Marriage in Somali society is a contract between families or lineages (groups of families linked through male ancestors). There is a preference for this bond to be between groups not already related by clan lineage, or not closely related or living in the same area. In other words, young people are encouraged to marry into a group where new relations can be established. This is known as exogamous marriage.

The type of marriage most encouraged is that between cousins who are the children of a brother and a sister (ilma abti). Since such cousins are likely to be from different lineages (the sister’s child being a member of the lineage of his or her father, not the mother), marriage between them establishes relations between the lineages, or strengthens such relations if they already exist. A person grows up envisaging their father’s sister, or their mother’s brother, as a potential mother – or father-in-law, since their children will be from a different lineage; and these kinsfolk will command particular respect.

Marriage between the offspring of two brothers or two sisters is discouraged, rare, and believed to be not blessed. Marriage between cousins whose fathers are brothers (ilma adeer) would be marriage within the same lineage, and is discouraged. Same-lineage marriage is discouraged because if the girl needs help and support, or protection from abuse by her husband, her father’s brother’s son would normally be the one to take revenge for her or take responsi­bility for her welfare. If he marries her, then that obligation will disappear and the girl will have lost her only defender.

Men value their relations with other men highly, be it in-laws or otherwise. This is illustrated by the saying: Walaasha iskuma hubtid eh seedigaa haysa seegin (‘You are not sure of your sister’s position, so do not jeopardise your relations with your brother-in-law’). Men are fiercely protective of their relatives when the matter involves another clan but are more likely to safeguard the status quo than seek retribution when the insult or injury comes from within their own clan. For women this usually means an exogamous marriage affords greater protection from domestic violence than does an endogamous marriage. A proverb addressing a husband says: ‘You only own her services but not her blood’ – which means he is accountable to her family if harm is inflicted; but this proverb is hardly enforced in endogamous marriages.

Cousins whose mothers are sisters (habra wadaag, which means ‘sharing mothers’) are believed to be too closely related; marriage between them is taboo and almost considered incest.

Commonly, marriages are arranged by elder kinsmen of the spouses. There are two types of arranged marriage. In most cases the pair has a long secret courtship in the course of which the girl asks the man to approach her family for consent. The man then tells his father or his closest relative of his intention to marry, and the latter arranges to approach the girl’s family to seek consent. If her family refuses, the girl may influence the situation by making clear to her kinsmen her desire to marry the man. The family might decide that it is wise to accept the match. If there is a problem that could justify her family’s decision to stand firm against the marriage, she will have a choice to make between her family and the man. By siding with the man, she risks making herself an outcast from her family, which could have drastic consequences for her if the marriage fails.

The second type of marriages are those arranged without the consent of one or both of the couple. The girl is selected mainly for admirable characteristics possessed by her family, such as their wealth, her mother’s diligence, and the girl’s rating among her peers. Girls wishing to resist such a match stand a better chance if they win their mothers over to their side. However, the father or other male relative is likely to try to limit this option by formalising the marriage before announcing his intention to the family. This practice was abolished by the Family Law of 19752 by which a father could not formalise his daughter’s marriage without her consent in the presence of the officiant. Even though the Family Law has ceased officially to apply since the demise of the Siad Barre government, women in urban areas who know about it still use it as a basis for their cases.

But the effects of war and the collapse of the judiciary have undermined its effectiveness.

Elopement is a third possibility and a common way of avoiding arranged marriages. If a girl realises a marriage is being arranged for her while she is being courted by another, she might elope with the one she wants, risking her family’s wrath. If a man cannot afford the marriage payments required for a successful match, his only option is to elope with the girl. Elopement is the most detested marriage arrangement among Somali nomads, yet it is the most effective way to avoid an unwanted marriage or payment of an expensive bride wealth. It is also the most dangerous form of marriage as it could cause a feud between families. It could be disastrous for the girl if the relationship goes wrong before she makes peace with her family. It brings no prestige for either spouse and is frowned on by society.

There are two other types of marriage. In the first, a woman or a group of women, is given in marriage as a peace offering to seal the resolution of a conflict between two groups. The receiving group is expected to select virile men with the highest integrity to be the girls’ husbands, to assure the sending group that their offering has been received with respect. In this type of marriage, neither spouse has any say at all. In the unusual event of a boy or girl refusing, then the next one in the family will take his or her place. Most girls promised in such a marriage are very young and find it hard to refuse unless they elope or unless there is some resistance to the marriage within the family. Sometimes after a conflict both groups exchange women, underscoring their mutual commitment to honour the decisions of the peace negotiations. In this type of marriage women are treated with utmost respect: any wrongdoing by the husbands or in-laws is seen as harmful to the peace.

