Somalia And Its Discontents

This is an article I recently penned for Gender across Borders. It chronicles the nuances, complexities of intersectionality living. If you can deconstruct that sentence, you my friend are a star. Please check out their blog, and their good work.

I once attended a women’s conference in Alberta, and the topic of discussion revolved around the lived experiences of Muslim-Canadian women who are forced to operate amongst two often-competing paradigms. A semi-prominent social scientist began her treatise against the illiberal cultural practice of female genital circumcision, and the oppressive cultural space Somali women inhabit. This orientalist continued to discuss Somali women as if she were discussing zoo animals on an episode of national geographic, and continued her rant without any regards to the actual lived experiences of Somali women. When I interjected, and explained that Somali women are active agents in this exploitive practice, and not passive spectators in their own subjugation, she dismissed my opinions and accused of me being a patriarchal apologist. I explained that this is a cultural practice performed, encouraged, and maintained by women, within the confines of a patriarchal society. Many human rights activists have challenged the legitimacy of FGM as a cultural institution; and have called upon governments to ban this practice. But many of these activists fail to understand the cultural importance of female genital circumcision to the individuals that practice it.

While it is an oppressive practice, purveyors of this tradition view it as liberation, for how can ‘womanhood’ be constructed without the cutting of a woman’s perceived sexually deviant clitoris. In the eyes of the protectors of ‘Somali culture’, to attack female genital circumcision is to attack the Somali women, as this is as customary as dolls given to little girls. I do not suggest we accept this excuse, or lend legitimacy to it, but we must listen to these narratives, as understanding the context around this social institution is important in abolishing it. If one depicts a visual representation of submissive and docile Somali woman, then one overlooks the powerful role Somali women play in legitimizing this tradition. In my own experience, it was my father and uncle who objected to this practice, and saved my siblings and I from the unjust fate experienced by many Somali women, while my mother supported it. She continued her lecture, again ignoring the voices of the women she claims to fight on behalf of, and completely rejecting my analysis.

I remember having this feeling of déjà-vu, as I am persistently playing a mediator between the global north and south. When amongst my Somali co-nationals, I am charged with being the westernized feminist who seeks to delegitimize important cultural institutions. When I’m amongst western feminists, I am the apologist for tyrannical and anti women institutions.  And to this academic, I was simply a brainwashed African woman in need of the protection of liberalism.

My experience is not unique. There are many women who are forced into this mediator role by competing cultural paradigms. If I lend political and social agency to Somali women, and reject the limited narratives about my homeland, then I am in solidarity with patriarchy.  On the other hand, if I challenge and call on Somali women/African women to address our subjugation at the hands of our men, I am merely the political messenger of the West. I think much of this conflict stems from society’s need to group cultures into comfortable boxes, so we may understand and place judgment upon them. Even within a specific cultural perspective, like that of Somali women, there exists many multi-dimensions. As a Canadian of Somali descent, my experiences and challenges are different from a Somali woman living in war torn Mogadishu.  As a feminist, and political activist, I find it at times difficult to mediate these worldviews, as I feel I am often caught in the middle between the civilizations.

When one thinks of Somalia, one imagines our planets version of hell, with images of pirates, warlords, FGM, and poverty fresh in the minds of the public. While these images are part of a society in chaos, it is reductionist, and these limited accounts provide little support to the efforts of dividing the cultural gap between global women. Women are complex, our experiences are nuanced, and our struggles cannot be summed up in a PHD dissertation. The image of the oppressed African women does little to support African feminists, and our quest for social justice.  Similarly, the perception of western women amongst African women must be re-evaluated, and not reduce an entire movement to western imperialism. If we want to address and devise solutions to our common/uncommon problems, we must accept our multidimensional layers of our experiences and identities, while rejecting the ‘othering’ of our fellow sisters.


One thought on “Somalia And Its Discontents

  1. Fate will have it that our paths cross again. I responded to this article when it was titled ‘Somali Feminist’. You were supposedly in Alberta (it may have been just a fictive email from the website that printed the article). My reply was:

    “Hi Idil

    Isn’t it frustrating to be boxed-in and categorized? I agree with you completely. I just wanted to point out a few things that may be new to you diasporas in Canada. You may be undergoing a wave of right-wing politics in the present, and some of the ingredients in these right-wing politics is to create divisions and ‘otherness’. We’ve gone through this phase in europe and the feeling of being relegated to the zoo-category is familiar. FGM, forced marriages, crime/violence, work-shy, parasitic and many more. I know of somali girls who thought they were helping the somali women cause and ventured into organizations that supposedly work for ‘human rights’, but they turned out to have right-wing politics agendas. Many of these girls or women eventually were harassed in these organizations and also were alienated from their somali communities.

    As minorities we should learn from the experiences of the native minorities in our host countries. Our people need to be encouraged to read History seriously, especially in the diaspora. Most of the techniques used to exploit and undermine minorities have been deployed before. I mean to say we need to be politically savvy people. There is a dire need of political sophistication.

    The majority of the african people practice or have practiced FGM and similar rites of passages. The kikuyu’s practiced FGM 100% but now almost not at all and the reason is simple: socio-economic development. Somali women were writing books and discussing this topic back in the 1970s. The regression now is due to the civil war, and this other phenomenon known as the talibanization of the culture. The pseudo theology from the saudis is something that we must take seriously and deal with. Again, we can learn from history how feudal systems worked hand-in-hand with theocracies to exercise social-control. This is not something the beduins invented but the architecture was laid by ‘you know who’ as they defeated the ottomans. Most somalis are not conscious of this fact but have a Western vs muslim dichotomy. I hope the new wave of movements in the arab world for open, liberal societies will spread to the somalis too.

    This is just about all I can say for now. I read your article at Hiiraan and thought to say 1 or 2 things about it.

    Best of regards,


    About the arabs opening up and directing somalis to a more open, liberal societies – it was my wishful thinking. Somalis of the olden days never took cues from any arab. They were proud, cultured people. I was referring to the nominal somalis (which unfortunately constitutes the majority of somalis nowadays – names like sheikh sharif) and the pseudo religious bearded people. I was just hoping, sweetheart, that some of this lot within us will change their hearts and accept an open, liberal society. Aluta Continua. BobtheBuilder.

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