Category The War Through the Eyes. of Somali Women

About the Contributors

Amina M. Warsame is a specialist researcher and writer on Somali women and development. Originally trained as a teacher, she became the Head of the Women’s Documentation Unit of the Somali Academy of Arts and Culture and was responsible for supporting and undertaking some of the earliest research by Somali women on women’s position in society. She went into exile in 1989 finding refuge in Sweden where she settled until March 1997, when she returned to live permanently in Hargeisa. Since returning to Hargeisa she has been at the forefront of research and advocacy on the impact of the war on women’s lives, particularly within the pastoral community, and is a key activist on the issue of the political empowerment of women. A former executive committee member of the women’s umbrella organisation, Negaad, Amina is the founder of the Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group (SOWRAG).

Amina Sayid had completed her training as a medical doctor shortly before the war reached Mogadishu. Originally from Brava in southern Somalia, Amina and her family fled the fighting in Brava and Mogadishu, eventually reaching Yemen in 1992. Unable to return to Somalia because of the impact of the war on her community, since leaving Somalia Amina has worked as a health specialist and social services officer supporting other Somali refugee women and children, both in Yemen and in the UK where she now lives.

Dahabo Isse was born in southern Somalia and grew up in Mogadishu. Shortly before the war erupted in the city she was working for Aadamiga, a women’s non-governmental organisation. From 1991 to 1993 she was a key figure in the emergency relief wet­feeding programme (kitchen project) of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Unable to remain in Somalia she sought refuge in the UK where she continues to live. An active member of the diaspora she is the founder of Dadihiye, a Somali development organisation which responds to social service provision needs of disadvantaged Somali refugees and asylum seekers in London.

Dekha Ibrahim, a Kenyan Somali, has been a visiting trainer for the Birmingham-based organisation Responding to Conflict and is the

Kenyan representative for Coalition for Peace in Africa (COPA), a conflict transformation network.

Fowzia Musse is a social researcher and community development worker who trained in both Somalia and North America. She was involved in the first urban poverty survey of Mogadishu conducted in the late 1980s. Originally from north eastern Somalia, she was living in exile when the war reached Mogadishu. In 1993 Fowzia was recruited by the UNHCR to research the high incidence of rape occurring in the Somali refugee camps in Kenya. She went on to design and coordinate a project aimed at preventing rape and responding to the needs of survivors. She currently lives and works in the United States.

Habiba Haji Osman is a nurse-midwife and trainer from the Bay Region of Somalia who was working for the Ministry of Health and an international health organisation, AMREF, at the start of the war in southern Somalia. Bay Region was the epicentre of the war and famine in the first years of the conflict and after more than a year of trying to escape, Habiba finally reached Yemen in April 1992 where, unable to return home, she remains today. In Yemen Habiba has worked as a midwife trainer/supervisor for more than six years with a health programme which trains Yemeni women midwives and health care workers to provide locally managed mother and child health services at community level.

Halimo Elmi Weheliye, a nurse-midwife, was Principal of the Post­Basic Nursing and Midwifery School in Mogadishu until the start of the war when the services collapsed. Although from Mogadishu, Halimo was uprooted by the war and forced to seek refuge with her children among her husband’s family in the north west of the country, Somaliland. Since 1997 she has been the leading health worker and driving force behind an internationally sponsored programme to support the local staff development and management of Hargeisa’s primary health level services for women and children.

Ladan Affi is the youngest contributor to the book. She was a student in the United States preparing to return home when conflict broke out in Somalia. Unable to return to Somalia she settled in Ottawa, Canada and works closely with the Somali refugee community there. She is particularly concerned about Somalis’ experience of living in the diaspora. Ladan was instrumental in forming a group of Somali community members that attempts to raise awareness, promote positive images about Somalia and promote Somali culture. She works for the Catholic Immigration Centre in Canada.

The late Noreen Michael Mariano spent all of her adult life fighting for justice and was committed to improving the lives of women and children. In the late 1950s and early 1960s as a young woman she was an active member of Somalia’s first woman’s organisation, the Somali Women’s Association. Later, along with other women activists, Noreen personally lobbied Siad Barre to amend the Family Law to address the injustices endured by women throughout the country. Having worked for UNICEF Somalia for many years Noreen was a skilled development practitioner by the time she fled Mogadishu in December 1990. Although she could have found refuge in the west or elsewhere in the world Noreen chose to live in Hargeisa as soon as it was possible for her to return there in 1991. She was a founder member of the Committee of Concerned Somalis (CCS) a local non­governmental organisation which set up in 1992 to help restore basic services in the city. Noreen went on to establish a credit programme to develop income generation initiatives run by widowed and poor women; she was also responsible for opening Hargeisa’s first restaurant run by women – herself and her close friend, Amina Yusuf. Noreen’s health deteriorated in the late 1990s and she passed away in May 2000 while in Rwanda.

Rhoda Mohamoud Ibrahim has been a development practitioner for more than 18 years, working before the war with international agencies including Oxfam UK and Overseas Education Fund. She went into exile in Britain in early 1990 and worked for the Pastoral and Environmental Network for the Horn of Africa before becoming involved with the diaspora organisation SOMRA (Somali Relief and Assistance) which was set up to respond to emergency needs in Somaliland. Originally from Burao in Somaliland, she returned to Somaliland in 1995 to set up CIIR’s programme to support emerging civil society organisations. In 2001 she was appointed chair of the SNM veterans organisation, Soyaal. She is currently the Somaliland representative for Coalition for Peace in Africa (COPA), a conflict transformation network.

Sadia Musse Ahmed, a social scientist and one of Somalia’s only female anthropologists, was before the war Deputy Head of the Women’s Documentation Unit in the Somali Academy of Arts and Culture in Mogadishu. Accused of anti-revolutionary attitudes she

was arrested and imprisoned under Siad Barre’s government. She sought exile in Britain in 1990 and in 1991 worked with other Somali refugees to set up the diaspora organisation Somali Relief Association (SOMRA) to raise funds and set up projects in-country for the needs of war-displaced and affected. In 1994 Sadia co-founded Hal Abuur, a Somali literary and cultural journal publishing literature to promote Somali identity. Having previously worked in Ethiopia as the Gender Officer for the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), Sadia is now PENHA’s Somaliland Programme Director, based in Hargeisa.

Shukri Hariir Ismail is a well-known radio broadcaster and also a poet and writer. Shukri had to flee her home city of Hargeisa when it was bombed in 1988 and spent the next two and a half years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. There, along with other women, she became involved in community activities. Returning to Somaliland in 1991 she has become one of Somaliland’s leading spokeswomen on peace and women’s rights issues. As well as being the founder member of the Women’s Advocacy and Progressive Organisation (WAPO), and a broadcaster for Radio Hargeisa, in recent years Shukri has worked on a radio-based health promotion programme run by Health Unlimited.

