Fauzia Haji Adan was sworn in on Monday November 19, 2012, as the Somali Federal Republic’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, making history as Somalia’s first woman to hold those posts. Another Somali woman, Maryan Qassim, was also sworn in as the minister for social services.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdi Shirdon will now be historically remembered for their bold and courageous female appointments—a groundbreaking step towards gender equality in Somalia. The question now is, how will these appointments be translated into effective systemic action that impacts the practical lives of Somali women? And how will the appointments affect the historical male domination of Somalia’s political class?
The principle of “natural” male supremacy is the ideology of oppression of Somali women—collectively and individually. Notwithstanding these groundbreaking ministerial appointments, the collective local and international consensus is that these appointments are an aberration, and the exclusionary structures that continue to marginalize Somali women from the mainstream political class remain firmly entrenched. For women to become active members in all segments of life in Somali society, traditional political structures need to undergo a paradigm shift. The female ministerial appointments are only the first shots in a long and trenchant battle to come.
The recently concluded election process that bought Mohamud and Shirdon to power also proclaimed a 30-percent quota for women in parliament. With only 16 percent of seats going to women, this quota was not close to being realized, and the unending platitudes of Somali and international voices about a “successful” outcome for Somali women ring hollow. If systemic change is to occur, then significant and sustained female representation also has to occur. The dinner niceties of Somali men about female participation must give way to concrete commitment, and the empty rhetoric of the international community must give way to sustained political and financial support to Somalia—conditional on minimum female quotas being achieved at all levels of government and in all sectors of society.
Only a policy of sustained affirmative action can address ingrained structural imbalances; one or two cabinet appointments won’t cut it. Unless there are meaningful numbers of appointments of women to political positions at all levels of government—as vice ministers, ministers of state, directors general, ambassadors, governors, and district commissioners—the current patriarchal status quo will remain unchanged. And Somali women will continue to be marginalized.
A 2005 study—conducted by Caliper, a Princeton, New Jersey-based management consulting firm, and Aurora, a London-based organization that advocates for women—found that female leaders are more “empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts.” These skills are critical for Somalia to finally transition to permanent peace, security, and development. If Somali women are not meaningfully included in the political process, the hope of a dynamic future for Somalia becomes but a distant dream.
For Somali women to rise from the margins, Somali politicians and international funders must move beyond platitudes and commit significant resources and political will to empowering Somali women in all sectors of Somali society. Otherwise, notions of “equity,” “justice,” and “opportunity” will remain the hapless mantras of self-righteous patriarchal political elites—scared of the dark, and the women who remain cast therein.