Maryan Muuse Boqor (b. 1938) and the Women Who Inspired Her
Lidwien Kapteijns and Maryan Muuse Boqor
In light of Somalia’s recent history, Maryan Muuse Boqor’s recollections of her coming of age, as recorded by Lidwien Kapteijns, seem to describe a paradise lost. This is not at all to say that Maryan’s early years were without challenge and loss. Rather, it is to say that, as the country struggled toward independence, Maryan’s family and people around them believed in a brighter and more hopeful future. The descriptions of these times inevitably lead us to ask if we can see the elements of future developments in Somalia through the details of everyday life in the middle twentieth century recounted in the pages that follow. Is it possible to connect the local lives of Maryan and her family and friends with larger issues that may help Somalis recover from the civil war that began in 1991 and rebuild their state? Maryan also tells a wonderful story of inter-generational solidarity among women. Her mother, her aunts, and older women friends of the family provided encouragement to her and served as crucial role models in her youth. She indeed emphasizes that she would not have become the woman she is today without their example. It is also true that she had close ties with some men in her family, notably her father, and that some of them also encouraged her to think beyond the boundaries often assigned to women in Somalia. These dimensions of the chapter lead us to ask how similarities and differences in age and gender roles between women and men influenced Maryan’s early years and transition to young adulthood. Finally, Maryan’s tale, with its wealth of detail recorded by Lidwien Kapteijns, shows how the roles and possibilities open to women in Somalia were perhaps more various and more public than might be expected in a Muslim society. What paths were open to Maryan for personal and professional development? At what point did she strike out in new directions on her own? What were the benefits and burdens of being part of a generation that spearheaded such changes for women? Were the very high expectations of women only positive or perhaps at times also constraining? What specific aspects of Maryan’s story change our impressions of Somalia and growing up there in the years between World War II and Somali independence?
To be a Somali in this era of civil war and communal violence is hard and heartrending. In the diaspora of Somalis living abroad, many people, especially women, fight the bitterness in their hearts with the memories of earlier solidarity and try to repair the social fabric through innumerable and never-ending small acts of kindness and mutual support. Nevertheless, since the civil war, even presenting a narrative about an individual or family exposes one to the mistrust that remains among people representing the many sides of the civil war. The complex civil conflict has also left distorted hate narratives in its wake, constructed especially by people with bad consciences or unsavory ambitions. Although women, generally speaking, played a different and less destructive role in the civil war than men, no man or woman, insider or outsider, has remained untouched by what we know, or think we know, about the war. In addition, although Somalis generally acknowledge the value of oral history, many still frown upon anyone who makes the personal public and the ordinary special, and even more so if that person is a woman: “Maxay dadka dheertahay?” (“What makes her better than other people?”); “Yay is moodday?” (“Who does she think she is?”). Despite these obstacles, we must tell the life stories of real women. Unless we do, the collective historical experiences of Somali women and their efforts and contributions to Somali history will remain unknown and unacknowledged.
Maryan Muuse Boqor presented her life story, part of which is represented here, as an “exemplary narrative.” To categorize it this way does not imply that it is sugarcoated, but rather that it brings to the fore the ideals that the people whose experiences are recounted here tried to live up to, in the hope that these values will inspire the current generation of Somali youth. As a result, this narrative is a rescue action that attempts to save a usable past from the ravages of civil war. It is a set of reminiscences and reflections on the values that Maryan’s family members and many of their Somali contemporaries held and passed on to their children.
