'Not housekeepers any more': Somali women of the diaspora

About the author
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer.

She dresses like Carol Vorderman, idolises Oprah Winfrey and, although she grew up in a male-dominated society where a man’s word is law, she likes to be seen as a feminist.

Following the collapse of her four-year marriage, Amina Shakur lives in temporary accommodation in west London with her two young children, Maymuun, five, and Mustaf, three. After a nightmare year in Russia, Finland and Norway, the 29-year-old refugee from Somalia arrived in the United Kingdom, her preferred destination, on March 1996. The main reason for her coming to the UK was to marry her long-term sweetheart, Mohamed Ali, who had arrived five months earlier.

Bride and groomA sumptuous Western-style Somali wedding in London
On 7 April 1996, four weeks after landing in the UK, they married in a small, colourful ceremony at which guests, friends and relatives were entertained by dancers and musicians.

 

‘We were both enthusiastic about the prospect of building a family,’ recalls Shakur. The future looked bright. They knew each other intimately, although the relationship between Muslims precludes sex before marriage. For Shakur was marrying a man she had met at high school, when she was 16 years old. She was in Form Three and he was in Form Four at the 21 October Secondary School in Somalia, named after the day dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre took power in 1969.

When Barre was toppled in January 1991, Shakur and Ali fled the country. They separated, and their only point of contact was through Shakur’s sister in London. They used to call her in order to keep in touch with each other. So marrying in London was special for Shakur and Ali. They were joining an estimated 100,000 Somalis living in the UK.

Things fall apart

It was after the birth of their first child that Shakur started feeling that things were not going according to plan, though Ali had no idea that anything was wrong. She admits that she had always wanted to rear her family in the European way. Like most Somali women in the UK, Shakur’s name is registered for state benefit and housing allowance. She wanted to study, to work if possible, to socialise and join in with the new culture. Ali, a devoutly religious man, felt differently. Like most other Somali men, he firmly believed that women should remain at home, provide meals and raise the children.

By July 2000, their relationship was damaged irreparably. After an argument over sharing the housework – a major point of contention between husbands and wives of the diaspora – Ali allegedly hit Shakur in the face. It was the third time he had physically assaulted her, and she wasted no time in dialling an emergency number.

Like many other Somali families with troubled relationships, divorce became the only solution. On the Christmas night of the same year, Ali officially pronounced the third and final procedure in Islamic law and divorced Shakur.

Somali marriage breakdowns first became frequent in the early 1990s when thousands of Somalis fled the civil strife and political upheaval in their country. Back in Somalia, the commitment to marriage was so strong that divorce was practically unheard of. But migrants to Europe found that the new culture meant that they faced rigorous challenges. Marriage became less valuable.

In a survey conducted for this article, 78 Somalis of different sexes and ages, both married and single, were asked to give their views on the main causes of marriage breakdowns within the UK’s Somali community.

Marriage counsellorFamily counselling for the Somali community in London

The new culture was not supportive of traditional marriage customs, the interviewees felt. External cultural influences were the main reason given for marriage break-ups (76%). The rest of the interviewees (34%) blamed the economic independence of the diaspora women.

28% blamed khat, a green narcotic leaf widely chewed by the Somalis. Khat was illegal in Somalia from 1983 until 1991 when the regime that banned it was overthrown. In the UK, where it can be purchased legally, it is widely believed that the substance causes financial hardship and sexual impotence.

Interestingly, nearly half (46%) said Somali marriages in the diaspora were simply not strongly rooted in a committed relationship. When asked what the most common reasons for getting married were, 53% considered love as the starting point, while a staggering 44% said that Somalis in the diaspora married for financial reasons.

As to who was to blame, women or men, interviewees split on gender lines: 70% of the women blamed men’s failure to adapt to the new environment; 74% of the men blamed either the host culture, or the women for adapting to it.

Women’s financial independence

‘This does not mean everybody is forgetting our history,’ insists Ahmed Mohamed Wasuge, a linguistics professor from the former Somali Faculty of Languages, who is now a refugee in London. But he admits that the situation is worrying. He has been trying to mediate between troubled Somali couples. ‘Of the twenty families I have intervened in, only nine are still married.’ He sees the root of the problem as lying in the fact that Somali women are refusing to respect their tradition and religion. ‘A man feels guilty when he cannot pay the bill, and our women see this as a victory over men.’ He himself is married for the fourth time, and has six children.

