Somalia: a call for sisterhood

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 5th, 2012
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Zainab M. Hassan

In the run up to next week’s Presidential election in Somalia, Zainab M. Hassan writes an open letter to new women parliamentarians asking them to demonstrate collective leadership in their choice of someone to lead a ruined country.

The mandate of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ended on August 20th, in accordance with the Road Map agreement signed in Mogadishu on September 6th 2011. The Road Map produced the Garowe II Principles and subsequent Protocol for ending the transition, and established the composition of the NCA and the new Parliament in June this year.  Traditional Elders (TEs) of the Somali clans were set to select 825 National Constituency Assembly (NCA) members, and 275 new Somali Federal Parliament members along a 4.5 clan power-sharing formula for the four major clans – Darood, Digil and Mirifle, Dir, and Hawiye – and a half for the rest of the clans considered as minority groups. A 30% percent quota of NCA and parliamentary seats were set aside for women. The quota for women produced an uproar from some of the men, particularly those who were vying for parliamentary seats and some of the Traditional Elders who were assigned to select members of Somalia’s next parliament. The Tribal Elders were supposed to represent the whole community,  not just men, and it’s their inherent responsibility to be the stewards of the well-being of the community, the country and the people. They did not comply with the quota, and only 24 percent of the NCA members are women.

On August 20th, as the mandate of the TFG expired, 250 new parliamentarians were sworn in together with an interim Speaker. However, only 36 (14%) were women – with only 20 members still to be elected to reach the total of 275 members. On August 28th the parliament elected a new Speaker, and the President will be elected on September 10th.

Sadly, some men and women attribute the subjugation and denial of leadership positions for women to Islam, though our religion clearly specifies equal rights and entitlements to both women and men. In general, no society can thrive by leaving behind the majority of its members, and Somali society is no exception.

Political participation of women: civil, human and religious rights

Somali women have been the backbone of our society and the nucleus of Somalia’s tribal networks of interwoven webs of clans threaded together through enter-marriages – making Somali women operationally a clan of their own and a tribe for all. Ironically, this matrilineal kinship that brings together people from different clans and geographic regions has also became a liability for our women, as their identity, loyalty and representations to their genealogical clan vs. that of their husbands and offspring is often contested. In reality, the status of Somali women’s clan identity does not change regardless of who they marry, but what they have demonstrated – and which is now perceived as a threat – is their determination to put the interests of family, community and the nation’s needs, ahead of the superficial views and self-interests of some of their male counterparts. Consequently, in the patrilineal and patriarchal Somali society women suffer deep-seated patterns of gender inequality, inequity, and injustice.

Even though Somali women played significant roles in the struggle for Somalia’s independence and for the nationalist cause, they have been denied equal access to leadership positions and political arenas where executive, legislative, or administrative decisions are made and implemented. During the civil war, the role of Somali women changed dramatically as they become the primary caregivers and breadwinners of the family. It is estimated that 80 percent households in Somalia were dependent on women’s income for the family’s livelihood.  In the last two decades Somali women have developed, managed, and lead significant non-governmental organizations providing social services education, healthcare, community development advocacy. More women than men in the diaspora send remittances to relatives back in Somalia and those who are refugees in neighbouring countries. While in older generations, more men were educated than women, that trend has changed among the younger generation.

Somali women also played a crucial part in peace building and reconciliation processes; having declared themselves – and been recognized as – the sixth clan, they were in a neutral position to persuade and challenge the men to think beyond clan enclaves. Their determination and mobilization compelled men to come together, negotiate when they stalled in arguments, and reach consensus.  Yet, the marginalization of women is a civil and human rights and social justice issue that still requires collective effort for redress.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets international standards that all people and all nations must strive for freedom, equality and participation and representation of citizens in political processes. Women’s leadership is not only a civil and human rights issue, but also a matter of the religious rights clearly prescribed in our religion – Islam. Contrary to the views of some, Islam promotes women leadership and nothing within its tradition and laws legitimizes discrimination against women.  As Professor Abdulwahid Qalinle, accomplished Islamic Scholar and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, writes:

During the lifetime of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), there were no restrictions in women’s full participation in the economic, political and social spheres of their society. For example, Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife was one of the most important merchants of the time, and the Prophet himself was her employee. She was a close advisor and regularly counselled him to withstand the challenges he faced from his tribe. Ayisha, the Prophet’s youngest wife was one of his most important advisers and consultants. He even directed Muslims to learn one half of the religion from her. In the early Islamic history women not only participated in various aspects of their society’s public sphere, they also had the right to be elected to political offices. For example, Omar the second Khalif appointed a woman to oversee the affairs of the marketplace. The women also participated in wars and fought in the battles.”