Maryan’s reasons for telling her story are threefold. First, she has always believed in women’s solidarity, whose power she witnessed in her own life and in the history of Somalia. Although her narrative is about her own life, it is also a record of the efforts and contributions of all of the women of her generation, a history that Somali men must learn to acknowledge more fully. Second, Maryan has always been committed to education and scholarship. She belonged to the first group of Somali girls to be sent to Egypt for primary and secondary education. She later studied law in Morocco. As a former teacher of Arabic and religion, she believes in the value of history—including the history of Somali women. Third, when Maryan became a refugee and was resettled in the United States, she joined the working poor of Boston’s less affluent neighborhoods. She noticed that in the diaspora her grandchildren rapidly integrated into mainstream society but knew very little and felt very ambivalent about their Somalia homeland, where people had driven each other out at gunpoint. Through her story, she wanted to give these youth, who have inherited so little in terms of material wealth, a sense of the Somalia she loved in spite of its imperfections, and the families she takes pride in regardless of all their shortcomings.
For the historian and the general reader, the value of creating public space for a personal story lies in how it elucidates wider social realities. In this case, the story of how a young Somali girl in the city of Mogadishu was raised and experienced her youth in the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s may throw light on the history of the single generation that witnessed both the creation and the collapse of the Somali state. Maryan hopes that her narrative, which is just one thread in the complex fabric of Somali social history, will inspire other men and women to tell their own stories about their youth.
The narrative presented here has two themes. The first focuses on Maryan’s youth, which involves socialization into two very different cultural settings, one in Mogadishu and the other in Hilwan, Egypt, where she attended boarding school for six years. The second theme explores women’s leadership and solidarity, exemplified in Maryan’s early youth by her female relatives, a maternal grandmother and two aunts. For Maryan, these women were inspiring female role models for two reasons. First, they contributed actively to the upkeep of their families, both before and after the deaths of their husbands. Second, they actively served their wider communities in a variety of ways, including active participation in the nationalist movement. Maryan believes that these women prepared her for her later active participation in activities directed at the political and social well-being of the Somali community. They also prepared her for a life, including motherhood, lived largely without the presence and support of her husband, who was a political prisoner for about twenty years.
Precolonial Somali society consisted of small states as well as non-state communities. From Zeila to Harar, Mogadishu, Afgoye, and Brava, trade, especially when combined with agricultural production, formed the material basis of these city-states, ruled either by a sultan or amir (emir) or by a group of elders. The non-state communities also often had titled leaders— boqor, ugaas, garaad, islaw, islaan, malaak, suldaan, and so forth—who may have been associated with special ritual and religious functions before the coming of Islam.
Two small, late precolonial principalities in northeast Somalia were ruled by Maryan’s ancestors. Although their power over the nomads of the interior was limited, their favorable geographical location on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean gave them access to and some control over the seaborne trade with South Arabia, the Benadir Coast, Zanzibar, and the wider Indian Ocean. The older northern sultanate was called “Migiurtinia” (as transliterated into Italian) and centered on Baargaal and environs. Its southern offshoot, based on Hoobyo, was founded in the 1870s. Maryan descended from the leaders of these two sultanates, as well as from the titled leaders, or islaans, of a nomadic non-state community. Through her father, she descended from the boqors of Baargaal and the garaads of the Warsangeli; through her mother’s father, she descended from the suldaans of Hoobyo, and through her mother’s mother, she descended from Islaan Aadan Faarah of the Mudug and Haud regions. In some cases, such precolonial leadership positions translated into political positions after independence. For this and other reasons, Maryan’s father became a government minister.
It is no wonder that Maryan takes pride in her family and its historical accomplishments. Although social inequities have limited the potential achievements of many, other Somali families also possess an equally rich family history and a highly developed sense of identity and pride. Somali families often see themselves as a sort of grande familleor even dynasty, like the Kennedy or Bush families in the United States. In Maryan’s case, such a view has some historical merit.
