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Muslim women in Somaliland

James JeffreyMay 10, 2016

Islamic conservatism is on the rise in Somaliland. Today women cover their heads and dress more conservatively than in the past, dismissing Western criticism. James Jeffrey reports from Hargeisa.

Three veiled women walking along a street
Image: DW/J. Jeffrey

It's sunset on a Saturday evening and women are streaming into the Ali Mataan mosque in the center of Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, in response to the call to prayers coming from the loudspeakers mounted on top of the four-storey building. Nearby, multi-colored lights are flashing on the modern-looking Guleed Mall in stark contrast to the mosque's solemnity.

Somaliland's religious conservatism - Sharia law is enshrined in the country's constitution - co-exists with hallmarks of a free market economy. Women here cover their hair in public and one woman DW spoke to expressed exasperation at Western misgivings at the practice.

"I really wish the rest of the world would pass over what women are wearing and focus on what women are contributing to the community and country," 29-year-old dentist Zainab said, relaxing in a café in Hargeisa after work.

Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 but its declaration of independence still lacks international recognition. It has had to develop a strong entrepreneurial streak in order to confront the task of rebuilding a shattered economy on its own.

Many small businesses are run by women, who, as well as bringing up large numbers of children, are often breadwinners for families in which the husband has been physically or mentally scarred by war.

Veiled dentist zainab treating a a woman patient wearing a headscarf
Dentist Zainab says it's what's inside women's heads that mattersImage: DW/J. Jeffrey

Muted criticism

Some people in Somaliland have expressed concern about the steady drift toward Islamic conservatism in Hargeisa. Music no longer blares out from teashops, colorful Somali robes are increasingly replaced by black abaya cloaks, more women are wearing niqabs (face veils) than a year ago and no woman goes about town bareheaded as happened in the 1970s.

"The last 15 to 18 years have witnessed a dramatic change in the extent to which religion influences how people live their daily lives," said Rakiya Omaar, a lawyer and chair of Horizon Institute, a Somaliland consultancy firm helping communities make the transition from underdevelopment to stability.

"There is pressure to live as a serious Muslim. It may be subtle or overt; it may come from family or it may be the wider society that you interact with," she told DW.

It is hard to find a woman in Hargeisa who will say she feels pressured by Islam or society's adherence to it.

"I asked myself why I wear the hijab, and decided it's because that's Allah's will, and it's part of my religion and my identity, and since then it's been a choice," Zainab said.

"Here, women can be butchers, that doesn't happen in many places - it shows how tough Somaliland women are. It's about what's inside your head, not what's over your head," she added.

But the existence of restrictions on women in political life in Somaliland cannot be argued away so easily.

"Without a women's quota I don't think there will be any more women in parliament," Baar Saed Farah told DW. She is the only woman in Somaliland's 82-member Lower Chamber and was referring to efforts to reserve 30 seats for women at the upcoming elections in 2017. Women are not permitted in the 82-member House of Elders in the Upper Chamber.

"In normal employment there is no differentiation between genders but when it comes to political participation it becomes very difficult for women because of a culture that favors men," Baar said.

Even women may not accept a woman running for election because they are so used to men making decisions, she added.

Bar Saed Farah wearing a white robe and veil amongst male politicians
Baar Saed Farah is the only woman in Somaliland's Lower ChamberImage: DW/J. Jeffrey

More prayers, more mosques

And while women may well be able to strike a hard bargain in street trading in Hargeisa, they find their professional opportunities are limited.

"They only operate small businesses, you won't find many rich business women here," says Nafisa Yusuf Mohamed, director of Hargeisa-based female empowerment organisation Nagaad Network. "For now there aren't many alternatives, but this could change as enrolment in higher education is improving."

Changing Muslim clothing trends may be the most noticeable sign to the outsider, but other developments also illustrate Somaliland's increasing religiousness, such as the effect of prayer times on working hours, the higher proportion of adults who pray five times a day and the increasing number of mosques that are being built.

"These changes are also a response to wider regional and international developments which have affected the Muslim world, in particular the growing perception that life in the Western world is becoming more hostile to Muslims," Rakiya said.