The story began some time ago in early 2011 inspired through a meeting of SIHA Network members in Addis Ababa. In the aftermath of serious meetings, participants from the various Horn countries came together for dinner and as an Ethiopian band played Somali and Sudanese music, we danced and sang into the evening. It was a beautiful scene, to see women from Somalia and Sudan relaxed and free, though as the evening drew to a close the reality dawned that many of the women would not be able to enjoy that same sense of joy and freedom when they left the following morning for their own countries the following morning.
These same women are often seen covered with heavy clothes, wrapped in long head scarves stifled by the repressive conditions of their day-to-day lives. I know that many of them face life-threatening situations as women rights activists in the countries they come from. Looking at them, with their smiling faces, loose soft scarves as they laughed, sang and danced happily, one could have been looking at a view in any country of the world at any moment in time, but the unfortunate reality is that in some countries, such freedom to dance would be the exception rather than the norm.
Women in the Muslim Horn can neither dance nor be them- selves in public. I cannot be myself in Sudan or Somalia – where I am like a ghost, a shadow of my existence. As women living in the Muslim Horn, we are accustomed to constantly being on guard in public, where we have become the target: of insults thrown straight at our faces, of a disrespectful gesture from a kid passing by, of men gawking or making lewd comments or bearing the humiliation of a man shouting at your face expressing infuriation over the evilness of a woman in a public road. And these are considered just the minor attacks. The overall social and political environment in the Muslim Horn has turned extremely hostile against women’s presence in pubic realms. However, the risk lies in the fact that this hostility is comfortably placed on the leading religious beliefs, hence cannot be challenged, or rather, this is what is often assumed to be the case.
In Somalia, women street venders have been known to be targeted as proxies by the different militia: a woman was be- headed by Al Shabab for selling tea to government soldiers. Similarly, countless other women have been opportunisti- cally raped by armed militias in a practice that has become disturbingly normalized and little challenged. In Sudan, a tea seller being pursued by Public Order Police fell on a piece of iron and bled to death. She was one of the thousands of women and girls who attempt to earn a living for their fami- lies through small businesses yet find themselves systemi- cally targeted by the authorities. Frequently, when caught for minor infractions, they are subject to summary trials often without legal representation which results in humiliations, lashings, imprisonments and often fines. Concurrent to such lashings and violations committed against women, the re- emergence of sentences of stoning over recent years is deeply concerning. In 2008 a 13-year old Somali girl was stoned to death in Al Shabab territory. In Sudan, two sentences of stoning were passed in 2012. Despite being overturned, it is a harsh reminder that death by stoning still stands as part of Sudan’s Criminal Code alongside a set of practices that dis- criminate against women and violate their dignity.
What the aforementioned types of violence against women have in common are shared roots in an ideology that deems women less human and considers them problematic creatures in need of discipline by men. Such a conceptualisation deliv- ers women into a legal and moral vacuum, to be hurt, injured, killed or gang-raped all of which have become an everyday re- ality in environments where no appropriate legal frameworks fully function to protect their rights. Perpetrators know they can get away with impunity for their actions, which is rife. Brutality against women damages the social fabric. It destroys a nation’s future and potential for progress and and places heavy burdens of self-hatred and creates disparities not only between men and women but between communities, whether Muslim or non-Muslims, for generations to come.
Muslim women have become the human face of war, dis- crimination, poverty and disintegration of society. Yet at the same time, theirs have been stories of resilience and hope in the face of rapid changes, in their countries and the region. In this regard, they are central to our understanding of the political, social, economic and cultural dynamics shaping life in the Muslim Horn. Their lives have offered a window through which the global community has peered into the Muslim world in a bid to understand women’s lives there. Yet what they see raises more questions than answers:
How did this happen? What are the causes of it? And precisely, what happened to the Islamic beliefs and the spirituality of the Muslim people in the Horn – once based on sincerity, peaceful coexistence and tolerant gender and ethnic relations – that has turned them into hatred, violence and deep misogyny that is being passed down to the next generations? The decay and collapse of modern states in the Horn of Africa has turned the region into a backyard for import- ed dogmatic and destructive yet well resourced ideology to play in. The region’s severe poverty and isolation have allowed continuous cycles of warfare that are causing the gravest losses at economic, social and human levels. What can individuals do to help in turning this around? Where can we start from?
Dear reader, there is a necessity and urgency for Muslim women and men in the Horn to step in and reclaim their religion, their spirituality and beliefs. We must enhance our curiosity and engagement while seeking better and different ways of living beyond the current despair that is dominating the region.
In this first issue of the SIHA Journal on Women in Islam, we have tried to voice the notion that Islam is not owned solely by one particular interpretation or by one particular race, but that the Islamic spiritual beliefs are as vast and open as they are eternal. We are honored to present and amplify the thoughts and voices of renowned Islamic thinkers and respected writers – men and women – from different parts of the Muslim world, who stand solid for enlightenment in Islam and argue for gender equality and for human rights as the intrinsic, authentic and non-contradictory aspects of Islam that they are. While reading this issue, we hope it will prompt your thoughts, interest and joy in the manner in which it is intended.
Upon celebrating the publication of the first Women In Islam Journal, I would like to acknowledge here, the exceptional hard work of the editorial team for their passionate and thoughtful engagement in this issue and in particular the executive editor, without whose compassionate commitment, meticulous and tireless effort this piece would not have seen light as it is. I am especially appreciative of the sensitive efforts of SIHA friends who volunteered their time, thoughts and effort to support us in navigating this topic.
Gratitude must be extended to the Open Society Institute (OSI) International Women’s Program and to the Sigrid Rausing Trust Fund for their generous support towards the production of this issue.