The Somaliland parliament election in 2005 was a historic event twice over, being the first parliamentary election in Somaliland and the first time for women to stand as parliamentary candidates.
Amina ‘Milgo’ was one of seven women candidates who stood in the election, as a parliamentary candidate in Sahil region. In this paper, she discusses some of the challenges that women face in participating in Somaliland’s parliamentary democracy.
By Amina Mohamoud Warsame (‘Milgo’)
Introduction and Background
The Somali-speaking people living in Somaliland, Somalia, large parts of Djibouti, Region Five of Ethiopia, and the Northern Frontier District of Kenya share a patriarchal clan social system in which decision-making tends to be regarded as the sole right of men. Even today, the clan system has a significant role to play in the politics of these areas.
After proclaiming independence in 1991, Somaliland’s emerging institutions all reflected the strong influence of the clan system. For example, the first nominated House of Representatives and House of Elders (or the Guurti, as it is commonly known) were exclusively composed of men.
No women participated as decision-makers in the reconciliation conferences that took place in the early 1990s in Somaliland, be they local or national. The major reason for the exclusion of women was the selection of delegates on a clan basis.
This practice of viewing men as solely suitable and having the right to participate in public affairs greatly influenced these conferences and the participation of women in political decision-making. Only in the National Reconciliation Conferences held in Borame in 1993 and in Hargeysa in 1997, were women granted an observer status, with two women at the first and twelve at the latter.
This was a typical example of how traditional political systems influence modern ones. This was to change slightly when Somaliland embarked on the road to democracy and adopted a multiparty system.
In the first local government election conducted in 2003, two women were elected as councilors in 332 contested seats. That election used a system of a proportional representation system, where the candidates whose names were placed towards the top of their party’s list had a greater chance of winning seats.
Three years later, in September 2005, history was made when women stood as parliamentary candidates in their own right for the first time in Somaliland (and for that matter the former-Somali Republic). From 239 candidates the three national political parties put forward seven women – two from Kulmiye (Unity and Peace), three from UCID (Justice and Welfare Party) and two for UDUB (United Peoples Democratic Party).
The two women candidates of UDUB did not participate directly in the elections due to insecurity in the areas they were contesting, but gained seats on the basis of proportional representation. The inclusion of women candidates on the party lists was a historic move, but was not without problems, as I will now discuss.
Choice of Candidates
Since, as I noted earlier, Somali politics is greatly influenced by the clan system, the number of candidates in each region was based proportionately on the estimated size of clans in the region. This means that the larger clan would have proportionately more candidates.
But no census has ever been conducted in Somaliland, so the allocation of parliamentary seats in each region was based on the number of candidates that won in Somaliland’s only previous elections in 1960, multiplied by 2.6 to take account of the population growth since that time.
This being the case, clan elders and traditional leaders had an influential role to play in choosing candidates for the parties of their choice. Traditionally, and even today, clans thought of as more numerous wield power over less numerous and thus ‘less fortunate’ clans.
Political parties were challenged to go along with the wishes of clan leaders. There were cases in which a certain clan, through its traditional leaders, would put pressure on a specific party to drop a candidate from its list and instead add the candidate of their choice. To go against the clan leadership risked losing the support of that clan, which no party could afford to do.
In some cases, a candidate would be told by the party leadership to bring “his clan leaders” in order to demonstrate that he had their support. The candidate who was unable to bring along supporters “with weight” – that is traditional elders who have a good number of its people behind them – would face trouble. However, due to the proliferation of traditional leaders in recent times, there was always the possibility of the clans splitting and splitting their clan supporters.
In such cases, the parties would choose the candidate that they thought could command the support of the majority of the clan. In assessing the level of support a leader has one would take into account the level of the traditional leader and the respect he has among his people.
Throughout history, clans have been represented by their male members. Women’s loyalty to their clan of birth (reerkaan ka dhashay) is always questioned by people because those who are married are seen as belonging to their clan of marriage (reer kaan u dhaxay). It was therefore difficult to include a large number of women on the party lists simply because women are not seen by their clans of birth as representing their interest.
This ‘dual clan identity”, as well as the mindset of the Somali people – that women cannot and should not become leaders and run the affairs of the country – was the major obstacle for women who wanted to get into politics in general and onto the party lists.
The following anecdote sheds some light on the perceived roles of men and women and how men relate to and see women’s participation in politics. As tradition goes, when a married woman visits her kin people, she is entitled to receive xeedho (a traditional container used for holding ghee-clarified butter or muqmad-deep fried minced meat).