Zeynab Mohamed Hassan worked before the war as a teacher in primary and secondary schools, and held various posts within the Ministry of Education, including Bay Regional Coordinator for women’s education, Director of income generating programmes in the Women’s Education Institute, and Supervisor of women’s income generating programmes in the Institute of Adult Education, Mogadishu. Between 1992 and 1994 she was the Programme Coordinator for the Somaliland Women’s Development Association (SOWDA) in Hargeisa. She has written materials on adult education techniques, hand-sewing, child care and nutrition, and female genital mutilation. She is currently working in Hargeisa with the inter­national development agency Life and Peace Institute.

The Editors

Judith Gardner is trained in anthropology and community development. A development practitioner with a special interest in gender relations and how communities cope with crisis, she has worked in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. She is currently the Africa and Middle East Regional Manager for CIIR.

Judy El Bushra is a development practitioner who has specialised in gender and conflict since the early 1990s. Until recently Head of ACORD’s Research and Policy Programme, she has worked in many contexts throughout Africa with particular focus on Sudan and Somalia. Her previous publications include Development in Conflict: The Gender Dimension (Oxfam UK/I, ACORD, 1993) and ‘Transforming Conflict: Some Thoughts on a Gendered Understanding of Conflict Processes’, in Ruth Jacobson, Susie Jacobs, Jennifer Marchbank (eds) States of Conflict. Gender, Violence and Resistance (Zed Press, 2000). Judy currently works as a freelance consultant.

[1] live in a compound with my husband and his second wife, and I was woken up by a torch shining in my face. I asked who it was and they told me to shut up. There were three men dressed in black with white

[2] Members of an internally-displaced women’s cooperative near Bardera collect wood to sell. One consequence of the war and the collapse of the state was the increased economic burden carried by women from all sectors of society, many of whom became their families’ main provider. (Betty Press/Panos Pictures)

[3] was taught by my grandfather that a woman has no brains, but the Wajir workshop has changed my attitude. Women can have breasts and brains. That will be my message to my sons and grandsons.


[5] The Somali original of this poem, which was recorded on audio cassette and stored in the Women’s Documentation Unit of the Somali Academy of Arts and Culture, has been lost in the destruction of Mogadishu.

2. Elisabetta Forni (1981) ‘Women’s Role in the Economic, Social and Political Development of Somalia’, in M. Bryden & M. Steiner (1998) Somalia Between Peace and War: Somali Women on the Eve of the 21st Century (Nairobi: UNIFEM).

3. SWDO quoted in Brons 2001.

4. SWDO figures for the proportion of women in the public administra­tion, ministries and autonomous agencies for the period 1975-84 show an average annual increase of 40.6 per cent. (SWDO, quoted in Brons 2001)

5. That SWDO itself was part of the coercive machinery of the state perhaps helps explain some men’s view (and maybe that of women too) that ‘men were seen as the enemy of the revolution’ and the organisation of women was a means to control them.

6. Lidwien Kapteijns, ‘Women in the Crisis of Communal Identity: The Cultural Construction of Gender in Somali History’, in Ahmed I. Samatar (ed.) (1994) The Somali Challenge (Boulder, London: Westview Press) p 229.

7. In this way, and through the food they provided, the humanitarian effort unintentionally provided resources to the warlords. It is reported that the ICRC had 15,000-20,000 local armed guards on its staff at the height of the violence. Andrew S. Natsios, ‘Humanitarian Relief in Somalia: The Economics of Chaos’, in Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst (eds) (1997) Learning from Somalia – The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder: Westview Press).

8. Mohamed Sahnoun (1994) Somalia – The Missed Opportunities, (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace Press).

9. They were displaced from Somaliland and the Central Regions as a result of the fighting in these areas between opposition and government forces.

10. In Aadamiga’s case it was not only outside ‘the Party’ but it was providing welfare assistance to those groups who were in opposition to the regime and hence the target of state-controlled violence.


[7] Recalled by a woman activist during a workshop held in the preparation of this book.

2. Some of the women active in the women’s movement during the 1960s to 1980s remain proactive and important figures in the movement today.

3. Maria Brons & Amina M. Warsame (2003) ‘Empowerment after return: Negaad women in Somaliland’, unpublished paper.

4. The Somaliland national umbrella of women’s organisations, Negaad, plays a central role in the campaign for women in leadership. Negaad works to advance the economic, social and political status of women in Somaliland, and to strengthen the capacity of its members to implement effective projects that facilitate the realisation of this structural change goal.


Some people from the regions of eastern Sanaag and Sool, which are contested by Somaliland and Puntland, have participated at the SNRP, believing that their future interests will be best served by a united Somalia rather than an independent Somaliland. The majority of people in Somaliland, however, support their government’s decision to stay away from the process in the belief that the time for talking will be once peace has been achieved in Somalia and an accountable government is in place.

During the 10 months that the SNRP process has been under way in Kenya, Somaliland has carried out the first democratic multi-party elections in Somalia since 1969. Multi-party elections to district councils took place in December 2002, and these were followed in April 2003 by presidential elections. The elections are ‘a crucial part of the transformation of Somaliland’s post-war system of government, from a clan-based power-sharing system to a constitu­tional government based on multi-party democracy’.1 The process is considered ‘potentially very significant for the future of Somaliland and the political entity (or entities) that emerge from the remnants of the Somali state’. (Ibid)

Three parties fielded candidates in the Presidential Election2 and 488,543 votes were cast by women and men of eligible age at 782 polling stations.3 Voting was conducted peacefully and international observers who witnessed the elections, including a large delegation from South Africa, concluded that they had been carried out in a free and transparent manner and generally in line with international standards. The party of the incumbent president, Daahir Rayaale Kaahin, won the elections, beating its closest rival, Kulmiye, by only 80 votes. The narrow margin of victory gave rise to a period of tension as Kulmiye contested the results and the government sought to prevent violence by invoking emergency laws, detaining opposition supporters and controlling the media. Civil society forums stepped in to mediate and the public made clear that the parties should follow constitutional process to resolve their differences.

On 16 May 2003, following confirmation of the result by the Supreme Court, Daahir Rayaale Kaahin was sworn in as the first elected President of Somaliland. Three weeks later a committee of sultans persuaded Kulmiye to concede defeat and prepare to contest parliamentary elections. (Ibid)

One of President Kaahin’s first decisions was to appoint Edna Adan as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the most senior position yet held by a woman in any Somali government. A second woman was appointed as Minister of Family and Social Welfare.4 Women also expect to gain seats in Somaliland’s next parliament, which will be formed through multi-party elections within two years.


