Women and political participation
What impact does conflict have on women’s perception of their social position and hence on their potential for social activism, either as individuals or groups? If their experiences of conflict lead them to develop their role as carers, does their record of achievement create space for them to be accepted into the political arena? Do women as a group have interests that transcend the divisions which split a society in conflict? The chapters in this book on women and leadership and on women and peace provide rich insights into these questions, and describe how women’s organising evolved from the height of the war in the late 1980s up to a period of consolidation in the mid 1990s and beyond.
The book presents two descriptions of women-initiated peace processes, one in Somaliland described by Zeynab Mohamed Hassan and others in Chapter 6, and the other in a region of north east Kenya affected by Somalia’s civil war, described by Dekha Ibrahim in Chapter 8. These provide empirical evidence about what motivates women to work for peace, and how they do it. In both cases the women had had enough of the violence; they believed it was sapping the society’s strength. In the Somaliland case women used the methods of anti-war protest traditionally open to women in the region, such as interposing themselves between the fighting forces, wearing white head-scarves, holding prayer-meetings and composing poems. In the Kenyan example women travelled around the country in teams offering to mediate, organising cultural festivals, and dispensing grants (from funding they had raised) to rehabilitation projects.
In both cases women have helped to prevent violence and registered the legitimacy of women’s activism in this area. A number of the accounts in this book suggest that women’s success in peacebuilding owes much to their particular position in the clan system. Chapter 7, on ‘Women, clan identity and peace-building’, spells out the analysis made by a group of contributors to this book. According to this view women lack an exclusive clan identity which stems from their exclusion from the system of diya-paying groups. (This is in contrast to men, whose sense of identity is intimately bound up with their clan membership.) Women are thus able to move with relative ease between clans and see beyond clan interests. Dekha Ibrahim, a Somali Kenyan, identifies a number of other practices that have traditionally enabled women to be peace-builders, such as their role in providing hospitality in negotiations and the respect given to women’s opinions. Yet the women’s successes to date have been limited, hard-won and generally unrecognised, and the book suggests that part of the reason for this lies in Somali society’s failure generally to accept women as equal to men in the political arena.
Section 3 of Part 2 (on women in leadership) notes that before the war increasing numbers of women were joining the professional classes. These women, including most of the contributors to this book, tended to work in the education, health, social and community development fields, and included both practitioners and researchers. When war broke out many were keen to contribute their skills in the absence of organised services. Numerous Somali women’s organisations in both north and south and in the diaspora were founded by such women.
Women’s organisations not only supported women struggling to meet their domestic roles, but they also provided a platform through which women could contribute to reconciliation and reconstruction processes. Interviews with Noreen Mariano, Shukri Hariir and Zeynab Mohamed Hassan describe how women, building on their experience of the women’s movement in the 1950s and 1960s, re-organised Hargeisa Hospital, managed funds for the re-integration of demobilised ex-fighters, and supported the re-establishment of the police force.
Women’s organisations then lobbied for female participation in political fora. When it came to the process of forming the Transitional National Government, where representation was based strictly on clan lines, they argued that women represented their ‘own clan’ (see interview with Zakia Alin, Chapter 9). In other words they transcended clan politics and their objective was the welfare of the country as a whole. In fact it was this very detachment from clan politics that prevented male politicians from fully accepting them into the political arena (and which discouraged other women from supporting them, as Zakia Alin suggests). Although they were welcomed and respected as informal contributors to political debates (much like the meetings under the tree described by Dekha Ibrahim in the Somali areas of north east Kenya), their inability to represent clans excluded them from political decision-making.