In his report on Somali refugees in London, Dr Anthony Olden, of London’s Thames Valley University, agrees that the balance of power between husbands and wives within Somali families of the diaspora has changed. ‘Women find that they now control the family finances because social welfare payments are channelled through them. This alters the relationship between them and their partners, particularly if the man is out of work,’ he concludes in his report.

But according to Professor Wasuge, the largest source of income in contention between spouses falls outside the welfare system. Most Somali women living in Europe benefit from an interest-free loan system. Shalongo, as it is known in Somali, involves large sums of money, managed centrally, which circulate within a fixed number of women. The Shalongo can raise between £5,000 and £12,000 annually for a woman who needs it – depending on how much is invested. This sum has to be repaid in instalments over an agreed period of no less than a year.

Women and children account for the highest number of Somalis who migrate to the UK. Men often opt to stay, either to look after properties left behind, or to fight along side their clansmen, politically or militarily. Many such women either divorce their husbands immediately on arrival, in order to start a new life, or do so a few years later, when their applications for family reunion are turned down.

Towards a European way?

Qali Farayare is a mother of seven who divorced the father of six of her children in 1995 when he failed to join them in London. A year later, she married the father of her seventh child but split up after just eight months.The reason she gives for the break-up with her second husband exemplifies the way in which the host culture brings its influence to bear on a couple. ‘He refused to contribute to housework and the family income and was not the most wonderful person,’ Farayare claims. He also had a weakness for khat. ‘He chewed with other people and came home to sleep,’ she remarks. ‘He never spent time with me…a lot of single mothers would agree with me.’

Farayare admits that external influences played a part in the deterioration of the relationship. ‘Men should learn how to cook, do the laundry and change the nappies,’ she says with a chuckle. Back home, Somali men would never have been required to share in the housework.

Fellow single mother Shakur agrees with Farayare: Somali men should accept the European way of life. ‘This is a husband and wife meeting their family duties,’ she says. ‘Men should cook, wash the dishes, and do the ironing if the wife seems to be busy on something else. This is nothing to be ashamed of.’

Shakur does not accept that the effect of the move to a new culture has pushed Somali men to the wall. ‘Somali men are known to rate themselves very highly and are mentally robust,’ she says. ‘They are using religion as a scapegoat when they say that women are abandoning Islam. This is the way this country is, and we should adapt to it,’ she concludes.

Ali disagrees with his ex-wife. Living with a woman is a tricky business these days, he thinks. ‘Most of them deviate from Islam, they abandon the Islamic doctrine – that is the stumbling block to every Somali family in Europe,’ he complains. ‘They feel in control, become westernised and are now sitting on us…they want the situation to remain like that.’

He himself comes from a deeply religious family. He has been raised to expect a hierarchy of respect within a family structure where everyone knows their role. ‘Don’t think I am a dictator. The Somali men in the diaspora make some mistakes. But I also think women constrain them to do so. Women always look for weaknesses in men.’

Western media role models

The truth of Ali’s claim is borne out by women such as Shakur, who exemplifies the so-called ‘westernised woman’. She idolises Oprah Winfrey and the way her talk shows address women’s issues. ‘You can call me a feminist,’ she said. A glance at her video cassette collection reveals that she also admires movies that possess a taste for love, romance and feminism. One example is Madonna's Innocence Lost – an intimate, rags to riches story, which testifies to the way in which sheer ambition can lift a charismatic woman to the pinnacle of the entertainment industry. The other movie, Sliver, involves a women (Sharon Stone) looking for excitement in her life after ending an unhappy marriage.

So does Shakur plan to remarry? ‘Any woman who wants to marry must learn enough about the man before getting hooked up. This is Europe and there is plenty of time. She can go out with him and give it a try. She can even ‘tempt him unlawfully’.

‘Women should avoid marrying men for money and looks. What is important is his intelligence and his behaviour in the family,’ she says. ‘As to whether I will marry again…no comment! But of course I need a man.’