1. Mark Bradbury, Dr Adan Yusouf Abokor, Haroon Ahmed Yusuf, ‘Choosing Politics over Violence: Multi-party Elections in Somaliland’, Review of African Political Economy, May 2003.

2. A woman, Fawziya Yussuf Haji Adam, tried to challenge the system by running as an independent candidate but was barred by a Supreme Court ruling.

3. Two districts in eastern Sanaag and three in Sool did not vote.

4. This post had previously been held by Edna Adan.

Political Update, July 2003

Judith Gardner


At the time of writing, July 2003, Somalia’s faction leaders, individuals defined as ‘members of civil society’, and the Transitional National Government (TNG) formed at Arta in 2000, continue to struggle in pursuit of a way forward on the future governance of Somalia. They are doing so through the 14th internationally convened Somalia National Reconciliation Process (SNRP). Designed and managed by the Inter-Governmental Agency on Development for the Horn and East Africa (IGAD), with support from the interna­tional community, including the European Union, this process began on 15 October 2002 in Eldoret, Kenya. It was expected to last three months. Almost ten months on the process is still some way from completion with the final phase, the election of 315 parliamentari­ans, a president and prime minister, still to be finalised. Before this can happen agreement needs to be reached on the major remaining issue of contention: whether or not Somalia should become a federal state immediately or after a transition period and public referendum. Conference delegates and most Somali observers are divided over this question. One issue over which there seems to be consensus is the call for an (African) international peace-keeping operation to begin during the post-conference transition phase when disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration will be a priority in the steps to establishing peace and reconciliation inside the country.

More than 100 women, among them supporters of various faction leaders, members of the TNG, professionals from the diaspora and individual grassroots peace activists, tried to take part in the conference. With the conference management de facto in the hands of the faction leaders and the regional powers who support them, many women (and men) who had much to contribute but were perceived as ‘threats’ to various powerful factions were rejected. Of those that remain, 21 are officially registered observers and 34 are official delegates allowed to vote in plenary sessions. A woman has sat on each of the six Reconciliation Committees established as part of the process. Two women are on the Leaders’ Committee consisting of 22 faction leaders and five members of ‘civil society’. The Leaders’ Committee has come to constitute the power within the process, making many decisions without reference to the plenary.

Women are divided both by loyalty to opposing factions and clans and over the question of federation – 26 of the women are taking part as members of faction groups or the TNG. Nevertheless women have been united in pursuing an agenda for women’s representation in whatever form of government is finally created. Aiming for 25 per cent representation women have had to settle for 12 per cent, just a 1 per cent increase on the Arta. UNIFEM and the IGAD Women’s Desk have played a significant support and lobbying role to achieve this outcome, providing women delegates with a Resource Centre and seminars from veteran women’s rights campaigners from Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. At least one woman is standing as a pres­idential candidate alongside more than 40 male candidates.

According to the process agreed by the Leaders’ Committee, the parliamentary deputies will be selected on a clan basis, chosen by the faction leaders, in consultation with traditional clan elders.

Throughout the period of the peace process, and despite the much – publicised Declaration of the Cessation of Hostilities achieved just three weeks into the process, on 27 October 2002, serious armed conflicts have continued to affect parts of Somalia. Promulgated by the very same faction leaders and warlords who signed the Declaration, these violations have included gender-based crimes of sexual violence targeting women and girls.

Starlin Abdi Arush – a tribute Editors’ note

It is too early to judge the impact of her work but a book about the war and women in Somalia would not be complete if it did not mention the late community activist and leader, Starlin Abdi Arush, of Merca, a town south of Mogadishu. Starlin was killed before we were able to invite her to contribute to this book. We include here an obituary by British journalist James Astill who spent some time with her in Merca.

Whether negotiating with warlords, setting up hospitals or chairing her Somalian homeland’s Olympic committee, Starlin Abdi Arush, who has been murdered in Nairobi aged 45, often seemed a lone voice of good humour and good sense. Some diplomats spoke of her as the first president of a new, democratic Somalia, but she eschewed such ideas of power.

She died on her way to observe the latest peace talks between Somalia’s warlords. It seems that Starlin was the victim of a robbery; an ironic end for a woman who lived through the nihilistic battle of Mogadishu in 1991, and for whom confrontations with gunmen were a daily ordeal.

Starlin maintained that tribalism had no place in the workings of a nation state and saw plans to save Somalia founder around the rejection of this principle. In 1993, Starlin tried to negotiate an end to the stand-off between the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed and the American peace-keepers who saw him as the cause of all evil. The Americans launched a disastrous attack on Aideed, and thus became just another faction in a tribal war.

In 1999 Starlin turned down a high-level job in a new, United Nations-sponsored government. She predicted that the government – elected on tribal quotas – would fail. She told clan elders who demanded their share of jobs in her projects:‘I understand your cousin needs a job. But when you have a heart attack, do you want him to treat you?’

Starlin advocated the creation of local governments, to take over aid projects such as those she ran for COSVI, an Italian charity. The projects’ beneficiaries could be expected to support these adminis­trations; and in this way the state could be rebuilt.

Starlin’s childhood in Merca, a small Indian Ocean port 60 miles south of Mogadishu, prepared her for a role in Somalia’s male – dominated society. Her mother – the estranged first wife of one of Somalia’s first vets, and a patron of a Sufi order – expected as much of her four daughters as [of] her three sons. She taught Starlin a fierce love of Somalia’s unique Islamic culture; and an equally fierce intolerance of its misinterpretation by male chauvinists. As an unmarried woman, Starlin wore neither head-scarf nor veil.

After graduating from a Catholic convent high school, Starlin lived in Italy for 13 years. She dabbled with medical school, then forged a successful career in Turin’s municipal government. Italy’s nepotistic institutions were familiar; but its democratic freedoms impressed her.

In 1991 Somalia erupted into war, and when Starlin’s younger brother and brother-in-law were killed as fighting reached Mogadishu, she returned to support her sister, Halima. Weeks later, the battle of Mogadishu began. Their home was mortared daily and ransacked twice. Throughout the fighting, Starlin and Halima organised food deliveries. This led to her involvement with the UN’s emergency relief effort when famine came. With Starlin an increasingly troublesome critic, Mohamed Aideed cited these international ties as a reason to have the Arush sisters hauled before a tribal court. He accused them of scheming with foreign agents. Standing proudly, Starlin with her head bare, the two women asked:‘If we wanted to kill Aideed, why would we need foreign help? Why would we not take a knife and do it ourselves?’ The elders were won over instantly.

