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23. February 2012

Somali women

Somali women walk past a destroyed building, a result of a four-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people, REUTERS/Feisal Oma (2011)

Hanan Ibrahim: “We Wear the Headscarf out of Fear”

An interview with SAVE Sister Hanan Ibrahim

Yesterday’s London conference on Somalia culminated in a seven-point plan promising more humanitarian aid, support for African Union peacekeepers on the ground, and better international coordination on issues such as famine, terrorism and piracy. 

In a moving speech, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said “We are scared of tomorrow”. The current transitional government headed by Ahmed only controls the capital Mogadishu with the help of more than 10,000 AU peacekeepers, while militant group al-Shabab controls large territories scattered across the country. 
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the world must keep the militant group “on the run” and ruled out any possibility of talks with al-Shabab, whose recent partnership with Al Qaeda is seen by world leaders as a threat to peace and stability in Somalia. 

Despite the country’s gloomy past, President Ahmed stated that what Somali people desperately want is “a restoration of optimism, something to look forward to, something to hope for which will take away all the horrendous memories of the past”. 

Hanan Ibrahim, our WWB SAVE representative on the ground, is one of three women appointed to the expert committee drafting Somalia’s new constitution. They have recently established a mandatory quota of 1/3 female representation in the transitional parliament. This is truly the meaning of security in the safe hands of women. Another key development is the establishment of equal representation of Somalia’s four primary clans and a coalition of minorities. 

SAVE is committed to supporting this promising change in Somalia and will launch a pilot project in spring 2012. 

Last December Hanan was invited to Vienna to meet with the SAVE team and to draw the attention of the international community to the reality on the ground. Here is an interview published in die Presse on the occasion of Hanan’s visit: 

Hanan Ibrahim: “We Wear the Headscarf out of Fear” 

Die Presse, 18 February 2012, by Eva Winroither 

They watch their children die—of starvation, thirst, and malaria. Others fall victim to attacks. Women in Somalia must deal with fear, violence, and death on a daily basis. Hanan Ibrahim, who was born in Somalia, has decided to help these women. She conducts awareness trainings and offers psychological support. In doing so, she puts her own life in danger. 

Eva Winroither: Ms. Ibrahim, there has been a civil war in Somalia since 1991. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. You help women there. How would you describe their situation?

Hanan Ibrahim: The situation of women in Somalia breaks my heart. They have no access to medical care; poverty reigns. There is nothing there, we need everything. 

Winroither: Which problems do families face on a daily basis? 

Ibrahim: Our child mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. At the same time, people must also deal with malaria, hunger, cholera, genital mutilation, and of course HIV. In practical terms, there is no medical system, nor is there any psychological care. But that is important: Somalia has dealt with civil war for such a long time. People need someone to talk to. 

Winroither: To what degree does female genital mutilation play a role in daily life? 

Ibrahim: That is a difficult topic, because it is a cultural problem. It has nothing to do with religion, it is more of a mental attitude. People do it because it is expected of them. There is a lot of cultural pressure, particularly from older men. 

Winroither: But the mothers know what they are doing to their children. Why do they not protect their daughters? 

Ibrahim: Because this attitude is widespread. People think that is shameful if they do not let it happen to their girls. They are scared of malicious gossip, and that they will not be able to marry off their daughters. These people imagine absolutely horrible things. But everyone does it. And for this reason, the perception of Somalis needs to change. Girls frequently die during the process of genital mutilation. They bleed to death, because it is carried out under the worst conditions. 

Winroither: Who carries out the procedure? 

Ibrahim: Old women do it. 

Winroither: Older women mutilate girls? 

Ibrahim: You see, that is the problem. It is a cultural issue, which has no logic. Many husbands don’t want this—it is the mothers make the mutilation possible. 

Winroither: And how can this be stopped in the future? 

Ibrahim: You have to raise people’s awareness. You have to go into schools and talk to the teachers and parents, but especially with the women. 

Winroither: You mentioned that there is no medical care in Somalia? 

Ibrahim: We have hospitals, but there is nothing in them. 

Winroither: What do you mean, there is nothing in them? 

Ibrahim: There is nothing in them. I myself had to go to a hospital once after an attack. I even had a VIP room there—but in the room there was only a mattress. That is VIP for us. That’s why I always say: when hospitals in Europe get rid of their old beds, they should send them to Somalia. We need them. 

Winroither: Then aren’t women scared to have their babies in hospitals? 

Ibrahim: Let me tell you something: many women give birth at home, and then they hemorrhage to death. Because first you must cut them open, when they marry, then you have to sew them back up again, then cut them open again when they have a baby. It’s crazy. We have barely any midwives who can help with births. That is the biggest problem. And when the women are finally taken to the hospital, it is too late. 

Winroither; How do they stand it? 

Ibrahim: Somali women are very strong. But they are also very vulnerable. In the end, it is the men who carry the weapons. The women want peace. The African Union is now trying to expel al-Shabaab (note: Islamist terrorists) from the country. Al-Shabaab also terrorizes women. They tell us what to wear. I don’t think that anyone likes to wear this clothing (note: Niqab). But we do it out of fear. Because otherwise, you cannot leave your house. They will kidnap you. 

Winroither: Don’t people defend themselves? 

Ibrahim: I think that the attitude of Somali women has changed. They are joining forces because they want to be heard. They want everyone to know that they are no longer willing to go along with this nonsense. They are ready to fight. Now Somali women even take part in UN meetings. The world should know that they do not support this madness. Enough is enough! 

Winroither: Many people think that Somali women let themselves be oppressed. You are portraying them very differently. 

Ibrahim: Oh, the women are very strong. It is only because of the radical groups. 

Winroither: Don’t many people want to leave the country, given the situation? 

Ibrahim: Where should they go? They would lose their children if they left. It is better to support them there. 

Winroither: How do you try to support the women through your work? 

Ibrahim: We try to support them and to provide them with psychological counseling. Most of them have had horrible experiences. And there is no one they can talk to. We also are concentrating on training girls to be midwives—there are far too few. 

Winroither: How else can one help your country? 

Ibrahim: Everything that Austrians can donate would be welcome in Somalia. Everything—including old computers. We train women on them. Education is important. When a woman is educated, she is an informed mother, and she can transmit her knowledge to her children. It is important to invest in women. They are the backbone of society. 

Winroither: Somalia has recently also frequently been connected to piracy. 

Ibrahim: Yes, people always think of that when they hear Somalia. Pirates. But they are terrorists and criminals. They have nothing to do with our society. 

Winroither: Which survival strategies do Somali women employ, so that they don’t become desperate? 

Ibrahim: Somali women are fundamentally very strong. But of course they lose hope too, for example when they lose a child. But they have to continue somehow. What else should they do? I think that for this reason, many women cling to their faith. They are very religious; they believe in God. 

Winroither: The al-Shabaab militia is recruiting many children. What can the mothers do so that they do not lose their children? 

Ibrahim: They cannot do anything. The problem is that boys and girls have nothing to do. Nothing to distract them. The poverty is extreme. Then men come and give boys a little bit of money and a mobile phone. And the children voluntarily join the organization. 

Winroither: You work directly in Mogadishu. Is your work very dangerous? 

Ibrahim: Yes, it is very dangerous. Even if I do not receive death threats, because I work undercover. When I go out, I hide behind a Niqab. No one knows my face—which is good. For example I just have a small laptop, which fits into my handbag. If I went out with a laptop, they would immediately kill me. 


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