Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Isobel Coleman traveled across the Middle East, Africa and Asia for her book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. Touching down in conflicted, struggling cities around the globe, Coleman finds women working for reform, adapting feminism to their particular cultural and religious mores. In the excerpt below, Coleman, a past Zócalo guest, reveals how Somali women kept Mogadishu fed during a brutal and ongoing civil war.
Across the dusty Mogadishu courtyard, the Somali women shouted instructions to each other as they cooked, adding their voices to the already considerable din – dogs barking, babies crying, the occasional staccato of distant machine-gun fire. The temperature hovered around a hundred degrees, and although a tattered tarp provided some meager cover from the searing sun, it also trapped the scalding heat from the kitchen fires. Orange flames licked the bottom of the giant makeshift pots provided by the Red Cross – fifty-gallon drums cut in half, with handles welded onto the sides for maneuvering. The women used long poles, like broomsticks, to stir the mush inside, a bland but nutritious concoction of rice, beans, and oil. Sweat poured down their faces. The smell of perspiration, food, and woodsmoke was pungent.
Outside the burned-out building, a guard stood by the doorway. The drooping flags of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent stirred occasionally in the faint breeze off the Indian Ocean. By late afternoon, a line of people began to form, and soon it was hundreds deep – mothers with babies on their backs, gaunt-faced children waiting listlessly by their parents’ sides, a few young men chewing khat leaves, a natural stimulant that suppresses hunger but also makes them high. When the guard blew his whistle, the line moved slowly forward, flip-flops shuffling in the dust. The poorest were barefoot. The guard made the young men leave their Kalashnikovs at the door.
Inside the courtyard, the volunteer “kitchen mamas” worked efficiently, slopping the mush into whatever containers people carried – a cup, a plate, a ripped carton. Dipping in with their hands, the Somalis ate quickly. The bold colors of the women’s direhs – their long, billowing traditional dresses – brightened the otherwise dismal surroundings. Remarkably, they somehow managed to keep their petticoats out of the dust.
It was the summer of 1991, and Somalia was embroiled in a full-blown civil war, a war that tragically continues today. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the fighting, and as drought compounded the already tenuous situation, famine ran rampant. Relief groups struggled to provide aid, but thousands of people were dying by the day. Red Cross efforts to feed the hungry were largely thwarted by widespread looting. Convoy trucks were routinely attacked and robbed by rival clans who used the food to feed their own militias, or to barter for weapons, while the women and children starved. By some estimates, a quarter of Somali children under the age of five perished during the famine. As Geoffrey Loane, the director of Red Cross efforts in Somalia at that time, recalls, “This was not the finest hour for Somali men.”
Somali women, however, rose to the challenge. Loane, a soft-spoken Irishman, smiles remembering how the women of Mogadishu came to him with a plan to get food to the starving people. “They proposed a solution, a practical solution totally in keeping with their local culture. Rather than transporting big shipments of food to large feeding centers, which only encouraged the looting, the women suggested we help them set up communal kitchens in neighborhoods across the city. The Red Cross would supply them with firewood and water, and run a constant stream of small loads of food to them via donkeys. They would immediately cook the food and serve it to the hungry, averting starvation and eliminating the food’s cash value. We thought it was worth a try. Before we knew it, the women had totally taken charge. They set up more than three hundred of these communal kitchens, run by kitchen committees comprised of twenty to thirty women. Each of these kitchens was dishing out between one and two thousand meals, twice a day. They became the lifeline of Mogadishu.”
The kitchens took shape in the rubble of destroyed buildings – what was left of the whitewashed villas that once graced Mogadishu’s palm-tree-lined streets. Even the city’s elegant mosques, a tribute to its historic past as a great trading port, had not escaped the ransacking. Once the Red Cross was on board, the women negotiated with the warlords to appropriate space for their communal kitchens. Some of these kitchens even had links with local schools, where meals provided an incentive for both students and teachers to continue attending classes even during the brutal chaos of the war.