Shortly after, Starlin returned to Merca to negotiate the release of some Italian aid workers taken hostage by a fundamentalist militia. Here she endured a slight which was to lead her to transform the town’s dire fortunes. Having assured the militia that she would not help the hostages to escape, one militiaman pointed his gun at her and

asked:‘But why should we believe you?’ Starlin was stunned. Only an outsider – and a thug at that – could have dared insult her in the town where her family had lived for generations. Instantly, she vowed to try putting Merca to right. It was no easy task. Its hospital had 300 employees, many of them idle militiamen, and few medical supplies. She dealt calmly with confrontation. When a thug pressed his gun to her throat, she responded:‘I am Starlin Abdi Arush of the Habir Eji clan. Put down your gun or you will be dead by tomorrow.’ Starlin accepted such incidents as inevitable. Far more damaging was when her European donors listened to rumours, put about by rivals, that she was a warlady carving out a fiefdom.

Strolling around Merca with Starlin was humbling, if time­consuming – everybody flocked to pay their respects. And Starlin, gravely nodding, gently teasing or cheerfully chatting, always repaid the compliment. Then came her aid projects: the hospital, clinics for mothers and babies, schools for 3,000 children, the demobilisation camp for militiamen. For foreign correspondents, these were practically the only contemporary good-news stories in Somalia.

Starlin had hoped to hand over her aid projects and help set up a local administration in Merca. There seems little doubt that the people would have supported her. More than 1,000 of them lined the streets to receive her body home.

She is survived by her family and her fiance, Roland Marchal, a French academic, who said:‘She never much considered her own future. She only thought of her country.’

Starlin Abdi Arush, peace activist and aid worker, born 3 March 1957; died 24 October 2002.28 [6] [7]

5. With thanks to Amina M. Warsame.

6. The same saying is used by women to describe men; it is said to have been coined by women.

7. Mohamed Sheik Abdillahi (1997) Somaliland NGOs: Challenges and Opportunities (London: CIIR).

8. Sceptics argue that women were allowed to participate in the Conference so as to build international donor confidence; Ibrahim Nur (2002) ‘Somalia case study’, in ‘Gender Sensitive Programme Design and Planning in Conflict-affected Situations’, ACORD, unpublished.

9. This section on Puntland is compiled from Faiza Warsame’s ‘The Role of Women in Rebuilding Puntland’ in War Torn Societies Project (2001) Rebuilding Somalia: Issues and Possibilities for Puntland (London: Haan Associates). It is extracted with permission of the author and WSP.

10. Adam J. Bixi, ‘Building From the Bottom Up: Basic institutions of Local Governance’, in WSP 2001.

11. CIIR/ICD (2003) Multiparty Local Government Elections in Somaliland, December 2002 (London: CIIR) www. ciir. org.

12. As international aid agency relief and rehabilitation programmes got under way in Somaliland in the early 1990s the formation of local non­governmental, particularly women’s, organisations was encouraged. The international community wanted local organisations that could be contracted to deliver emergency relief aid and reconstruction and, more broadly, to empower women.

13. From an interview in Maria Brons and Amina M. Warsame, 2003 ‘Empowerment after Return: Negaad Women in Somaliland’ (unpublished).

14. The term used in the south of Somalia to describe such gang members is mooryaan – thought to mean a group ‘of hunger-driven men, with no honour and no dignity, who would eat or do anything’ (Nuruddin Farah 2000), and known as jiri in Puntland.

15. In traditional Somali politics there is no centralised state, nor are there political offices or ranked leaders. Decision-making is conducted demo­cratically (although formally excluding women) by segmentary groups of kinsmen meeting in general assemblies, where all adult male family heads or elders seek to reach decisions through consensus.

16. Amina M. Warsame (1997) ‘The Impact of the Civil War on Pastoralists, Especially Women and Children’, unpublished thesis (The Hague: Novib/Institute of Social Studies).

17. The other committee members were: the late Faiza H. Abdillahi – Vice Chairperson, Anab Omer Leye, Maryan Abdi Obsiye, Ahmed Aw Gedi, Hasan Jama, Muhamed Elmi.

18. More than 10 people put themselves forward as candidates for the presidency, including one woman. Out of those who nominations were accepted, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, the president since June 1993, achieved the greatest number of votes and was reinstated for a second term.

19. Including the Akishe and the Gabooye (composed of the Midgan, Tumal and Yibir).

20. During the civil war Somalia’s legal, judicial and law enforcement system collapsed. Since then no uniform constitutional and legal rules have been applied across the country. The Somaliland government has adopted Islamic shari’a as the basis of all laws in combination with the pre-1969 penal code, in place prior to Siad Barre’s regime. For many people the pillars of laws are a combination of Islamic shari’a and xeer, or customary law, governing clan behaviour. UNDP (2001) Somalia Human Development Report 2001 (Nairobi: UNDP).

21. President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal died in May 2002 while undergoing surgery in South Africa. The Government of Somaliland immediately appointed the Vice-President, Daahir Rayaale Kaahin, to take over as transitional president until the multi-party presidential elections in 2003.

22. Member of WPF quoted in CIIR 2003.

23. Though some, like Sara Haid, a young Somali woman born in Britain and founder of the British-based Somali organisation Tawakal, find ways of contributing to life ‘back home’ through Somali organisations in the diaspora.

24. Noreen was one of Somalia’s few Christians.

25. The concern Noreen refers to here is that without original documenta­tion to prove a person’s medical qualifications it was quite possible for false claims to be made and impossible to disprove; the likelihood of this happening was high given the very weak administrative systems in place and the strong clan tensions prevailing at the time.

26. Drawing up a Code of Ethics for Medical Practice was only one of the numerous legislative tasks which faced the newly formed Somaliland government.

27. Noreen is referring here to those people who had been sacked on the grounds that they had been found to be unqualified to practice as medical personnel.

28. Guardian, London, 4 November 2002.

Noreen’s story

In 1991 when people returned to Hargeisa and other parts of Somaliland such as Burao, Gebiley, or Arabseyo, they found little left standing. This was particularly the case in Hargeisa where so many houses and building had been destroyed. The mass destruction of homesteads meant that many people found themselves homeless. Amidst the destruction, Hargeisa Hospital remained intact. Consequently the hospital became a place for homeless people to set up home. Whilst the hospital wards were left for sick patients, other areas such as the doctors’ room and the nurses’ room, the storage area for medicines, the kitchen, the administra­tive offices, were occupied by homeless people. The squatters were ex-hospital staff members, disabled people, SNM veterans, and returnees from Ethiopia whose homes had been destroyed. Some people even set up the traditional Somali homestead known as the aqal inside the hospital, while others constructed their homes within the hospital using corrugated-iron sheeting.

