Why do I poke around in these awkward intellectual spaces? I’ve been trying to find a way to conceptualize sexuality and beauty within the context of ‘Somalinimo’ (an abstract system of Somali nationalism), and in having these conversations with friends; I’m reminded and advised to leave this particular can of worms alone. You know I can’t do that. Muahahaha! I live for these uncomfortable intellectual spaces. But first, rather than set this up as an opinion piece where I vandalize your mind with my conclusions, (that I believe to be a bastion of rationality, don’t get it twisted :P), I’ll instead set it up as a list of questions and comments I’ve compiled surrounding issues of beauty/aesthetics in the Horn of Africa. I also wanna tackle this through diaspora lens, as this is the space where East African (a term, geographically/politically problematic, but in this case, referring to the Horn of Africa region) women have had their experiences collide with that of other women of the continent/diaspora. Ok, now my disclaimers. 1) I’m setting this up as conversation as opposed to a community of like minded people who only cosign each others intellectual conclusions, which is a short way of saying, ‘please come for me, because I’m about to bait the shit out of you’. 2) Come correct with evidence and clear arguments, but sans the rhetoric/emotional outburst (I’m guilty of this, but this is an important conversation, let’s not derail) por favor. 3) I know there are African women not originating from the Horn who exhibit similar features. I know this. But the people who single out Horn of African women as the sole carriers of this aesthetic do not know this. So please don’t respond with ‘It’s not only Somali women, women from Burundi also have soft hair and long noses’. Please don’t do that. 4) Anyone seen Dark Knight Rises yet? (Can’t have a list of disclaimers with only three points now).
And off to deconstruction land we go. First thing is first, obey your thirst, drink sprite Ok, let’s try this one more time. I want to discuss the issue of East African women and the way their bodies are fetishised by internal and external communities (the internal part needs a dissertation and critical theory). But I want to do this in a manner that is true to scholarly brevity, while paying particular attention to the nuance of representation of African female bodies (emphasis on want, I’ll inevitably fail at both, this I’m sure of). As a Somali woman (and most Horn of Africa women can cosign this narrative), I’m often rewarded with instant ‘beauty points’ because of the phenotypic features of the women from my region. When one conjures an image of a Somali, an Ethiopian, an Eritrean, its usually involves some form of slender noses, loosely curly/wave hair, a face that looks like it was a ‘white woman dipped in chocolate’ as a poetic friend once pointed out. This is what people think, and this is the image we as a community boast of, and perpetuate the shit out of it. We’ve internalized these narratives and replicate a standard of beauty that marginalizes other forms of blackness. Para example, to some Somalis, other Africans are ‘Jareers’ (degorative term meaning nappy-headed), and hell yes, I’m putting us on blast. I will not be binded by code of ethnic solidarity that makes use of oppressive language used to demonize our African brothers and sisters, while simultaneously effective in distancing ourselves from any perceived kinship with other Africans/blackness. I’m not about that.
Also, while challenging european ideals as a member of the diaspora, I’m often reminded that white supremacist paradigms grow strongly in the petri dish that is the minds of my own community. Now, I know this cultural ‘place’ I’m trying to unpackage is rife with problematic language and narratives. Confounded are issues of internalized self-hate on top of narratives that seek to remove the ‘Horn of Africa’ region from the consciousness of any collective black consciousness. We just don’t make the cut. It’s difficult to blog about in such a concise way, but I’ll try it with a set of questions and comments/declarative statements that point to some of the issues I have when it comes to East African women and theorizing their bodies and spaces.