Maryan was born in one of the large stone houses in Hamarweyne, the historical heart of Mogadishu, then the capital of Italian Somaliland. The neighborhood was inhabited by the original city population, the Reer Hamar, with their own language and cultural habits, as well as a sprinkling of other Somalis, Indians, Arabs, and Italians. Initially, the house had been an upscale prison for Maryan’s paternal grandfather, the boqor of Baargaal, who, after his defeat by the Italians in about 1927, was exiled to Mogadishu. Maryan’s father was a small boy at the time. One day when he was near the coast having a horseback-riding lesson, an Italian ship showed up to take his father away. Although the ship’s captain had orders not to let anyone accompany the boqor, the little boy refused to let go of his father’s hand and was allowed on board. With only a warm shawl handed to him at the last minute by one of his uncles, the boy went into exile with his father. During the twilight years of Italian rule in Somalia in the 1950s, Maryan recalls, her father, encouraged by a local lawyer, petitioned for ownership of the house.
Maryan’s early memories of life in this big house are very happy, at least up to the premature death of her mother, Faduumo-Jawaahir, or Jawaahir for short, in 1952 when she was thirteen or fourteen years old. While her father was very private, her mother, whose grandfather had been sultan of Hoobyo, was very outgoing and social. Maryan’s mother not only tried hard to fit into the culture of Hamarweyne but also hosted friends and relatives from other neighborhoods and was friendly with Italian women, from whom she learned some Italian, needlework, and even some fashions new to Somalia, such as the brassiere. Jawaahir initially had trouble bringing her pregnancies to term. Since the Italian hospitals were closed to Somalis, an Italian nun and friend of her father found an Italian midwife, fondly called Haaja Faay by Somalis.The midwife’s guidance proved successful. Thus Maryan’s own safe birth came to pass, a product of cross-cultural collaboration between women.
The house consisted of two large apartments, each of five and seven rooms with an upstairs and downstairs. Apart from Maryan and her three siblings, it housed thirteen young boys, first cousins from northeast Somalia, who lived with them so that they could go to school. Female relatives also visited for extended periods, especially young wives who came to the city to check on long-absent husbands and often found in the tall house in Hamarweyne an opportunity to reconcile. Jawaahir loved to help other women. She also had many friends and relatives in the nearby neighborhood of Iskuraran. Since women were allowed out only under the veil of darkness, they would come on foot at night to visit in groups of as many as ten or fifteen. They ate fritters at Maryan’s house, filling the women’s quarters with lively talk and laughter.
But the most dramatic visits were those from her father’s seafaring brothers and cousins from Bari, that is to say, the northeast, who would stop off at Mogadishu on their way to and from Aden, Zanzibar, and other places.
They turned the house on its head with their informality and loud joviality and teasing, their gifts to the children and their mother, and their can-do attitude. They made themselves at home anywhere in the house and mixed easily with its permanent residents. Maryan remembers how they rose before most other people in the house and the neighborhood, and how, after praying at the local mosque, they used to read the Qur’an out loud. If their cargo were of use to the household, they would bring some of it home. These uncles from Bari knew how to tease their little city niece, whose looks and manners were so different from the girls of the countryside. There a girl initially had her head shaved except for a little tuft ( food). Once she became eight years old or so, she would let her hair grow out and plait it into small braids, whose length would be an easily recognizable indication of her age. However, Maryan had a full head of long hair, as was the custom among the Reer Hamar, earning her the nickname of tuurkuhalesh, “the long-haired girl.” Another aspect of her city ways was that she wore long dresses with petticoats of a different length.
If anyone failed to meet their expectations, the visiting uncles would compose mocking verses, so that Maryan would do her small errands for them as carefully as she could, just to avoid being immortalized in verse! However, at times she disappointed them: “Maryan, how many uncles do you have?” Maryan could think of only two relatives of her father living in their neighborhood. In reality, she had eight. “And how many aunts?” Maryan could think of only one, even though she had four. Indignation! “These Benadir folk are really not with it! Let’s take her to Bari!” About this time her parents began to teach her the names of other uncles and aunts who did not live in Mogadishu. Of course, little Maryan learned her parents’ northeastern dialect of Somali well. However, even today, she still has a special love for and is most fluent in the old city language (or so her children claim).
