Today I had the opportunity to shake the hand of a truly amazing woman. BYU’s Kennedy Center for International Studies hosted Asha Hagi Elmi, a peace activist in Somalia. She recently won the Clinton Global Citizen Award and the Right Livelihood Award. Elmi has been devoted to peace-making in Somalia. During a time when women had no voice and were not represented, Elmi formed the Sixth Clan, in which women from the five traditional clans come together to represent ALL Somali women. In 2004, she was elected to the Transitional Federal Parliament of the Republic of Somalia, and served in this post until 2009. Furthermore, Elmi’s efforts extend beyond the political sphere in her foundation of Save Somali Women and Children.
In her presentation, Elmi focused on her work within the Sixth Clan and its formation. She started out by saying that while progress has been made, women are still fighting to be equal partners. But this fight is unlike those common to the land of Somalia. This is “a quiet revolution, but a revolution nonetheless,” in which the most powerful tools are words and wisdom. Women are agents of change. Elmi organized women across clan lines. While the men where out in the bush fighting, the women were united by the common goals of peace and women’s rights. These women, wives of warlords, women of different clans, and even poets, were able to come together to discuss the peace process. Not only were the women capable of coming together, but they did so without a mediator. Both of which the men NEVER did. Why is this important? It shows that women can think it terms that go beyond clan lines. The women are connected. They are all wives and mothers. They know that the women and children are both the first and last victims of war. And this is what has made the Sixth Clan successful. While the five traditional clans fight over power-sharing, the Sixth Clan focuses on the issues. These women come from warring clans but speak with one voice for the promotion of peace, education, and economic independence.
Even with the formation of the Sixth Clan, women still had a long way to go. While men were busy grappling for power, the women made the seemingly small change of altering the wording in the interim charter. Instead of the sole “he” that would be elected, the charter now reads “he/she.” Something so simple made a world of difference. There are now 33 female MPs and 3 ministers in the Transitional Government. Through the work of Elmi and the Sixth Clan, women now have a political voice in Somalia.
So what now? There is so much to learn from Elmi’s work in Somalia. Additionally, there is still so much that needs to be done. While they may have a political voice, not all women are in the position to be elected to parliament. Policies must first be implemented on the ground. Elmi said that the most important factor in empowering women is education and economic independence. The civil war made many women the breadwinner of the house. This in turn gave them more say in family decisions. When asked what prepared and enabled her to perform in her leadership role, Elmi said she had “a unique mother.” It is so important to understand the role of mothers. Mothers teach their children! Elmi was educated and this made her qualified to lead this revolution. Noting that the uneducated women were often used as tools to promote the men’s political agenda, Elmi again emphasized the importance of educating Somali women. Now that they have a political voice, Elmi is making sure that women are aware of their rights.
Something amazing has happened in Somalia. Women are participating in the political arena. Women are no longer ignored. They are no longer sitting on the sidelines. They are united under the Sixth Clan. They have a new identity that knows no clan lines: womanhood. I met the catalyst in the bloodless revolution of Somalia. I met Asha Hagi Elmi.
After her lecture I went up to shake her hand and thank her for the inspiration she instilled within me. She must have been touched by my sincerity because she smiled, thanked me, and reached up to brush my cheek. I found myself shocked by her reaction. Her motherliness caught me off guard, but now I understand that it is part of her identity, part of what made it possible for her to unite the women of Somalia. Yes, Elmi is a politician; yes, she is a peace activist; yes, she is a wife; but above all, she is a woman.