In 1992 my friend Amina and I had started working to try to improve the health situation in the town. We had developed a dispensary for the SNM Veteran’s Widows. One of the medical staff who helped at the dispensary regularly referred people to the hospital, thinking that it was at least standing. So Amina and I decided to go and visit the hospital to see for ourselves. Human beings were living everywhere and there were even qaad-chewing sessions going on – one room was just a qaad-chewing venue! People, young men and young women, would say: ‘Oh, we’re meeting at the hospital (for a qaad chew).’ Secondly, people were using the medications to sell or to use for themselves – there were some drugs, tranquillisers, that could be sold and other drugs that would make you spaced out. But worst of all we found that the maternal mortality level at the hospital was incredibly high. At one point, in one night there were 10 maternal deaths. This was horrendous. A child and a mother would die. A child and a mother! There was no professional screening of staff. People

were operating and working without necessarily being qualified to do so. It was a terrible situation.

A doctor at the hospital who was disgusted by what was happening came and asked us if we could do something to help sort the place out. We realised that it was too big a thing for us alone so we set about getting others involved. In the end we managed to get a team of 18 together – four members of the Committee for Concerned Somalis, three doctors and 11 businessmen.

Our first task was to clean the place. Cleaning the place meant removing the squatters. We counted 53 families living in the hospital. After some negotiation a few agreed to leave but 47 families simply refused. So we talked to them, we brought SNM people to talk with the SNM veterans, we tried our best to persuade them to leave. We kept visiting them, spending time with them. They didn’t like it. The group was willing to help the squatters to entice them to leave the hospital. Each squatter family was offered a truck to take them and their property wherever they wanted and every five family members were provided with a tent. If there were ten family members then they would be given two tents. Eventually the squatters agreed to go – all except six individuals who adamantly refused to leave. They saw me and Amina as the biggest threat because I had a car giving us the freedom to come and go to the hospital.

Some of the squatters were suffering from mental problems or trauma, which made evicting them difficult and dangerous. One day one of the remaining squatters pulled an automatic gun on me. In the belief that the further away one is from a gun the more dangerous it is, I rushed towards him and said ‘Shoot!’ He was shocked and said:‘I want to kill you!’‘Yes! Kill me!’ I replied and stayed close to him, staring him in the eyes. He looked at me and seemed amazed.‘Now I know you must be crazy. You are a crazy Christian’, he said.‘Yes, I am a crazy Christian who, like you, comes from Burao’,24 I told him. At this reference to the place we had in common, he gave up his gun to me. By then everyone was coming to see what was happening. I took the gun and gave it to someone to remove the bullets. The squatter who had pointed the gun at me was a disabled man and was using a wheel chair: I told him that if he ever threatened me again I would take the two arms of his wheelchair and throw him backwards. He asked if I was going to kill him? I said:‘Yes. You wanted to kill me so now I am going to kill you!’ He saw the funny side of this and we settled our dispute as friends though he still refused to leave the hospital.

Another squatter who had had a leg amputated was similarly aggressive towards me. When he started threatening me I told him that there were men from my own tribe who were amputees like him but they didn’t squat in the hospital preventing it being used for the care of the sick. The next day when we were alone together; he brought out a hand grenade.

I had never seen one before but I guessed what it was. He told me he was going to pull the pin out if I did not give in to his demands. Without thinking, I rushed at him, taking his left hand in my right hand and taking his right hand with my left hand and I said:‘OK. Let’s pull it together; Come on, after three. One, two, three.’ He was really shocked and told me that it would kill us.‘Yes. We will die together’, I said.‘Your body and my body will never be separated. We will be buried in one batch but then you will go to hell. On top of everything else you will go to hell.’ He argued that it would be me who went to hell if I killed him. No, I told him:‘You pulled the grenade, I’m just helping you.’ He was really afraid and said that he couldn’t pull the pin. He asked if I really wanted to and I told him no. I asked him what he was going to do and he said he wouldn’t do anything.

I persuaded him to hand over the grenade to me. The thing was, I didn’t know what to do with it and I didn’t know if it was still safe or not. So I called for someone to come and help. They came and they told me that as long as I didn’t pull the pin it would be safe. I eventually found a policeman and gave it to him. The amputee and I became friends after that. He would say:‘Ah, the crazy Mariano, the crazy Christian.’

In both situations I was lucky It was the danger that made me quick. In such a situation your life depends on you being fast; otherwise you are gone. There’s so much that could make you afraid but as my mother told me,‘You die every day if you are afraid.’

After these incidents the remaining squatters realised that my group and I were serious. With the hospital cleaned and cleared of most of the squatters the Hargeisa Hospital Group, as we were then called, arranged a selection process for doctors, nurses, paramedics and auxiliaries. It was easy to check the credentials of the nurses because they had been registered in Mogadishu and we had copies of the registers in Hargeisa. But we had to find ways of verifying the rest – the doctors, lab technicians and so on. We got verifications from the (newly established Somaliland) Ministry of Health in the end but we were afraid that tribalism would lead to dishonest claims.25

We set up an emergency rota system consisting of three shifts. The group would take it in turns to visit the hospital, the wards, and patients and monitor what was happening. We would check with patients:‘Did you get your medicine last night? Did you get you injection?’We would do spot checks, turning up in the middle of the night sometimes. We met with the Matron every morning at 10am and with the doctors. Many doctors were unhappy about what we were doing. They were threatened because until then they had done what they liked. The Hargeisa Hospital Group actually ran the hospital for four months and even paid salaries. The money for the salaries was collected as donations from Somali businesses and the international organisation Caritas.

We were active in trying to bring down the high levels of maternal mortality We made a great deal of noise about it. We went to the doctors, the Ministry of Health, and then we started to campaign for attention, saying that maternal deaths were not like measles or cholera that are seasonal. Why have the high numbers of deaths been occurring? We really blasted the doctors. It was because we made such a noise that President Egal let us be responsible for the hospital temporarily

We discovered that three or four of the doctors (one of them hadn’t even completed his second year at college) were using veterinary drugs, meant to be used for livestock, on women to speed up their labourThe use of this drug was the main cause of the maternal death rate – scandalous! When we found out we told the doctors that we’d take them to court. In the face of questions the doctors kept quiet. They denied it. Then we made lists with photographs. We didn’t print them in the newspapers but we had photographic evidence. We went to the court and said that we wanted to file a case. We were told that we couldn’t because the medical code of ethics hadn’t been drawn up.26 (And who is going to draw them up? The very doctors who are carrying out criminal practices? If a man shoots a woman he is taken to court and very likely shot or put in prison. Why then is nothing done when he kills a child and mother through medical malpractice?) We succeeded in having the veterinary drugs taken out of the store and removed from the pharmacy. We announced in the newspapers that we would publicise the names of anyone found holding the drug because it was a criminal act. All the pharmacies subsequently destroyed their stocks.

