The world should stand by moderate Muslim scholars to combat gender inequality and promote global peace and security. On Monday 31st March 2014 a top Islamic Scholar Sheikh Mohamed Haji Mohamud was dismissed from his position after addressing the issue of gender inequality in the judicial system in Somaliland.
Sheikh Mohamed who was the Chairman of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Somaliland said “the blood payment for the killing of a woman is equal to that of killing a man according to his knowledge in Islam.”
This is the first time in the history of Somalia a religious leader voluntarily debated such an important issue. It raised my hope and the hope of many Somali women around the word who welcomed the action of the Sheikh and regarded it a milestone towards gender equality.
Xaq, mag, diyo are the Somali words for blood payment and blood payment is and has always been central to the Somali judicial system both in the statutory and clan based laws. Interestingly, the word xaq, also means right in Somali. In my understanding the right of a human being in the Somali context is their right to life (God given right) and as the word xaq, represents both the right of a human being to life and blood payment, the xaq,mag, diyo, is the value of the human being in the event of them being killed. In the Somali judicial system the xaq, mag, diyo, or value of a male human being is 100 camels which is 100% and the value of female human being is 50 camels, half of the male human being. Camels because we are originally from animal herding livelihood and camels have the highest property value but in modern days it can be money or other wealth equivalent to the value of the number of camels.
This important issue must be debated to promote gender equality and combat terror against women in Somalia. Gender balance cannot be achieved in a society that believes the life of a girl worth 50% less to that of her brother and women’s empowerment will be to no avail until this gender gap is closed. Almost in every Somali family there is a story of a woman or girl killed, the perpetrator being a man, a husband, brother, cousin, close or distant relative, a clan’s man or a complete stranger. To my knowledge there have been two women killed by their husbands in my close family.
According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence, yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned.”
A culture of violence against women is evident both in the Somali language and literature. The word dhabar garaac, which means beat the back of her clearly demonstrates a culture which a man has the licence to beat a woman, violating her human rights. Dhabar garaac also means to beat a woman to break her will and was commonly used in the case of a girl, woman refusing a man’s hand as revenge and forced marriage.
Ever since I was a child I have been hearing sayings legitimising violence against women. A famous one is that xaawalay waxaa laga abuuray feedh, feedhina way qaloocdaa, women are created from a rib and a rib is bent, the implication being women are imperfect. She therefore needs beating to straighten or correct her
Misunderstanding of the religion is used to justify violence against women and since most women are illiterate they depend on their religious leaders for guidance, some of whom are misinterpreting the religion in order to wield their religious powers and maintain their positions. Many women accept the violation of their rights believing it to be the teaching of Islam.
I used to interpret for the South Yorkshire Police and attended a number of domestic violence cases where many women sustained serious injuries but refused to press charge against their husbands in their belief that it is xaraam, forbidden. In FGM/C, the Somali name for cutting is xalaalays, which comes from the Arabic word of Halal, meaning pure, clean and the word for cutter is xalaalayso. It is believed by many people that the cutting of girls is a religious obligation despite some religious scholars condemning FGM/C.
The Centre for Gender Equality describes violence against women as “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world.” In Somalia violence against women is ignored and regarded as laughable and a joke. There are many proverbs ridiculing and encouraging violence towards women. Recently, Somaliland’s Minister of Presidency Hersi Haji Hassan while delivering a speech to a large audience in Liverpool said “a man in my family used to practice his wrestling skills on his two wives and two children after he drank a lot of goat’s milk. He would have one wife on each side of him, and a child on each leg, and then he would throw them to the ground”. The implication of his story is that each woman is worth only a half of a man, and each child worth only a leg. Comments like this one are humiliating and dangerous to women.
Naag, bilcan, the Somali words for woman are also used as insult. A man who wants to insult another man can say “waxaad tahay naag,” you are a woman. Minister Hersi manipulated his words with the intention to insult and belittle his political rivals. Few years ago the ex-Defence Minister of Kenya Mohamed Yusuf Haji said at a press conference aired by the Somali Channel News “they are cowards, they are bilcan, women.” He was talking about Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group.
The statistics on violence against women and children in Somalia are shocking and may even be described epidemic. The Somali Human Development Report 2012 describes Somalia as “one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman”. Female genital mutilation/cutting is commonplace; domestic violence is a serious problem; and 70% of reported cases of rape and sexual violence occur in internally displaced populations. Debating gender equality to advocate for balanced gender law is important to protect the physical, mental and economic well-being and development of individual women, families, communities and the whole country. Religion is powerful and religious leaders are very influential. The misinterpretation of religion goes against women and contributes to the abuse of their human rights. It is therefore important religious scholars are encouraged and supported to advocate for gender equality and condemn violence against women including FGM/C.
Sheikh Mohamed Mohamud Haji deserves to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Somaliland for daring to speak about gender inequality in the judiciary system. His expulsion may deter other Sheikhs speech about the issue and have devastating consequences on gender equality.
UK Somali Women’s Political Forum