Women’s role in the pastoral economy
Somali society is a strongly patriarchal one. Sets of families (qoys), each with a male head, and usually related through the male line, settle and move together, forming a reer. Women continue to be members of their reer even after they have married and moved away to live with their husband’s family, and this provides women with a measure of protection against mistreatment by her husband’s relatives and clan family. A group of several qoys who settle in a common grazing area during a given season forms a beel.
The division of labour in the Somali pastoral family is clearly defined. Women view their role chiefly in relation to child-bearing, child-rearing and household tasks. Women are also the key contributors to the family economy through their production of livestock by-products such as ghee and milk. As mothers, they bear Somali culture, and foster among their children the distinctive role-playing which determines future male and female patterns of behaviour.
Women are an important part of the labour force, and polygamy is common as a means of providing additional hands and an additional source of income. Typically, each wife and her children form a separate unit, each with her own hut (aqal) and the animals that she is allotted for her own use over which she has primary rights of ownership. In addition to productive animals, her livestock will include one or two male camels for transport as well as newly-calved female camels for milking.
The working day for nomadic women starts before sunrise, soon after dawn prayers, and finishes after the sun sets and the last prayer has been made. Women’s main role in animal husbandry concerns milking and the management of small stock. Women are responsible for deciding what proportion of milk should be used for family consumption, feeding of young animals, sale as fresh milk, or processing. In herd management, women are responsible for selecting animals for sale, slaughter, and breeding, and for arranging these activities accordingly.
Pastoral women divide the grazing work between their children according to their age and ability. Children under seven are responsible for young livestock grazing around the house, while those between the ages of seven and ten are sent out to look after the adult livestock grazing further afield. Women count the number of livestock leaving in the morning and coming home in the evening. Older daughters are responsible for fetching water, and for cleaning the fence once every three days to protect livestock from ticks, pests and diseases.
Pastoral women are also responsible for selling surplus products such as harar (mats), excess milk, processed meat and wild fruits, exchanging these for commodities needed for household consumption.
Women cook food for the family, collect firewood, and do the washing. Elderly women are responsible for entertaining children, often by telling folk stories. Women also treat and feed sick animals, using medicinal skills and knowledge about local herbs.
As people move from one place to another in search of better grazing and water, women are responsible for arranging the transport, and for dismantling the aqal to load on to camels. When they reach their destination women again erect the aqal, check the animals and feed the family. It is women’s responsibility to weave the mats of the aqal, shape the frames, and undertake all the crafts required for its construction, from its coverings to the smallest pin.
The aqal is a round hut made from grass and trees. Pastoral women make everything needed for it and the household items inside using raw materials from the surrounding environment. The frame of the aqal differs according to different localities but has common features and is usually made from roots of the galool tree (a type of acacia with very long horizontal roots), and consists of eight to 12 strong, crescent-shaped supports called dhigo, as the foundation. A further 15 to 25 lool (shaped the same but longer and softer) are spread over the frame and tied down to strengthen it. If the aqal is big then a large supporting pole, known as udub dhexaad, is placed in the middle of the house. The women then cover the frame with harar. There are about 15 types of covers made from grass and sisal. The size of each mat and the time taken to make it varies according to the size of the aqal. The longest type of mat (dhudhun) is about 9.5 metres in length and 4 metres wide and takes an average of 10 days to finish. The shortest, 7 metres long and 3 metres wide, takes seven days to complete.
The aqal frame can be the hardest component to find and prepare as the materials need to be of the right length and strength, and cut from the tree when still green. Men may help with cutting the galool roots but it is the elderly women of the household who prepare and bend them. Bending takes several days: the cut root is fixed into the ground at one end, arched over until it is in the desired shape and then fixed into the ground at the other end. Left arched and fixed for several days the green wood gradually dries out and a permanently arched and strong frame should result. Once a suitable site has been found, erecting the aqal takes half a day.
Pastoral women produce household containers for milk and water, and other food utensils from leather, palm leaves and sisal. Examples include qarbed and sibraar, both made from the hides of goats or sheep to transport water and milk. The milk containers dhiil, haan, doobi, are made by weaving and sewing palm leaves and are used to store milk from a few hours to days or sometimes weeks. Fresh milk, soured, sheep’s, goats’ and camels’ milk will all be kept in different containers. Sheep and goats’ milk, used for ghee production, stays fresh for only a short while. Camels’ milk lasts much longer; it may be fermented, soured and even dried.
Women have always managed the milk trade. They send their containers of milk to a middlewoman in the town. Her container will have her ‘mark’ on it, the same as branded on her family camels. Tied onto the side of the container is a string of knots, the number and size indicating to the middlewoman what goods she wants in exchange for her milk.
Women make protective padding for transporting animals from by-products of aqal manufacture (old clothes, used leather, sacks, and so on). Women also produce items for cleaning out livestock quarters, like digo xaadh and dhiriq. The first is a flat piece of wood to clean out the animal den, while the second consists of branches tied together with small sisal ropes to collect and remove manure.
Yeesha are hide-ropes used by nomadic women to tie the frame of the aqal to the camel when they need to transport it. Mareeg are light tethering ropes made by women to keep small goats and sheep from running away and to protect their mothers from suckling before milking time. Women plait all these ropes from sisal and bark fibre (xig iyo maydhax) and sometimes travel long distances in their search for raw materials. In the days when there were still many wild animals, they faced danger of being attacked.
In summary, women’s role in livestock production and in maintaining the household (both the human beings in it and the fabric of the dwellings) has always been crucial to the survival of the pastoral system. It includes important contributions to animal production and to the technical aspects of nomadic movement, as well as food production and domestic responsibilities. Decisionmaking beyond the level of the nuclear family is regarded as the domain of men, all of whom over the age of 16 are eligible to participate. The kinds of decisions that need to be addressed at this level include: dealing with newcomers coming to share resources with the host clan associated with the territory; resolving conflicts and settling disputes; payment of diya blood money; when and if to go to war. Recent research by the Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group (SOWRAG) concludes that ‘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 …was never publicly acknowledged.’ (Amina Warsame 2001)