In this article, I have described the organization and the role of sitaat in contemporary Somaliland. On one hand, as a consequence of current Islamisation in the Horn, Sufi religious practices including women’s sitaat, seem to be decreasing.

By Marja Tiilikainen

Sitaat As Part Of Somali Women’s Everyday Religion

Marja Tiilikainen

Chapter 11 in Perspectives on Women’s Everyday Religion (Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion) by Marja-liisa Keinanen (Editor)

Allow muxubada Ilaahay nagu miisow

Allow meeshaan marnaba nagu meeri diintaa


Allow diintiyo sharciga deer nowgayeel

Allow na dhowee agtaadaa lagu dhargaaye

Kutala saaranaye Allow towbada nasuuxay

Agtaadana laguma qado oo qaxar mayaalee

God give more love to us

Wherever we go, teach us your religion

Make the religion and the law like a fence for us

God bring us near to you

We accept everything you say to us

Near you there are no difficulties and all our needs are fulfilled

Sitaat As Part Of Somali Women’s Everyday Religion
Source: @Gobannimo/Twitter

The verses above are part of a sitaat[1] song, religious poetry performed by Somali women. Sitaat, also known as Nebi-Ammaan, Hawa iyo Faadumo and Abbey Sittidey, is a unique expression of Somali women’s Sufi religiosity. Sitaat means Somali women’s dikri, where women praise God, Prophet Muhammad, Sufi saints, and, in particular, the distinguished women of early Islam such as the Prophet’s mother, wives, and daughters. Sitaat is only sung by women and the events are organized and led by women.

Poetry in general is a central and highly valued part of Somali culture, and traditionally, it has been created and transmitted orally. Poems composed by women have not been collected or received publicity to the extent that poems composed by Somali men have (Jama 1991). Sitaat is part of religious Somali poetry (see Orwin 2001), but it is not well-known. Important studies of sitaat include the works of Lidwien Kapteijns (1996, 2007) and Francesca Declich (2000), both of whom have collected data on sitaat by ethnographic methods – Kapteijns in Djibouti mainly in the 1980s and Declich in southern Somalia between 1985 and 1988, that is, before the civil war that has brought profound changes in the Somali society on the societal, political as well as religious levels.

The aim of this article is to understand the role of sitaat in the contemporary lives of Somali women in Somaliland. When and how are sitaat sessions organized? Has the practice of sitaat changed in the midst of the ongoing Islamisation in Somalia/Somaliland?

The data for this article has been collected as part of my ongoing postdoctoral study.[2] I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Somaliland in the summers of 2005 and 2006, and in the winter of 2007, for a total of four months. The fieldwork was concentrated mainly in the largest city, Hargeysa, and its surroundings. As part of the data collection, I attended sitaat rituals organized by three different Sufi groups, belonging to the Qadiriya order, in Hargeysa. Moreover, I observed sitaat arranged on other occasions at homes and women’s gatherings, altogether around twelve times. I spoke with participants of the groups and interviewed three sitaat leaders. All of the leaders were women between 50−60 years of age. In this article I use the Somali term Sheekhad (female religious expert) when I refer to these interviewees, together with their pseudonym names of Khadra, Nadiifa and Zahra. The smallest gatherings consisted of about twenty women and the largest of about a hundred. My Somali language skills are rudimentary, and hence, during the rituals as well as in the interviews, I was assisted by female assistants. I taped and video recorded part of the sessions. The material has been partly transcribed and translated to English/Finnish. I mainly use the Somali orthography. In order to pronounce Somali words properly, Somali ’x’ can be thought to correspond the English ’h’ and ’c’ to an apostrophe [’].

The theoretical approach derives from comparative religion. My position towards the data has been to understand the Somali Muslim women as social and religious agents in their life-worlds in post-war Somaliland. In Muslim societies women’s and mothers’ agency is constructed in relation to genderwise different roles and expectations. At the same time, however, Muslim women question these structures, actively interpret Islam and use their own strategies to challenge experienced hardships and suffering (Abu-Lughod 1986; Mahmood 2004). Through Islamisation, male knowledge easily becomes normative, and women need to develop strategies to prevent the eradication of traditional female knowledge (Evers Rosander 1997:6–7).

