The Somali Social Structure.

Somalis 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 power.

The 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.

In 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.

In 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.

In 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 Values