Andrew Natsios, the United States’ special coordinator for Somalia relief efforts at the time, remembers going into Mogadishu at the height of the fighting and, to his amazement, stumbling upon a functioning school in the middle of the civil war. There were at least ten classrooms full of grammar-school children. How is that possible, he wondered? Though he had been told that all the schools in Mogadishu had been shut down due to the fighting, in truth some thirty thousand kids were still attending classes. The formal education system had collapsed along with the government, but the women had devised a way to keep the schools functioning. The kitchen mamas were using some of the food aid to pay the teachers in a makeshift food-for-work program. Natsios recognized the effectiveness of this grassroots effort, and the United States started giving small grants not only to the Red Cross, but to several women-led local organizations that were focused on keeping the schools running. The results were spectacularly successful for many months until the warlords caught wind of the transactions and began robbing the women’s groups to finance their militias.
“These women were incredibly determined and courageous,” remembers Loane, the Red Cross director. One in particular stands out in his memory: Dhabo Issa, a tall Somali woman with a commanding presence and fiery temper. The Red Cross hired her to manage the complicated logistics for the kitchen program in the southern part of the city. Loane’s eyes sparkle recalling Dhabo Issa’s grit: “She was a pearl of pearls.” But when I ask him what became of her, his smile fades. As the famine receded and the kitchens were closed, the women lost what little power they had garnered. After the “Black Hawk Down” fiasco, when U.S. troops were fatally dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, international support for the peacekeeping effort disappeared. “The last I heard,” sighs Loane, “Dhabo Issa had become a refugee in London, working as an office assistant. I felt like saying to her boss, ‘Man, don’t you know who you have photocopying for you? This woman deserves a Nobel Prize for her kitchen work.'”
On the Front Lines of Development
The efforts of the Somali women to keep their children in school, despite the violence, chaos, and famine, are inspirational but by no means unusual, as anyone who has worked in a disaster area or a war zone knows. Although women are often the victims of violence and oppression, by dint of their child-rearing responsibilities they are also the backbone of society – the ones responsible for keeping families intact, feeding and educating the children, and raising the next generation.
Poor women’s suffering has long been a surefire way to pull on the heartstrings of rich donors, but in recent years there has been a newfound appreciation for the role that these women play in breaking the cycle of poverty and stabilizing fragile societies. Development experts now widely recognize women’s role as critical to economic progress, healthy civil society, and good governance, especially in developing countries. Providing women with more and better opportunities to fulfill their social, economic, and political roles is now deemed so essential for reducing poverty and improving governance that women’s empowerment has become a development objective in its own right. The key levers for change, from the ground up, are clearly female education and women’s access to income. Top down, women’s leadership – at the local and the national level–is also important.
In 2000, all the world’s countries and top development institutions agreed to an action plan to eliminate extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by 2015. The resulting UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include the promotion of gender equality and the improvement of maternal health as two of its eight targets–not simply as a nod to social justice, but in recognition that women’s empowerment is a driver of poverty alleviation. (Progress on the gender equality/women’s empowerment MDG is measured by increases in girls’ access to schooling, improvements in women’s access to wage-paying jobs, and increases in the share of women within national parliaments.) Across the MDGs, women’s empowerment is considered so essential that it underpins all of the other goals.
Unfortunately, too little progress has been made on all the MDGs, and on the ones that focus on women in particular. In fact, of all the MDGs, the least progress has been made on the goal of improving maternal health. More than half a million women die each year and several million more are severely disabled from childbirth. These grim maternal health statistics give an all too clear picture of the low status of women in parts of the world.
The good news is that with concerted government efforts, women have made progress in many countries: Gender gaps in infant mortality rates, calorie consumption, school enrollment, literacy levels, access to healthcare, and political participation have narrowed steadily in many developing countries in recent decades, particularly in East Asia and Latin America. Those changes have benefited societies at large, improving living standards, increasing social entrepreneurship, and attracting foreign direct investment.
