Exploring cultural belonging for Somali diaspora through writing and fashion
Storytelling

An Open Letter to Hooyo on the pressure of being perfectly Somali

Hooyo, we need to talk about something that’s been troubling me for a while: the pressure I feel from you to be perfectly Somali.

I’m not sure when being Somali turned into series of behavioural boxes I have to check but as I have crossed the threshold to womanhood, it is increasingly clear that being Somali means fulfilling certain conditions that I have been unable to meet.

It started with the way I dress. Do you remember the big page spread in the East End Life when I received my university offer? Back then, Oxbridge admissions for Tower Hamlets students were a rarity, so there was a fair bit of local interest in my offer. School was keen for me to give an interview to the local paper. I had declined.

Somalis are superstitious people and you, being no exception, had always taught me that a look of envy from someone could cast real misfortune in my life. I wasn’t sure whether this was true but I didn’t want to test it out, plus (and perhaps this was a glimmer of my British side) I didn’t want to be a show off about the whole thing.

It was a few moments before you quietly said, “you’re the only one not wearing a hijab”

But when a reporter from the paper showed up at my school a week later, I caved. Fast forward another week and the paper came through our letterbox, landing in the hallway with a thud. Less than a minute later you walked into the kitchen with it under your arm, your morning shaax (tea) in hand, beaming with anticipation. I felt all warm inside at the thought that I had done something to make you proud.

You shook the newspaper open and rushed through the pages. And there I was, my shiny, smiling face looking up at you. Your own face darkened a little. It was a few moments before you quietly said, “you’re the only one not wearing a hijab”.

I was confused.  I leaned over your shoulder to look at the page. Were we still talking about me? Your only daughter? Was there something I was missing? I had never worn a hijab before this day so surely there can’t have been an expectation that I would put one on just for this newspaper feature?

It was then that I remembered another reason why I had tried to avoid the feature altogether – this is exactly how I feared most Somalis in my local community would react when looking at my picture. Forget uni, look at her daughter, not wearing a hijab, gasp, such a pity, tut tut, smug-sigh, maybe if she focused on her religion as much as she does those school books…

As proud as you were about university, when I saw you look at that picture I knew that I had let you down on some other level.

This I struggled to understand. You yourself had only adopted the hijab in your thirties and, as far as I knew, it was the norm for your generation growing up in 1960s/70s Somalia not to wear one. Sepia-toned polaroids of you and your impossibly cool Somali friends with beautifully-coiffed afros filled the stack of family albums.

…diaspora culture is an insecure thing that needs constant reassurance, like an emotionally abusive partner who swears he will die if you leave him…

But somehow, for London’s twenty-first century Somali diaspora community, the way I dress had become an essential part of being considered a good seventeen-year-old Somali daughter.

This is partly why I find diaspora culture, as a self-contained concept, to often be so strange. By virtue of its detachment from the native land to which it clams allegiance, it morphs into an exaggerated, constantly-at-threat-of-extinction version of Somalinimo (Somaliness) that doesn’t always correlate to the reality of life in the motherland.

Somalia is a place where culture, language, customs are not things that need to be obsessively maintained. They just exist as the dominant culture, ubiquitous, secure. By contrast, diaspora culture is an insecure thing that needs constant reassurance. Like an emotionally abusive partner who swears he will die if you leave him, as if you are the only woman on earth.

And, Hooyo macaan, being on the receiving end of this treatment, these endless expectations from the very culture that is supposed to form an essential part of my identity, can be exhausting.

Imagine feeling like your choice of marital partner is of mortal significance to the survival of the Somali race and their culture…

Imagine feeling like your choice of marital partner is of mortal significance to the survival of the Somali race and their culture. Imagine feeling like the very survival of the Somali language is directly tied to your ability to speak Somali as fluently as someone who left Somalia as an adult. Or that people are somehow adding or deducting “Somali points” from you based on what you choose to wear.

Yet this never-ending obsession with cultural self-destruction is not justified by our numbers. We are not an endangered people. There are an estimated 14.5 million Somalis in Somalia alone, and that excludes the millions that make up the global Somali diaspora. We are not going anywhere and neither is our culture. So why the obsession with, say, making sure I marry a Somali?

…policing who Somali women marry and what we wear is a form of social control disguised as cultural preservation.

Today, I would love to marry a like-minded Somali diaspora. If for no other reason than to make my life so much easier because Hooyo, as you know, some of our most epic arguments have been about the unsuitability of my choice in marriage prospects. But I won’t drag up past memories when the scars are still healing. Suffice to say, we are in a much better place now.

But the older I get, the more I realise that the diaspora community’s obsession with policing who Somali women marry and what we wear is a form of social control disguised as cultural preservation.

There is a palpable sense of ownership over us, as women. It explains why Somalis are, generally speaking, unbothered by Somali men like Mo Farah or Rageh Omar marrying non-Somali women. I mean the President of Somalia himself could probably bring home a white, second wife, declare her the Second First Lady of the nation and everyone in Somalia would either laugh it off or dismiss it with a shrug.

And why should they care? It is really no one else’s business. Compare this with the attitude toward actor Idris Elba proposing to Somali beauty Sabrina Dhowre. In the days and weeks that followed, the internet was a flurry of triggered Somali men. And not all of them were trolls either, some of them (like members of Youtube’s Sheeko Sheeko panel) were men who otherwise seemed like nice, normal people who suddenly developed very strong opinions about “preserving the culture” when it came to the relationship choices of a Somali woman that they have never met. The double standard is clearly there and I don’t see why I should ignore it or allow myself to be held to it.

There is a pack mentality associated with this cultural preservation which dictates that you, as my mother, are responsible for keeping me in line. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

The thing is, Hooyo, I don’t belong to anyone, and neither do the rest of the female Somali population, including you. So why are we being held hostage to this patriarchal, almost militaristic “no woman left behind” mentality? There is a pack mentality associated with this cultural preservation which dictates that you, as my mother, are responsible for keeping me in line. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Hooyo.

You see, I’ve worked out that your expectations probably have very little to do with me at all, and everything to do with the pressure you feel to pass on your language, culture and customs through your children.

I know it can’t have been easy to move to a foreign country so far from home on your own, learn the language, make sense of how differently people behave here and what they considered to be acceptable for men and women. And I am immeasurably proud of you for having made that move and somehow finding a way to build a career and single-handedly raise your children in this place while staying true to yourself.

There are many ways that a person can leave a legacy on this earth after they die, but the most common way is through their children. And when you look into the eyes of me and my brother – your only surviving children – you want to feel secure that we will carry a legacy that you can be proud of.

But carrying your legacy does not have to mean poorly imitating it. It can also be expressed through common physical and emotional characteristics; I have your smile, generosity, warmth and flair for melodrama. These are things that I will always have, no matter who I marry or how I dress.

So let’s release me from the unfair expectation that every decision I make is a direct threat to the survival of Somali culture and you from the heavy burden of towing this tired party line, because Hooyo I promise, we will both be a lot happier accepting each other for who we are.

Love you to the ends of the earth, my queen of queens.