On the Frontline of Somalia’s Embattled Women’s Rights Movement

Yesterday I received an alarming message from an old friend working for the Women and Family Ministry of the Puntland State of Somalia. Fatthiya Duale, a female Somali leader in Puntland, is calling for help from the diaspora and international community to support women aiming to secure better political representation in an urgent case in Somalia.

The current crisis came after a debate in Badhan, a town in Somalia’s north-central region of Sanag and one of the last progressive communities in the rural areas, apparently divided the community over whether women should ever participate in government.

This is not just one town; it’s the frontline in the Somali women’s rights movement. Here’s a “call to pens” with instructions on how you may be able to help. First, here’s Fatthiya’s letter:

“Only women in power would consider the needs of women without power.”   – Eleanor Roosevelt.

The government of Puntland recently adopted a regional strategy to advance women in local governments. Even though women make up more than 50% of the community, they have not previously held elected or appointed local government positions.  The 2011 Year of the Women in Local Governments was born in Badhan by women in the Sanaag region, Somalia, where 9 women (out of 28 members) were elected to the Regional and City Council.

Moreover, there is a possibility of one more [woman’s] seat to be won; one case is yet undecided  in which the women council members caucus (HOOYO) are contesting. The case is still undecided by the commission headed by the Minister of Interior and Pastoral Communities who are looking at the legal rights and the expressed desire of the community, mostly women and youth.

[One influential sub-clan,] one of eight bigger groups who are enjoined by the commission to elect/select one woman of their number of incoming counselors; the male elders of [this] group and their chief decided that a woman among their group is less important than a male member; therefore they insist to bring a male counselor. Unfortunately their women members do not enjoy [the right] like all others to come, voice their wishes and reject the clan order and find their own space in local politics.

This pull and push situation is exacerbated by two clan elders (brothers), who also claim to be knowledgeable in Islam and have their own anti-women interpretation. They immediately started speaking against rights of women participating in decision making.

Today, after Friday payer, on 25th March, 2011, the two brothers, [one of whom] is known for his extreme interpretation of Islam, have once more [set forth] serious allegations in their awaking speeches. In two different [mosques], they went separately giving Friday sermons igniting conflicts, asking and encouraging Muslims, for sure those limited in knowledge in Islam being their target; influencing praying crowds and asking the community to go against the elected women and their supporters.

This is setting fire on democracy and women’s rights, a heavy blow to hard won political success and the courage of women and their supportive communities. Somali women need the world to come to the aid of the courageous women in the local Council of Badhan town.

My fear: [Women less-educated] in Islam might internalize guilt that they may be going against their religion and spiritual beliefs. If the [influential sub-clan] succeeds in grabbing women’s political space for men, then others will follow suit for purely men gaining more power to keep the status-co in place. Women tend to give up their rights if they fear conflicts might turn ugly.

Female participation on local councils is a must because: Women are capable peace builders; the majority of Somali households are women-led, women are excellent communicators; women build strong working relationships; women are creative; and women contribute to increased capacity building. A just and capable society demands full participation and empowerment of all segments of its population. Women are by far the majority paying for education, food, health care, community  water and sanitation, take care of livestock which is the main asset in Somalia. Women take care of the physically  and  mentally challenged and children…

Somali women are undergoing a transition as their society grapples with lack of central institutions, lawlessness and an uncertain future.  Puntland regional government with its new endorsement of election of women to local govt councils and administrations is taking certain steps in the right direction.  The Badhan Council election results are a tribute to Puntland women in particular and all Somali women who are adapting to changing conditions while protecting Islam and the rights with which Islam honors women.

How is it that Somalia is seen in the West as a country dominated with radical male-chauvinists, but here is a story of women making progress? When I first traveled to Somalia, I had those common news report images in mind of a lawless, desolate place run by hordes of Islamic radical male chauvinists. It is true that radicals have torn up a large portion of the country and threaten to change government to be more similar to the Taliban in its prevention of women’s rights and education.

However, in Somalia’s northeast, northwest, and central areas which are not controlled by radical rebel groups, women are not only included in human rights, law, and aid activities but are often the creators and leaders of these activities. Many hold tremendous ideas about preventing violence but since they do not lead armed groups they are rarely if ever invited to discussions about how peace can be achieved. Now one of the great success stories of women’s rights in the rural north is on the verge of being turned back.

As Ms. Duale says, if women can become elected officials in Badhan, then there is hope for the rest of the country to move forward from the dark days of radical male chauvinism. To rally behind women’s local political representation and development in north central Somalia, here’s what you can do:

LETTERS  |  Contact Somalia’s Puntland State government, including the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, with letters of support for women’s representation in local councils. The state government currently has authority over the eastern part of the Sanag region where Badhan is the main town. Also, notice that the Women and Family Affairs Ministry is listed last.

DONATIONS  |  Support women-led aid and education in the Puntland State by donating to one of the better Somali aid agencies focused in the Sanag region, Horn Relief.

ACTIVISM & MEDIA INQUIRIES  |  If you are at a more advanced level of involvement in Somalia and would like to contact Ms. Duale or the Women’s Ministry or see the letter in full, please contact me at my office at HELO Media, HeloBazaar@gmail.com. We’ll screen inquiries for security and availability before forwarding onward.

LEARN MORE  |  Otherwise, if you want to get to know the context of Somalia beyond the mainstream media politics and body counts, see HELO Magazine – Somalia.

[The Roosevelt quote is in the original. Names of people and clans have been withheld. The letter has also been revised and abbreviated for format.]

Photo: IRIN / Kate Holt / Flickr CC.