Yet significant gender disparities continue to exist, and in some cases to grow, in three regions of the world: South Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. Although the conservative, patriarchal constraints on women living in these areas are increasingly recognized by the international community as a drag on development, empowering women is nonetheless still considered a subversive proposition by many who live in these regions.
In some societies, women’s rights are at the forefront of a protracted battle between religious extremists and those with more moderate, progressive views. In the name of Islam, numerous women leaders have been assassinated; hundreds of girls’ schools have been destroyed in Pakistan and Afghanistan; across South Asia, the Middle East, and even in Muslim communities in Europe and North America, thousands of young women – mothers, wives, sisters, daughters–have been murdered by close male relatives for supposed “honor crimes”; in Somalia in 2008, in front of a crowd of a thousand people, a thirteen-year-old girl was stoned to death for adultery after her family told local authorities that she had been raped; in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Islamic vigilantes throw acid on women’s faces for not fully covering themselves. In Palestine, Sunni extremists belonging to shadowy groups like the “Swords of Islamic Righteousness” threaten to slit the throats of female broadcasters “from vein to vein” if they do not wear strict Islamic dress. All these acts of violence are justified by their perpetrators as upholding sharia, as conforming to the will and rule of God. Yet moderate Muslims condemn this violence as perverted extremism that flies in the face of Islamic values.
The debate over women’s rights within Islam is not a new one. For centuries, Islamic scholars, thinkers, and activists have been pondering this question of women’s rights, and reaching very different answers. In today’s increasingly global world, however, the stakes are higher than ever – for everyone. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
There is a familiar self-help aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.” A veteran development expert once quipped to me: If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime, but if you give a woman title to the fish pond, she will clean it up, preserve it for the next generation, stock it with new fish, and create a fish farm to employ the village.
When I repeated this saying to the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and one of the architects of the global microfinance movement, he smiled knowingly. Grameen now focuses almost exclusively on women borrowers, although in its early days, Grameen’s goal was to have a 50/50 split between male and female borrowers. And then something happened:
We started noticing something new. Money that went to the family through the woman brought so much more benefit to the family than the same amount of money going to the family through the man. It was very clear. Women took very good care of it. And being a poor woman, she had an amazing skill, the skill to manage a scarce resource . . . And she brought this excellent skill of managing a scarce resource to the little money we gave her. She got the largest, biggest mileage you can ever think. And if mother is earning money, children become the first beneficiary of it and everybody else gradually benefits from it. She is the last person to benefit. So we saw those things and we kept talking about it and we changed our policy. We said: Forget about 50/50. Who says 50/50? Let’s concentrate on women. And that’s when we came to this. And gradually we moved from 70 to 80 percent, 90 percent and stayed like that.
When Yunus launched Grameen in the early 1970s, the microcredit concept–providing loans to very poor people with little or no collateral – was simply revolutionary. Grameen’s mission of making loans to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, most of whom had virtually no formal education, little previous business experience, and certainly no collateral, broke all the rules of banking. Moreover, to focus on rural Muslim women, who, bound by their traditions, had rarely left their homes nor spoken to a man outside their family, pushed the limits of common sense. How could they know how to put the loans to good use to be able to pay them back? At the time Grameen started, 85 percent of Bangladeshi women were illiterate; many abided by purdah – a range of practices that seclude women as a way of ensuring modesty. In its most conservative form, purdah restrictions prevent women from being seen by any man outside her immediate family.
Yunus persevered in his commitment to lending to women, but not without arousing the hostility of the establishment. Early on, he received a threatening letter from the central bank demanding to know why such a high percentage of Grameen’s borrowers were women – this was simply too radical a departure from convention. After debating how to reply, he sent back a letter demanding an explanation for why all the other banks had such a high percentage of male clients. Not surprisingly, his letter went unanswered. (The bankers’ reluctance to give women any financial control was certainly not unique to Bangladesh.)
Excerpted from Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman Copyright © 2010 by Isobel Coleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
*Photo of Somali women courtesy mwanasimba.