During the election campaign whenever I had a discussion with men from “my clan of birth”, they would say, “You have a right to receive a xeedho from us but not a seat in parliament.” Or “you should be given a xeedho, not votes.” These men were reiterating this tradition to remind me of my responsibility as a wife and that I should not meddle with politics, a sphere for the male members of the clan.
Some clans openly refused women to be put in the party lists thinking that their clan’s chance of winning a seat would be jeopardized. The clan I was born into knew that UCID, on whose ticket I was running, had made the decision to put me in the candidacy list regardless of whether I had their support or not. So the clan did not bother to contact the party. UCID was “gambling” on the votes that I could get from women.
The small number of women candidates in the 2005 elections reflected the general uncertainty among the parties and clans about women candidates. The parties were unsure about the support that women candidates would get from their clans of birth, their husband’s clan or women voters in general.
The seven women candidates were therefore a litmus test for women’s political inclusion. The general thinking among the leadership of the parties was that if women could secure significant votes, then they would become a force to be reckoned with. If on the other hand, they were not able to raise a large number of votes, then the parties would know that in future elections, they would get away with fewer women candidates.
A brief political career and experiences in fitting into a male-dominated institution
In the beginning, I did not have political ambitions myself, but women’s absence from the political scene of Somaliland always bothered me, as it bothered many others like me. Women’s absence from leadership positions had been a norm within the Somali National Movement (SNM) before the reemergence of Somaliland as a sovereign state in 1991.
Although women played a strong role in supporting the SNM fighters and there were even some women who took part in the fighting itself, women never participated in the SNM congresses. An exception was the third congress held by the SNM in 1983 where there was one woman delegate among 151 men. Women were also absent from the central committee of the SNM.
I remember that in the latter years of the struggle for liberation (in the late 1980s), I used to ask the leaders of the SNM when they were touring Europe where I lived as a refugee in Sweden, why women were absent from the central committee of the SNM. I never received an adequate answer.
It was obvious that the SNM leadership either ignored or did not realize that women had the same rights as men to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. This continued to affect women’s political participation after Somaliland’s independence.
After I returned to Somaliland from Sweden in early 1997, I became part of the group of women who founded Nagaad Women’s Umbrella Organization (a network of women’s organizations). The main reason behind the formation of Nagaad was a concern by the women’s organizations at that time about the absence of women from the decision-making processes in their country.
In fact, Nagaad’s establishment coincided with the conclusion of the second National Reconciliation Conference in Hargeysa at which the late President Egal was re-nominated for a second term of five years term. It was during that all-male conference that the 12 women observers experienced the real difficulties women would face to realize their right to political participation.
Soon after the conference, Nagaad was established by 25, mostly women’s, organizations, to promote a united voice for women’s rights in general and their political participation in particular.
In 2002, as part of a series of studies on women’s position within society, the Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group (SOWRA G), which I was heading at that time, did some research on women’s political participation. The study sought to find out people’s views on women’s political participation and the readiness of potential women leaders to participate in politics. Many respondents saw the political arena as the preserve of men and “a woman’s proper place” as the home.
However, from a workshop held to discuss the findings of the research, came a recommendation to create a Woman’s Political Forum (WPF) to promote women’s political participation. Part of the activities of the WPF, which I became a member of, was to train and encourage women to vie for political office.
Some of the women, especially the younger ones, regularly confronted us with the question of why we, elderly women, were not taking the lead. I decided to get into politics by becoming active in UCID Party, which I was closely involved with when it was being formed. I was later elected to the position of 3rd Vice-chair at the party’s 2nd Central Committee meeting in 2004.
In 2005, I became a candidate for UCID in the parliamentary elections in Sahil Region. During my short time within the leadership of the party, I had firsthand experience of being the only woman among all-male leadership. Although political parties in Somaliland receive substantial support from women, their presence in the decision-making organs of the party is minimal.
Moreover, there is a tendency within parties to see the major function of women among their ranks to be to deal with the women ‘wings’ of the party, organizing campaigns and mobilizing women voters on the party’s behalf.
Often, therefore, women in the decision-making bodies of their respective party do not participate in the party meetings as much as they should do. Working with a party whose leadership was male-dominated had its positive and negative aspects.
Among my positive experiences was the respect that my male colleagues in the Executive Committee showed to me. As the only woman, I was always given an ample chance to give my views and most of the time my colleagues would make extra efforts to make me comfortable.
