Summary and Keywords
Although Somali women have played a dynamic and important role in the making of Somalia’s history, their histories have been obscured by archival limitations and androcentric scholarship. Women in traditional Somali society—pastoralists, agriculturalists, and urbanites alike—were central to their communities for their reproductive and productive labor. They embodied social capital, as the practice of exogamous marriage that brought them to other communities also created important reciprocal relations between different kinship groups. Although a deeply patriarchal culture defined their life roles primarily as wives and mothers, Somali women used that very culture and the indigenous resources available to them to exercise agency, negotiate their positions, and carve out their own spaces. The advent of colonial rule, which partitioned the Somali peninsula between Britain, France, Italy, and the Ethiopian empire, drastically altered women’s lives. It fused traditional patriarchal relations with European ones, codified tradition and flexible communal identities, treated women as dependents of their male relatives, and created opportunities for men in education and employment that were not available to women. Though Somali women were at the forefront of the anticolonial struggle, the male elite who inherited the state after independence excluded women from the political sphere. Women’s rights took on a prominent role in the military dictatorship of General Mohamed Siad Barre, yet the repression and state violence that characterized his rule affected women acutely. The civil war that followed the disintegration of the Somali state has similarly affected women intimately. In addition to the gendered experience of violence, the increasingly conservative nature of Somali society has resulted in the loss of many gains made for women’s rights after independence. From precolonial society to colonial rule, dictatorship, and civil war, Somali women have exhibited the resilience, agency, and fortitude to make the most of their circumstances.
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