If a woman found herself single at an age where she might be seen as a spinster – which could be as young as 20 – she would feel forced to take drastic action. Such women could in the past initiate marriage by selecting a husband and going to his house, a practice known as u gelid. The man selected would have to marry the girl or face a compensation demand and the wrath of the community. This type of marriage still apparently occurs in Djibouti but no longer exists among ethnic Somalis in Somalia; it died out when spinster – hood lost its taboos. There was no stigma attached to such a marriage but it was not admired as much as those that went through the normal channels.

Somali marriage is invested with a series of symbolic rituals followed from the time the bride’s family is first approached until the wedding ceremony itself. There are five main stages.

First, the man’s family announces their intention and makes an appointment for a formal meeting (doonid) in which, if the match is acceptable to them, they are received with respect by the girl’s family.

Second, the groom’s family makes a payment called gabaati, which is commonly distributed among the bride’s kinsmen. This payment is not retrievable, nor is it counted as bride wealth; instead, it is considered as a token of respect to the girl’s family and their kin. The girl is now officially considered as the groom’s fiancee, but no sexual relationship is allowed until the wedding festival itself. Since most weddings take place in spring, when water and grass are abundant and people have fewer labour commitments, the gap between the two events could be up to a year.

Third, when the groom’s family is ready for the wedding they bring to the bride’s family the main payment (yarad) ranging from a few camels to 100 camels, a good horse and a gun, depending on the wealth of the groom’s family and the position of the bride and her family within the community. The payment includes all the wedding expenses, with the exception of the bride’s clothes called marriin, which are provided by the groom. These clothes must be varied and of high quality as they will be displayed in public by the girl’s family.

Fourth, arrangements are made for the wedding celebration, which will probably be held near the bride’s family. The latter provides the hut or aqal, most of which will have been woven by the bride herself. The mother and other relatives provide other items. A wedding aqal, including items specially selected for craftsmanship and quality, is built further from the bride’s family dwelling as the couple’s new home.

In a polygamous marriage the husband establishes a separate household for his new wife, set apart from that of his other wife or wives, and allocates livestock for her. This may be difficult for a husband who already has several households, or if he has grown-up sons who will themselves expect to marry from the same resources. Women detest polygamy and could sabotage the process. The first wife has a say in determining how much of the family stock can be allocated for a second marriage, and can hamper the husband’s intention, especially if she has grown-up offspring. A woman may pre-empt her husband’s remarriage by marrying off her sons, undermining his ability to pay a worthy bride price from the family stock. In second marriages, relatives’ wealth contributions are limited; hence men have to rely on their own resources.

The fifth stage, the marriage celebration itself, starts with a religious leader tying the knot in front of two witnesses and formalising the marriage in the presence of the husband and the bride’s representa­tive. This is the formal religious ceremony. The husband promises money or livestock for the bride as a security bond (meher).

The festivities begin on the day the couple start living together as a family unit, and continue for three to seven days. The formal end of the celebrations comes with the opening of the xeedho – a container filled with meat, ghee and dates secured by string tied in a very complicated way. In this highly ritualised event, the groom’s kin are challenged to unravel the string and open the xeedho, which symbolises the virgin bride. Sometimes they fail, and are obliged to cut the string and pay compensation to the mother of the bride. However, cutting the string is tantamount to abusing the bride, and is seen as being very offensive, creating problems between the two families. In modern marriages the mother helps the groom by pointing out where the end of the string is; in the past 30 years or so it has become a purely symbolic ritual in urban communities.

Eventually the new family unit prepares to leave the bride’s family home and move to the groom’s, unless the groom decides to live with his wife’s family. Such a move usually happens within a year of the marriage. If his family do not have enough livestock then his kinsmen contribute. If the two families live far apart, planning is required to determine not only the timing of the move but also the means of escorting them. The husband goes back to his family to prepare his new wife’s reception in his home. He and his kin receive the accompanying party, host them and treat them with respect.

If the yarad payment or bridewealth is large – for example, 50-100 camels, a gun and a horse – then at some future time the groom will expect to receive a share of the dhibaad, or gift given to the bride by her maiden family when she visits them after her marriage. The gift may include the aqal, preserved meat (muqmad – a highly prestigious dish3), some livestock and a transport camel. The groom’s family now sets up his new herd.

Women can dissolve marriage by moving out and refusing to consider reconciliation. The man can deny her a divorce, but after a while even his relatives will urge him to let her go free. In such cases, some of the bride wealth might be returned if there are no children from the marriage because it was short-lived. The bride wealth will be returned in full if the marriage is not consummated. If the couple were married for a long time but with no children no bride wealth will be returned.