If Somali men aren’t calling you a “maadow lover” or “brainwashed dhilo,” are you even an effective feminist? I don’t think so. Being a Somali feminist is such a contentious existence. But I understand why. Living a life of my own choosing is a luxury. One I am grateful for every day. I can finally afford to decide that my life will no longer glorify sacrifice, martyrdom or suffering. I’ve accepted that Somali patriarchy is unforgiving of women.
I think I became a feminist when I was 8. I vividly remember my mom bringing me and my sister to work while she cleaned offices because she couldn’t afford childcare. Even then, I knew my mom couldn’t escape an abusive marriage because she feared deportation and earned only $5.15 an hour as a janitor. She would’ve never made enough to leave safely. We arrived a few months after Clinton signed his crime bill in 1996. Green-card holders could be deported overnight for minor infractions and non-violent offenses (i.e. shoplifting). My mom didn’t feel safe calling the police until after she became a citizen.
We heard horror stories of people getting sent back. We lived our lives in limbo. We relied on faith to dispel our fears and doubts. That experience singlehandedly changed my entire purview about motherhood, violence, and self-preservation. I’m grateful my grandmother decided at the very last minute against boarding a boat that never made it to Europe and attempted entry into the U.S instead. I’m now the age my mom was when she became a citizen. This was right after 9/11. I remember how irate she was because the immigration officer ordered her to take off her hijab if she wanted a passport picture.
I haven’t curated a happy ending to this depressing saga yet. I am still encountering attacks from a violently white supremacist, xenophobic and Islamophobic country. I survived long enough to see my entire family reunited. I remember when we first came to America, my mom threw away Cocoa Puffs because she was convinced it was dog food. To be Black, woman, immigrant, and Muslim is an incredibly dangerous and lethal intersection. We learned quickly upon arrival that our skin was criminalized and that our livelihoods were contingent on merit.
When I start to lack faith, hopelessness becomes a powerful tool in my oppression. But I have to persist and redeem the sacrifices of my mother and grandmother who were made martyrs. They bestowed onto me the gift of not having to endure. What I have now is better than what my life could’ve been. I feel lucky. As the eldest Somali daughter, I sacrificed my childhood, so I had to recreate one in my mid-20’s. I shouldered the burden of abandonment by mending the pieces as interpreter, caregiver, and advocate before I could legally drive.
My feminism is so much more than redefining womanhood for myself. My feminism is rooted in honoring the women who instilled in my purpose and self-worth. I am eternally indebted to the women who taught me how to heal and build community and sisterhood. I really do believe Somali women saved my life. My mom’s friends stepped in to help her take care of us while she worked double-shifts. This is how we survive a culture of brutality at home and abroad. And yes, I am a woman who is committed to Black liberation and that includes liberation from patriarchal violence.
An unapologetic maadow lover.