On the other hand, though, it is tough to fit into a political outfit made for men. A case in point is the environment in which political meetings and decision making is reached within parties. Since most men chew “khat”, they prefer to conduct meetings and discussions in these chewing sessions. Sitting in these sessions can be very uncomfortable and intimidating for a lone woman.
Although there were many men participating in the meetings who did not chew, they never felt the uneasiness that I felt as a woman. When I chose to stay and participate in such meetings, I would sit on a chair in some corner. At other times, I opted to stay away from the meeting altogether. There were also times when our party members would “chew” with others who were not party members and in these cases my colleagues preferred that I stay away.
The most embarrassing moments I could remember were those instances in which important traditional leaders visited the party headquarters to meet with the leaders. Some of these visitors would greet the men but skip me. I could see that these elders felt uneasy in my presence and did not know how to relate to me. They had never seen a woman amidst men discussing politics and felt that I was in the wrong place. They would ignore me and act as if I was not there.
I would look them in the eyes, but they would still ignore me and avoid any eye contacts, perhaps wishing that I would leave so that they could speak about the issues they came to discuss. On these occasions, I would usually not leave the room, but there were some occasions when I made an excuse to leave.
Numerous challenges with my candidacy
The seven women who were running as parliamentary candidates for the first time in their country’s history faced many challenges. While some were common to all the women candidates, others were peculiar to one or other woman candidate. In the following section I will concentrate on the specific challenges that faced me personally and explain the common challenges, as I see them.
The initial challenge that I faced was the slim chance that I had in winning a seat. First, there were three candidates (two men and I) from the same sub-clan, running for different parties. This diminished the chances of any of us securing a seat and as a woman candidate, I had the least chance. Second, my husband and I were born into two different clans.
As I was running in the region of my “clan of birth”, they viewed me as an outsider who had no right to run in what the clan saw as “their territory”. And third, since “my clan of birth” overwhelmingly supported the ruling party of UDUB, they agreed to endorse the candidate of their choice who was running for UDUB and give him the resources that he needed.
Third, as a woman with no clan support, my resources to run the campaign were limited. Whatever resources I did manage to raise could not cover all the traveling and other campaign costs. Furthermore, unlike the male candidates, I needed to travel outside the “traditional clan territory” in the hope that I might get some votes from other women.
This meant that while a man could focus his resources and energy in the limited areas where his clan is concentrated, I needed to cover all the major towns and villages of the whole of Sahil region as I was not sure where my votes would come from. This involved many costs that could not be secured from any source other than a limited number of institutions.
Nagaad and friends of Nagaad organized a fundraising campaign for women candidates and contacted private companies, international and local organizations, and individuals. The funds secured were minimal and were spent on campaigning materials such as stickers and crucial training such as campaigning, communication, leadership, and principles of democracy.
In addition to these organizations, a number of individuals also gave their support to the seven women candidates. I received some money from friends and family as well as a diaspora organization called Gaaroodiga.
A problem that all the women candidates confronted was the confusion caused by the cryptogram that some men candidates chose as their election symbol. Due to the high illiteracy rates of the voters, each of the candidates running in a specific region has to have a unique election symbol.
A wide variety of signs such as work tools, traditional utensils, and sports items were chosen by the different candidates. Six men from UDUB Party, each running in a different region, chose the picture of a woman as their election symbol.
This confused some illiterate women voters, who thought that the picture of the woman in the ballot paper naturally symbolized the women candidates.
Many cases have been reported of rural women voting for women candidates by marking the picture of the woman in the ballot paper. It is not clear, however, whether some of the votes intended for the women candidates went to these men or whether this was the real motive behind the choice of a woman’s picture as an election symbol by these men candidates.
Another challenge that I faced was the difficulty of publicizing my campaign through stickers. It was the custom among the candidates to put their election stickers with their photos and election symbol on cars owned by their clan members or friends. Since cars were a quick way of giving publicity to a candidate, they were the best-sought method for campaigning. For men, there was no problem to find as many cars as possible. But for me, this proved very difficult.
All the cars I approached were already publicizing a candidate from their clan. Even close relatives who happened to belong to a different clan than the one I was born into were reluctant to put the sticker with my photo and election symbol on their car. Their justification for refusing to do this was that they were campaigning for some candidate from their sub-clan, it would be difficult for them to put mine beside the other candidate.
