Deconstructing a Myth: How One Somali Woman Saved Her Man

The following is a true story of a young man I met in California while doing research on Somali families in the U.S. His short but powerful story intrigued me because it debunks certain cultural myths, perceptions, and misperceptions about the role of women in Somali culture. I will let Dalmar (not his real name) tell you his account.

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I was once a poor communicator, selfish, immature and antisocial. Today, I can comfortably say I am a normal, happy person — thanks to a Somali woman who helped me undergo a transformation to become a better man. All the negative perceptions about Somali women engendered by our proverbs and cultures are bull. I can recite more than 20 proverbs that demean women and question their intelligence, character, and judgment. For instance, one Somali adage goes, “A man who follows a woman’s counsel is doomed.”

Rubbish!

Women are as smart, if not smarter, than men are. Furthermore, there are a lot of men who follow women’s advice. I am one of them.

I grew up in a family in which my father treated my mother like an appendage. He disrespected her, yelled at her, and made sure my siblings and I showed her no respect. My father’s putrefied view of women was — and, sadly, still is — contemptible. The fact that my siblings and I were all boys further isolated my mother in our household. Unfortunately, she had no support system, no allies, because her family lived several hundred kilometers away.

My family settled in the United Sates when I was 15. I was always a serious student and made excellent grades. In high school, I liked some of the young Somali girls, but I was a bit insecure. In college, though, I met a young woman who had been raised by her mother and stepfather, but did not get along with her parents. Her mother always sided with her stepfather because she did not want to alienate him as the father of her five children.

Idil and I clicked. We became best friends and gradually fell in love. Initially, we were fine because I did not show her the real me. I was polite, courteous, and respectful. However, after a few months, I started dictating to her. It seemed I was dominating her every move and thought.

Though my family was dysfunctional, we were living in a middle-class home. I knew the basics of etiquette — table manners, how to dress properly and stylishly, and how to conduct myself. In reality, though, I had a limited emotional repertoire. Idil, on the other hand, had been raised in a poor household and her childhood had been one of scarcity.  A short window was allocated to meal times, and children ate anywhere but the dining table. If you were late for lunch, chances were you wouldn’t find any leftovers.

After almost a year of enduring my verbal abuse, Idil finally summoned the courage to split with me. It was a crushing blow for me because she occupied an indelible place in my heart. I missed her all the more because I had no one to pick on. My well-kept façade began to crumble. Suddenly, I became deflated, lonely, and emotionally devoid.

I graduated from college and found a good job as a social worker. It was at that time that I met Anisa. As a work colleague, she was petite, smart, steady, confident, and intensely single minded, and motivated by a bright future. She had a purity of heart that really attracted me to her.  I started talking to her and asking her out. She finally agreed to go out with me for lunch.

Anisa was a strong young lady who was opinionated and outspoken, a woman of steadiness and constancy. She would stop me if I made a sexist remark, or would constantly ask me the rationale for my actions. Like a teacher, she lectured me but in a gentler, kinder way. She never seemed overbearing because she mixed humor with her corrections of my faux pas. Instead of constantly complaining, I started expressing myself in a non-threatening way. Instead of pointing fingers at her, I began listening to what she had to say.

Anisa and I became an item and we decided to get married. She saw me as an ambitious young man with leadership skills. I saw her as a woman who made me a better man. I introduced her to my family.  Surprisingly, Anisa connected with my mother. It was the first time I saw my mother relaxed and comfortable and was delighted to see her and my mother laughing, joking, and having a good time when Anisa was around.  Then, Anisa and my mother started shopping together. I was nervous because I did not want my fiancé to know the embarrassing details of my family life. I was, as I said earlier, insecure and ashamed of my family.

It was these social meetings between my mother and Anisa that opened my eyes to the extent of my family’s dysfunction. Anisa and I talked about my parents and the way I had been raised. It was like sitting in therapy sessions. For the first time, I started seeing my mother in a different light, as a victim of verbal and emotional abuse orchestrated by her husband and, to a lesser extent, her own children. I also saw myself as a survivor of an emotionally wrecked family environment. I felt pain for what my mother had gone through.

My mother was a 17-year-old girl from a rural area who got married to my father, an educated 26-year-old urban man with a good government job. My parents’ relationship was not only unbalanced but also toxic. She had to depend on him financially and did not have anyone to lean on. Essentially, she was trapped in a bad marriage. When my mother decided to go to an adult school in our neighborhood, my father balked. He did not want her to learn.

I am getting married to Anisa very soon. I am fortunate to have met her because today I am a better man. Most of all, I am a better son to my mother. My mother and I are very close now and she has shown no evidence of a lingering grudge against me. I am lucky to have two beautiful women in my life. Unfortunately, the only person to whom I am not close is—you might have guessed right—my father. He never liked Anisa, nor is he happy with my close relationship with my mother. Truly, you can’t please everyone in this life. I saw an interesting quote somewhere that said, “Don’t dwell on who let you down. Cherish those who hold you up.”

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In a nutshell, men do not have to go far to appreciate women or to realize that the myths perpetuated about them in Somali society are absolute nonsense; they can look at their mothers and sisters and realize that apart from often being smarter than their husbands, they play an invaluable role in sustaining and nourishing the family — sometimes against all the odds.

Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer and Sahan Journal contributor. He can be reached at abukar60@yahoo.com

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