Narrating peace: Somaliland women’s experiences
Somaliland women’s narratives have largely been absent from accounts in state and nation building in Somaliland, yet their contributions cannot be denied. Female poets, writers, artists and activists recount their experiences in shaping the peace and their political participation in Somaliland today
Somaliland is a self-declared republic that seceded from the union with Somalia in 1960. Somalia descended into a civil war in the late 1980s fracturing Somali society along clan-based lines. While the Somali National Movement (SNM) fought with Siyad Barre’s forces for Somaliland’s liberation, territorial claims by different clans and the absence of a unifying nationalistic discourse still divide much of Somaliland society. Thus a central feature for reconciliation and peacemaking in Somaliland includes local conferences among different clans. This grassroots process of peacebuilding is touted as an example of a Somali-led solution to the instability found in other areas throughout Somalia.
Popular narratives regarding Somaliland’s process of peacebuilding and state building noticeably omit or limit the extent to which women equally contributed to promoting the end of the civil war and peace and reconciliation. The importance of uncovering women’s experiences of the conflict and peace process has been vital to securing legitimacy for women’s participation in politics and the visibility of women in the public sphere in general.
The absence of women’s narratives during and after the civil war is due in large part to the oral culture of Somali society and the role of poetry that privileges men’s narratives. This is significant since these narratives are often reflective of cultural norms and reflect gender roles in Somali society that are solidified through clan-based lineages. The Somali linguist B.W. Andrzejewski has remarked often on the heroic status of poets in Somali society often symbolized as torchbearers of the Somali peoples history.
Men’s poetry has largely produced commentary on current political affairs, changing social mores, as well as political propaganda through song during the military dictatorship of Siyad Barre. Women specific poetry (Buranbuur) was less disseminated and popularized. Much of women’s poetry related to their social status in pastoral society, and imparting gender roles to their children. Women have displayed poetic prowess on many occasions. In particular, when discussing women’s contributions during the civil war and the peace process, poetry was often used to reconcile warring clans, or to encourage SNM soldiers to fight during the civil war in Somaliland.
When revisiting women’s narratives, we see that Somaliland women assumed visibly public roles during their campaign for peace, and we can therefore piece together historical accounts of the role of Somaliland women played in state and nation building in Somaliland. Among the most popular works of women’s experiences of the civil war and peace process is by Judith Gardner and Judy El Bushra with the largest collection of women’s narratives and features Saado Abdi Amare’s famous poem imploring rival clans to reconcile during the inter-clan conflicts in Somaliland in the mid-1990s.
Peace Activism and Beyond
In Somaliland, peace was built through ongoing conferences, taking ten years to transition from a military administration (through the SNM leadership) to a civilian government with the nomination of President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Igal (1999-2002) as the first civilian government. During these peace conferences women utilized the capacity to communicate across clan lines and lobbied for peace between their husbands and natal clans, just as much as they supported the civil war:
“…some men use to run away from the front line, we would shout ‘come back, where are you going, come fight or I’ll fight for you…’ we did this in order to shame them into fighting.” Asha Hashi Hersi
Women also expressed their anguish at the eruption of conflict between neighbouring clans within Somaliland after the ouster of Siyad Barre’s forces:
“….we use to say different poems and chants to get the men to stop fighting…we use to say
Of the men I gave birth to
Of the clans I am caught between
Of my brothers who have shared my mothers milk
Of my father who gave me my lineage
If they pick up arms against one another,
It is as if they have burned me as well”
While their participation was limited to more traditional roles, including providing food for the conference attendees, women also exercised more formal agency and expressed their political views. Among the lasting contributions women made during the peace conferences was institutionalizing a house of elders in a charter detailing their demands for peace, reconciliation and women’s political participation:
“It was women who brought the idea of institutionalizing the elders into the government akin to what Americans consider as the Senate or the British House of Lords; an upper house. I was the first to speak about this to a gathering of men. I asserted my right to speak by saying that God created Adam and Eve not Adam alone so I have a right to speak in this gathering of men. While men were initially reluctant, the day after our speech the men spoke of how we evoked emotion among the gathering at the power of our speech and the prominent role we afforded elders in our society.” Annab Omer Eleye (Chairperson of the Women’s Wing of the Kulmiye Party )
One activist among the four women present at this time remarked that it is important for prominent women to be recognized given that society tended to overlook the significance of their contributions:
“…every society has its heroes and one woman we have to remember is Faiza Haji Abdiullahi who was important in helping us draft that charter. We took our charter to the men and told them we were not leaving till they reconciled. Neither would we go home to our children. It was not just men who suffer but women suffered alongside men during the conflict so women’s presence during the peace conferences and the Somaliland politics was essential.” Shukri Harir Ismail
Narratives regarding women’s contributions to state and nation building in Somaliland in a society that relies on oral poetry to recount its history allows women to justify their new public roles. They are continuing to change attitudes and power relations within Somaliland politics which is overwhelmingly dominated by clans.
“Though I did not want to be a part of politics I did it so women could gain experience, so I could be an example. I lost but nevertheless we had two women who became the first female parliamentarians… people’s minds could not wrap around the idea of women in politics but to counter the clan-based politics of our society we had to be an example.” Amina Mohamoud Warsame (who stood in 2005 to be a member of parliament for the UCID party)
Incorporating Somaliland women’s experiences more fully into the biography of a nation does not mean that Somali women in general have been entirely absent from the poetic landscape of the Somali culture. Women participated and used oral poetry in a diversity of arenas to support colonial resistance, Somalinimoo as espoused by Barre’s scientific socialist policies, as well as promoting war and peace. The difference is that in Somaliland women are becoming more assertive and drawing inspiration from female historical figures, cultural discourses on moral piety, and international discourses on women’s rights.
Political expressions of nationalism in Somaliland have seen women assert their roles as indispensable through times of conflict, peace and the future development of Somaliland in general. It is through women’s public roles and insistence in acknowledging their contributions that they have sought to carve a space for themselves within different political arenas in Somaliland. Ultimately, it is about power dynamics that are constantly being negotiated between men and women including the use of oral poetry as an expression of dissent, dissatisfaction, or despair on the part of women.
Many women in Somaliland believe that power is not just exercised through overtly political institutions or processes, but that it circulates between men and women within the household. It is often mentioned that women do have power, and men enthusiastically relate women’s contributions to Somaliland’s history, yet it is the public demonstration and affirmation of women’s experiences that many men are still uneasy with, and cries for women to return to their homes are frequently made.
As Shukri Haji Bandera suggests, this type of attitude is changing…“you can see the younger generation pursuing an education together, vocalizing their ideas in the same classroom, not like our generation, boys and girls hear each other and girls are using poetry to express themselves. It is my hope that this is where the real change will come from.”
Siham Rayale is Djiboutian and was raised in Canada. She is completing her PhD in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. She focuses on gender, peacebuilding and human security