility for managing and taking care of the family. Additionally, Somali men who had been radicalized abroad called for the strengthening of Islamic religion and culture upon returning home. They included a generation of well-educated youths, who campaigned for the resurgence of Islam and preached against Western influence and culture. As a result, women were forced to abolish Western fashion and style and adopt Hijab as a sign of modesty (UNICEF, 2002, p. 6; Hussain, 2001, p. 3).
Despite numerous gains achieved during the 70s and 80s by the government, the political turmoil that engulfed the country in the early 90s led to massive suppression of women. Many women were left without husbands, killed, deprived, raped, or deserted. Some were psychologically traumatized after being forced to share kinship or get married to rebel clans or groups. Nevertheless, some women supported the war efforts completely. They supplied foodstuff and took care of the injured. Without a doubt, the upheaval in Somalia significantly changed the role of women in society. It destroyed all the gains that had been achieved and replaced it with the oppressive traditional system. Women were excluded from decision-making and denied their rights. The segregation of women from the political processes denied them a chance to raise issues affecting them. Many international organizations and non-governmental organizations chipped in to support and empower these women. As a result, some Somali women have gained recognition both locally and internationally in various fields. Furthermore, women are currently playing an active role in helping to rebuild Somalia (UNICEF, 2002, p. 6).
Somali Culture Versus Western Culture
There are significant differences and similarities between Somali culture and Western culture as regards women. Even though Somali culture is pegged on Islamic teachings, which advocate for equality and fairness, it has been influenced by several socio-economic and political factors. The culture tends to favor men more than women. On the other hand, Western culture promotes equality and fairness among both genders. There is confusion in the identity of the married Somali woman. On the contrary, Western culture clearly defines the identity of women in society. Women in Somali culture can only initiate a divorce and have no right to divorce their husbands. In the Western world, this right is enjoyed by all parties. Religion and society dictate the dressing code for Somalian women. They are only allowed to dress in Hijab as a sign of modesty. Western women have the freedom to dress in any manner they deem fit. The system not only offers communal and personal identity to members but also doubles up as joint reminiscence. However, in the Western world individual identity is defined by the constitution.
The Islamic law grants Somali women equal rights as their male counterparts, for instance, the right to life and to own and maintain assets. This is the same in Western culture. However, the main obstacle lies in the traditional Somalian culture (nomadic pastoral life). Even though Quran liberates women from tribal bondage, the socio-economic and political factors have undermined the status of women in society. Besides, Somalian women are now forced to embrace roles that were meant for men, for example, managing and taking care of the family. This is not new in the Western world. Most households are headed by women. The only difference between the two situations is that most women in the Western world choose to be single mothers. These women have well-paying jobs and are financially independent. On the contrary, Somalian women are not single by choice. Most of these single mothers are widowed or deserted by their husbands for whatever reasons.
Somalian people are expected to embrace Islamic law, which protects the rights of women. However, due to socio-economic and political factors, women have been denied these rights. As a result, most Somalian women only play a very small role in society. Nonetheless, we see that the gains to stabilize Somali attained in the 70 and restored in the 80s.
Esposito, J. L., &Natana J. (2001). Women in Muslim Family Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Hussain, S.H. (2001). Do Women Really Have a Voice? Reproductive Behavior and Practices of Two Religious Communities. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 7 (4), 29–69.
UNICEF. (2002). Women’s Rights in Islam and Somali Culture. Hargeysa, Somaliland: The Academy for Peace and Development.