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Marriage: The ever-changing Somali culture

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Wax layaqano guurso, wax layaqano hakuu dhalaan (marry who is known to give birth to what is known) is the Somali proverb related to marriage.

Understanding one’s background in terms of moral behavior, cultural identity and family history, when seeking a girl’s hand in marriage, has been the epitome of the community’s cultural heritage.

Pastoral community

Commonly, the Somali community, from the horn of Africa and spread across the globe population-wise, were pastoralists until recently when rural-urban migration took a toll in many households.

Change, as they say, is inevitable. Under the new lifestyle transition, some cultural aspects were lost, others gained.

A case in point was the choice of partner in marriage. In the old-style Somali setup, a girl dare not reveal the man of her choice.

Furthermore, girls were married off at the age of 10 – 17 without necessarily acquiring their consent.

“Traditionally, a woman coming forward with a man to marry was a taboo”, says Mzee Adan, an honored local elder.

“The man, through his tribesmen, will identify the girl and seek her hand in marriage without knowing her personality but assurance on her family history”.

Courtesy of cultural assimilation and technology, the modern marriage proposal takes a shorter route, summing up what Mzee Adan calls “I have seen her today and I will marry her tomorrow”.

A typical Somali family will be troubled if their daughter goes beyond the age of 20 without a suitor showing interest.

Such a girl, to the larger community, is guumees (over-age for marriage) and the extended family members will be on her, reminding how time is against her life.

Education and early marriage

Fortunately, education has instilled discipline in similar cultural expectations. Many girls get married at their convenience time.

Filtering the broader cultural setting, Somali traditional at tribe level also differs. For instance, for the Marehan clan, the woman had the liberty to welcome the potential husband home.

However, for the Rahawein, it was off-limit and daring for a sane woman to talk about a man she may likely consider marrying. Until he brings his folks for proposal, the topic is deemed illegal.

“In the Somali tradition, women, even the girl’s mother, were never involved in discussions pertaining to her daughter’s marriage. Well-regarded close kinfolk elders decide the girl’s fate. The decision entirely rests on them”, adds Mr. Adan.

When the proposal is positively completed, which happens commonly, the mother is notified to prepare her daughter for the heavy responsibility ahead. Additionally, she takes charge of the upcoming new home.

Dowry

Way before some decades, meher (dowry) was composed of camels, horses, and guns. Basing marriage as a serious institution, a Somali man could pay 100 camels, a trend which later on changed due to economic trials.

Later on, the value of money crept in and nowadays, on average, most girls settle on Kshs. 100,000 ($1000) dowry.

“You could give your in-laws animals especially camels, as much as you have. In the past, guns and horses were exchanged as dowry since there was no money”, adds Mzee Adan with nostalgia.

Upon identifying a potential woman, the man, through the elders, takes the journey of proposing to the family. Yered, a gift in form of money is presented to the girl’s family at the first approach.

After passing the family and moral background test, he will be allowed to officially take her responsibility with acceptance and blessings.

The two, for the sake of upholding the cultural and moral standards, will not see each other until the wedding day.

Marriage oath

In the nikkah, tying the knot, a Muslim cleric will be present to administer the ‘marriage oath’ to the bridegroom.

In case the groom cannot physically arrive at the venue, a wali (a representative) must be sited; either father, brother, uncle, or very close relative to take the oath on his behalf.

Sooryo, a gift in form of money is usually given to those in attendance. The rite will be finalized with a mouthwatering diet.

For the woman, the cleric can represent her if her wali is not available. Sometimes, the ceremony is conducted through telephone if families are far from each other.

Here, the agreed amount of dowry is confirmed by two male witnesses in written form.

Once the nikkah takes place either at the man’s home, hotel or mosque, the wedding (aroos) will be planned any minute from the moment or occurs on the same day.

Culturally, what seems out of the ordinary but rare, the wedding takes place without the newlywed consummating their marriage. Such habit has since been out fashioned by time.

For the Degodia clan, after the wedding takes place, the bridegroom goes about his routine – looking after camels and possibly spending months in far and wide land.

Upon returning, the waiting bride receives her husband’s arrival notice. She goes to her new home and takes the responsibility of a time.

Currently, what was previously considered taboo is now a norm. Girls at this age can comfortably choose their life partners without pressure.

Positive transformation

This kind of cultural transition, according to Ali Saman, is a positive transformation from the tough olden days.

“In terms of love and affection, the current generation is way better since a woman can reveal the man she would want to marry and spend her time with”, expresses Saman adding that most girls were married off forcefully shrinking the space for negotiations.

The drawback of the current transformation, he believes, is making bad choices resulting from incomplete knowledge of the family background.

“We are at a time when children cannot be controlled. You only pray that they marry the right person. In the past, people will question your background before letting you marry their daughters. Is he boon or bilis, was the repeated question”?

Wedding ceremony

Depending on their capability, a person may slaughter camels, goats or sheep.

In modern-day, in major cities, wedding ceremonies are incorporated in the hiring of halls without necessarily slaughtering animals separately.

Marrying shisheye – a Somali who is not from the same tribe as the man or woman was not a welcome idea, a trend that has now changed courtesy of time.

The elephant in the room, as they claim, is the pain in solving domestic issues when non-related individuals get married.

Furthermore, in disregarding the community’s customary setup, some members marry ajnabi – foreigners/non-Somalis.

“The advantage of marrying close family member is that related family will amicably solve underlining issues but for the outsider, it takes long before issues are solved”, states Mzee Adan, attributing increased domestic violence and divorce cases to marrying outsiders.

Eloping with a woman, as a result of the unpredictability of parental consent, wasn’t unusual.

The man will flee with the potential wife to his mother’s abode until consensus is reached.

No sexual advancement whatsoever is made towards the ‘future wife’ due to the moral standard of the community. The father will be forced to give wilaya (acceptance) as tradition demands.

In-laws

In-laws, especially mothers and fathers were highly respected in society. Unfortunately, the level of reverence has since gone down. Many can attest to this.

A factor that made more sense was that when a girl is getting married, most of her kinfolk will be informed, a habit that attracted more blessings. It is true for the opposite in recent times.

For the formation of a new relation (hidid), the two families will develop a stronger bond linked by respect, a custom the new generation must swiftly borrow.