Islam, women and daily life in post-war Somaliland

The population of the secessionist Republic of Somaliland, the former British Somaliland, is estimated to be around 2–3 million. Compared to the southern part of Somalia, the area has been relatively stable since the mid1990s and it has been struggling to create democratic governance and improve the living conditions of ordinary people. However, Somaliland, as all Somalia, is among the poorest countries in the world. The unemployment rate is high and many households in Hargeysa are dependent on remittances sent by their relatives from the diaspora. Basic health care and educational structures as well as roads, water and electrical systems were ruined during the war, and continue to be severely under-developed.

The civil war has had an impact on urban households and the roles of family members. Traditionally, men have been responsible for earning income for their families. As a consequence of the war, many previous breadwinners have died, or become disabled or mentally distressed. Moreover, the consumption of khat, the leaves of the Khat bush which have a mildly stimulating effect, has increased tremendously, especially among men. This makes the economic situation of poor families even worse and is a source of continuous dispute in families. Women have been forced to take greater economic responsibility than before. For example, many women sell products such as clothes, tea, uunsi (incense), vegetables or khat in order to provide for their families (e.g., Warsame 2004).

Islam is a natural part of everyday life in Somaliland and gives it a certain rhythm. Aadaan, a call to prayer, can be regularly heard all over Hargeysa including Fridays, the holy day for all Muslims. Islam underpins the basic values as well as everyday chores and practices. Somalis are Sunni Muslims and they belong to the Shafi’ite school of Islamic jurisprudence. Traditionally, Somali Muslims have been Sufis. The most important Sufi orders in Somalia have been Qadiriya, Ahmadiya and Salihiya (e.g., Lewis 1998). Until recently Sufi orders have had a great influence in Somalia and Somalis have been moderate in their religious views. The rise of Islamic movements in Somalia began in the 1970s as part of the international Islamic revival, and as a reaction to Somalia’s tangled internal and international politics. Two main groups have been Jama’at al-Islah, which has identified with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Ittihad al-Islami, which is close to the puritanical Wahhabi and Salafiyya movements of the Arabian Peninsula (Berns McGown 1999; Hassan 2003). According to Mohamed-Rashid Sheikh Hassan (2003), al-Waxda, the first Islamic organization in Somalia, was founded in Hargeysa in the 1960s. On different occasions, it had close relations to either of the previously mentioned Islamist groups, al-Islah and al-Ittihad (Hassan 2003:234). Islamic political activity in Somalia has increased significantly during the past decade (Menkhaus 2002:110). Islamist groups have gained wide support particularly in southern Somalia, where no government so far has managed to establish stability. Islamic groups have gained support among ordinary people by providing schools, orphanages, aid agencies and services to poor people who have suffered tremendously during the war (ibid: 114).

As of result of these tendencies, Sufi practices such as the annual commemorations of popular Sufi sheikhs seem to be in decline. For example, I.M. Lewis described, based on his fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s, how the annual pilgrimage, siyaaro, to the shrine of Aw Barkhadle outside Hargeysa attracted several thousand pilgrims from all over the northern regions and large numbers of livestock were killed for the feasting (Lewis 1998:89−98). When I visited the same siyaaro in the summer of 2006, only a maximum of 500 people participated and the event was hardly noticed in Hargeysa.

The reconstruction of the city of Hargeysa includes the building of mosques. According to a sheikh, before the war there used to be 60 mosques in Hargeysa, but now there are about 300. Only a few of them are Sufi mosques. Moreover, Islamisation influences the local healing traditions: a new phenomenon is the establishment of Islamic clinics, cilaaj, where sheikhs claim to heal by purely Islamic healing methods. According to Gerda Sengers (2003:146), healers in Islamic clinics in Egypt propagate the “Islamic” lifestyle and fundamentalist views stressing the role of women as wives and mothers. Islamisation is visible also in new ways of dressing, as an increasing number of women cover themselves with large veils, jilbaab and also face veils, niqab, which is a new dressing code in Somalia. Moreover, I have been told that an increasing number of women go to mosques to pray. What is the position of sitaat under these new religious conditions?