In the evening sometimes Maryan’s father quizzed his children, and especially Maryan and her brother, with general questions about general knowledge: “Abdullahi, how many teats are there on a camel?” The boy had once seen a male burden camel, and so he answered full of confidence, “One.” “Wrong!” Maryan, miffed that her father had asked her younger brother a question first, opted for deductive reasoning: “If the goat has two and the cow has four, then the camel must have six!” Laughter!
As she grew up, Maryan noticed quite a few differences between the culture of her Hamarweyne neighborhood and the cultures of other Somalis. She remembered, for example, that the Reer Hamar people were very private and did not enter each other’s houses unannounced or without clear invitation. However, if there were a death, neighbors were expected to drop whatever they were doing and come running to a place where they could hear the customary wailing. If a woman stopped so long as to put on her shoes, she risked criticism. Maryan’s mother hated to walk outside barefoot and Maryan remembers occasions when she, as a little girl, accompanied her mother and waited outside holding her mother’s sandals—not always acquitting herself successfully of her job. She played hide-and-seek among and inside the tall houses of her neighborhood and is still surprised at how tolerant people were of the children’s noise and running around. But when they were about ten years old, Reer Hamar girls went into purdah, or seclusion. All girls married young, but in contrast to other Somalis, Reer Hamar girls often married close relatives. “Other Somalis wanted their children to have significant abtis or maternal uncles,” Maryan noted, and thus looked for spouses beyond the circle of close relatives.
When she was six years old, Maryan went to school, joining her younger brother and the other boys of the household. She remembers how hard it was to keep up with the bigger boys, and how she was fearful of the boys’ loud pushing and shoving during breaks and on the way to and from school. Because parents and other adults of the community attached great value to education, however, they encouraged the children. An uncle who had a store on their way to school gave them bread and dates to make their school day more pleasant, and he always lectured them on the importance of education.
Although Maryan remembers being a bit annoyed by the importance given to her younger brother and, more vaguely, saddened by the loss of a sister to complications resulting from female circumcision, the early years of her youth were happy ones. Tragedy struck when she was barely a teenager: Her beautiful, young, joyful mother suddenly died, possibly of a disease of the liver. Jawaahir died in her own mother’s home in Galka’yo, where Maryan’s father had taken her in the hope that a change of air might do Jawaahir good. It was not until several years later that Maryan returned to her father’s house in Hamarweyne, for she could not bear seeing it or the neighborhood. In spite of her sadness about her mother’s death, she found joy in the attentions of her aunts and great-aunts in Galka’yo and learned to milk a little goat she named Qaato. After this extended visit to her grandmother in Galka’yo, Maryan moved back to Mogadishu. This time she moved to Iskuraran, another downtown neighborhood but one that was very different from her old, historical, coral-built neighborhood in Hamarweyne. Indeed, the name “Iskuraran,” which means “piled on top of each other,” reflected the informal character of the settlement, many of whose inhabitants had arrived not long before.
Women’s Leadership and Solidarity
When Maryan moved to Iskuraran, the neighborhood was very cohesive and highly politicized. Most residents, although from a variety of family backgrounds, shared a nomadic rural background and originally hailed from the three regions of Bari, Mudug, and Haud. Most of them also belonged to the Somali Youth League, the leading nationalist party in the country, which was committed to create an independent, unified nation-state. Even though this densely built neighborhood of wooden houses and closely connected residents was known to her from earlier visits, living there was a new experience for Maryan. Here people were loud and outgoing, visiting each other unannounced, sharing meals on the spur of the moment, and actively and unabashedly involving themselves in each other’s daily lives. In the morning, the older married men, on their way to work, would gently bang their canes on every door and ask whether all was well that morning: “Ma barideen?” (“Have you all woken up well?” “Are the children fine?”) If someone ran out of something, a neighbor would provide it. If someone’s cooking fire was not lit, others would notice and offer help, or the woman herself would ask for assistance: “Are you a bit better off than me today?” People also disciplined each other’s children; Maryan still remembers her shock at being slapped once by a neighbor! For a girl who had grown up in Hamarweyne, where families valued privacy highly and minded their property and social relations carefully, this new environment was impressive and surprising mayhem. Maryan saw that for the people of Iskuraran, money and food existed only to be invested in people, not to be valued or saved for their own sake. Maryan particularly remembers the support women gave to men whose political activism for the nationalist movement led the Italians to fire them from their jobs. Women either provided free room and board for them, or they raised needed money by selling needlework. Maryan still remembers the first piece of embroidery she sold for this cause.