The most damaging problem that I faced concerned the rumors. These came to my attention only one day before the election date. It was unclear how widespread the rumors were or whether this was calculated propaganda to divert voters away from me, but many women supporters came to me to clarify what they had heard. Word of mouth and oral messages can spread like wildfire among the Somali people, being an oral society.
The essence of the messages in the rumors was: “Unlike the men candidates, the woman candidate needs only a small number of votes to secure a seat”. “Do not waste the votes on her, as she will come out anyway”.
It was too late for me to counter that propaganda and I did not know what to do. I immediately called the National Election Commission Chair to contact the BBC Somali service which is popular among Somali-speaking people in the hope that when people listened to the news, they would know the truth. I guessed the Chairman was busy with the burden of election preparations and could not make the announcement.
Another area that posed a challenge for me was the media. The presence of the media was limited in Sahil region where that I was a candidate. TV and national radio coverage were limited to Hargeysa, the Capital and all major newspapers are published in Hargeysa with only a few copies reaching Berbera. Furthermore, it was the hot season in Berbera which restricts peoples’ movement and made campaigning difficult.
In other cooler areas with better media coverage the situation improved, but the media was biased against me as a woman candidate. One example in Sheikh town illustrates how women were depicted in the media.
When I was campaigning there were two men from my party who were also campaigning on the same day in the same town. So we joined forces and addressed a crowd in a square. I spoke, among other things, about the economy, the environment, health and education.
To my surprise, when the newspaper came out, there were three columns allocated to each of the men candidates’ speeches whereas my speech was reduced to four lines or so. Moreover, the reporter who seemed to be biased against women depicted me in the four lines as speaking “about some women issues”.
Another problem I faced was the hostility shown me by some men in the area where I was conducting my campaign. On at least three occasions, I was faced with open hostility from men who share with me the same clan of birth. On two occasions I was sitting with some village women discussing the importance of women’s participation in the decision-making process and taking their views and concerns to the negotiating table.
Since most of the women that I was interacting with saw political posts as a men’s affair, I focused my campaign on making the women understand that a woman has as much right as a man to run for a political position.
On one occasion, an elderly man approached me and said an angry voice, “Are you the woman who is running for Parliament?” I confirmed in a calm voice that I was the woman candidate. The old man then started to shout at me saying that I had no right to stand for elections in this region and that I should go back to the area where my husband came from. He further accused me of taking “their woman’s votes” from the clan.
I told the elderly man in a dignified and respectful way that I had also a right to campaign in this region and that the women I was speaking to had a right to vote for who they want to. Upon saying this, the women and a crowd who came to see what was happening all laughed and clapped their hands. The old man walked away more angrily than before.
On another occasion, a man entered a hut where I was sitting with some women including his wife. He pulled off the curtains and told me to leave “their women” alone. I told the man that these women were not his property and that they were free to discuss and sit with whoever they wanted to. His wife looked at him, turned to me and told me to ignore him.
I later found out that my cousin who lived in the village went straight to the man after he heard the news about my encounter with him and beat him up. They were both put in the police station for the night. In a third incident, as we were driving along a road some men who were standing a short distance away took off their shoes, raised them above their heads, and pointed the shoes at me.
According to Somali tradition, this gesture is very rude, and had I informed on these men, they could have been penalized for this kind of behavior. It was their way of showing me that I was not welcome to campaign in what they saw as their territory.
The incidents indicate several things. First, men regard their wives, the women from their clan or the women who married into their clan as being under their control, including even their right to vote. This is especially true when the women involved are illiterate and are not economically independent. Second, as I noted earlier, a woman’s clan identity is not as evident and clear as a man’s.
This is the reason that both the men I encountered told me to leave their women alone. They were suggesting that I do not belong here even though my father was from this territory. They would never have told a male candidate to leave the area as they would regard him as having a right to campaign as he so pleased. And third, the men were angry because since the “clan” endorsed a male candidate, they saw me as threatening to steal “their women’s” vote.
Although I did not experience religion being used to undermine my candidacy, some preachers did talk about the issue of women in politics in the Friday prayers. Religious men discussing current issues during Friday sermons is a routine practice and that is perhaps why they raised the issue of women’s candidacy. Some allegedly spoke negatively about women wanting to take part in politics. And certainly, many men and women use Islam to curb women’s advancement, including their political participation, and portray it as un-Islamic.
