Fathia Absie and Somaliland’s Hybrid Political System

By Adan M. Dawad, Puntland Post Columnist

Fathia Absie, the Somali-American journalist, activist and YouTuber, last month stirred a hornet’s nest when she argued that a husband could be committing rape if he slept with his wife without her consent. To some clerics, her intervention smacks of “promotion of marital values alien to the Somali culture.”
Describing a facet of conjugal intimacy as rape in a country where rapists benefit from a pact from the political system and traditional leaders is a stretch.

Absie occasionally defends the Somaliland government, but accuses activists such Abdulmalik Oldon of “waging a war against education of girls.” Oldon is in jail for calling to attention a tweet by the Lagos-based Elevation Church to which pastor Joy Isa, the President of Barwaaqo University” belongs. The tweet described Joy’s presence in Hargeisa as a missionary endeavour. The church had had to retract the tweet.

Fathia Absiye’s activism animates the Somali debating scene.

A photo of Absie posing with Joy was malevolently shared on social media networks to allege that the Absie “is involved in proselytisation”. Absie’s detractors missed the opportunity to defend her against calumny and character assassination.

There is a moral void in the Somali debating culture. Why does a mere difference of opinion lead to mutual character assassination? Why do clerics fail to understand the complexity of certain issues that call for political, sociological and theological discussions? On her part Absie took criticisms personally. She believes that she leads a campaign to protect women’s rights against Somali sexual predators and misogynists. In one of her YouTube viewpoints, Absie has singled out Sheikh Dirir for harsh criticism. At a recent major conference for Somali religious educators held in Hargeisa, Sheikh Dirir was asked to share one of the most bizarre cases he had had to resolve.

“A woman has come to me to complain about her husband, whom she accused of fondling their daughter.” Sheikh Dirir told the audience. He said that the case reflected the extent to which people have become irreligious. “I have resolved the case” he added.

“Some women have told me that they no longer revere Sheikh Dirir” Absie said in an attempt to portray the Sheikh as a person who condones incest. Absie should not be insulting the intelligence of her viewers. Sheikh Dirir should not have shared the case with the public without the permission of the family in question. What can prevent the father from carrying on with the alleged incestuous attention towards his daughter? Getting clerics involved in sensitive marital cases shows the need for professional and culture-specific marriage counselling. Marriage counsellors can help a family cope with a traumatic experience such as incest.

Mixed bag activism

Absie has a YouTube channel, and has interviewed several women who had shared traumatic experiences. The stories of two women stand out. One woman shared her tribulations dating back to the late 1980s. She was kidnapped by several militia men in refugee camp in Ethiopia to have her forcibly married off to a man whose advances she had rejected. At one evening, several men who said their evening prayers, had tried to manhandle her to help the man sleep with her by force. “I have never accepted the engagement proceedings officiated by a Sheikh,” she told Absie. A kind man who owned a lorry helped her escape to the refugee camp where, even some of her relatives, had said that “I was happy to elope with the man.” The woman, 18 years at the time of kidnapping, was the breadwinner of her family, following the murder of her father by the Somali government forces.

Another woman, based in Germany, shared the story of a twelve-year girl, who was raped and impregnated by her uncle at a village near Hargeisa. “The family of the rapist has a history of rape and incest,” the woman said. The girl gave birth to a daughter currently being looked after by a couple who use her as a means to get sympathy from people they ask for financial help. “It is common in Somaliland that the honour of the clan or subclan is more important than the rights of a girl or woman. Not all members of the subclan are good people. If one person misbehaves, he or she should take responsibility,” said the woman, who is raising money to have the baby daughter reunited with her child mother. “The couple is asking for $5,000 to release the baby daughter so that the child mother can look after her” added the woman.

The hybrid political system of Somaliland has matured at the expense of women’s rights. Almost all rape cases get resolved out of court. “Elders from the rapist’s subclan and the victim’s subclan come to the police station to demand the release of the suspect on grounds that the two sides have resolved the issue through traditional adjudication” said a senior Somaliland police officer. “It is not uncommon that rape victims are married off to rapists,” the officer added.

Fathia Absie deserves credit for her activism. She needs to exercise caution to avoid generalisation or being seen as the purveyor of practices from a third, foreign party engaged in a culture war.

Adan M. Dawad

© Puntland Post, 2021