In Somali culture, women are very precious and respected. In fact, historically they were among the three things that Somali tribes used to fight over. The dowry of a Somali woman was one hundred camels, one horse, and a gun; this was a fortune at that time as you can imagine. Somali men were in charge of the family and responsible for feeding the family, whereas women had to take care of the households and children. Somalis were pastoral nomads who move around a lot, and for that reason, there was no formal education (both men and women) except the time to time Qur’an teachings.
Somali lifestyle has changed over time, just like the lifestyles of many traditional societies have to continue towards a cosmopolitan modern world. The traditional society and family construction of Somalis were greatly challenged but the introduction of the modern lifestyle. The beginning of the formal education has added up to the already existing confusion. Many questions concerning educating women have been raised. In Somali culture women rarely used to get out of the house if they were not with a male family member, and therefore people were not ready to let their daughters go school. Eventually, after a lot of effort made by educated Somalis, Somali parents understood the importance of education and so girls were finally allowed to go to school for the first time. Even then a lot of men still believe that women should not get out of their houses. The reason for this is that they think it is wrong for a woman to actively take part of the community activities (even though the traditional lifestyle had changed and moreover, there is no religious evidence for them to back up their argument).
Women no longer face that much of a challenge in going to school these days, but they are still feeling pressured when they become professionals. The pressure sometimes comes from their families as they are expected to get married while they are still young (tradition), but most of the time it comes from coworkers and a fellow professionals. I will share with you an extraordinary story of a Somali woman facing all sorts of challenges in her professional life. It is a story of determination, hard work, confidence, change, and compassion. We will take the journey took by this bold young woman to beat the odds and surpass the limitations set by the stereotypes of some people, who believe that women should only stay at home and don’t pursue any other goals.
Umalkhair Abdi Jama was born in Hargeisa in the early 1990s. She finished her primary, intermediate and secondary school in Sunshine School. She took her degree from Abaarso Tech University where she majored in Finance. She is currently enrolled in a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program at the same university. She is also a certified ILO/SIYB trainer. She currently teaches English at Islamic Online University and the University of Hargeisa. She also instructs different classes and seminars, mostly on business and entrepreneurship.
Umalkhair embraces her role as a woman in the context of both the Islamic religion and Somali culture. Her classmates (then co-workers), although confused by the diverseness of her ideas, had early problems with those ideas. They often talk about how wrong it is for a woman to break cultural codes and create an independent career life for herself. These moral critiques affect a lot of her female classmates and co-workers psychologically and some could not bear the pressure so they gave up. Others fell to the other extreme which is the hatred of all men, without realizing that they are also making the same mistakes, of generalizing and stereotyping, made by the men who believe that women should only do certain things and not others. Umalkhair has experienced each of these extremes firsthand and finally realized that neither of them will bring a change for the better. She was determined to do something about this situation, fluctuating from extreme to the next, and so she succeeded to find a middle ground by engaging the problem objectively.
Another challenge that Umalkhair has faced and still faces is the expectations and judgments of the people around her. Some people tend to believe that women cannot excel academically, and when she did some of her classmates had a problem with that. Others judged her based on her quite personality and when she started discussing ideas about social problems and in particular women, they were shocked. Most importantly, in her classes, her students are often intrigued by the fact that their trainer is a woman because classroom training is a male dominated job and you don’t see every day a woman doing that sort of job.
Identifying problems is one thing but solving them is usually more difficult and tricky. Umalkhair was always passionate about finding solutions, and so she set herself the challenge of at least talking to those people with contrary beliefs. It was not easy for her at the start but as the time went, her point became clearer and she often succeeded to help her opponents understand that she only wants to show that Somali women can succeed; both in learning and in their professional careers without violating their religion and culture.
Umalkhair is just one of many women who are trying to beat the odds and proof that every Somali woman can be successful with the right amount of determination. People often think about a revolution but this story demonstrates how a simple person which is passionate about what he/she is doing can make a change. There might not be a loud earthquake but the motion has already started quietly and the ultimate change will be reached passively.
I have to thank Umalkhair Abdi Jama for without her story and technical assistant, this article would never have been completed.
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