1) Is there such thing as ‘East-African’ privilege in the context of African bodies? Are we allowed to occupy spaces because our features legitimize anti-black narratives? Have you experienced this? Are you consistently complimented on your ‘features’ and how often do you hear remarks like ‘East African women are so gorgeous’ (they are indeed; but all African women are stuff of dreams, but that reality can exist while challenging the roots of the paradigms that legitimize that narrative)
2) Non-East African black women, do you consider us one of your own? Or is our black-ness something to be contested? Are we ‘mixed’ to you? When/if you believe in a universal African narrative, are we a part of it? or a region protected from anti-black rhetoric. Growing up, I remember my Jamaican schoolmates consistently downplaying my role as legitimate member of the black community in Canada. Apparently my facial features and the texture of my hair were enough to dismiss my Somali peers and I as ‘mixed-chicks’ or ‘probably Indian or some shit’
3) We’re not mixed. Rewriting the histories of people/cultures is not an effective tool to dissect the political/cultural implications of valuing Horn of African beauty above other African women. I’ve spent years convincing/educating my African sisters that the rumors of our ‘mixed’ heritage are without evidence. What form of mass colonialization took place in Ethiopia to justify the phenotypic features of our Ethiopian brothers and sisters? What special admixture happened in the horn of Africa that didn’t couldn’t happen to African slaves removed from their home, mixed with Europeans and Native communities? I’m not convinced. I need evidence. And if so, so what if we’re mixed? How does that diminish our role in any construction of an universal African consciousness? This whole ‘let’s exalt blackness by limiting it’ is problematic IMO.
4) If you continue to promote the lie that Somalis are mixed with Arabs, I’ll have your spleen removed and dipped in ranch dressing. WE ARE NOT MIXED! Are there ethnic groups in the region with Arab ancestry? yes, they’re unique communities, and we’re aware of their existence. They’re aware of their lineage, too. We’re all aware of the roots of our ancestors, so as much as we appreciate self-made Archaeologists chiming in, we got this. And if you’re so inclined, do me a favour, grab a Kuwaiti women and a brother from Benin, and if they can produce a child that looks Somali, I’ll concede. Till then, keep your Arabs out of my family lineage please. Shout-outs to my Arab brothers and sisters 🙂
5) I will not have my ‘African-ness’ questioned in order to give legitimacy to those who’ve fetishized this region as that only consisting only of kente clothes, and West Africa. There are others on this continent too, you know. Those who do not conform to your fabricated illustration of what Africa looks like. The Tuaregs are just as African as the Ashanti people. We can challenge anti-black rhetoric without reducing our continent to one phenotype; setting it as the standard, and dismissing everything else as something perverse and diluted.
6) Non-East-African men who tell us we’re beautiful, please stop. We know! As are all African women (and all women). But we’re also suspicious of your need to single us out(the few that do). The texture of our hair is as ancient as cave paintings in Las Gaal( shoutouts to Somaliland), but I’m also aware of the cultural climate that allows you to value mine above a sister who has tightly coiled curls. I’m onto you. We’re onto you. And we do not need your fetishized gaze. Go fetishize the women of your own nation, and learn to exalt their beauty as divine.
7) East-African women, sit down and shut up once in awhile. Be present to how your looks can replicate oppressive ideals of what blackness looks like. Do not take pride in an aesthetic (although indigenious to your community) that is used to belittle the black bodies of your brothers and sisters. This is nothing to be proud of/ashamed of. It just ‘is’. Infact, pick a book, and be more than this high-fashion model caricature. I love you!
8) Somalis, if I hear the sentence ‘Oh I didn’t know he/she was Somali, they don’t look it’, I’ll sentence you to the invasive enhanced pat down and a lifetime without Diana skin lightning cream. Just as those who seek to reduce Africa to a reductionist representation are guilty, you’re also indicted for reducing our diverse country to high foreheads and slender noses. Cut it out already! The only thing is that authentically ‘Somali’ is our love for welfare states 😛
9) And to my sisters from the region in question, have you been ostracized for not conforming to the standard of what it means to be ‘ an Ethiopian’, a ‘Somali’, etc?
Anyway, friends and foes, what say you of my questions and charges? I really wanna hear from the diaspora on this one. Is there a semblance of truth to some of my concerns and conclusions? Or I have constructed a fictitious world where people find East-African women beautiful? runs off into the moonlight to work on the cure for five-finger Somali foreheads