This is despite the fact that there is nothing in the Quran which bars women from participating in political decision-making. On several occasions, women came to me and related how they were told by “religious” people that it is a sin to vote for a woman. I tried to convince these women that it is not a sin to cast their votes for women. I am not sure whether these women were really convinced since they would have preferred to hear this from a religious leader rather than a woman standing for a political position.
Some Positive Outcomes
Despite all the challenges and obstacles that faced me as a female candidate, there were nevertheless quite a number of positive outcomes that need to be mentioned. During the campaigning period, I had the chance to sit with, talk to and learn from so many women that I would not have reached otherwise.
On my part, I took the opportunity to raise their awareness of the importance of women’s political participation and the relationship between politics and the day-to-day lives of people. For many of these women, it was their first time to learn about these rights and why it is important to raise their voices in support of them.
The confidence of many women, especially the younger generation, has been built by seeing women campaigning and running for parliament. Young women came to me and asked me shyly why being a woman was running for parliament? I took the chance to explain to them that both women and men have the right to run for political office and that they can also run if they wanted to.
By interacting with these young women, I could feel and see how their understanding and their confidence about women’s aspirations for leadership was growing.
At the beginning of my campaign, I was not sure how the general public would react to my wanting to run for a parliamentary seat. Despite my initial fear of open opposition, I did not experience any major threat or violence, apart from my encounter with the few men in some villages that I was campaigning in. I was especially fearful that some elements in society would use religion as a tool to discourage people from voting for a woman.
Although some of these elements did use religion to manipulate women voters, they did so sporadically and privately but did not systematically reach a large public.
Most importantly, a wall has been broken. Women are now represented in both Houses of Parliament. This was unthinkable in a strong patriarchal, clan-based society where leadership positions are still seen as strictly the prerogative of men.
The number in parliament is minimal (i.e. three women out of 164 members in both the House of Elders and the House of Representatives), but to the women who have been struggling to improve women’s political representation for the past decade, this is a significant move which has raised the hopes of many women across Somaliland.
In order to further increase the above successes, I conclude this short paper on my election experiences with the following recommendations:
- There is a need to build both the institutional capacity of the parties and the capacity of political party members to fully understand democracy, gender and human rights.
- Political parties should come up with a transparent, democratic candidate selection and nomination process.
- A support fund for women candidates should be set up.
- There is a need for continuous intensive civic education for people, and especially women, so that they can participate properly in the elections and understand democracy and their civic rights.
- More men should support the promotion of women’s political participation.
- Political parties should make room for women in their decision-making organs.
- An alternative setting is needed for reaching major party decisions outside the ‘khat’ sessions. This would be good both for non-chewing men and women.
- The Government of Somaliland and political parties should demonstrate a willingness to adopt affirmative action to increase women’s political participation. This will enhance and increase the credibility of democracy in Somaliland, for a democracy in which half the population is missing is questionable.
 The ‘Sultan’, ’Ugaas’, ‘Boqor’ or “Garaad” is the highest in the rank of traditional leadership followed by chief Aqil and Aqil. Others carrying the title of an elder are also recognized by the clans.
 Interview with Abdurrahman Yussuf Duale (Boobe). 17th December 2009 in Hargeysa
 The study was funded by Progressio, formerly known as ICD. “Assessment of Potential Women Leaders in Somaliland” was conducted by SOWRA G in 2000
 Catha edulis, whose leaves are chewed for its stimulating effect, in these chewing sessions, the men sit in a relaxing mood facing each other on mats on the floor wearing loose fitting cloths.
 Businesspeople and others with the means usually support men candidates from their clan. Contributions are even collected from ordinary members of the clan to support male candidates.
 Among the organizations who responded to the request for support to the women candidates are SILC, UNDP, Star Airlines, TELESOM, Action Aid, COSONGO, Progressio; Nagaad members such as Candlelight, Havayoco, ADO, BVO, CCS, Hawo Group, SOWDA, and WORDA; and the British Embassy through East African Human Rights. Our donors such as Novib, HBF and ISF also supported us in many different ways.
About the author
Amina Mohamoud Warsame (Milgo) is currently the Coordinator of Golis Organization for Saving the Environment. Ms. Warsame founded the Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group (SOWRA G). She was also among the founders of Nagaad Women’s Umbrella Organization where she served as its executive director from February 2005 to July 2010 Amina was among the first seven women to run for Somaliland’s Lower House of parliament in 2005. She is an active member of the women’s movement in Somaliland and is a strong advocate for women’s rights and the environment.
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