belong to clans and sub-clans. These hierarchical descent
groups, each said to originate with a single male ancestor,
are a central fact of Somali life. Understanding how Somali
people relate to one another requires some knowledge of the
clan system. In
Somali society, clans serve as a source of great solidarity
as well as conflict. Clans combine forces
for protection, access to water and good land, and political
Somali clan organization is an unstable system, characterized
by changing alliances and temporary coalitions.
The ever-shifting world of clan politics is captured in a
saying popular among nomads: My full brother and I against
my father, my father's household against my uncle's household,
our two households (my uncle's and mine) against the rest
of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against non-immediate
members of my clan, my clan against other clans, and my nation
and I against the world. Among Somalis, a primary division
exists between the Samaale and the Sab. The Samaale are the
majority of the Somali people and consist of four main clan
families the Dir, Isaaq, Hawiye, and Daarood each of which
is further divided into sub-clans.
The Samaale are primarily of
nomadic origin and live throughout Somalia and in Ethiopia,
Kenya, and Djibouti. The Sab consist of two clan families,
the Digil and Raxanweyn, located primarily in southern Somalia,
where they mix farming and herding and are more likely than
the Samaale to be sedentary. The
society of the pastoral Somalis is fundamentally democratic.
Traditionally, decisions are made by councils of men. These
councils are egalitarian, sometimes to the point of anarchy,
although age, lineage seniority, and wealth can have influence.
In these councils, anthropologist I. M. Lewis points out,
"all men are councilors and all men
politicians." Somali egalitarianism permeates all
aspects of society.
Somalia, it is not at all unusual for a poor and uneducated
nomad to approach a high government official as an equal and
engage him in a discussion about the affairs of state. A fundamental
aspect of traditional Somali political organization is the
diya-paying group. Diya is compensation paid by a person who
has injured or killed another person.
A diya-paying group is made up of between a few hundred to
a few thousand men linked by lineage and a contractual agreement
to support one another, especially in regard to compensation
for injuries and death against fellow members.
While Somalia's political culture is basically egalitarian,
social and political change have created new patterns of social
life. In recent years, a new urban group, educated in Western-type
schools and working as merchants or in government, has emerged.
These urbanites enjoy more wealth, better access to government
services, and greater educational opportunities for their
children than do other sectors of society. For Somalis who
are settled or partly settled farmers, the village and its
headman assume social and political importance.
rural areas, links to the cities remain strong, with rural
relatives caring for livestock owned by the urbanites. For
all Somalis, the family is the ultimate source of personal
security and identity. The importance of family
is reflected in the common Somali question, tol maa tahay?
(What is your lineage?). Historian Charles Geshekter notes,
"When Somalis meet each other they don't ask: Where are you
from? Rather, they ask: Whom are you from? Genealogy is to
Somalis what an address is to Americans." Somalis typically
live in nuclear families, although older parents may move
in with one of their children. Households are usually monogamous;
in polygamous households (one fifth of all families), wives
usually have their own residences and are responsible for
different economic activities. Traditionally, marriages were
arranged, since marriage was seen as a way to cement alliances.
Increasingly, however, parents are willing to consider love
interests if they think the match is suitable. Somali culture
is male centered, at least in public, although women play
important economic roles in both farming and herding families
and in business in the cities. Female labor is valued for
productive tasks as well as for household chores, as long
as the male is still seen as being in charge.
recent years, war, drought, and male migration have dramatically
increased the number of female-headed households. As the result
of efforts by the socialist regime to improve opportunities
for women, Somali women have more freedom to become educated,
to work, and to travel than do most other Muslim women. Before
the 1969 revolution, 20% of primary school students were girls;
in 1979, the figure approached 40%. In other ways, the status
of women remains unchanged. Women are still expected to keep
the family's honor by remaining virgins until marriage. It
is said that female circumcision and infibulation,* performed
on 98% of Somali girls between the ages of 8 and 10, represent
an effort to control women's sexuality, since the practice
is not required by Islam. Many women suffer all of their lives
from a great variety of medical problems stemming from this
practice. *Female circumcision, as practiced in Somalia, involves
the removal of the clitoris and the labia. With infibulation,
the vagina is then sewn up, leaving only a tiny opening, which
is enlarged for marriage and enlarged once again for childbirth.
See Also: Somali