Islam affords and mandates the right of women to work, to own property and to have wealth. Women can seek employment and careers in medicine, teaching, political, civil, and justice professions. These rights remain the same before and after marriage. Regarding the right to work, Chapter 4 Verse 32 of the Quran states:

“And in nowise covet those things in which Allah hath bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn: But ask Allah of his bounty. For Allah hath full knowledge of all things’.

Islam also grants equality to men and women in spiritual status. Chapter 33 Verse 35 of the Quran states:

For Muslim men and women- For believing men and women. For devoted men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah praise- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.

For Somalia and for our women, Somalia needs to follow the footsteps of Rwanda where women hold 56 % of the seats in parliament, a third of all cabinet positions, and the key positions of Supreme Court Chief, Police Commissioner General and Auditor General, because for a modern state to function, it is critical that the civil, human and religious rights of all within the society are upheld and protected.

Call to Action

Somali women’s quest for political participation has been a long-standing struggle that pre-dates Somali independence. This struggle must now be waged outisde the clan structure which contributes to the marginalization of women. A growing body of research demonstrates that when women are empowered as political leaders countries experience higher standards of living, and positive developments are seen in education, infrastructure and health. In addition, many studies illustrate that the political participation of women results in concrete gains in democratic governance, greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increases cooperation across party and ethnic lines and leads to a more sustainable peace. Though the 30% quota law for Somali women representation has not been upheld, and less than 20% of parliamentarians are women, that number could shift the traditional quagmire of the Somali male clan politic.

There are no quick fixes to addressing the issue of the leadership gap. It will take the efforts of many Somali men and women who believe in the promotion of civil, human and religious rights, as well as in social and gender equity.

Sisterhood

Ahead of next week’s vote, I write an open letter to the new women parliamentarians in Somalia:

As women legislators, you are a representative sample of the population that is responsible for developing complex systems and policies and the selection of our leadership. Your primary responsibility is first and foremost the selection of the President who will lead our ruined country and collapsed society, as well as legislating for the law of the land. Many of the breakthrough models addresing citizen apathy and solving political conflicts are based on common ground multi-stakehoder and leam leadership approaches. You can only achieve this if you combine your forces and leverage your votes and efforts as a whole. The clan system that has treated you as outsiders and denounced your leadership will not serve you, your children, your community or the nation as a whole. As you are holding 30% of the votes to elect the next President of Somalia you hold tremendous power and influence over who the next President and leaders will be.

In your selection process, I hope you will look beyond the criterion set forth in the Somalia Constitution for the position of the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia and membership for the Federal Parliament. It is crucial that you give priorities to candidates that have the capacity to do the work and move our country forward. When considering the positions of the President and his deputies look among the persons who are most intelligent, honest, firm, and of good standing in the society. They should be well educated and capable of drafting legislative, executive processes and policy agendas. The candidates should be open-minded and possess superb leadership skills, ability to manage, build and lead teams, andhave the ability to facilitate constructive dialogue and action on critical issues.  It is imperative that they have good oral and written communication skills, as well as excellent interpersonal and networking skills. Lastly, the President should be charismatic and have the ability to lead, inspire and motivate legislators, government administrators, and the Somali public.

In the Presidential selection process, you have the opportunity to choose a viable candidate who is capable of lifting our people and country from the graveyard, and lead us to prosperity. Such a leader needs to look past trends and the present situation, to find viable solutions for the future in a compelling vision which forces him/her to understand the magnitude of the public problem. Somalia needs someone with practical experience in leading people and institutions, and who is in touch with the current realities on the ground, someone who can  ‘walk the talk’. Someone with tireless energy who can reinvigorate the aspirations, hopes and dreams of the civil servants and the Somali people.

I would advise you to interview the top five candidates for this position and inquire about their leadership style, their in-depth knowledge about the root causes of the Somali problems socially, politically, and economically, ask what their vision and work plan is, where they stand on the issues of women’s leadership, and what they have in store for women leaders as cabinet ministers, vice-ministers, political appointments and senior administration positions.

On the cusp of new era of nation building, I urge you to rise above the political clansmanship ideology and practice. If you stand as the “sixth clan,” and collaborate with like-minded individuals, you will have more power and opportunity in the selection process. I believe it takes an extraordinary people to step up to these challenges and to succeed. I hope you find an incentive to leave a positive legacy behind- a legacy of unity among you, hard work, peace building and reconciliation. Your leadership will need to muster the will power and strength to remain focused, and the genuine compromise, commitment – and indeed sacrifice, needed to move our people and country forward. Somalia is in ruins, and desperately needs a leadership that will evaluate social and national problems, negotiate and protect the interests of Somalia in the international arena, and rebuild our country through sustainable development.

Zainab M. Hassan is a Somali-American, and works as a programme officer at the Minneapolis Foundation in America.

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