Rebuilding Somalia

The appointment of two Somali women in key ministerial posts must not mask the massive day to day persecution of women in Somalia, says Hala al-Karib

On 4th November 2012, the new Somali Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, announced the composition of his first cabinet with two women appointed as part of the 10 member cabinet. Fowsiyo Yusuf Hajji Aden was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Maryam Kassim was appointed as Minister of Social Development. Fowsiyo’s appointment marks the first time in Somali history that a woman has been situated as head of the foreign ministry. The Somali Federal Parliament approved the nominations of the new cabinet and both women now officially hold their positions.

While the Somali legislation demands a 30% quota of women in parliament, the August 2012 elections saw women win 38 of the 275 parliamentary seats available, the equivalent to 13.8% -  far shorter than the minimum number required. Nonetheless, the appointment of these two women alone demonstrates a serious recognition from the newly elected Somali government of the role of women, particularly under the current circumstances of the country.

On the face of it, we should celebrate the elevation of women into senior political position, however, it is important to acknowledge the fact that across Africa, engaging women in high level political offices does not automatically translate into real commitment to women’s equality. Across the continent, African governments have used the recruitment of women to high offices to project an impression of good governance, commitment to diversity and respect for both sexes. However, there have been some exceptions of women who fought their way through the hard and complex political process in Africa, such as the late Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who entered the political arena through her own path and continued to demonstrate commitment to women’s rights throughout her life, even after she left political arena.

It is important to understand that women rights and equality principles are connected to good governance and democracy in situations where the political environment allows women to grow and engage on their own terms, however ntuued  Flee trian women it’s too early to claim that women are engaging independently in African politics and that their participation is a reflection of their countries positions on issues of gender equality.

The harsh reality remains that the elevation of women in politics will not automatically generate the same elevation of women in society and lead to real and tangible changes in achieving gender equality on the ground. This however is not to undermine the brave decision taken by the newly elected Somali government, and the courageous women who accepted the task, while they are faced with a society that has been infused with a combination of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

Since the early 1990’s, Somalia has been held hostage to brutal conflicts based on clan and religious militancy and was turned into the backyard of imported fundamentalism ideology, backed by foreign wealth and equipped with dogmatic conceptions of religious beliefs. There has been mass displacement, breakdown of social protection mechanisms, and a proliferation of small arms alongside weak police and governance giving rise to impunity. Women have been subject to gross violations of their human rights with female genital mutilation, forced/early marriages and domestic violence still rife. Women in Mogadishu IDP camps are increasingly subject to rape and sexual violence, while the women street vendors have recently found themselves proxy targets for groups such as Al Shabaab in lieu of legitimate military ones, with vendors murdered for having sold tea to pro-government forces.

According to the UN, around 20 incidents of sexual violence are reported each day, and between July and September 2012 the incidence of sexual violence quadrupled – a period which coincided with the transition to the formally elected Somali Federal Government. Women in the conflict and post conflicts areas across Africa are the most exposed to the armed conflict factions and hostilities based on their inherited subordination position in the society. It’s easier for armed militia to utilize women as war proxies -  particularly poor women who are present in the public arena such as street venders, petty traders, and domestic workers.

Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that the root cause of the suffering of women in Somalia is generated by the militant religious ideology which has had the upper hand for years over the Somali society. This ideology is based on the absolute exclusion of women from public life and demeaning their humanity as unequal human beings in their intellectual capacity. This type of ideology is based on the long inherited history of Islamic interpretations produced by militant schools of thought which have evolved during the different historical stages of the Islamic states, and invariably clash with other forms of progressive Islamic religious interpretations. From the 1960s and all through to the 90s this ideology was infused and revived by the oil money and empowered by the cold war environment. Somalia, being at the edge of the African coast facing the Peninsula on the other side of the Red sea, was easily exposed.  

The circles of religious militants in the Horn of Africa countries like Somalia present their agendas in a religious idiom, and project themselves as the only true mantle bearers of Islam. What needs to be understood and put into perspective is that what these groups are presenting is not religion, but political movements working towards gaining political power at the community, national or international level. The militant religious ideologies in Somalia clearly reflect the control over freedom of expression and persecute human rights defenders. These actors control people by silencing all dissenting voices, including other religious voices. They do so by blackmailing people into silence, spreading fear and crushing dissent, legitimising practices of violence against women and capitalising on the traditional subordination of women in the Horn societies.

Unless the newly elected Somali government addresses the ideological beliefs that are based on dogmatic and militant interpretations of the religion which justify the persecution of both men and women, change will remain problematic.

The rebuilding of Somalia requires a comprehensive approach towards peace and security beyond armed fighting. It’s very important to secure awareness channels and accessible means of knowledge and to empower enlightened Islamic religion faith existence. This task of rebuilding the awareness inside the new Somalia is as important as constructing schools and health centres. The Somali government and its partners should focus on emphasizing committing to enforce laws that are guided by international and regional mechanisms and seriously seek to ensure women's safety and human rights in the country.