Somali Women and the Socialist State. Journal of Georgetown University-Qatar Middle Eastern Studies. Iman Abdulkadir Mohamed

Walaalayaal qoraalka hoose si degan u akhrista, waxaa ku qoran waxaa ka mid ah  “prominent woman activist Maryan Cilmi, pleaded with the president to pardon the sheikhs but he refused”.  
Waa sida ay Maryan ku sheegtay video-ga hoose daqiiqada 20-aad iyada oo sheegtay inay Maxamed Siyaad Barre ka codsatay inuu cafiyo Culumada taasoo uu ka diiday.
Maryan waxay ahayd gabar xogogaal ah qoraalka hoose isna wuxuu xaqiijiyay warka Maryan oo dhan, Soomaaliduna waa xusuusata siday wax u dhaceen iyo dulmigii dhacay iyo gardaradii lagu dilay culimada Soomaaliyeed.

Dilkii Culimada Soomaaliyeed 1975 (Goobjooge Gabar Soomaaliyeed Maryan Xaaji Cilmi)

Journal of Georgetown University-Qatar Middle Eastern Studies


The Somali government under President Mohamed Siad Barre was the first to introduce laws and policies that promoted gender equality. One of the most radical laws that came out of this state-driven advancement of women’s rights was the Family Law of 1975. This paper examines Somali women’s relationship with the state and how they gained or lost from policies that targeted them.

The majority of Somali women were unable to exercise many of the newfound rights that were bestowed upon them by Barre’s regime. The Family Law, in particular, may have been more harmful than beneficial to women’s rights and public perception on gender equality.

Finally, on January 11 1975, the law was announced by presidential decree. January 11 was strategically chosen because it was the day Hawo Tako was killed decades earlier.35 The new law required divorces to be done through the court, where women and men could ask for the dissolution of the marriage.

36 The law no longer made dowry a requirement for marriage;37 allowed for equal inheritance for men and women;38 and, put strong restrictions on polygyny.39 These were the most contentious articles that clashed directly with existing religious norms and laws and challenged the historical and social authority of religious leaders in Somalia. 

The new law still maintained the husband as the head of the family and stipulated that “the wife is obliged to follow her husband.”40 Further, women could only file for divorce from their husbands if they gave up their dowries, making divorce very difficult for financially disadvantaged women, a criticism highlighted by women’s groups.41 Five days after the promulgation of the law, on January 16 1975, some sheikhs bravely denounced the law following Friday prayer at the famous Cabdulqaadir Mosque of Mogadishu, the site of a burgeoning Islamic movement.

42 Sheikh Maxamad Geryare, who was present at the sermon, narrated the events as following: After the Friday prayer in the famous Mosque of Cabdulqaadir, at about 1:00 pm, Sheikh Axmad Maxamad stood up and began to deliver his critical speech against the Family Law considering it “arrogant and a transgression of the borders of the Law of Allah that is unacceptable to the Somali Muslims.” 

Successive speeches by other Islamic scholars continued until the afternoon prayer at about 3:30 pm where as many as nine other Islamic scholars criticized the Law. Most of the people [who had] prayed in the mosque also remained listening enthusiastically. Moreover, many people gathered in the surrounding areas of the mosque in a show of support for the scholars. However, the event was perceived by the regime as an anti-state protest and a threat to the revolution.

After the afternoon prayer (salat al-Asr), security forces encircled the mosque from all sides, cut off the electricity to silence the scholars, and arrested hundreds of people in the mosque.43 Many of those arrested were prominent religious authorities who “belonged to the traditional jurists and Sufi orders.”

44 Immediately following their denouncement of the law, the National Security Court sentenced 10 sheikhs to public execution, 6 sheikhs to 30 years of imprisonment, and a further 17 sheikhs were sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment.45 Under Law No. 54, “exploiting religion to create national disunity or to undermine and weaken the powers of the state” could incur the death penalty.

46 These denouncements confirmed the regime’s fear that the religious authorities were interested in subverting the state’s authority.

47 People from all sectors of the society, including prominent woman activist Maryan Cilmi, pleaded with the president to pardon the sheikhs but he refused.

48 Activists like Cilmi recognized that the blood of sheikhs would stain their cause for gender equality rather than help it.

49 The state predicted that the religious authorities would object to the law, and tried to quell dissent before it began. 50 In a speech on the day of the proclamation of the law, President Barre declared, “As from this day Somali men and women are equal.”

51 He called upon the nation to ignore the “bad wadads,”52 who were sure to announce their discontent at the law soon, for they were “the ones who don’t know the value of human beings, or the ones who are opposed to equality, or the reactionaries and the imperialists who use them as cat paws, or those who want to sow the seeds of discord and who want to turn the hands of the clock back.”53 Thus, those with legitimate religious authority were cast as agents for imperialism or general spoilers of the socialist project.

