Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
Building a home in the Diaspora
Of the minorities living in Finland, we know particularly little about the Somalis. Even more meagre is our knowledge of Somali women. A recent dissertation shed light on the culture, religion and future hopes of independent and active women in their new home country.

Kirsi Castrén

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Is there a specific prejudice that a researcher who has closely followed the life of Finland's largest Muslim group, the Somalis, for years would prefer to eradicate?

"The trouble is we assume that all who share Islamic faith also share the Muslim culture. We have strong stereotyped conceptions, especially about Muslim women," says Marja Tiilikainen, who defended her doctoral thesis Everyday Islam: The Life of Somali Women in Finland in the Faculty of Arts in October.

"I wanted to draw attention to the polyphony of Somali women. Women are very different, even within one family, and they may have widely different opinions about issues," Tiilikainen says.

According to Tiilikainen, the Somali women in Finland find it difficult to make themselves heard not only in the Islamic community, where the religious power is vested in men, but also in Finnish society where the authorities and the media often interview Muslim men already known in the media.

In her ethnographic research, Tiilikainen endeavoured to make women's voice heard by interviewing them and, for example, participating in their healing ritual. The belief in saar spirits has traditionally been emblematic of women's Islam.

"In this solemn ritual, the spirits are approached by dancing and singing. Not only songs, but also the colours of the clothes and food offered at the beginning of rituals are chosen according to the spirit," Tiilikainen says.

In Finland, Somali women have been mostly compelled to remain silent about their spirits. The concept that illnesses could be caused by spirits is regarded as extremely odd in Finland. Interpretations of spirits are also changing in the Somali community.

"It seems that men, who lay down the rules of religion, increasingly aim at freeing Islam from cultural elements. Women's belief in saar spirits is hardly compatible with these trends, even though the jinni spirits mentioned in the Koran are accepted," says Tiilikainen.

"If you speak about everything, you are like a street that is being trodden on"

For the last decades, Somalia has been ravaged with wars, drought and famine. General and Dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre was overthrown in 1991 after which the country plunged into civil war. In 1991-1992, an estimated 40,000 Somalis died as victims of war and as many as 280,000 of malnutrition. There are approximately 7,000 Somalis living in Finland today. The majority of them cherish hopes of returning to their home country.

The Somalis find Finns difficult to approach and interaction is often scarce.

Racism is an everyday fact of life for Finland's largest minority of African origin:

"Somalis have to face unspeakable treatment: they are called names, spat on and bullied when they walk in the street," Tiilikainen points out.

Family is traditionally important for Somalis and the members of large families help each other out.

"Women's everyday life reveals that their home is not only in Finland, but also extends beyond borders. Women keep in contact with their relatives in Somalia, Europe and the United States."

The civil war looming in the background continues to strain inter-communal relationships.

"Many Somalis wish that once people gain enough religious understanding and learning, they might settle for peace and stop fighting. They wish that Islam could serve as the missing bridge - just like in the old days in Somalia," Tiilikainen says.

Suffering and recovery in the Western thought is closely connected to sharing experiences. Tiilikainen points out that Somali women lost many of their friends and relatives in the war, but they also lost something that they are unable to speak about.

"Maybe it is easier to speak about the everyday, situations in which one needs to adapt all the time, than to speak about suffering that has deeply affected their values and morals."

Strong Somali women

Islam gives many meanings to the veil traditionally worn by many Somali women in public places. It was not until the late 1980s that the women in Somalia resorted to the use of the veil more commonly: by using it they felt safer in turbulent urban conditions.

Besides religion, several traditions govern the life in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa. For example, arranged marriages are common in Somalia, as is circumcision of girls, which is, despite education, still practiced not only in Somalia, but also in Sudan and Nigeria. Tiilikainen wishes that research would help change the conception of silent and oppressed Muslim women.

"The women I interviewed showed much courage and a sense of humour; strength that impressed me a great deal. They have many resources we cannot perhaps even imagine: women's sense of community, solidarity and closeness and their family networks extending beyond state borders."

The respondents in the research compared their situation with their life in Somalia. Although in traditional Somali culture the women's task is to take care of children and home, many study and work. Continuing studies or getting a job has, however, proven difficult in Finland.

"Somali women tend to have many children in Finland because they have nothing else to do, no studies, no work, no business. It is here in Finland that the Somali women have really been cornered, they have no work opportunities; they live in isolation. They say they are like the disabled, unable to leave home and only suitable for looking after children," said one of the respondents.

When Somali women reflect their status with that of Western women, the conclusion is perhaps different than we Finns would expect. Many respondents were surprised about the custom of changing one's maiden name in marriage. A Somali woman retains her surname in marriage although the children have their father's name.

Somali women find women's dependency in relationships odd. "Finnish women are stuck to their spouses like bark to a tree. Women are unable to trust themselves; they are always with men," said one respondent.

"In Finland spouses are important to each other in a different way than in the Somali culture where people have extensive family networks. Somali women also receive much support from their own families which reduces the dependency on one's spouse," Tiilikainen says.

Women also brought the drawbacks of their traditional status into the open. For example, polygamy made possible by their religion was much criticised. After having arrived in Finland, many women had started to ponder questions related to the division of work at home. A mother of six chil-dren living apart from her husband said, "Somali men don't understand that culture and life are different here. Men go and see their mates and stay out late at night and women have to take care of everything."

On the social level, participation of Somali women has been scarce and this is an issue they feel needs to be redressed.

"In Finland new opportunities are also open for women. Take the three Somali representatives in City councils, two of whom are women. That is quite an achievement," Tiilikainen says.

Poetry is also a form of social participation. Poetry by Somali women can be found in the anthology Yhdeksän syyssadetta - Suomessa asuvien somalinaisten runoa ja proosaa [Nine autumn rains - Poetry and prose by Somali women living in Finland] (Yliopistopaino, Helsinki, 2001, edited by Marja Tiilikainen, A.M. Axmed and M.S. Lilius.

Marja Tiilikainen: Everyday Islam: The Life of Somali Women in Finland. Vantaa 2003. 322 pages. ISBN 951-768-140-2.

Circumcision is combated trough education

Girls' circumcision is a common practice in African countries. One aim is to guarantee virginity before marriage. The Koran provides no grounds for this millennium-old tradition and it is also practiced among people other than Muslims.

The operation (which is called mutilation in the Western world) reduces women's sexual functionality and causes health hazards. Marja Tiilikainen also participated in a project implemented by the Finnish League for Human Rights seeking to prevent circumcision.

"We train key individuals who are capable of influencing people at the grassroots level, including social and health personnel, who have a huge need for information and guidance."

A study conducted in the project last autumn showed that fewer and fewer Somalis living in Finland think that circumcision is necessary. Circumcision is prohibited in Finland, and although there are occasional rumours, there is no evidence that immigrant girls would have undergone the operation during their stay in Finland.

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