Being exiled from public places is where it all starts

I have a visceral reaction whenever I am reminded of how male dominated Somali society and Somalia is. Being constantly reminded that you’re not an equal member of a community because of your sex is just so jarring. Women are excluded and erased from the public sphere. There is just no sugar coating this. It’s part and parcel of the culture.

Any society where women even being in public is seen as something to be shameful of really has no space for women participation in decision making.There is a connection between the lack of visibility and exclusion. When your physical body is not to be visible – in sight in public-you are excluded from participation in public life. You can’t have a seat at the table because you’re not even supposed to be seen.

We have to take up space. We are not asking.

The public sphere is just as much ours, as women, as it theirs, as men. I was traveling in Mombasa, Kenya, a few years back, and as I was strolling around with my son and some of my siblings, I noted something peculiar about the scenery. A lot of the men were outdoors, sitting outside drinking tea, chit chatting, eyeing us …and there were a few women in sight. If we did see any, they were en route to go somewhere, to the market, to run an errand, etc. They were not outside to just hang out, to enjoy the scenery, to chit chat, etc. 

I realized that to occupy us as women with work, especially domestic work, is by design, to keep us from imagining a better world for ourselves that doesn’t involve constant labor in the service of men. And our mothers, and the general society supports that we are not seen in the public. There is shame attached to a girl who is out and about. Isla wareegto baa loo bixiyaa. But there isn’t a male equivalent and if there is, its usually just said in a joking manner with no real repercussions or damage to their reputations.

We go back to this continuously, that it all starts in the home. All the ways that women are disenfranchised starts at home.

Now you may say that,”Ifrah, that Mombasa, Kenya,” but the thing is, patriarchy is quite global. I noticed the same scenery when I was in Somalia in 2019. It was even more anger inducing for me, because I was back in my home country after 26 years abroad. I felt suffocated most days. Granted, Somalia isn’t known currently for being the most safe place in the world, but even in seemingly well guarded areas, there were always more men in sight than there were women.

Our culture has it that women that are seen in public are not good women. When our reputation is tied to whether we are visible or not, then you can imagine that a lot of women are not going to be visible if they can help it to protect their reputation. The only acceptable reasons to be out in public would be to work, and that is out of necessity. But then this lack of visibility leads to exclusions from decision making tables, and we are back at square one again.

What we need to do is normalize women being in public just because they want to. Just the way men can sit outside a cafe, drink their tea, and chit chat about politics, or whatever they want. The more women are seen in public, living their lives, the more they are seen as equal to men. Equal access to public spaces = equality.