The Somali clan-based system
All people of Somali ethnicity2 will belong through patrilineal descent to one of the six kin-based clan families that make up a confederation of genealogically related clans (Lewis 1961). A clan is thus a group of people who claim descent from a common ancestor and who trace their blood relationships through the male line.3 The six
principal lineages or clan families are Dir, Isaq, Darod, Hawiye, Digil and Mirifle (the latter two are collectively known as Rahanweyne). Each of these clan families breaks down into a number of clans (e. g. the main clans in the Darod case are, Ogadeni, Marehan, Majeerteen, Dulbahunte, Warsengeli) and each of these segments into smaller sub-clans (each known by the name of the common ancestor). Some clans are sub-divided into as many as ten smaller sub-clans. Sub-clans are composed of primary lineage groups and within each of these are the diya-paying groups, each of which can act as a corporate unit and as such are the most meaningful and binding level of the clan system for most people. ‘These extended families are normally composed of people as widely related as tenth cousins in the lineage tree; together they are bound to pay and receive blood compensation to and from other diya-paying groups’4 (see below). The uterine family (i. e. mother with her children and their father) is the smallest unit of social organisation and usually corresponds to the household.
Lewis stresses that ‘the lineage system is an on-going structure, continually developing by segmentation over the generation as the population expands’ (Lewis 1961: 158). In other words, the number of diya-paying groups, primary lineages, sub-clans and even clans can increase over the generations; what is needed for this growth is an increase in the number of male members. Hence the political importance of marriage and social celebration of a boy’s birth.
Typically every child at an early age will learn his or her sub-clan kinship genealogy and will be able to name as many as 20-30 patrilineal ancestors over generations. This is information usually imparted by the child’s mother. The purpose of memorising this information is so that any two individuals can quickly establish what relationship, if any, they may have with one another and their corresponding obligations or sanctions. Under normal circumstances, however, it would be considered rude and provocative for people to refer explicitly to their own or others’ clan identity; or openly to treat people of one’s own lineage differently from others.5
Within the clan structure there is no hierarchy of political power, although power is differentiated along gender and age lines with women subjugated to men, and young to old. Hereditary positions with symbolic authority approximating to chief or leader, sometimes called Sultan, are found at the level of clan division (i. e. below the widest level of clan family) within some, but not all, clans.6 On the other hand, the position of ‘elder’ is common to all clans. The term ‘elder’ can be applied to all adult males at every level of the clan family, from the nuclear family upwards. And all elders, thus all men, have the right to speak in an open council (shir) which can be called for at every level of segmentation, as required. Shir are ‘called to discuss relations between groups, to settle disputes, or to decide upon war or peace’. (Bradbury 1994) As the accounts of women given in Chapters 6 and 9 testify, shir exclude women. Amina Warsame points out, however:
Since all decision-making at the lineage, sub-clan and clan level was regarded as the domain of men, women were never called to give their opinions publicly. However, there are indications that women were consulted privately on the matters under discussion. But in order not to undermine men’s decision-making powers, women’s ‘invisible’ role of contributing to decision-making was never publicly acknowledged. (Amina Warsame 2001)