A Somali’s family is the most important aspect of their life. It forms the basis of people’s support networks, with relatives being mutually reliant on one another. The “family” itself refers to an expansive network, including extended family members. Each family ‘ group’ also belongs to a broader and sub-(s) based on their shared ancestry with other Somalis. All affiliations are inherited through the father’s lineage. See ‘Social Structure and Clan System’ in Core Concepts for more information on this.
Somali families are very with communal responsibilities. For example, the whole family and community is considered to be responsible for a child’s parenting and upbringing. It is commonplace and accepted for a Somali child to be disciplined by another adult in the community that is not their parent.
Families often pool their resources and wealth so that everyone can meet collective needs. Relatives in more fortunate economic positions often feel a particularly strong sense of responsibility to support others. For example, a Somali person living in a Western country may prioritise sending money back to extended family members overseas over building their personal savings. Indeed, from Somalis living abroad comprise nearly one-fourth of household incomes in Somalia.1
Throughout all sectors of Somali society, parents and elders are highly respected. It is highly inappropriate for children to talk back to or disobey anyone who is older than themselves. Most people's decisions continue to be influenced by their parents in adulthood, especially for women. Elder family members are cared for by their children and grandchildren into their old age.
The basic household structure is traditionally large and multi-generational. It is customary for women to move in with their husbands’ family at marriage. Therefore, a traditional Somali household usually consists of three generations:
- the eldest couple;
- their sons, sons’ wives and any unmarried daughters; and
- the grandchildren from their married sons.
Somalis living in cities may also hire a live-in domestic worker who assists the women of the house with daily chores. Approximately one-fifth of the Somali population lives in household situations, whereby wives have their own residences.2
People may have up to eight children. It is estimated that a Somali woman gives birth to an average of six children during her lifetime.3 It is rare for children to move out of their parents’ home before they are married, although some men might in urban areas.
Gender roles are clearly defined in Somalia and household chores are separated. Men traditionally hold the most authority and decision-making power. They are responsible for the financial well-being and safety of the family. Meanwhile, women are expected to fulfil different, complementary obligations. They are mainly responsible for acquiring and preparing foods, raising children and other domestic activities.
There is a Somali saying that “while a man is the head of the household, a Somali woman is the neck that helps the position of the head”.4 This describes how women (particularly older women) have significant influence in their home life. Somali women are renowned for being entrepreneurs and business people. They are often the main income earners for their families. This has become necessary due to the impact of war, inflation, drought and male migration. Additionally, the limited labour market that has been available since the war has been increasingly favourable to women. The number of female-headed households has increased. It is estimated 70% of displaced households are headed by females (widowed or abandoned).5
Nevertheless, a woman’s independence and freedom to make choices for herself varies depending on the attitude of her husband or closest male relative. Their participation in certain activities is also limited by social practices and . For example, female sexual modesty is considered to be especially important, with female virginity (and sometimes female genital mutilation) being seen as essential for marriage. Hence, women traditionally carry greater expectations of social compliance than men and are often seen as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected. They are required to show modesty (xishood) and not bring shame to their family by immodest or immoral behaviour.6 The ideal woman is expected to be reserved, polite and humble. Male relatives’ attitudes towards women can be very in this regard. Basic freedom also varies between regions due to armed conflict and the rise of radical groups.
Dating practices (as they are understood in the English-speaking West) are almost non-existent in Somalia. Today, many young Somali men and women may have more interaction over mobile or online messaging. However, it is considered improper to socialise with a member of the opposite gender alone unless the two people are married. Unmarried men and women should only interact in public places or at community activities. If they should grow close, it is expected that they announce their engagement.
Marriage is a religious duty and social necessity in Somali culture. It marks the union of a couple, but also their families. When a woman marries a man of another , she is absorbed by that (although she maintains connection and legal ties with her original ). Before the civil war, it was very common to marry between . In some cases, intermarriage was used to form new alliances. Today, Somalis tend to prefer to marry within their sub-. However, Somalis living overseas generally don’t take this factor into consideration as seriously.
Marriages are traditionally arranged, yet each member of the couple is usually allowed to have the final say as to whether they want to accept or decline the match made by their families. It is also becoming more common for parents to consider their child’s love interest if the match is suitable. After a man asks a woman’s family for permission to marry her, both families gather several times to discuss engagement before it is announced. Engagements are proposed formally. Elders from the man’s side of the family present the woman’s family with a payment that represents commitment to the marriage (sooryo). The exact amount varies based on the families’ economic statuses. The bride’s family then distributes this payment among everyone in both families and a ceremony is held to celebrate the engagement. The bride’s dowry (maher) is also declared and registered during the engagement ceremony.
Brides are commonly much younger than their husbands. Women from rural areas and lower socioeconomic brackets tend to marry early, from age 15 onwards and usually not after 21. Those who are educated and urbanised may wait until they finish university, but aim to be married by 25 years of age at the latest. According to UNICEF, 45% of women are married by the time they are 18 years old (35% urban, 52% rural).7 Boys generally marry at an older age, roughly 30 years old. The reasoning behind the age difference between men and women is that the men are expected to financially provide for their wives. Thus, a man needs to be entirely self-sufficient and economically secure by the time he gets engaged.
may be practised in some areas of Somalia, whereby a man may have up to four wives. However, a man is only allowed to take multiple wives if he can afford to provide for each of them properly (such as providing them their own individual living quarters and kitchen). It is rare for to occur in urban areas.
Divorce is becoming more common in Somali culture. People generally view it as a last resort. However, relationships may be ended by either the husband or wife. Generally, children of a divorced couple fall under the care of the mother, with the father providing financial support.
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