Somali women’s religious rights abused inside Somali embassy in Kenya

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Nov 16th, 2012
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By H. Ali-Horad

Among all other things, it is undisputed that Somalia’s new constitution recognizes the country as a Muslim nation with every citizen having their rights to practice his/her Islamic religion.  After its adoption last August, many intellectuals applauded, with top government officials vowing to uphold it. Many Somalis were proud of such constitution that recognizes human rights and rights to religious practice in the country. But such feelings are no longer shared by many Somali women in Kenya.

Nimo Ahmed (not her real name) is 19 years old Somali lady. She was born in Nairobi after her parent fled Kismayo and sought refuge in Kenya. She speaks little Somali compared to her fluent Swahili and English as she has undergone formal education in Kenya. Though, she has never seen Somalia and speaks little of her mother tongues, Nimo is a proud to be from Somalia. All her belongings including her handbag and laptop are decorated with the Somali flag, a sign of devotion. This is a feeling she had before few days ago.

In early November, Nimo went to the Somali embassy in Nairobi seeking a passport to concretely build her sense of belonging. As a devoted and practicing Muslim, Nimo hired a taxi with one of her male relative while dressed in dark and bulky veil. She never perfumed herself to meet her Islamic dress code.

Nimo was shocked beyond doubt at what she has witnessed inside the embassy.“One thing I could not imagine was that the staff in the embassy were extremely rude, enough to scare away people. I don’t know whether they were trained to do so. Only the guy in the reception where you present payment receipt seemed friendly,” she said covering her mouth with her Henna decorated hand.

What made her loose her sense of belonging this time is the fact that women are required to remove their Hijab to have their digital portrait taken when applying for a Somali passport. According to her she could not believe when she saw officers in the embassy ordering women seeking passports to completely remove their veils and uncover their head.

“I was shocked to see what was going on. I could not believe that being a Muslim lady from a Muslim country you can be forced to expose your body in front of male employees or visitors just for a passport,” she said in a low tone full of thoughts. She added “you know I used to wonder with some factions in Somalia accusing the government of being anti-Islam but what I saw there is a true reflection of what is being said about the government.”

One thing she was so concerned is the true violation of her religious practice and the deliberate violation of the new constitution.“When it was my turn, I was trembling. I have never uncovered my head in front of a non-Mahram male person. So I decided to plead with the man who was photographing me not to remove my Hijab but he said I must remove it,” she uttered these words while tears cascaded from her cheeks.

Nimo was forced to give up her quest to get the passport to safeguard her religious duty because as a Muslim lady, she was not ready to accept her religion abused for a passport.“When I first asked my mum to give me a hundred dollar to get my national passport, she wondered whether I was ok in the mind because according to her the passport is not recognized anywhere in the world but I had to stick to my position asking for the money.”

“But when the guys wanted to undress me for the sake of the passport, I decided to walk out of the embassy premises crying, feeling humiliated,” she said while still crying. Nimo said she still needs the passport to strengthen her sense of belonging and further her love for her country, but she could not go back to the embassy knowing that she will still be required to remove her Hijab.

She accuses the embassy staff in Nairobi for trying to spread anti-Muslim and anti- cultural practice, fearing such practice will soon be exported to Somalia itself if actions are not taken immediately.  “You see even those in America, they are not forced to remove their Hijab when applying for a passport and they are not in a Muslim country, so these guys just want to please the West while in reality violating our fundamental and religious rights,” she added.

Asked whether she will ever go back to Somalia, she replied “I don’t think so because something unusual is coming in the name of fighting what they call extremism.”

“In Kenya, female Muslim applicants are not forced to uncover their head because the constitution clearly states that every citizen has the right to his religious practice but in Somalia if we have to consider the way Muslim Somali ladies are mistreated in the Somali embassy in Kenya, something bad is coming,” said Nimo. Her horrifying ordeal is shared by 45 year old Halima Osman who recently dropped her need to have Somali passport after she was told to remove her Hijab.

Halima says she decided to walk out of the embassy when a man reacting to her request to have her head covered for religious grounds told her “We don’t entertain nonsense here. If you are a Muslim you could have stayed in your house, otherwise remove your Hijab and get photographed or show us your back.”

“At my age, I have never seen something like that before, I think there must be something we don’t understand” she said.“If this will be the trend and our religious rights as Muslim Somali women continue to be abused like that, Somalia is heading to the wrong path,” she added.

