I embrace my femininity and I believe in freedom of choice. I see myself as a culture breaker because my beliefs stir up controversy within my culture: women are go-getters who encompass a strong and proud character.
We have always been determined to overcome any obstacles we face, but our main problem was, and still is, gender inequality.
I believe in gender equality, equal pay, and reproductive rights for women. Holding these values has dubbed me a feminist.
Unfortunately, mainstream media depicts feminism in a negative light. Secular Somali groups charge other feminists, such as myself, with being the westernized feminist who seeks to delegitimize important cultural norms and values.
This may lead to the demonization of feminism and sometimes I worry there may not be an alternative. For those of us who are ever given the opportunity, I hope we can re-evaluate the word “feminism” to portray its full sense of value.
So what does it ‘actually mean’ to be a feminist? For me, feminism is the right of men and women to live as they see fit, free from constraints by outdated ideologies or unfair financial obstacles.
Recognizing women’s multiple and significant roles in society and their experiences is critical to developing appropriate responses to women’s needs.
Unlike many African countries, Somalia is composed of a single, homogeneous ethnic group. Even though Somalis differ in nuances in their lifestyle choices, fashion and education, they share a uniform language, religion, and culture, and can trace their heritage to a common ancestor.
After the civil war in Somalia and the collapse of the government in 1991, the first big wave of Somali immigrants came to the U.S.
A widespread break-up and displacement of families after the war meant that families lost male providers and household resources. A recent U.S. census study said Somali immigrants were among the “youngest and poorest” newcomers to the U.S., with a high percentage of the community living below the poverty line. To subsidize the male breadwinners’ low incomes, many women took on some extra work hours outside of the home or started to depend on the welfare system to support their families.
As a result, the Somali community began to witness a reserve shift of power between the genders, causing dislocation and anxiety for men and women to feel uncertain about the roles they play in relationships.
For some Somali women, the war has resulted in opportunities for a better life, empowerment and growth. The notion of moving away from the chains of limiting belief patterns and societal conditioning that have traditionally kept Somali women suppressed is slowly being reshaped to conform to a ‘new’ socially acceptable attitude towards gender roles.
Many Somali women have confronted the realities of the war and ‘re-defined’ the traditional roles of women, in order to further empower themselves and reshape the stereotypical gender opinions.
More Somali women today are now taking on the role in domestic decision-making, while taking on a job outside of the home.
Women like my mother have been at the forefront of social revival efforts at the community level to influence how young people grow up in this new society. Individually and collectively, Somali women have formed social ties amongst themselves to support one another and fulfill their multiple relationships within the community to influence the traditional power structures of gender roles within the culture.
Furthermore, women have expanded their career aspirations. They are no longer confined to traditional female fields; instead, they are learning to balance work and family life. When my mother talked about her experience of being a young working mother, she felt the heavier burden when it comes to balancing the two. Despite the progress in recent decades to bring about gender equality in the home, she credits the families that consist of both parents taking on a pro-active role with their children and supporting each other’s career goals
When one thinks of Somali women in the 21st Century, a mixture of opinions come to mind. The image of the suppressed Somali woman that strikes the majority of minds does little to support the women’s empowerment and feminist movement in quest for gender equality.
As a result, many Somali women are forced to play a mediator role between the existing cultural paradigms and their attitudes on gender roles, but their experiences are not unique.
I have spoken at dozen community events in the past, and the question I am asked most often is what it’s like to be a Somali woman. I always surprise the audience by saying that I do not think the Somali community has ever treated me poorly as a woman.
However, I noticed that when I take a political stand and call on Somali women to address the social inequality between men and women in the home and the community, I am the political messenger of the West.
On the other hand, if I reason with the importance of the male family roles and the consequences it has on children who are growing up without a father; then I am in solidarity with the patriarchy. I think much of these tug-of-wars stems from society’s need to place attitudes of gender roles into two separate categories.
In moving forward towards understanding how the new generation of Somali boys and girls are growing up, it is important to realize that they are a new generation, and the reality is men and women are different.
What we need is to educate our youth about the importance of mutual love and respect and a mouthful of understanding, along with equal opportunities that were denied to women in the past. By observing a healthy give-and-take between the parents, children will see how differences can lead to agreement, as well as learn that honoring these differences is important. But they also need to see that differences are respected rather than criticized.
Parents with different starting points and outlooks on gender roles can also work together.
Women are a key part of Somali society. While Somali women have made great strides and enjoy greater opportunities than ever before, they still face hurdles and discrimination.
My mother was a very strong woman, not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually. She was constant in our life and was proven to be the anchor to us all, so have many other Somali women.
It is extremely important to recognize the efforts of these women, because they have worked so hard to bring stability to families. Somali women are not seeking to overthrow the role of men; they each want to complement the roles of men and women. I too recognize that men have an important role to play, but so do we.