The Hargeisa Hospital Group handed over management in April 1994 but by August the civil war had broken out [between the Somaliland government and Isaq sub-clans].The tribal nature of the war meant some of the hospital staff had to flee for their lives. All the people we had sacked came back to the hospital27 – this time with guns. During one of my support visits to the hospital some of these people reminded me that they were the ones Id sent away and they threatened to shoot me. I went to the Minister to complain and to ask what he was doing allowing the hospital to be invaded.

While I was at the ministry some of my tribal cousins got to hear about what had happened to me. About ten of them went to the hospital carrying guns and demanded to know who had been threatening Noreen

Mariano? I was summoned to the hospital to prevent my tribesmen from causing trouble and I found the ones who’d threatened me had run away We called it a truce but after that I kept away from the hospital more as I didn’t want to be the cause of any trouble between the tribes.

I’m not brave. It’s just that you have to live in this country. I am determined to live here and improve it. This is the most important thing. In 1992 [when an earlier conflict had broken out in Hargeisa] I decided I would not leave. I was displaced from Mogadishu, Berbera and Burao and if I get displaced from Hargeisa I will literally leave Somaliland and never come back – that’s my promise. So I have to make Hargeisa liveable.


Editors’ note

In 1988 the population of Somalia’s north west region was estimated at between 1.78 and 2.05 million, excluding Ethiopian refugees who had been there since the 1978 Ogaden War: Following the massive aerial bombardment and destruction of Hargeisa and Burao by Siad Barre’s forces in May 1988, up to 1 million people had sought refuge in Ethiopia and elsewhere, including the south of the country

In January 1991 as the United Somali Congress (USC) took Mogadishu, and Siad Barre and his supporters fled, the Somali National Movement (SNM) captured the northern cities of Hargeisa, Berbera and Burao, bringing an end to the civil war in the region. Refugees and displaced people began cautiously returning to the towns and cities which they had run from three years before. Throughout 1991 and 1992 those arriving in Somaliland included people who had never previously lived there. By January 1992 Somaliland’s population was estimated to be 1.35 million. (Bradbury 1997)

The people arriving in cities like Hargeisa and Burao in 1991 found little left standing. In Hargeisa more than 90 per cent of buildings had been destroyed. The only part of the city left relatively unscathed was the area that had been held by government troops. People returning did so at con­siderable risk of being injured by the 1 million or more landmines laid in the region during the civil war – many of them scattered in and around ruined buildings. Water sources had been systematically blown up, contam­inated or booby-trapped; airstrips, bridges and communication routes had been destroyed or badly damaged, and all public services, like health care and education, had collapsed. By the end of 1992 a foreign professional mines-clearance company had arrived to train Somalis but until then mines were cleared by whatever means were available. A group of volunteer men organised themselves into ‘the Pioneers’ and showed courage in clearing mines with nothing but their ingenuity and bare hands.

At the same time as having to negotiate the lethal hazards left by the former regime the men, women and children returning to the country confronted gangs of gun-carrying, trigger-happy and qood-chewing bandits or dey-dey. Such bandits tended to be young former SNM fighters, many traumatised by the war and with no vision of a future except to survive on illegal gains. Usually operating in gangs, and equipped with heavy artillery including tanks and gun-mounted vehicles known as ‘technicals’, they survived through looting, intimidation and extortion and the very real threat of violence. At the same time as being aggressors, many groups functioned as the protectors and military vanguards of the clan or sub-clan they represented; as militias they were underthe control of the clan elders. Clan elders sometimes took action against their own militia members, including executions, in order to ensure the clan abided by traditional codes of conduct and reparation or to curb their violent tendencies.

Probably there is no one who lived in Hargeisa between 1991 and 1995 who did not experience a violent or threatening confrontation. Faced with the need to get on with rebuilding their lives, everyone took risks and showed courage. But motivated by a determination to prevent further death and suffering, some women and men exposed themselves to additional risks and showed extraordinary courage. The late Noreen Michael Mariano was one such person.

Noreen was a founder member of the Committee of Concerned Somalis (CCS), a volunteer group of 10 men and women set up in 1992. One of CCS’s first goals was to address the high maternal mortality in Hargeisa by re-establishing the Hargeisa Hospital which had been badly damaged in the war and had become home to a variety of squatters including former militiamen.

Women in the diaspora

The renascent women’s movement in Somalia and Somaliland is severely constrained by the lack of educated women in the country. There are few women who feel sufficiently confident about their skills and experience to stand for political positions, for example – not that inadequate skills and experience ever seems to prevent large numbers of men standing for, and attaining, such positions. Somali women have always had limited access to education but from the 1980s onwards the educated women in Somalia largely left the country to seek asylum in the diaspora. The war resulted in the complete collapse of the state education system across the country. As a result many young women (and men) who are now in their late teens and twenties have had no educational opportunities.

One potential source of energy and skills that may have the capacity to transform the future of women’s rights in Somalia and Somaliland are the women and girls currently in the diaspora.

Living in the diaspora as a refugee is usually a difficult and stressful experience but one which has enabled many thousands of girls and women to access educational and training opportunities which would not have otherwise been available to them. As long as violent insecurity and high unemployment persist in Somalia there will be little to attract women back from the diaspora, where many are earning a living and supporting their dependants through school as well as remitting money to relatives back home.

In Somaliland at least, the pattern seems to be that those women who choose to return are older women whose children have completed school and remain independently in the diaspora; those who are younger and still have children at school stay in the diaspora. Not surprisingly perhaps, few educated young Somali women appear to be opting for a return to ‘traditional’ life in Somalia or Somaliland.23

Women who have returned from the diaspora to Somaliland, sometimes intending to stay just a few months, are proving invaluable sources of inspiration and leadership in many sectors, from commerce to community development. Sharing and combining their skills and experience with those of other women together they create a powerful challenge to the status quo in Somali society.

The Somaliland Constitution

Article 57 of the Somaliland Constitution, referring to the rights of women:

• Women and men are equals as far as the rights, freedom and responsibilities outlined in the Somaliland Constitution are concerned.

• The Government should promote the rights of women to be liberated from customs and traditions which are against the shari’a and which affect their body physically and psychologically [a reference in particular to the practice of female genital mutilation].

• Women have the right to own, manage, supervise, use and donate their assets in accordance with shari’a.