Sitaat in practice

The setting

I was introduced to three different sitaat groups by local friends, who had connections to people going to these groups. I visited mainly the groups of Skeekhad Khadra and Sheekhad Nadiifa. The third group had been initiated by a woman who had a personal interest in sitaat and wanted to create an opportunity for herself and other women to practice it. The group seemed to lack clear leadership, but Sheekhad Zahra was one of the main characters in the group. Sheekhad Khadra and Sheekhad Nadifa had practiced sitaat for about thirty years:

I started doing sitaat about twenty-seven years ago. I was born in Hargeysa, but I lived four years in Qatar.  I was married and had four children. My husband did not like Sufis, but I started to study religion. Already as a young woman I started to love religion, but my husband could not accept it. We argued a lot and then we divorced. I came back to Hargeysa in 1976. I started to visit xadras,[3] I learnt more about religion and gradually I became a teacher. I also married a Sufi teacher. He used to make dikri. He had his own xadra, and we worked together. We had five children. He died in 1990. When the civil war started [in Hargeysa], I escaped to Ethiopia. I returned to Hargeysa in 1991 and after a year a group of women contacted me, and asked me to be their Sheekhad. The previous Sheekhad did not return to Hargeysa after the war, but went to Boorame. These women, who started at that time, still continue, and also new women come. Only two women left the group. (Sheekhad Khadra)

In her story the Sheekhad highlighted a long learning process, whereas another had gained knowledge of sitaat in a dream:

I have done sitaat for thirty years. I started after I had a dream, where Faadumo Rasuul [the Prophet’s daughter] appeared to me. In the dream I saw a drum and I started drumming. It was like I had always drummed, I made no mistakes. (Skeekhad Nadiifa)

The first group gathers at the home of Sheekhad Khadra, where a room is dedicated for xadra. The walls are covered with green and white silk textiles with Arabic writing and some pictures of tombs, in honor of Sufi sheikhs such as Sheikh Isaaq and Sheikh Madar. Along the wall there are long wooden rosaries, tusbax, which women use before the sitaat starts. The Sheekhad also has religious books with Arabic texts, some of which are recited during the sitaat. The same room serves both women and men. In the afternoons women have sitaat, and after they finish, men gather for their own dikri. The second as well as the third group pays rent for the room where they gather. Before each sitaat carpets are spread to cover the floor.

All of the three groups have regular weekly meetings, ranging from one to four times a week. I was told that the usual days for sitaat are Fridays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Specific weekdays are dedicated to different persons – Friday to the Prophet, Monday to the Prophet’s daughter Faadumo Rasuul, Wednesday to awliyo (saints, holy persons) such as Jiilaani, Sheikh Madar and Sheikh Isaaq, and Thursdays for awliyo in general. One informant mentioned that sitaat can also be arranged on Sundays, and then it is dedicated to Hawo (Eve) and Adam. The specific days, however, may differ according to a group. For instance, a woman explained that in the group that she knew best, Thursday was specifically dedicated to Sheikh Isaaq. Moreover, sitaat is arranged during specific periods such as the month of the death of Faadumo Rasuul.

A sitaat session usually starts after afternoon prayer, casar (around 3.30 pm) and ends with the prayer after sunset, makhrib (around 6.30 pm). In one of the sitaat groups women usually continue even after they have prayed the makhrib prayer together. Each participant contributes to sitaat by bringing a small amount of money, perfume, incense or food/drinks. They may also bring gifts to the leader of the group. Incense and perfume are an important part of the ceremony. As a woman explained: “Whoever mentions the Prophet’s name should smell nice.” Occasionally, a woman goes around with a bottle of perfume, cadar, and participants stretch out their hands in order to be perfumed. Moreover, an incense burner creates heavy smoke. Sweet black coffee, bun, in contrast to otherwise common tea, is served during a pause. Most of the women who arrive, are married, divorced or widowed women. I have been informed that unmarried young women usually are too busy with other things and they start thinking about religion more only after they have had children. The socioeconomic background of the women who arrange and take part in sitaat seems to vary. I have seen sitaat arranged in affluent homes and some of the women come from the upper classes, whereas some of the women are seemingly poor.

Women sit in a circle on the floor and all of them wear a large, covering scarf. One or two women beat a drum/drums with wooden sticks, and women begin to chant. Different groups may sing different songs or use different words, and the order of the songs may differ according to participating women’s desires. Moreover, women compose new verses and songs. First, however, women praise God and the Prophet. According to Lidwien Kapteijns (1996), after the Prophet, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, who was the founder of the Qadiriya brotherhood, and other awliyo like local saints or Sheikh Isaaq, the ancestor of the Isaaq clan that is a dominant clan in North Somalia, are praised. After these introductory songs, the main songs are sung to the distinguished women of early Islam: After greeting Aadan (Adam), Hawo (Eve), the first mother of humankind, is praised. Other women addressed and honored in sitaat are, among others, the Prophet’s mother Aamina (Amina), his foster-mother Xaliimo Sacdiyya (Halima Sa’diyya), Xaajra (Hagar), mother of Ismaaciil (Ishmael), Maryam (Mary), the mother of Jesus, the Prophet’s wives and daughters, in particular Faadumo (Fatima) (Kapteijns 1996:126–128). One of my interviewees, however, stressed that in her group after the songs for the Prophet, they next praise the women, and only after that awliyo such as Sheikh Isaaq because women existed before the awliyo and were their mothers.

