Philosopher’s Corner: Patriarchy in Somali society is collective madness

Somali parliament in Mogadishu.

Somali parliament in Mogadishu.

According to American author Bell Hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

From this definition, it’s clear that patriarchy is a dangerous social system; for it essentially posits men as a superior-class and women as an inferior-class; and it maintains this hierarchy through violence.

Here, before I endeavor to explicate the ways in which patriarchy cripples us Somalis, let me state that my views on this topic will be inadequate. Indeed, as a black-Somali-man, my take on the violence that’s committed against Somali women in particular, and the Somali community at large, is bound to be shallow and unsatisfactory. I know that I cannot capture the terrors that wound the souls, and scar the bodies, of our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts; and I know that I’m registered as a member of the perpetrator-class in the matrix of patriarchal violence. So, I apologize in advance.

For a long time, I was oblivious to the fact that I was complicit in the marginalization of our Somali women and girls. I knew about anti-black racism, but I never heard of patriarchy and sexism. In my second year at university, I discovered the teachings of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir; and as a result, I read her book, “The second sex”.

de Beauvoir’s work awakened me from the deep slumber of ignorance. I became more sensitive to the tyrannical nature of patriarchy; and this sensitivity partially disrupted my naiveté. I thought I understood patriarchy, but my understandings were minuscule; for I was still blind to the violence that was exacted against Somali women and girls.

A few years later, I began to understand patriarchy better in a more practical way when I got employed as a community development worker. During this period, I worked with two Somali women; and we collectively conducted workshops for Somali mothers in three different neighbourhoods.

During these workshops, the oppressiveness of patriarchy revealed itself starkly. For instance, whenever I presented the workshops, the mothers would listen attentively to my remarks, they would never interrupt me, and they would always give me extra time to speak. However, whenever my female Somali co-workers facilitated the workshops, the mothers would constantly interrupt them, they wouldn’t pay attention to them, they would consistently contest their remarks, and they would rarely give them extra time to speak.

The preferential treatment I received was governed by the logic of patriarchy. Indeed, my contributions were valued more than my co-workers because we live in a patriarchal nightmare wherein women are perpetually undervalued, and men are arbitrarily overvalued.

Thus, even though I despised patriarchy, I was still benefitting from it; and the unearned respect that I received from the Somali mothers, and the extra speaking time that I was given (as a man), was always mirrored by the ritualized belittling, and the insufficient speaking time, that was given to my co-workers (as women).

Additionally, my privilege (as a man), was always bound to the normalized violence that was exacted against my co-workers (as women).

I learned from this experience that individual intentions don’t matter in the face of normalized violence; for the fact that I ideologically detested patriarchy, didn’t ban me, as a Somali male, from profiting from it. In addition, I also learned that this experience signified a larger social situation that’s crippling our community; for the devaluation of our Somali women and girls, and the over-valuation of our Somali men and boys, is a widespread practice.

In most cases, we Somalis know that this widespread practice is a problem. We know that it has contaminated our households; and we know that it negatively impacts the perceptions that we have of ourselves and our counterparts. Still, we often fail to take this problem seriously. Hence, our ignorance and laziness has driven our families to become schizophrenic; for we formally promote patriarchy and informally operate as matriarchies.

Moreover, this schizophrenia is a consequence of many reasons.

First, in the global north, Somali men have fallen into despair because many of them, who were displaced by the civil war, have been reduced to disenfranchised cab-drivers, frustrated factory workers, and depressed welfare recipients. Unwilling to abandon the authority that was bestowed upon them as patriarchs in Somalia, and incapable of adjusting to, and overcoming, their new social situation in the western hemisphere, many of our Somali men have decided to reject reality. They’ve withdrawn from their existential situation by either escaping into irretrievable pasts, or by becoming workaholics.

Second, most Somali boys, who are registered as black in the western world, have fallen victim to anti-black racism. A variety of public and private institutions have collaborated to cripple their potential and devour their dreams; and as a result of the school-to-prison pipeline, many of them have been hypnotized by gangs and enslaved in prisons. Instead of propelling their families towards socio-economic progress, the boys have become burdensome appendages. Yes . . . they’ve grown into men who remain children.

Third, in almost every household, Somali women control and manage everything. In most cases, they embody both the archetypes of the stern father and the maternal mother. Their authority is unquestionable inside and outside of the household; and they simultaneously play the role of the breadwinner and the homemaker.

In addition, the strength and dexterity of Somali women is often inherited by their daughters. Somali girls have overachieved educationally; and most of them graduate from universities with bachelors, masters, and PhD’s. Plus, many of them simultaneously attend to their education and their households; and hence, in all aspects, Somali women and Somali girls have become the pillars of the Somali community in the diaspora.

Thus, the current state of affairs in the Somali community makes it clear that Somali families are functionally matriarchal. Still, our cowardice has led us to cling on to the ideology of patriarchy. Unable to abandon a social system that’s demented, we’ve mistaken our imagination for reality. We’ve failed to formally acknowledge the fact that we govern ourselves as matriarchies; and this failure has intensified the oppression that’s exacted against Somali women and girls.

Moreover, our subscription to patriarchy has led to a situation wherein dejected men and disoriented boys are overvalued, while hardworking mothers and overachieving girls are undervalued. Hence, educated girls are asked to obey their ignorant brothers, and demoralized fathers are given authority over our self-sufficient mothers.

This collective schizophrenia cripples Somali families because it masquerades tyranny as harmony. As a result, most Somali women only condemn patriarchy in secrecy because they believe that this situation is unchangeable. Indeed, many of our sisters, mothers, and wives have already transformed their anger into resentment; and unaired resentment is bound to eventually evolve into hatred. Thus, to stop this evolution, we must air our grievances before it’s too late.

Unfortunately, some of us, who have been blinded by our privileges, have evaded the problems of patriarchy because we benefit from it.

Saidiya Hartman, in her seminal text “scenes of subjection”, asserted that “the patriarchal mode of social order . . . marries equality and despotism”.

Thus, to split equality from despotism, and to divorce ourselves from this social order and the schizophrenia that it engenders, we must acknowledge that our community’s ideological subscription to patriarchy festers resentment in the hearts of our Somali women; for they are told to obey the baseless authority of Somali men.

Indeed, it must be publicly asserted that patriarchy makes us (as Somali men) delusional, because we are over-valued without merit. Yes, we (as Somali men) must realize that patriarchy makes us comfortable in our confusion, and that it denies us the opportunity to become better beings.

Here, I realize that many of us converse about these matters in private. Thus, I am aiming at the space beyond the private; the public realm. Indeed, if these declarations are made publicly, then we might be able to cure ourselves from patriarchy. And hence, as a community, we might be in a better position to pose the following queries: (a) what must be done to formally acknowledge, and resolve, the contradictions that arise from our schizophrenic condition? And, (b) what type of genuine bonds can we construct if we officially abandon patriarchy?

Mahad Hori lives in Toronto, Canada. Follow him @Mahad_M_Hori.

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