• To enhance knowledge and income, women have the right to education including skills training and adult education

Angry but undeterred, women in Somaliland continue to campaign for their rights, turning the challenges that confront them into opportunities to develop further organisational and planning skills. A welcome decision by the transitional president21 was the appointment of a woman to be Minister of Family and Social Welfare.

Somaliland’s first multi-party district council elections, December 2002

Although later than planned, following a referendum on the draft constitution in 2001 the government duly paved the way for a multi­party political system to replace the clan-based form of governance which had been in place since 1991. For the entire voting population this heralded the first multi-party political election since 1969 when Siad Barre took over power. For women, this shift away from clan – based politics provides a major opportunity not only to vote as men’s equals for the first time in more than a decade but also to field candidates and gain representation in the political parties competing for election.

In October 2000 a group of leading women within Somaliland’s civil society came together to form the Women’s Political Forum (WPF). Forming two years before the December 2002 multi-party district council elections were due, WPF’s original aim was to promote women’s political participation at every level.

Within a few months of being formed WPF decided to create its own political party, Qoys, meaning ‘Family’, to represent women’s concerns. But they could not find women willing to stand as political candidates for their party. All those they approached were either not prepared to stand, felt they could not give up their jobs or did not feel they had sufficient education. So WPF changed its strategy, con­centrating instead on persuading the other (male-dominated) political parties to include women candidates and to give greater priority to women’s issues in their party manifestos. Women candidates did come forward and were encouraged by WPF to seek positions in the parties’ hierarchies. In the end two parties did nominate women as co-vice chairs.

WPF also selected one party, Hormood, to align with on the basis that its manifesto was pro-women’s rights and being aligned with Qoys would attract women voters. The understanding of this alignment was that Hormood would offer the position of vice chair to a woman but in the event they did not do so: ‘They finally said “It won’t work" – in addition they delayed making the list of candidates and when the list came forward there were not enough women included.’22

Undefeated, WPF joined other civil society groups in conducting voter-education training and awareness raising. WPF’s aim was to encourage women to come out and use their vote on election days and for both voters and candidates to prioritise women’s issues.

When election day came on 15 December more than 400,000 women and men over the age of 16 turned out to vote. In the absence of census data no one is certain what proportion of the eligible voters this turn-out represented, and there is no figure for the number of women although women were reported to have voted in large numbers. There were six parties competing in an electoral process based on proportional representation whereby votes were not for individuals but parties and the party which received the most votes at the district level won the most seats on the council. Each party submitted a list of candidates drawn up in priority order; names on the list would qualify for a seat on the council depending on the number of votes won by their party. Between the lists of the six parties there was a total of approximately 2,760 candidates for 332 seats across 23 local councils. Of these 2,760 candidates just six were women. When votes were counted, two of the six women came through the process qualifying for seats and now hold elected positions in their local councils (in Erigavo and Gebiley).

For WPF, the experience of this first multi-party election in Somaliland has proven that with democratic electoral processes the lack of educated women to promote women’s interests at the political level remains a major constraint on efforts to improve women’s lives. Educated Somali women are a minority in Somaliland (and in Somalia as a whole), the majority being in the diaspora. As noted in the UNDP Somalia Human Development Report 2001, ‘Tradition and lack of education mean that few women are fully aware of their rights and in their efforts to hold communities together, they often accept violations of their rights as being consistent with shari’a and customary law.’ (UNDP 2002)

Demobilisation of combatants

Through lobbying and training initiatives, women’s organisations also played an important role in the demobilisation campaign to disarm and rehabilitate former SNM fighters. At the end of the war, in 1991, many SNM fighters laid down their arms and returned to civilian life. Some stayed together as military units linked to their sub-clan group. Others turned to banditry and lawlessness. During the first half of the 1990s well armed, sometimes traumatised, and badly disciplined gang members – known as dey-dey14 – caused widespread insecurity and violence, especially along the roads.

With agreement from the clan elders and material support from business people and local organisations such as SOWDA, in 1995 the government finally completed the demobilisation and reintegration of up to 5,000 militiamen. Using the campaign slogan, ‘Put down the gun and take up the pen’, SOWDA alone claims to have demobilised more than 400 former fighters, receiving from them 1,500 items of weaponry and ammunition which SOWDA in turn handed over to the government.

Political participation

Until the reconciliation and governance processes established at the Boroma Conference of 1993 (see Chapter 6) women activists’ overriding concern was how to achieve peace and reconciliation. From late 1993 the focus was women’s rights, particularly their right to take part in government. A revival of traditional forms of governance and reconciliation15 was the means by which the leaders in Somaliland transformed clan-based conflict into a sustainable peace. There was significant input from women peace activists, who themselves advocated the revival and use of traditional means of conflict resolution and peace-building. Yet within the traditional form of governance based on the patrilineal clan system, women are excluded from direct participation and decision-making. So began a struggle by women in Somaliland to assert their human right to equal political status – a right legislated for under the Siad Barre regime but not attained by the vast majority of women.

Women lobbied for political inclusion from the start of their involvement in peace-building in 1991. Their 1992 letter demanding an end to the clan war in Berbera (see Chapter 6) demanded that a third of the national parliament be women – they had decided to postpone demanding their right to half the parliament until later. The inclusion of 10 women observers at the National Peace and Reconciliation Conference in Boroma in October 1993 fell short of women’s ambition but was seen by many to be an historic precedent as it allowed women some measure of participation in what was otherwise a traditional clan shir. It represented a step towards achieving full political status. Below is a translated copy of the letter presented by women’s organisations at the Boroma Conference:

The Republic of Somaliland

To: Chairman of the National Reconciliation Conference

To: Secretariat, delegations and observers at the National


Subject: Request for women’s membership in the National Conference

On behalf of the Somaliland women’s groups which we represent here at the National Conference, we first of all wish to express our support for the guurti (assembly of elders) for the bold and democratic decision they have taken by offering us membership with observer status at the Conference. We are very much obliged to you for taking this unprecedented step. Secondly, and in relation to peace and reconciliation, we would like you to take into con­sideration this application for women to be included [with voting rights].

Somaliland women are the backbone of the country. We are also the majority of the population, about 63 per cent. We are human beings dignified by God and our rights cannot be undermined.

Brothers, given all that, we have the right to share in decisions about the destiny of our own country. Also, as Muslim people, we claim the fundamental rights that our holy religion gives us. Therefore, we request full membership in the National Conference, with voting rights, as women’s representatives.

Brothers, blame not, nor indeed ignore us. For God created us as women. Women are not clan members but should be taken into consideration as members of the nation.

Lastly, if the National Conference concerns Somaliland and all its people, women should play their part. But if the conference is only for men and only they have voting rights, we may feel that we have nothing to share in this event.