Daughters of Faadumo Rasuul: Religious and social experience

All the women participate in singing and clapping the hands. The language of the songs is mostly Somali, but also some Arabic songs and/or words are included. One or two women may stand up and dance. When the songs pass, the atmosphere in sitaat becomes more intense and women become emotional. They swing their bodies in the rhythm of the songs, they may draw the scarf over the face, and gradually reach a religious trance, muraaqo or jilbo. A woman explained: “Muraaqo means a religious condition, a strong emotion. A woman feels deep love towards the person that is being praised. Sometimes she also may see this person”. The breathing becomes heavier and she may stand up and bend the body back and forth at the waist. Sometimes a woman over-reacts: she does not control herself anymore, but movements get wider and wilder, and finally she may fall down unconscious.

“In sitaat we praise Hawa, the wife of Ibraahim, the daughters of the Prophet and the relatives of Ismaaciil. They are our ancestors, hereafter we may become neighbors with them”, Sheekhad Zahra reported. And not only hereafter, but Faadumo and other distinguished women and mothers, who are praised, are believed to be present among women who are performing sitaat. For example, Sheekhad Nadiifa said in a sitaat to participating women that Faadumo Rasuul was among them, but they did not know who she was. However, she could sit beside anyone and therefore everyone should be treated in a friendly way. At some point in the evening, women shook hands with women sitting near them – this meant that at the same time they shook hands with Faadumo Rasuul. The Sheekhad identified her group as “daughters of Faadumo Rasuul” and welcomed also the researcher to become part of it.

According to women, after sitaat a person may get what she desired or hoped for. Sheekhad Zahra related that she calls the names of awliyo when she needs something: “Awliyo have secret knowledge that normal people do not have. Awliyo are soldiers of God”. She told how she was arrested before the war. The soldiers asked her for money and called her a prostitute. They said that she should be imprisoned for six months. She started to sing for ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, the founder of the Qadiriya brotherhood. Soon some other police came and asked the policemen why she had been arrested, and she was released.

In addition to singing, participants also pray together. A leader of the group, or whoever feels like it, may read duco (prayer, blessing) and ask God, for example, for good health, a husband for unmarried and divorced women and good children for mothers. A Sheekhad also gives general religious advice and instructions. A participant may ask others to pray for her if she is ill or has other problems. Once I was present when a woman started crying and as a result other women gathered around her, prayed and patted her on the back. A Sheekhad explained:

First a sick person should go to a hospital. If she cannot get help, we ask God. God has the decision, whether he helps or not. When people gather many times for the sake of God, other people may think that they are good people, and maybe God listens to their prayers. So, sometimes ill people come and ask us to pray for them. I do not use any other techniques than praying and reading the Koran, and often they get what they need. I have no other power to heal. I do not know if I am a chosen person, but God accepts the prayers of certain people more easily. (Sheekhad Khadra)

Women also discuss and interpret their dreams and visions together. Dreams may carry religiously important symbols and messages (in Egypt, see Hoffman 1997). For example, a lion that appears in a dream is a symbol of awliyo. A sitaat group may also collect money if one of the women needs economic support. Each participant contributes according to her economic resources. The main purpose of the sitaat group is, however, to practice religion:

The only reason for the existence of a sitaat group is to praise God, to practice religion, to teach these ladies about religion and to warn about bad things. This is not for the tribe or personal interest; the main purpose is God. God said that if two persons gather because they love God, not because of personal interest, money or tribe, God will reward them. This is the only reason we come here. We do not care about color or clan; we are equal. We like each other, because we all worship God. According to our religion, we have to respect all people, whatever religion they have . . . Unbeliever or believer, our religion does not allow us to harm another person. We have to live together in a peaceful way. We do not have to look at their origin or to abuse them because of it. It is not allowed that you eat yourself, if your neighbor is not eating. If someone is going to take your property or to harm you, regardless of the religion, you are allowed to defend yourself. Otherwise, give peace to existing people, of whatever religion or clan they are. (Sheekhad Khadra)

Unity between women and all humankind was often stressed as one of the basic values. In the case of a dispute between two women, the other members of the group may try to mediate. If that does not solve the problem, the Sheekhad has to interfere, and if needed, pronounce a punishment to the person who is creating problems: Sheekhad Khadra reported that in those cases they will arrange a celebration in xadra and read the Koran, and the person has to pay the costs.