Maryan and her siblings moved in with three female relatives: her mother’s mother (the same formidable Hirsiyo Aadan whom she had visited in Galka’yo); Hirsiyo Aadan’s daughter (Maryan’s aunt) Maryan Haaji ‘Ismaan; and ‘Ambaro Husein, Hirsiyo’s cousin, who was also the widow of her son Yaasiin. Thus, Maryan and her younger brother and sister, three children who had lost their mother, joined two children who had lost their father. During these formative years, Maryan recounts, the women of this household, her grandmother and aunts, taught her the values that she has tried to live by ever since.
Hirsiyo Aadan, her grandmother, was a tough character who built quite a reputation for herself in the wider family. She was the sister of Islaan Faarah and daughter of Islaan Aadan Mahmuud, whose sister Dahabo was married to the sultan of Hoobyo. Another sister, Faduumo, had been sought in marriage by the famous leader of the Somali anti-colonial resistance Sayyid Mohamed ‘Abdille Hassan (d. 1921). To formalize the political alliance that marrying Faduumo represented, and with great regret, Sayyid Mohamed then gave up his favorite war pony Hiin Finiin. The praise poem the Sayyid composed for his horse on this occasion is unequaled in Somali oral literature and includes a tribute to the Islaan Aadan: “Since the Sultan to whom I owe respect insists on having it,” the Sayyid ended his poem, “take its bridle; I would not have honored any other human being with it!” (“Mar hadduu suldaan igu xillihi igaga xaydaantay, xariggiisa qabo aadni kale kuma xurmeeyeene.”) Hirsiyo herself was valued at least as much as her sister, Maryan recounted, for when the Sayyid’s marriage proposal arrived, family elders refused to let Hirsiyo go, sending her sister Faduumo instead. Hence Hirsiyo was given in marriage to Haaji ‘Ismaan Sharmarke, a widower with children and a great poet, who had also composed a religious treatise with different chapters for each letter of the Arabic alphabet. When she was older, Hirsiyo was that rare woman who was invited to the formal gatherings of her clan and attended the settlement of customary law cases.
Hirsiyo was very religious and had earned the honorific of haaja by making the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, her religiosity was also pragmatic. At one point, Maryan remembers, she asked her daughter, who was using prayer beads, “If you had to choose between those prayer beads and the Jubba and Shabeelle hotels, what would you choose?” Her daughter answered, “The prayer beads.” At this, Hirsiyo scoffed: “I can pray to God using my fingers, without prayer beads, but with the wealth represented by those two hotels I would be able to provide work and food for many people. Religion is ‘amal, that is to say acts or work, not just ‘ibaado, or devotion.” It was Hirsiyo’s son Yaasiin who had been a co-founder of the Somali Youth League. When his colleagues came to console her over his premature death, she had little patience: “He made it clear who was to succeed him,” she said. “What are you waiting for? The work is waiting to be done.”
