I guess to a lot of people, it would have seemed impossible for me and my friends to take part in One Billion Rising. All over the world, a billion women have gone through physical or sexual violence, and every February 14th, we rise up against it, across the planet, to dance. Women do it in almost every country – but I am a Somalian. In my life, I have seen my country go from a peaceful normal place to being physically destroyed and then conquered by extreme fundamentalist militias. It is not an easy place to gather in the streets if you are a man; if you are a woman, it is even more risky. But we were determined to express ourselves.
I was born in 1969 and I grew up in Mogadishu when it was a magnificent city often referred to as the gem of Africa. We didn’t have much money, but life was good. My grandmother ran a small business – she had a stall selling furniture and clothes, and made all the decisions. I went to the local state-run school for free, and there was no sense that, as a girl, there was anything I couldn’t do.
I went to Mogadishu University, and at 18, I married my husband – a good, kind man named Elman. When we were in our last year of studying, in 1991, an uprising began in central Somalia. Our President was a corrupt dictator who had been killing opposition politicians and people didn’t like it – so violence broke out. Suddenly, the state seemed to be falling apart. We prayed that the militias would not make it to Mogadhishu, but even then we had no real understanding of what was to come.
We were in our house with our three kids – a three year old, a one and a half year old, and our new tiny baby – when we first heard the gunfire. I had never seen a gun in my life. The only gunshots I had ever heard were in the movies. We tried to hide. But as it got closer, we realized we had to run. We abandoned all of our belongings – I never saw them again – and tried to get to a relative’s house. In the street, there were bodies everywhere. I saw women and children dead in the street, and gunfire rattled around us. We kept running.
Over the next few years, we spent our time running from one refuge to another in Mogadishu, trying to keep away from the gunmen. The city was being destroyed all around us, and everything seemed to be collapsing.
We tried to stay for some years, until eventually my husband Elman begged me to leave for Nairobi with the kids. “Eventually the fighting will stop, and you will be able to come home. This won’t last forever,” he said.
Elman had built up a business running electricity generators, the first to bring light to the darkened Mogadishu and he employ as many young people as possible – because he knew the alternative was that they would be hired as child soldiers and sent to kill and to die. He would travel around the city telling young men that the warlords were just exploiting them – that this fighting was senseless and they should be involved in building up our country, not tearing it down. He offered them an alternative much more appealing, and they listened, and began leaving their posts of guarding and working for the war lords.
I remember vividly when I got the call. One night, Elman had come home after a day of doing his rounds around the city, accompanied by one of his friends; there was a gunman waiting for him. He was shot and dead immediately.
I stayed away from my country for eleven years – raising my three daughters in the calm and safety of Canada- I decided I could not let everything Elman tried to achieve be forgotten or destroyed. When I landed back in Mogadishu, I was amazed by what I saw. Almost the entire city was in rubble. You would see a house half-destroyed – and in the other half, exposed to the elements, you would see a family trying to live. There was rotting garbage everywhere you looked. I found it hard to believe this was the city I had grown up in so peacefully not long before. And what shocked me most was what had happened to women. Girls had been forced into total subordination. Hardly any went to school any more. They were being told they were inferior to men.
I started a human rights group and named it Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre. Initially I started working with the child soldiers who were scattered all over the city, both boys and girls alike from different factions of the war. It is shocking to sit with a nine year-old boy and hear him explain how he has killed many people. I arranged for them to get enrolled in to formal schools and offer their families or care takers with support while they remain in school; and offering others of working age opportunities to gain vocational skills training and later to help secure jobs for them in their respective fields of study – as electricians, mechanics, mobile repairers and more. Once they graduate from our training, I contact local businessmen and arrange employment. We’ve been able to get the business community to help us find placement for these youngsters because so many of them, were the direct beneficiaries of the work initiated by Elman, it is their chance to pay it forward and help a young person in a situation they were once in.
As we did this work, we also travel into to the internally displaced people’s camps across south and central regions of Somali – documenting and monitoring various human rights violations and abuses; and I started to realize there was a great taboo about the war nobody was discussing. Huge numbers of women had been raped, it kept reappearing in our reports every day, every week yet nothing was being done or being spoken about. The official spokesmen for the government would deny it – we never hurt women, they would insist, our culture is above that they would argue – but I saw it; I saw it affecting children, I saw it affecting young women, mothers, grandmothers, no one was exempt. We began to organize support groups and in 2011 we generated a discussion around sexual violence in Somalia that never before existed.
At that time, there were no shelters or refuges for women in Somalia. There was a colossal gap in the services available to women and how to access them without being further subjected to violence; I decided that before we can really have an honest and open discussion on sexual violence; we need to protect and respond to the survivors. So we opened the first rape crisis center in the nation’s capital –We contacted the media, to turn the world’s attention on the human suffering in Somalia, to discuss the “open-secret” that no one wanted to acknowledge. After a story featuring Sister Somalia, the first rape crisis center was covered in the New York Times, and after our plight appeared on their front page, I was contacted by the feminist activist Eve Ensler, who helped us get the money to open a safe-house, the first and only of its kind at the time in South Central. We were able to provide interim care for survivors deemed to be at an acute risk of re-attack in an undisclosed, safe location; we were able to give women and girls an alternative, when every other factor in society was telling them stay quiet and be happy you lived. Of course, there is more need than we can meet – but we have begun the fight. Now more than ever, Somali women know there are alternatives. And Somali Men, and others who contribute to sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, now know; that we will not be silenced.
Of course there is tremendous danger in Somalia; I know very well that the fight against sexual violence, the fight for gender justice is one that makes many groups and people in Somalia uncomfortable. But it is one that needs to be held, and my husband’s fate is a constant and stark reminder to me and my colleagues of the reality of our context.
I believe it is essential for women to organize and resist – and to do it in a spirit of joy. If we are silent, that is what the fundamentalists want. That is why, on the streets of Mogadishu, four hundred of us gathered and danced for One Billion Rising in 2013; and it is why hundreds of women groups and networks gathered again in 2014 throughout South and Central Somalia to Rise for Justice. There are lots of people in Somalia who think it is a shocking thing to see a woman dance on the streets, to be heard and to rise for her rights. To us, it is shocking that we cannot. We will continue dancing with our sisters, all across the world, until all of us are free.
As told to the One Billion Rising team.
1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS. Every February, we rise — in hundreds of countries across the world — to show our local communities and the world what one billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant impunity and injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness — one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.
This year we are rising for Revolution. We are initiating a new series, “Building to One Billion Rising Revolution,” where we will be sharing stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about CHANGE.
Grassroots activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.