Through sitaat itself Somali women also try to promote peace on a larger societal level. In the summer of 2006 I had a chance to follow an interesting discussion during one of the sitaat sessions. The discussion followed events that had taken place in Darroor, a Somali-inhabited area on the Ethiopian side of the border between Somaliland and Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia. Two clans, Ciidagale and Habar Yoonis, sub-clans of Garxajiis, had been fiercely fighting over water resources and this upset the women in the sitaat group. In the group there were women from both tribes. The Sheekhad gave a speech to the women, where she pointed out that Ciidagale and Habar Yoonis are brothers and sisters. She told the listening women that they should collect women from both sides, bring them together and make peace between these women. She also urged women to tell their boys that they should not continue fighting. In order to get God’s blessing, ajar, they should arrange a siyaaro[4] in Hargeysa the coming Friday. Siyaaro would be arranged in honor of Sheikh Isaaq, the ancestor of all the Isaaq tribes. This raised a lively discussion among the women, and it was finally decided that in addition to Sheikh Isaaq, the forefathers of both fighting clans – Dacuud from Ciidagale and Saciid from Habar Yoonis ─ should be praised. Moreover, their father, Ismaciil, the ancestor of the whole Garxajiis clan should be honored.[5] Hence, women decided to bring the fighting clans of Garxajiis together by arranging siyaaro for all the important ancestors of the fighting clans, and ask for duco, blessing, from them. Further, they decided how they could share the costs, the rent of the room and food expenses. The women’s act echoes an old Somali tradition. According to Judith Gardner and Judy El Bushra (2004:145), in Somalia there has been a tradition of collective prayer meetings, known as allabari that have traditionally been arranged at times of common need, such as drought. During the recurrent conflict in Somaliland between 1991 and 1996, however, women started to hold prayer meetings for peace.

Even though women in sitaat are active in trying to resolve on-going conflicts, they prefer to forget past conflicts. One Sheekhad explained that it is strictly forbidden to discuss the civil war, in Somaliland referred to as faqash,[6] in a sitaat group:

It is not necessary to speak about the past; it may hurt someone and people become emotional. It is one of our rules, not to mention the previous problems. Religion says that we have to forgive. If we discuss these problems, Shayddaan [Satan] gets a good opportunity to make the problems bigger. If I take an example: If you want a wound to heal, you should not touch it all the time. If you have a problem, it is better to forgive and not to discuss it all the time. (Sheekhad Khadra)

In addition to regular sitaat groups, sitaat experts can be invited when a woman is pregnant in her ninth month: sitaat is arranged in order to ask for an easy delivery and a healthy child. Sitaat can also be specifically arranged when someone is ill. Moreover, it is nowadays common to arrange sitaat when a woman from the diaspora visits Somalia and is about to return to a resettlement country: through sitaat a safe return and continuous blessing can be asked. The event is usually videotaped, and hence, can be remembered later back in the diaspora. I have also seen sitaat at a wedding, where it was more like a cultural performance, and played out together with traditional women’s dances. And once I also attended sitaat that was organized by a women’s association. I was informed that their association had been running only a few months, and they wanted to receive blessing for their new activities.

Sitaat and religious change in Somaliland

As a consequence of the increasing influence of new Islamic movements, political upheavals and civil war in Somalia, religious practices and interpretations in Somalia are changing. As mentioned earlier, Al-Waxda, Unity, was the name of the first Islamic organization in Somalia, founded in Hargeysa (Hassan 2003). Nowadays, the term waxda is commonly used by Sufis in Somaliland to refer to supporters of new Islamic movements, or in general Muslims who are seen to be different from traditional Sufis in the ways they practice religion. Sufis claim that Sufis follow the right path, the original Islam. A Sheekhad explained:

Waxda do not want to praise Prophet Muhammed. Waxda do not get excited over the Prophet in the way we do. But they are wrong. Those who belong to waxda have not yet seen what we have seen. (Sheekhad Zahra)

Hence, Sufi women (as well as men) categorize religious people into two groups, waxda and Sufis who follow the original way of Islam and have a deeper knowledge of the religion. However, they admit that an increasing number of Somalis are followers of waxda. Sheekhad Khadra explained:

Nebi-Ammaan started when the Prophet moved from Mecca to Medina. Ladies welcomed these things [sitaat] and since that Nebi-Ammaan has been increasing. If you are asking about the situation compared to how it was before the war, the number of people doing sitaat is decreasing, because people are going to the other side, waxda. They say that you are not allowed to sing, celebrate or mention these things . . . You don’t have to make a great celebration for the Prophet, that is shirk [sin]. You don’t have to dance, visit his grave, to celebrate his birthday. You just pray five daily prayers, it is enough. During the Prophet’s time, people welcomed these things, they played durbaan [a drum]. We are like those people; we sing in both Arabic and Somali language. If you praise the Prophet, it does not matter in what language. Waxda says all this is xaraam [forbidden]. If we tell these waxda, bring your books and show where this is prohibited, they never come. Mainly they influence women and children. According to our culture, when someone dies, we slaughter animals and collect money to give his/her family. But waxda does not accept these things. We made more sadaqa [voluntary alms] before, not so much any more. (Sheekhad Khadra)

My views on whether the practice of sitaat is in decline or not are somewhat contradictory. On one hand, I have often been told that the number of women who take part in sitaat, is decreasing. This has been explained by the influence of waxda, who do not accept praising the Prophet Muhammad and awliyo. “Women and Somali people in general are forgetting their own culture and the historical way of doing things. Xadra was originally religious culture, not Somali culture. Nowadays most women are going to a mosque”, Sheekhad Khadra explained. Another explanation given is that many women, who used to practice sitaat before the war, are now either dead or have moved abroad. Moreover, a woman explained that nowadays women do not have time to attend sitaat regularly, because they have to work and participate in earning the family income. Hence, according to her, sitaat is mainly arranged when someone asks for it. On the other hand, I have been told that the number of women in sitaat is increasing. And indeed, in many celebrations that I have attended, we have been sandwiched in overcrowded rooms. One of the sitaat groups regularly attracted 70–100 women. The group had plans to raise funds and build their own house for sitaat. What could be the reasons for the continued practice of sitaat, even though the official religious views do not encourage it?

Sitaat is part of being religious, part of being good”

Sitaat is part of being religious, part of being good”, Sheekhad Zahra explained. She had practiced sitaat since she was six years old. Once, ten years ago, she wanted to end her practice. Then she had a dream that an animal was slaughtered in front of her. In the morning a woman came and gave her a sheep. Then she understood that she could not stop doing sitaat, as it was an important part of religion. She also gave another example of the necessity to continue sitaat: Once she had been invited to a village. Nine pregnant women from the village had died and the women who were left were very worried. She saw in her dream a lion, the symbol of awliyo, and the lion said that women had to continue doing sitaat. Hence, practicing sitaat continues to be an inseparable part of being a good, moral and healthy Somali Muslim woman.

“A sitaat group is a women’s mosque”

“This is a women’s mosque”, Sheekhad Nadiifa noted. “We only read the Koran, we gather, say good things to each other, give advice, make siyaaro. We pray if a person is ill, if someone is getting married; we try to help each other. Everyone can pay what they can. This group is open for anyone who wants to participate”. Another Sheekhad explained the difference between xadra and a mosque:

The mosque and xadra are different. The mosque is only for praying and reading the Koran. In a mosque it is not allowed to eat khat and you have to be quiet. In xadra we can eat, sleep, we say nice things to each other; you can also eat khat. We teach each other good things. According to our religion, during menstruation it is not allowed to have sex, a man cannot touch the area between a woman’s knees and waist. She cannot read the Koran, she cannot fast or pray, go to hajj [pilgrimage], touch a Koran or enter a mosque. The man is not allowed to divorce her during menstruation; there are many rules. But in xadra a menstruating woman is allowed to join us; she can listen to the Koran and she can sing here. (Sheekhad Khadra)

Any place where women gather to do sitaat, becomes a religious space. Moreover, a sitaat group is a unique female religious space, where Somali women can memorize and reproduce the chain of the “daughters of Faadumo Rasuul”. In sitaat women are the religious experts, who can define the rules and interpret Islam in a way that better takes into consideration the needs of women.

Sitaat has been renewed”

I have been told that the performance of sitaat has changed after the war, and a new element, dancing, has been added. A participant in sitaat complained:

Before the war we did not dance in sitaat, it was forbidden to stand up. Every person had her own place where she sat, we did not watch others, we concentrated on ourselves and praising. But now a new generation has come; it does not know the tradition, they do what they want, dance.