She was pragmatic in other ways as well. When Maryan got married in 1964, her grandmother explained why she had not put together a beautiful trousseau for her: “You like things that are in fashion,” she said. “I was afraid that, had I prepared bed sheets in fashion several years ago, with snakes embroidered on them, you would wonder today why I wanted to put snakes in your bed.” Until she died in the early 1970s, Hirsiyo’s mission in life and her definition of honorable behavior and noblesse oblige was to provide for others. She never encouraged her grandchildren to save money but always directed them to support this or that family, because so-and-so had fallen sick or died, or so-and-so was out of work or had had bad luck. Looking back on her life in her old age, Hirsiyo told Maryan, “The principles that guided my action always were that when people need you, you make yourself useful, but when you are in need yourself, you bear it and protect your good name.” Throughout her life, Hirsiyo prayed to God for “an honorable life and an honorable place in the hereafter.” Only after she witnessed a deadly cholera epidemic in Mogadishu, did she change her prayer, adding “an honorable death” to her earlier prayer: “nolol sharafleh, geeri sharafleh, aakhirana maqaarsharafleh.”
Maryan’s aunt ‘Ambaro Husein, widow of Hirsiyo’s son Yaasiin, also lived with them in Iskuraran. ‘Ambaro came from a very religious nomadic family in the countryside, the kind of family that believed that girls’ voices or footsteps should not be heard, but taught both boys and girls the Qur’an and the ‘Ismaaniya script. ‘Ambaro was very young when she was brought to the coast to be married. When she first saw the tall, light-skinned man who was waiting for her, she thought he was a foreigner because she had never seen a Somali wearing European-style pants. Only after he had taken her home, on horseback under a canopy of cloth, did she realize that he was her husband. Whatever the beginnings, theirs was a happy marriage, although short-lived.’Ambaro’s husband was so fond of her, the story goes, that when he learned in the mosque about the houris of paradise, he raised his hand and asked the sheikh “whether God would allow you to just stick to your own wife?” This quiet, deeply religious woman became a second mother to Maryan and her siblings. She clearly spoiled the young girl who had just lost her mother, giving her few chores and cheering her up when she could. ‘Ambaro was also quite a poet, composing topical rhymes about both the small incidents of daily life and the hot political issues of the day. One time, Maryan noted that her aunt’s fisileeta, a small headscarf of fine, transparent cloth, was sagging, Aunt ‘Ambaro improvised her response: “Dear God, my scarf is sagging! Please send me heaps of splendid clothes!” (“Allow fisileetigayga faruuranyeey,waxaad i siisaa dhar faro ka badan!”)
‘Ambaro also commented in verse on the political events of the day. Although Maryan’s memories of politics in this pre-independence era are limited, she remembers her family’s support for the Somali Youth League as expressed in a popular poem, set to the music of a march, which became the league’s theme song: “We are the men who wear the logo of our party on our hearts and are not afraid of clan. Let all good people who want to join come to the Somali League.” (” Karaawilkan ragga koorahay ku sitaan oon kalaan ka cabsanin baannu nahay. Kal wanaagsan iyo ninkii doonaayo, kaalaya Somaaliya Leeg.”)
Maryan still vividly remembers how closely the women of the family followed political events. In the house in Hamarweyne, the men gathered downstairs in the courtyard to listen to the news on the radio, while upstairs the women clustered at windows overlooking this space to hear. One evening, between 1948 and 1949, when the United Nations was deciding what would happen to the colonies of the powers defeated in World War II, they all stayed up late, listening to the radio for news from North America. Would the UN agree to Somali independence? At one point the women heard the men clapping, but they didn’t know why. “Let’s send Maryan down to ask.” “Wait, wait, let’s give the girl a message!” And so Maryan went down with a message crafted by ‘Ambaro: “Is the signing [of the UN decision] near? People are worried, and men are not able to sleep normally. This clapping of yours we hear, is it what we have been hoping for?” (” Saxiix baa dhow [in lakala baxo], oo saxwi baa dadka ku jiraa. Rag baa ka suxuumay hurdada la seexan jiray oo idinku sacabtaad tumaysaan saraad miyaa? “)
The little girl was even more impressed by her aunt’s anger upon hearingthat the Italians would return to Somalia to head a UN trusteeship adminis-tration in 1950, a decision opposed by the Somali Youth League.’Ambaro lamented with irony: “If we were Muslims, we would set out in submarines and torpedo their ships in their harbor. We would kill those who are jeering at us and happily praise God.” (” Muslim haddaan nahay, mariina ku kicin la-hayn. Nuulka maanyada maraakiibtaan gelin lahayn. Kuwii na maagahayaa may-tkoodaan dhigi lahayn. Mahad Ilaahay aan makhsuud ku noqon lahayn.”) The political activism of ‘Ambaro and many women like her, moreover, went beyond words and moral support. They helped recruit members for the Somali Youth League, collected funds, and made great personal sacrifices—financial and otherwise. While in school in Egypt and also following her return to Somalia in 1961, Maryan too stayed politically engaged, with considerably more freedom to move in the public sphere than her aunts had enjoyed.