This was ultimately a battle on who had true legitimacy, the state or the religious establishment. The two enemies of the state were historical clan allegiances and anti-revolutionary or reactionary ideologies. The latter was code for emerging Islamist movements who, could at any time, sow distrust of the government, considering their enduring influence on society.

54 These movements ranged from young educated groups recently returning from Persian Gulf countries and introducing the Wahabi interpretation of Islam to Somali society. 55 to long existing traditional Sufi brotherhoods. Moreover, these religious groups viewed Islam as incompatible with “‘godless’ socialism.”

56 To counter these ideas, in his speech on January 11, the president gave a revisionist interpretation of Islam, and the conditions on which the original family laws were inherited, trying to create connections between his regime’s ideology and the religion. In this interpretation, President Barre said that Islam, as “a correct Revolutionary Movement, waged war outright on the eradication of most of the evils that could be done away with, and took gradual steps towards the elimination of things that could not be wiped out without ripping the society apart.”57 Therefore, in a society where contemporaries of the Prophet were still burying their newborn daughters alive, it would have been inconceivable to achieve full equality of men and women. President Barre was thereby following in the steps of the Prophet by legislating the full achievement of the true egalitarian message of the Qur’an. How did this new law affect Somali women? Were they able to take advantage of these newfound rights in light of a strong societal backlash?

The short answer to this question is “no”. Women “constituted the majority of the illiterate population” and, thus, by simply having no knowledge of the law or how to navigate the “male-dominated” legal system, could not exercise it.

58 Other women were afraid to be associated with anti-Islamic behavior that the law connoted. Therefore, only a limited number of women actually used this new law. Even then, however, because these were familial issues and dealing with them publicly could bring shame to the family, many cases “never passed beyond the local police station and were never referred to the courts.

When [they did] end up in the courts, it was common for these cases to be ‘taken out’ of the courts by clan elders of the two conflicting parties and solved according to tradition [i.e. customary law].”

59 At other times, judges would urge families to settle matters outside of the court because using the Family Law would have “consequences for their faith.

60 Paradoxically, although the law put strong prohibitions on polygyny, Abdullahi claims that this “drastically increased.”

61 Religious figures and even individuals close to the regime boycotted the law by marrying multiple wives.

62 Abdullahi further asserts that the law led to increased levels of domestic violence and divorce.

This was because women felt more empowered to openly challenge traditional patriarchal familial roles. With more economic opportunities open to them, women were now actively supporting their families financially and felt they had a right to take part in the decision-making that they had never dared to take part in formerly.

Further, the state “employed [women in] the intelligence service to watch for ‘enemies of the Revolution’—particularly the wives of individuals suspected of opposing the regime.”

63 This created suspicion and disunity in families. By the 1980s, the law was no longer sustainable in light of the strong societal reluctance to use it. Due to “the cumulative internal and external opposition” to the Barre regime, which saw its power  weakening, the law was eventually revised with many of its radical articles taken out.


The promotion of women’s rights by the socialist state of Siad Barre was a political move to marginalize his domestic enemies, bolster his relationship with his loyal women’s support base, and enhance Somalia’s image abroad. 

However, despite the existing political and legal mechanisms available to them, in most matters, women worked “around the state” to advance their interests.65 Those women that could manipulate the enacted laws were educated, urban and middle class, and represented only a small segment of Somali women.

The state could not project its power outside urban areas and, in particular, the state’s power was centered on the capital, Mogadishu. In rural areas, women continued to rely on xeer (customary law) and other mechanisms for their own protection.

66 The socialist government’s public support for women was likely more structurally detrimental to women than liberating, as “the concept of women’s emancipation—already controversial in this period of rapid change—became associated with a regime that was ever more obviously oppressive.”

67 It appears that the law had more to do with disempowering traditional religious authority than with advancing women’s rights.

68 The public commitment to women made by the government in the 1970s would later be hollowed out, as the state became increasingly militarized. There were never enough resources or attention applied to these laws and reforms to make long-term structural change in Somali society.69 Further, as can be observed from the SWDO, hooyooyinka kacaanka and the co-option of Hawo Tako’s legacy, there existed “pressure on women to articulate their gender interests within the terms set by nationalist discourse.

70 The liberation of women that the state presented put forth new models of womanhood that were in their own ways restricting, especially in light of the religious and societal backlash that came with them. Read more
by its association with an increasingly repressive state, which did not allow for debate on the seismic changes it was attempting to make on Somali social relations.
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