Traditions of Marriage and the Household
Sadia Musse Ahmed
‘After that day I decided to rely only on myself, and not any man… the
civil war taught me that a woman can live on her own.’
This Somali woman was reflecting on the day during the war when she learned that her husband had decided to divorce her; leaving her and her year-old daughter to fend for themselves.
Marriage is encouraged and expected in Islam and in Somali tradition; and a man is expected to protect and provide for the family just as a woman is expected to bear and nurture children. But marriage has significance beyond the nuclear family It is an institution vital to the maintenance of the social, economic and political organisation that underpins a nomadic pastoral society It has developed, and is maintained through, strongly defined rules and customs.
This chapter1 describes marriage in Somali society and women’s position in the household and clan. It examines the ways a marriage may come about, including socially sanctioned elopement and as a way of sealing a peace agreement between warring clan groups. The chapter is intended to provide an overview of the ‘traditional’ system of marriage and kinship. For this reason it uses the present tense to describe these ‘traditional’ patterns, even though they are not all still current.
The chapter focuses particularly on clan-exogamous cross-cousin marriage. This provides an insight into the experiences that a number of women in this book describe, and why and how women can act as peace envoys between warring clan parties. Anecdotal evidence of changes in women’s attitudes suggests women are increasingly preferring their daughters to marry within their own clan. This is a direct result of the family break-up and conflicts of loyalty women have experienced in the civil war that stemmed from exogamous marriages.
Under normal circumstances an exogamous marriage can be a woman’s best protection from spouse-related domestic violence. Future research will be needed to assess whether or not the trend away from exogamous marriage is permanent and whether or not it is accompanied by increased domestic violence; such a trend would seem to be developing within some of the diaspora communities but whether or not this is linked to the absence of protection from male blood-relatives and extended family remains a matter for conjecture.
The full impact of life in the diaspora on the institution and practices of marriage in Somali society, particularly as experienced by second- generation Somali girls and boys brought up outside Somalia and their extended family, is another area awaiting research.