The third aunt who had a great impact on Maryan was Maryan, Hirsiyo’s daughter. Aunt Maryan was also serious and religious. After the death of her first husband and a short, unhappy marriage to another man, she married ‘Ismaan Yuusuf Keenadiid, brother of the sultan of Hoobyo, author of the ‘Ismaaniya script, and a brilliant poet. Aunt Maryan, however, also had a community project. Given the name “Maryan dejjiya,” or “the one who settles people,” by her mother, Maryan built a mosque, a school that she ran, and three houses. She gave one house to the son of her deceased first husband, she lived in the second, and she gave the third to a new wife she found for her husband when her responsibilities at the school began to take up most of her time. Aunt Maryan had studied religion. If she heard something at the mosque she did not understand or with which she did not agree, she would ask the imam to stop by her house on his way home. Then she would either straighten him out or be educated by him. In her great knowledge of tafsir — made up of interpretation of hadith, the corpus of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Qur’an — Aunt Maryan appears to have been unique among women in her community. Yet her case was not unique in Somalia. In the southern coastal town of Brava, for example, women were the Qur’anic school teachers par excellence.
Even as a young girl, Maryan was struck by the differences in behavior between her mother’s mother’s people, from the interior, and her father’s father’s and mother’s father’s people, from the sultanates on the coast. The serious, quiet, and religious ways of the people from the interior contrasted with the informal, spontaneous, and boisterous teasing of those on the coast. Nonetheless, all the grown-ups in her life had a highly developed sense of communal responsibility — a belief that one’s good name, as an individual and a family, brought with it responsibilities for others, irrespective of whether one’s material circumstances allowed for it. Thus, her grandmother’s motto was “Gob awood baa looga roon” (“Being honorable means that you go beyond your means [to provide for others]”), while her father taught her that “one pays dues on one’s name,” or “magaca canshuur buu leeyahay.”
For Maryan, this philosophy encapsulated the kind of leadership that existed in Somali society in the past, among both women and men. She illustrated this belief with a story about her ancestors during the time of Sayyid Mohamed. Some of her great-uncles from the Islaan family had traveled to Baargaal to ask for assistance from Boqor ‘Ismaan. They were received in a beautiful room, high up, with windows in all directions. As they were sitting there, they heard a woman’s voice: “Help, ‘Ismaan! This filthy son of a filthy father’s sheep has chased my donkey! What will you do about it?” The boqor got up and called out to the woman by calling her “Auntie,” and he ordered his men to give her a bale of cotton cloth and a case of dates. The men of the Islaan family were flabbergasted. Eventually, one asked the boqor why he allowed the woman to address him so impolitely and insult him and his son on top of it. The boqor smiled and said, “Listen, we have the sultanate. The least we can do is to give the people things and let them speak freely!” Maryan feels that this kind of democratic spirit, as well as leadership that provided for people rather than exploiting them, represented the ideals (if not always the practices) of Somali leadership in the past. She asked herself whether this kind of leadership could inspire Somalia’s new transitional government.