With many thanks

Fadumo Warsame Hirsi, Shukri Hariir Ismail, Fadumo Mohammed Ibrahim, Faisa Haj Abdillahi, Asha Haji Yusuf

In 1994 a conflict developed between the government and a sub­clan in Hargeisa. Fearful of a descent into violence, women’s organisations demonstrated for a peaceful resolution to be found. The demonstrators, exclusively women and children, protested: ‘Enough with war! Enough with armed fools! Enough killing of children! And enough fleeing of women!’16 Women took the lead in setting up a committee consisting of women and youth organisa­tions, to mediate between the two sides. Chaired by a woman, Shukri Hariir Ismail,17 the committee held talks with the government on the one side and with the clan elders and armed young men of the clan on the other. The committee undertook reconciliation discussions with the president, elders from both sides and clan militia, in an attempt to diagnose their differences. Despite the committee’s efforts, on 15 November 1994 civil war broke out in Hargeisa and lasted into 1996 when peace and reconciliation were finally brokered.

Around this time some women’s organisations such as the Women (sic) Advocacy and Progressive Organisation (WAPO) and Dulmar moved away from their social and welfare role and began focusing their energies on ‘advocacy for women’s rights to be acknowledged and respected and for women to be allowed to participate in politics’. Shukri Hariir Ismail, founder of WAPO and its successor, Women’s Advocacy and Development Association (WADA), recalls the efforts made by women and the responses from elders and politicians at the time of the Shir Beleleedka (Congress of Clans – a national congress held in Hargeisa from October 1996 to January 1997 that brought together all Somaliland’s clans for reconciliation and the selection of a new president and vice president):18

The women’s organisations in Hargeisa wrote letters to the House of Elders demanding that women should be able to participate at the conference. The Elders response was that there could be 11 women attending the conference but their role would be restricted to that of observers and they would not have the right to vote.

Demobilisation of combatants

6 Women bearing a banner reading ‘There is No Life Without Peace’ participate in a protest with tens of thousands of people in Hargeisa, Somaliland, in 1994. Twenty-five thousand militia had been demobilised, peace and stability were returning to Somaliland, yet warmongering by opponents of the Somaliland government was threatening to spark civil war Not long after the protest, war broke out. (Hamish Wilson/Panos Pictures)

This offer, although not satisfying women’s demands, was accepted for the following two reasons: 1. The offer would allow women to contribute their peace-making ideas to the conference, 2. Women attending the conference would be able to raise the agenda of the right of women to share in the decision-making bodies of government.

At the conference’s opening ceremony women presented songs which sent the message of the new mutual understanding and wholeheartedness of the Somaliland community. Meanwhile I was chosen to articulate the women observers’ demands, which included the recognition of the women observers as full partici­pants with voting rights. The chair of the conference responded that the first phase of the conference would address solely the issue of tackling clan conflicts. The women’s agenda would be addressed during the second phase when the national constitution was on the agenda.

During the conference the government and opposing sub-clan who had been fighting (since 1994) eventually reconciled. The militia was demobilised and joined the government forces. Being motivated by this, women tried to forward their agenda to the conference of 500 male representatives – but without success. Again the chair of the conference responded with the excuse that the women’s agenda would be discussed once the National Constitution had been approved by conference. Whenever women came near to a hope of having the issue of women’s agenda discussed it was shattered…

The draft Nation Constitution was introduced to the conference and was discussed … This draft Constitution actually enshrined articles ensuring women’s rights. The draft was approved by a majority vote.

Being energised by the fact that the draft National Constitution clarified the recognition of women’s rights, women again submitted their appeal for gender equity in the House of Parliament and called for the recognition of the 11 women observers as full participants in the forthcoming parliament. In addition six observers from minority clans19 submitted an appeal similar to ours. We politicised the agenda, questioning the chair of the conference on every aspect.

The conference chair finally stated that both the observers from the minority clans and the women observers were to be comprised of six participants each and that they would be made full voting

members of the conference. The six participants from the minority clans were approved by the conference. As for the six women observers, when introduced for approval, the conference started quarrelling… Some were saying: ‘Which clan do they belong to?’ … ‘the conference consists of clan representatives’. Eventually the conference did debate whether or not women would be allowed to participate at the conference and join the parliament and the house of elders. The debate concluded that it should be first clarified whether the Islamic shari’a law20 allows women to participate in national conferences and at national assemblies.

It seemed clear to us that the men did not want us but were avoiding giving a direct objection. Whenever we overcame one obstacle men would present us with yet more difficult ones.

Sheikhs [respected authorities on religion] were assigned to clarify whether Islamic shari’a law allows women to participate at such conferences or not. After three days the Sheikhs clarified that yes, shari’a law does allow for women to take part in national assemblies and conferences. They further defined that during the period of Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) women used to take part in all community activities. Sheikh Abdillahi Sheikh Ali Jowhar, a participant, read the clarification on behalf of the other participants and sheikhs. Sheikh Omer, a participant, also gave details of women’s rights as prescribed by shari’a. The positive response of the Sheikhs was a relief – but only for a few minutes. Whenever one obstacle had been overcome a more irksome one appeared. The conference had conditioned women’s participation on shari’a Islamic law permitting it. But as soon as [the Sheikhs] found out that shari’a would allow women’s participation they presented another story.

Contrary to our expectation, on the day when the women’s agenda was introduced to the conference, the conference had to be halted as a result of the confusion and disorder made by the [male] representatives when our agenda was introduced for approval. We felt the atmosphere was anti-women judging from the words of some of the male representatives who were saying ‘the conference is only for the male representatives of the clans’.

The next day the chairman declared that conference-chairing committee had withdrawn the agenda for women’s participation from the conference, on the basis that the clans sent only men representatives to the conference. The chairman further stated that this issue had brought about a great deal quarrelling and argument which showed that it would be rejected if put to a vote. He further directed that women would have to wait until the end of the next term of government [in other words, 2000 at the earliest], when a multi-party system would be introduced. Then, with the formation of independent political parties instead of clan representation, women could stand to become elected as members of parliament.

To add to our disappointment, the only woman candidate for the post of the president, Radiya Roda Haj Ali, was ignored by the Chairing Committee, which chose neither to respond positively or negatively to her candidacy, whereas they gave a reply to all the male candidates.

The conference’s objection to our long-sought aspiration of sharing decision-making bodies with men coincided with International Women’s day on 8 March. We arranged the festival ceremonies and celebrations both in the morning and in the evening of this day. We invited members from the House of Elders, the Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. In her speech for the occasion, women’s leader, Faiza H. Abdillahi, said that whilst this day was a celebration for the women of the world it was a black day for the women of Somaliland for on this day the rights of the Somaliland women were rejected by the national conference.