“People have gone far and Islam has no value in that embassy, I can swear that,” said Halima, raising her hand up emotionally to prove her argument.She urged the Somali religious scholars to in the situation as it locks out hundreds of potential women applicants from obtaining passports in fear of being violated.

Such sentiment is echoed by Ahmed Osman, 48, a resident of Hagardera refugee camp in northern Kenya. Until recently Osman has never stepped outside the refugee camp where he has been living with his wife and children for the last two decades.

In August 2012, he and his family applied for a refugee travel document to Nairobi on the grounds that they wanted to get specialised treatment in a hospital in Nairobi. His main aim was to document his nine children, five of them girls, since he feared that they might be stateless and to retain their identity as Somalis, he travelled to Nairobi to apply for Somali passports for his wife and children.

He said his wife and the five daughters could not get their national passport because when they went to the Somali embassy in Nairobi, they were told to remove their Hijabs which he said contradicts their Islamic values.   Quoting a verse from the holly Quran, Osman faulted the move to remove women’s Hijab when applying for a passport.

“Allah says in his noble Qur’an “O Prophet, Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments about themselves (when they go out). That is better so that they may be recognised and not molested. And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. [Al-Ahzaab, 33:59],” Osman said.

“Their actions (embassy staff) contradict this verse and that is why I decided not to accept my wife and daughters be stripped naked just because they needed passport and instead opted to go back to the refugee camp.”

He said the embassy should drop such requirement to allow Muslim Somali women to get their rights just like male citizens.

Osman also accused the embassy staff of nurturing corruption and violating the rights of Somali women by forcing them to expose their Awrah (body parts that needed to remain covered) in defiance of their Islamic values.

Writer’s witness

To verify this and establish the truth behind this allegation against the embassy, I (writer of this article), decided to visit the embassy together with a female relative who was seeking a passport.

Upon arriving at the embassy, we met a group of veiled women in a serious discussion outside the embassy compound. Near them was a gun-wielding Kenyan police officer offering security and a guard with a metal detector to search all visitors.

Since we were not familiar with these women, we greeted them and proceeded towards the entrance to the embassy compound, with the lady behind me.

After undergoing a brief security check, we were directed towards an office whose front right stood the Somali flag. We presented the payment receipt to an officer there. He asked the lady to shout her name and she did. He then directed us to a waiting room on the other corner with a receipt. The man was friendly and humble as Nimo described him in the first place (if he was the one she really referred as friendly).

After waiting in the room for about thirty minutes, a man opened the door leading to a big office with round desks and few chairs for the applicants. He shouted the lady’s name and told her to get in. I tried to follow her but he objected though he later allowed me in after pleading with him for several minutes.

Inside this office, there were three ladies and a man; probably they were all applying for a passport. Among them was a middle aged woman who was restless by the time we were let in. Few minutes later, I realized that the lady was rattled by an officer who asked her to remove her Hijab and she never wanted to remove it. Not far from where I was seated, a man with a grey suit shouted at her, ordering her to remove the Hijab, a piece of cloth so dear to her heart.
“Mama don’t waste our time here. Can you remove your Hijab and get photographed immediately,” he shouted.

“Bismillah….are we not Muslim guys, how can I remove my Hijab in front of you, “replied the woman desperately pleading with the officer not to remove her Hijab. Despite trying all means to prove her point, she had nobody to listen to. She compromised removing her Hijab but requested a private room since there were around five men inside the room including me.

She was shocked when she was told that they had no private place and the person to take her photo is a male employee. Without any delay, the lady walked out furiously and I went after her to get her argument.

“These men are violating our religious rights as women. They want us to remove our Hijab which is impossible. They are claiming to be Muslims of which I doubt because no true Muslim man will ever want to see or force a woman to undress in front of him,” she shouted as she walked outside the compound.

In effort not to raise eyebrows and curiosity of the embassy staff, I followed her to her taxi parked outside the embassy compound. Before reaching there, she was stopped by the same group of women I met outside when I was coming in and she joined the discussion. To get their comment, I started the discussion of the embassy’s breach of Islamic rules regarding women and their rights to dress. They all joined in agreed.

From the view of concerned fathers and husbands and from women who went to that embassy whether they accepted or not to remove thier hijab, they all had one thing in common and that is Somali Women’s religious rights are deliberately violated by the embassy through its policies.
With such perception and practice, the new Somali constitution seems to remain only in writing on a piece of paper with no future of uniting the country.

H. Ali-Horad
E-mail: alihorad@gmail.com   

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