Saturday, 4 January 2003

Somalia: a woman's woman

Coat of Arms of SomaliaImage via Wikipedia
Source: Behind the mask

By Afdhere Jama

By the time I came to America at the age of seventeen, I had met at least a dozen queer Somalis. All of them men. I had yet to meet a lesbian. The word used for lesbian in Somali, qaniisad, is the feminine version of the word qaniis or a gay male. A few years ago, I finally met a qaniisad. Her name was Rahma Shire and she visiting from Switzerland. She was a 25-year-old medical student and nin-nin or masculine in terms of behavior but at the same time possessed lots of feminine qualities like long hair, pretty nails and fabulous traditional Somali dressing known as dirac[see-through kind of a dress that goes all the way below the feet which then women grab with one hand and hold onto while walking, part of its xarago or beauty.)

Being masculine, Shire had her dirac supported by her goorgarad or a traditional inner skirt that is usually silky and a different color than the dirac, accompanied by same color rejistiin or a bra. Instead of holding it, she just tucked part of the front under the goorgarad. When I was in Somalia, I used to see a lot of women do that. Then I asked Shire whether that was a clue to their sexuality or not. "No, honey," she said. "It is actually common for women to do this when they want to use both of their hands. I'm just a dyke and can't drag a dress all day."

In Somali culture, women encourage themselves to drag it because xarago xanuunkeed or "beauty has its pains." They use the same phrase when justifying wearing painfully tall high-heels. Shire, on the other hand, is wearing medium-high open shoes and actually seems to be comfortable. "Why bother? Shoes are just shoes. They are meant to complement your clothes not to put you in pain." I couldn't help but agree with her.

Shire is beautiful, indeed, but her beauty gets even better when she talks about queer issues. She is passionate about gay rights, especially since she believes one of an executed lesbian couple in Somalia was her ex-. A few years ago, story broke out to the international community about a lesbian couple being executed in a northeastern part of Somalia that calls itself "Puntland." Shire was scared for the lesbians, but then she received a word from Somalia that one of the victims was her ex-girlfriend. "A lesbian called me in the middle of the night," says Shire. "It was a horrible news because my ex-girlfriend and I did not break up because the relationship died but because of the war. We got separated and then her family married her off to some guy."

Shire tried to find out everything she could about the executed couple, but the self-declared state denied it. She says she contacted at least three different people in that region and they confirmed the story was actually true. The women, who belonged to the Majeerteen and Isaaq clans, were executed "discreetly." Shire, an Isaaq herself who was coincidentally in a relationship with a Majeerteen lady at the time, says the story seemed to parallel her life more than she imagined. It even seemed to be repeating itself when her girlfriend decided to go back to Bosaaso(same region) to take care of her ill mother. "She was my former girlfriend and she was dead now because she was a lesbian," says Shire. "Then my current girlfriend decided she wanted to go to the same area. I was really angry and scared."

Shire came to Europe in 1991 when she got into Italy illegally. A lot of Somali women were doing the same thing. Italy was "big" because you could become boyaaso or a maid/care-giver. Then she went into Switzerland and filed for asylum as a refugee. "Coming to Switzerland was the best thing I did," says Shire, who moved to a region in Switzerland that speaks French. "I could go to school and envision a good life." That is exactly what she did. She went to school and now she is almost done with her medical school. What is she going to be? "A gynecologist," she says. "I want to help Somali girls understand their bodies and deal with some of the things they are faced with."

She is a fierce feminist. She goes all around Switzerland and teaches Somali women sobering facts about a very extreme female circumcision known to Somalis as gudniinka fircooniga and known to others as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM.) "The education on this horrible practice is very low within the Somali community," she says in front of dozens of Somali women in a community gathering. "Women, especially, need to empower themselves by studying the cases. There is enough information on this out there for anyone who is interested. Please, for the sake of your daughters, stop this practice."

Like most Somali girls, she suffered the practice, which most Somalis do in order to keep the girls' sexuality "under control." Somalis, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, say by "cutting down the pleasure the girls will not sin by having premarital sex," says Shire. And because of that, many of these victims of FGM end up hating their bodies, and men, coincidently.

Fortunately, Shire is not one of them. In a recent conversation with her for Huriyah magazine, when asked what she thinks of her vagina, she said: "I love my vagina. When the civil war started, I would have gone crazy without satisfying myself, after my girlfriend left me and moved with her family to the other side of the country. It saved my life, literally." I can't help but be proud of her, both as a Somali and queer.

So, what is she doing now? "Enjoying my life with my girlfriend of eight years," she says. "I'm looking forward to becoming a doctor, as well. My life is in good shape. I didn't write it this way but I absolutely love it. My girlfriend and I have made definite plans for a marriage." What a sweet life.

Afdhere Jama is a queer Muslim writer. He is the Editor of Huriyah magazine( ). Reach him via
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