Maryan stayed in Iskuraran only a year or two. Once her father had remarried — he married her mother’s sister — he redecorated her room and persuaded her after a time to come back to the tall house in Hamarweyne. By then he had resolved to send Maryan to school in Egypt, began teaching her Arabic, and brought her Egyptian women’s magazines to prepare her. The Rabitah al-Islamiya, to which Muuse Boqor belonged, was a group of men who, in modern parlance, would be called Islamic modernists or liberal Muslims. They chose to educate their children in Egypt, fearing that study in Europe might distance them from their religion and culture. At the same time they also strove to be modern. Thus, in 1955, two years after they sent their sons to school in Egypt, they sent fifteen girls. Throughout her years in Egypt, until she returned in 1961, Maryan’s father helped her balance her objectives of becoming a modern, educated woman, who would be able to act in the public sphere with confidence and competence, as well as elegance and joy, with her desire to remain grounded in the core values of Islam. However modern her father’s support for girls’ education and his confidence in her capabilities may have been, Maryan suggests, his attitude toward women had also been shaped by the female role models of his youth. When his mother, one of the wives of the sultan of Hoobyo, had lost favor, the sultan’s young nieces made sure that when the ships with provisions came in, all wives, including his mother, received a fair share.
When they were leaving for Cairo, the women of Iskuraran impressed on the girls that they were not only responsible for their own success but that they were also blazing a trail for other Somali girls: “The struggle for independence is coming to an end,” they said, “but [the struggle] for the progress of Somali women is only beginning, and much will depend on you.” They also showered the girls with blessings. Maryan remembers those of Aunt ‘Ambaro: “Yo” are leaving at 2:00 a.m. May God make things easy on you! May not even the smallest harm befall you, and may you reach the country safely. May everything there that breathes welcome you with respect.” (“Sideed saa-caad baxaysaan, Allah ha sahlee! Saxar aan idiin gaarin, carliga salaama taga oointii san ku neefleh joogta idiin sajuuda.”)
Given the women who had raised her, Maryan was well prepared to take on her new responsibilities in Egypt. She held office in the Somali students association, and at a formal celebration of Somalia’s independence in 1960, Maryan was the only girl who addressed with confidence a hall full of Egyptian dignitaries. “The girl who spoke before me was so nervous she could hardly hold her piece of paper,” Maryan remembered, “so I made sure I put my sheet on the lectern in front of me.” Her brother was so worried that she would embarrass herself that he left the hall, returning only to witness the spontaneous ovation she received at the end of her speech. Maryan spoke about the important roles Somali women were expecting to play in independent Somalia, and indeed she focused her political and social activism on women’s issues after her return to Somalia in 1961 in the hopeful aftermath of independence.
Like her brother, and in spite of the fact that her father was minister for the Somali Youth League, she joined the opposition, a new left-leaning party called the Great Somali League. Her father did not challenge her political opinions and activities, while she did her best not to embarrass or worry him. When, a decade or more later, the military dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre complained to her father about Maryan’s opposition to his “scientific socialist revolution,” her father retorted, “She was in the opposition when I was in the government. Why would it be different under you?” During these years, Maryan combined a job as a teacher with enthusiastic political and social activism for the Great Somali League, contributing to the party’s newspaper andserving as secretary to the women’s, youths’, and students’ sections. She took part in delegations, fact-finding missions, and conferences throughout the country, reporting on unequal access to educational or health services, and raising awareness about the lack of Islamic sanction for female circumcision.
In 1964, in defiance of the wishes of her father, who had betrothed her to someone else, Maryan married a young and dashing member of parliament, who also belonged to the Great Somali League. Her wedding was a great social event and consisted of three celebrations: one in the style of the Hamarweyne neighborhood where she had been raised, one according to the Somali customs of Iskuraran, and one in European fashion. She bore her husband two sons. The future appeared to smile on the young couple. That independence would not bear all the fruits their youthful generation expected was a disappointment that still lay in the future.