In the sprawling market of Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa, women clad in headscarves or abaya shawls from head to foot engage in volatile haggling with shoppers, and woe betide any man that crosses them – the volume becomes deafening.
Somaliland’s religious conservativism – sharia law is included in its constitution – co-exists with many signs of a typically liberal free market society, a dynamic embodied by Somaliland women’s active role in the local economy.
“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,” says 29-year-old Zainab, relaxing in a Hargeisa café in the evening after her day job as a dentist. Somaliland’s women are part of a strong entrepreneurial tradition in the country, a result of its declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991 not being recognised by the international community.
The self-declared republic had to go it alone in rebuilding after the devastation of the preceding civil war. Private business and entrepreneurs played a critical role in lieu of international assistance, which has remained largely absent.
Today in Somaliland, many small businesses are run by women, who in addition to bringing up large numbers of children are often breadwinners for families whose husbands are physically or mentally scarred by the war. “Here women are butchers – that doesn’t happen in many places. It shows you how tough they are,” Zainab says.
Homemakers and more
“Before there was no factory like this one,” says Amina Adan, who began her company Tayo Uniforms to make school uniforms. “Now we are also making uniforms for private companies like Somcable, which lays fibre optic cables, and the petroleum companies starting to come here.”
In addition to the factory offering a locally produced alternative to the previous norm of cheap Chinese imports, it has created more than 45 jobs – taking on further part-time staff during peak production periods. The country has a chronic unemployment problem: about 75% of youth are unemployed.
Somaliland’s women are particularly active in trading khat, the wildly popular plant whose leaves when chewed provide a mildly narcotic buzz, which is indulged in by about 90% of the country’s adult male population.
“Business is good,” says Zahre, a so-called khat mamma of 22 years who runs a stall in central Hargeisa. Originally she owned a shop and small café but decided to enter the khat trade as a way to expand her business prospects, she explains. Other women had less choice.
“Many entered the khat business after the civil war as the only way to earn money to provide for their families,” Zahre says. “After they started doing it, they knew how to do it well – so they continued. An unaccountable number of women now sell khat.”
Limits to freedom
While Somaliland’s women may be free to exert entrepreneurial prowess, they are not so free in other areas of society. “Without a women’s quota I don’t think there will be any more women in parliament as they won’t win an election,” says Baar Saed Farah, the only female in the 82-member lower chamber of parliament (no women are permitted in the 82-member upper chamber).
“In normal employment they do not differentiate between gender but when it comes to political participation it becomes very difficult for women because of a culture that favours men; it has been there for a long time – even women may not accept a woman to run for election as they’re so used to men always leading and making decisions.”
Furthermore, while women are a force to be reckoned with as street-side traders, that masks limits to further economic opportunities. “They only operate small businesses, you won’t find many rich business women here,” says Nafisa Yusuf Mohamed, director of the female empowerment organisation Nagaad Network. “For now there aren’t many alternatives, but this could change as enrolment in higher education is improving.”
Some Somalilanders express concern about a steady drift toward Islamic conservatism affecting both women and society at large. Traditional colourful Somali robes that used to be worn by women are increasingly being replaced by black abayas.
More women wear full face veils, and no women go about Hargeisa bareheaded as happened in the 1970s. Meanwhile, music no longer blares out from tea shops, while working hours in the public and private sectors increasingly have to accommodate mosque prayer times.
“There are problems for women here but they’re not due to religion, rather they are Somali cultural problems,” says Khadar Husein, operational director of the Hargeisa office of Transparency Solutions, an international organisation focused on capacity building in civil society.
“The man is mainly dominant in Somali society – things like domestic violence go back to culture. Getting a more religious society means eliminating those cultural problems; religion has actually given women more freedom.”
Certainly, many Somaliland women say covering up is a free choice out of respect for their religion, or give more prosaic reasons such as feeling shy, wanting to protect skin from harsh sunlight or to fit in with friends’ sartorial choices. Other observers, however, counter that it is precisely because of Somaliland’s conservative restrictions that women don’t feel able or comfortable to comment otherwise.
No lack of confidence
Either way, speaking to Somaliland women there’s little to suggest they lack confidence or feel curtailed. “The West needs to stop obsessing about what women are wearing – whether those in the West who are wearing less or those in the East who are wearing more,” Zainab says. “It’s about what’s inside your head, and certainly not what’s over your head.”