Rites of passage and the aqal
The transformation of a girl from childhood, adolescence to adulthood is mirrored and signified by changes made to her hairstyle; her age and status can be determined by her hairstyle and the different names given to different styles. As an infant and until she reaches the age of circumcision at six or seven years her head is almost completely shaved, leaving only a little topknot, dhoor, the common name by which such girls are known. After circumcision and until puberty all of her head is shaved except for the front where the hair is left to grow; this is called food. At the time of her first period the food is shaved off and she begins to grow her full head of hair and will braid it. At this stage she is known as a gashaanti. Her head will remain uncovered until she marries, when she covers her hair with a gambo, a black head-scarf.
From three years old girls are given responsibilities within the household. Along with boys of the same age their first task is to look after sheep and goats which are kept to browse near the family aqal. The older girls and women will be nearby for much of the day, sitting under a tree weaving and constructing materials for the aqal.
From about six years old, the boys will join their cousins and brothers to look after camels in the distant grazing areas. From the same age until puberty the girls will take responsibility for sheep which graze some distance from the family aqal. They will also help older sisters collect the grass needed for the preparation of their wedding aqal. At this age girls start to learn basic sewing and plaiting, preparing the sisal threads for the aws (woven walls of the aqal), called dhumbal in central regions.
Once she reaches puberty and wears her hair as a gashaanti, her family stop her looking after the sheep and goats so that she has time to prepare her own aqal and learn the skills that she will need when she becomes a wife and is in charge of the household’s sheep and goats. These skills include counting the animals, learning about animal health and illness, and cooking. Although it may be many years before she does marry, her time will be taken up accumulating and preparing the materials for the aqal which she will not construct or live in until her marriage.
For a woman the importance of creating a fine aqal cannot be overestimated. Her future marriage could be affected and her value as a good wife may be measured by how well she has woven her harar, the coverings for the aqal. Proverbs and poems exploit and reinforce the use of the harar as a metaphor for a woman’s worth. The greatest compliment is to describe a woman’s aws as aws hariir, which is a silken cover.
Much of her time will be spent finding the correct grasses and fibres for her weaving and then practising transforming dried grass and sisal into the weather-proof, strong and decoratively pleasing woven walls needed for her marriage home. Weaving a fine aws is an art that takes years of practice. Test pieces made by gashaanti will not be thrown away but will be used as padding for the transport camels’ backs. A woman will continue to practise her skills until she has perfected them and can produce an aws that will keep the rain, dust and wind out, withstand transportation and provide a pleasing pattern to look at inside the aqal. A well-made aws can last many years if kept in good condition.
To progress her transformation into adulthood and marriage, when a girl becomes a gashaanti she is given a buul aws, a small aqal, of her own to live in. Situated within the family compound for protection, the buul aws is intended to give her enough privacy to meet a prospective husband. She is given responsibility for deciding who she will and will not associate with and it is usually her choice which one of her suitors she marries, although this varies in different parts of Somalia. The trust placed in her by her family is expressed in the saying, kun way la hadashaa kowna way ka guursataa, meaning ‘A woman – maybe a thousand men will talk to her but she finally chooses just one.’
Grazing land is always common and therefore shared by different clans. As the household moves each season they will have new neighbours from different clans. In this way there is usually a range of eligible men (heerin) for the gashaanti to meet. When this is not the case several women may go together to another settlement area to find out about heerin. As a girl cannot become a gashaanti with her own buul aws until her elder sister is married, there is some pressure within the family for suitable partners to be found.
Since all the men are away with the herds throughout the dry seasons, young men and women get to know each other during the rainy season when the households and herds are closer together. At these times there will be all-night dancing, iyargud.2 The dancing provides opportunities to exchange words through songs and so develop relationships. Marriages only take place during the rainy season.
The clan system traditionally provides protection against rape; if a woman is raped it is an insult to her clan because it shows that they could not protect her. Under normal circumstances any man who violates a woman invokes the revenge of her sub-clan against not only himself but also his own sub-clan. Thus he not only risks his own life but that of his family and wider network of paternal relatives; and indeed he risks disaster for both clans as they would have to go to war. The only way such a disaster can be averted is for the rapist to take the woman he has raped to be his wife. In some circumstances a couple who wish to marry but fear strong opposition may resort to staging a rape in order for the marriage to be condoned. (See also Chapter 3.)