Another woman reported:

Sitaat has changed, it has been renewed. When I left Somalia twenty years ago, there was no dancing in sitaat. People sat when they experienced muraaqo, they just swayed themselves sitting. At that time, women who came to sitaat were usually poor. But now everyone comes to sitaat, regardless of income or social class. Now there is also dance in sitaat, I was surprised when I came back nine years ago. Sitaat has become a party. I do not believe that sitaat is going away. When I came here [sitaat] today, I was stressed, but now I feel refreshed.

The sitaat sessions that I have observed have had very different levels of emotional intensity. On some occasions, indeed, sitaat looks like a party: women have dressed up in beautiful, expensive clothes, they have on makeup, they seem to enjoy themselves and they smile, dance, and have fun together. But even in this “light” sitaat, emotional feeling gradually grows. On other occasions, women seem to concentrate more on their inner experience, they sit down and sway their bodies. They do not dance, but stand up and bend the body rhythmically when they become very emotional. The leaders of the two regular sitaat groups that I followed most were quite strict regarding the way women can behave in sitaat and the leaders stressed the religious content and meaning as well as the seriousness of the ritual. However, modifications in sitaat and a party-like atmosphere may attract new women to participate. Sitaat is a rare place of relaxation and joy for women, who otherwise struggle with everyday stresses and worries. Moreover, sitaat has become not only a religious, but also a cultural performance that can be staged at weddings or other communal events. For women in the diaspora, arranging and attending sitaat while they visit their country of origin is also quest for religious and cultural identity.

A transfer from saar to sitaat?

Spirit possession saar (zar) is a widely known phenomenon in the Horn of Africa as well as on the East African coast and its hinterland, in North Africa and the Middle East (see e.g., Boddy 1989; Lewis et al. 1991). Spirit possession refers to different states, where a spirit, for one reason or another, has entered a person. Spirits, in the Islamic world known as jinn, may cause various health and other problems. In Somalia saar, which includes many different cults and spirits, is common especially among women in all social classes. Different spirits have their own specific ritual practices, which may also vary in different areas and groups. Healing rituals often include the use of special incense, different dance styles, music and animal sacrifices (Ahmed 1988; Pelizzari 1997).

The aims for doing sitaat and saar are different as in saar the aim is to pacify a spirit that causes suffering and illness. However, both rituals share similar features: slaughtering animals and eating together, drumming, clapping the hands, singing, dancing, the use of perfumes and incense, and the togetherness of women. Moreover, both rituals may lead to trance. Lewis has also pointed out that there are similarities between dikri and saar dance, and he suggests a syncretism between the two ceremonies (Lewis 1998:28─29). Today, Somali ulema, religious scholars, as well as many ordinary people, regard saar as a non-Islamic practice and hence, forbidden.

Many Somali men, in particular, do not seem to be familiar with sitaat. They frequently regard it as not a proper Islamic practice, and also confuse it with spirit possession, saar. Somali women, who participate in sitaat, however, make a clear distinction between these two rituals, and stress that sitaat has nothing to do with saar. A Sheekhad explained:

A jinni cannot come here [to sitaat], he will be burned here, he escapes this area. Saar and mingis are forbidden. We have here dikri, we have nasri [religious things; also success, victory]. Jinn, saar, mingis, rooxaan[7] do not come; they are xaraam [forbidden]! (Sheekhad Nadiifa)

According to women in sitaat, muraaqo, religious trance, and a trance caused by jinn, are different states: a person who experiences muraaqo is not ill, but a person who enters a trance caused by jinn is. Most of the participating women seem to admit, however, that it is possible that sometimes a jinni inside a person becomes active during sitaat and causes a trance. This can be noticed when a woman reacts very strongly, is uncontrolled, screams, dances fiercely and finally falls down on the floor unconscious. A few times I witnessed this behavior. Other women around then discussed whether the reason could be jinn. Sheekhad Khadra explained:

Sometimes when women come to xadra, some of them have jinn, something called saar; we do not know. When they are new to our group and the saar is with them, they may fall down with saar and become unconscious. But if they join us, saar leaves from these women. Saar cannot stay long with these women who stay with us. Saar is always looking for a group who likes it. Some jinn come with women and try to hide with them. Every group joins its own group. When saar does not find its own group here, it leaves. The person becomes normal. (Sheekhad Khadra)

Sheekhad Nadiifa also wondered if those women who were eager to dance in sitaat, had previously participated in saar. This suggestion makes sense to me. As the participation in saar has become strongly labeled as non-Islamic and hence, something to be abandoned, at least some of those women who used to attend saar rituals, may find in sitaat an alternative ritual setting. The similarities in rituals lead to similar reactions in both rituals (see also Tiilikainen 2010).


