Changing gender relations
Does war change gender relations? Does it provide opportunities for improvements in women’s status? There have been both setbacks and gains for women. They have borne the brunt of the stress on marriage and the family that the Somalia conflict has engendered. Exploring how conflict has affected the institution of marriage, Halimo Elmi points out that in a social system based on exogamous marriage, war has broken families apart, severing relations between husband and wife and between mothers and their children and grandchildren. She suggests that conflict has reduced marriage to a matter of pursuing personal interests rather than being a genuine partnership of equals.
Rhoda Ibrahim shows how in pastoral communities, increases in the proportion of female-headed households have led to changes in herd management practices and to women’s greater involvement in livestock trade. Amina Warsame describes how women, able to travel more safely than men, have used their position in the clan system to create new economic niches for themselves. Ladan Affi traces these changes into the diaspora, and suggests that women have responded more positively than men have to the opportunities offered them in exile.
But does this mean that gender relations are changing fundamentally, or are women simply finding more ingenious ways of discharging their traditional roles? Sadia Ahmed points out that although Somali marriage practices reflect a patriarchal society, they also enshrine areas of choice for women, and offer them support and protection from their natal family. Dekha Ibrahim likewise suggests that conflict has enabled some women to find new and more fulfilling roles albeit without shaking the pillars of a patriarchal society. As Ladan Affi points out, despite the increased respect women have acquired as a result of their increasing economic responsibility, most men and women still believe women are fundamentally inferior to men. Gender roles may have been rearranged and adapted but women have generally not acquired access to decision-making fora.
In a separate study in Somaliland Amina Warsame points to the added work burdens for women which their new roles have demanded. (Warsame 2001) She points to the possibility of a male backlash against women, while there have been no corresponding changes in women’s social status or legal rights. She concludes that
the challenge facing women in Somaliland today is how can the gains that they made be consolidated and built on and how can the negative tendencies be done away with. Unless some meaningful workable strategies are worked out fast, whatever benefits that Somaliland women gained so far will be thrown into the dustbins of history.