Reason No. 347 why it’s good to live someplace other than Somalia

beach.jpg The headline pretty much says it all, unfortunately: “Somalia bans swimming for women at beach.” The article continues, noting:

Sheikh Farah Ali Hussein, chair of a northern Mogadishu Islamic court, said Friday that the ban applies only to the northern Mogadishu Leedo beach, where families usually go on weekends to play and relax. “We stopped women from swimming because it is against the teaching of Islam for women to mingle with men, especially while they are swimming,” Hussein said.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, one’s ability to swim at the beach is a relatively minor matter. As an offense, this doesn’t come close to the big violations that occur regularly in Somalia. Somalia is, after all, a land without effective government; run by warlords and Islamists; the location of frequent and grave human rights violations. These are the kinds of serious and somber charges that we hear so often that they threaten to generate listener fatigue.

Against that backdrop, I think, it can be useful to point out small things, sometimes. After all, there’s something deeply repulsive about a society that would deny its women not only effective political participation or much in the way of human rights, but also so simple and innocuous a pleasure as the ability to go to the beach.

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7 Responses

  1. Kristen says:

    Especially since it typifies the gendering of public space as male, in which women merely “mingle with men.”

    That said, the fact that a group of warlords who happen to control an airstrip in Mogadishu happens to be the closest thing to a functioning state is its own kind of bad news–for women and everyone else.

  2. Lynn says:

    KW: I enjoy your writing, and am familiar with your credentials. I winced at reading this post, however, because it illustrated to me the archetypical American knee-jerk reaction.

    I am not necessarily condoning the Somalian government’s recent legislation. But in your post, you have taken no means to explain why this attitude exists in this country, and to what ends they have passed the legislation to achieve. This methodology is twofold:

    (1) If you’re truly invested in overturning such and similar legislation, it is useful to drop the Western perspective and adopt the perspective in which the law was passed. Could these goals be achieved in any other manner? Is Islamic Jurisprudence at a consensus on these issues. Relatedly, in dropping one perspective for another, your tone of judging would change to one of attempted understanding.

    (2) Although there are a lot of very fine qualities to the U.S. and its citizens, one of the scarier draw-backs is a common (though not given) linear perception: that what this country does, and thinks, and wants, is the epitome of sophistication and intelligence at this point in society and world history. I find such a rule simplistic, despite being efficient and easily applied.

    Not an attack – just a thought …

  3. Ilya says:

    Can not speak for Kaimipono D. Wenger, but I personally do not claim that “what this country does, and thinks, and wants, is the epitome of sophistication and intelligence at this point in society and world history.” That does not keep me from claiming that the culture currently in charge of Somalia is medieval abomination. A culture is a human invention, like a fork or a computer, and some human inventions are JUST PLAIN BAD. Including the culture which requires women to cover their faces in public, punishes adultery by stoning, and condones men killing their daughters and sisters in order to “uphold family honor.” Sorry, but I refuse to “adopt the [local] perspective” any more than I am willing to “adopt the perspective” of cannibals or child molesters. After all, in THEIR perspective, they also have good reasons for what they do.

  4. Lynn says:


    Adopting a perspective is valuable in trying to understand the behavior. Not necessarily to promulgate. So for instance, your use the example of veiled women as a “plain bad” cultural phenomena:

    I have lived in the Middle East, and find that women do not find the behavior so objectionable (in the same way some American females wear heels, and some do not). As a political phenomena, perhaps it seems oppressive. As a day-to-day practicality: it is a gesture of extreme respect for a woman. Her reaction, at not wearing a veil would be: Qhy should I allow a common man on the street to see my face? Benefit from my beauty? That is a part of me that is reserved for my family. It is a conservative culture.

    Perhaps of attendant interest: the women under those veils are often tricked-out underneath. On several occasions I would be in a hair salon. The women, once un-veiled, were getting elaborate hair coloring and style. Make-up was a familiarity, as was waxing …

    Point being: although while living in a region of similar beliefs, I make a good-faith gesture and dress more conservatively, I am not keen to don a face mask (and absent visiting a mosque, I do not ordinarily wear a veil). But it is valuable to try and see the issue (veils) from their (the people wearing them) perspective.

    From their perspective: is conservatively considering a female’s face and shape as beautiful, and then reserving that for her family’s indulgence alone, objectionable?

  5. Ilya says:

    From their perspective: is conservatively considering a female’s face and shape as beautiful, and then reserving that for her family’s indulgence alone, objectionable?

    If women who do not wish to so reserve are physically punished, then yes.

    Also, if they HAVE to veil themselves as a matter of practicality in order to avoid rape (something you did not explicitely mention, but happens to be true in many Muslim countries), it is also objectionable.

  6. Lynn says:

    Hi Ilya,

    I appreciate your point of view. But I sense you are antagonized (the CAPS, or bold language, perhaps indicative?). I have made efforts to treat you civilly; I would appreciate the same gesture. If I am mistaken, than I regret starting this post so.

    Living as an expat in any country, you can never fully assimilate. So of course, my not wearing a veil is not the same as a conservative Muslim woman not wearing the veil. Though note: I am tan-skinned, and almost universally, my cab drivers, without speaking with me, would assume I was from the region. And then when I did open my mouth, they would just assume my mother and father were from the region …

    Whatever – point being: I felt safer on the Middle Eastern street than I do in the United States (albeit, the NorthEast Coast and its cities). Without bringing bad press to my current U.S. city, allow me just to say that I am “aware of my surroundings” each time I enter and exit my car.

    I fear we are veering from the original topic, and what I hoped to contribute: simply, that other perspectives (which might be objectionable to you) are not cavalier phenomena, and have their own development and foundation. Appreciating that builds understanding, tolerance, and an effective means of persuasion if you want to change behavior. My assertion should not be construed as advocacy for one behavior or the other.

  7. Ilya says:

    No, I was not antagonized: the boldface is how I always quote whoever I am responding to, and caps emphasize whichever word in a given sentence I want to emphasize.

    Having said that, I also see your point better now. Your first post sounded like “all cultures are equivalent and who are we to judge them”, which I HAD seen many times and very much disagree with. But that does not seem to be your position.