In this article I have described the organization and the role of sitaat in contemporary Somaliland. On one hand, as a consequence of current Islamisation in the Horn, Sufi religious practices including women’s sitaat, seem to be decreasing. On the other hand, my data shows that sitaat still has a strong foothold in the everyday religiosity of Somali women: sitaat continues to be an inseparable part of being a good, moral and healthy Somali Muslim woman. A sitaat group also provides women a unique female religious space where they can be the religious experts, define the rules and interpret Islam in a way that better takes into consideration the specific needs of women. Moreover, sitaat can absorb new, modern elements such as dancing, which may attract new women. Sitaat has also been renewed as it has been staged as a cultural and religious performance at weddings and other communal events. Finally, I have suggested that some of those women who used to attend saar rituals, may find an alternative ritual setting from sitaat and hence, keep sitaat groups full and vital.

In analyzing the data on sitaat, I found Daniéle Hervieu-Léger’s (2000) discussion on religious memory useful. She says:

In the case of religious memory, the normativity of collective memory is reinforced by the fact of the group’s defining itself, objectively and subjectively, as a lineage of belief . . .  At the source of all religious belief, as we have seen, there is belief in the continuity of the lineage of believers. This continuity transcends history. It is affirmed and manifested in the essentially religious act of recalling a past which gives meaning to the present and contains the future. The practice of anamnesis, of the recalling to memory of the past, is most often observed as a rite . . . (Hervieu-Léger 2000:125)

In sitaat, the female lineage up to the Prophet’s daughters, especially to Faadumo Rasuul, and to other distinguished women and mothers of early Islam is memorized and enforced. This is a significant notion in the Somali society, which is strongly based on patrilineal clans. This historical female chain as well as a connection to Prophet Mohammed and awliyo, animated in religious trance, muraaqo, empowers women and supports them in the times of present uncertainty and crisis. Moreover, mutual help and sharing of problems and emotions in a sitaat group strengthens the unity and collective female identity of all participating women in spite of the clan. Peace-making with the help of divine blessings is one of the common goals for all women.

Finally, sitaat, as a comprehensive bodily and emotional experience, may appeal to Somali women more than the new puritanical interpretations of Islam. In the midst of current political and religious change in Somaliland, the separate worlds of men and women may even help women to maintain and revitalize distinctive female religious traditions such as sitaat. My data, however, raises many questions that need to be studied in the future. One of the interesting issues is the meaning of clans for the organization of the groups as well as for women’s religious identity.


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About the Author

Marja TiilikainenMarja Tiilikainen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki, Finland. Her project is entitled Suffering, Healing and Healthcare: The Transnational Lives of Somalis in Exile. Her recent publications include “Spirits and the Human World in Northern Somalia”, in M. Hoehne and V. Luling (eds), Peace and Milk, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics, London (2010) and “Changing Mental Distress Conceptions and Practices among Somalis in Finland”, together with M. Mölsä and K. H. Hjelde, Transcultural Psychiatry 2010: 47 (2). See also


[1] From Arabic sittaat, ‘ladies’ (Orwin 2001:81).

[2] The aim of my overall study is to explore how transnationalism organizes and gives meaning to suffering, illness and healing among Somalis in exile. The study is a continuation of my Ph.D. research on the everyday life of Somali women in Finland (Tiilikainen 2003) and funded by the Academy of Finland. I thank Professor Janice Boddy for insightful comments. I also want to acknowledge the financial support given by the Nordic Africa Institute and the Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth foundation for the fieldwork in Somaliland. I am grateful to Ibrahim Mohamed Hassan and Nasra Osman who helped me to translate and understand some of the Somali language material. Naturally, I am solely responsible for any errors.

[3] Xadra and dikri mean ritual song of praising of God. The interviewed women used the term xadra also to signify the place where dikri or sitaat is performed.

[4] Siyaaro means a visit to the graves of awliyo, but also commemoration.

[5] Somalis venerate the clan ancestors – whether historical personages or not – in the same fashion as they do Sufi saints (Lewis 1998:21–22).

[6] Literally faqash means a dirty or corrupt person, and filth. Somalilanders use faqash to refer to the war starting in 1988, when the Somali government attacked the northern territories.

[7] Mingis and rooxaan are names for different spirits known in Somalia.

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