Our thanks to "Queen Arawelo, the original
Somali feminist" for everything on this page.
Hibo iyo Ducaba Naga Hooyo
Wiil iyo Caano Naga Hooyo
These blessings have been bestowed to the bride and bridegroom
since time and memorium. Marriage in Somali culture has always
been a cornerstone of society. It has signified not only a union
of two young people but also of two families and most of the
time, two clans. Over the last ten years, due to the instability
and crises at home, many Somalis fled and settled in foreign
lands. As a result, marriage itself has also been affected as
changing roles and expectations enter the picture.
For more information about Somali culture, including a discussion
forum, see Queen
Somali Marriage in Colonian Culture
by H. RAYN E. (Editor's Note: This article was written
in 1920 by a non-Muslim observer)
SOMAL marriage laws are practically Muslim marriage laws,
with a difference; it is this difference that makes them so interesting
to study. A man may have four wives, with all the trouble he
deserves in consequence thrown in. He may become engaged to a
girl before she is born by making an arrangement with her "
prospective "-for want of a better word-parents. The engagement
in any case is always arranged between the girl's parents or
guardians, and is clinched by a small present from the man to
them as a token of finality. This token, which may consist of
a horse or even any small personal possession of the man's, once
accepted makes the engagement binding for all time. If broken
by either party something like a breach of promise case is the
result. Any time before the marriage, property (generally in
the shape of stock) is paid by the suitor to the parents as the
purchase price of his bride. The value of this property varies
among different tribes and for different women. If before marriage
a girl dies, her relations must return the purchase price paid,
which is called yarad. Should the man die his next of kin may
marry the girl on making a small further payment. Should she
refuse this alliance another must be found to take her place,
or the yarad be returned to the deceased's estate.
If everything is arranged satisfactorily and the marriage
be consummated, a substantial proportion (known as dibad) of
the yarad is returned to the man by his wife's people. The marriage
is generally celebrated by a Kathi or Sheikh, and at the ceremony
the amount of dowry-or mehr, as it is called here-to be settled
on the wife by her husband is recorded. The mehr may consist
of anything-generally stock-and need not be paid at the time,
but it is a very important matter for the woman that it be clearly
defined. Should she be divorced her husband must hand to her
the mehr agreed on at the marriage ceremony. Should he die she
has first claim on his estate for her settlement, which is quite
apart from any subsequent share of the estate she is entitled
to as deceased's wife. However, should she refuse to marry her
deceased husband's next of kin or a man of his tribe chosen by
his people, she forfeits all rights to both her mehr and share
of the estate. This is roughly the basis of Somal marriage laws.
The following literal copies of correspondence gives some idea
of how it works out in practice.
Letter from Abdillahai Deria of the Arab (Somal) tribe to
the District Commissioner of town X-, dated 20/II/18.
" I beg to inform your honour that a woman called Atub
Handulla, of the Habr Yunis (tribe), Idarais (section), was married
to my cousin Ismail Haid, Arab, Gulaneh, who died about six months
ago. We have given her all her mehr and paid yarad to her uncle
Farah Aman, Habr Yunis., Idarais. The woman said that she wants
to go to town Z-to bring all her furnitures and sell her ariesh
(native house), but it is now heard that some one is going to
marry her at Z . I therefore pray your honour may ask the District
Commissioner at Z to send her to X . By granting the above request
I shall ever pray for your long life and prosperity."
The D.C. at X sends a copy of above to the D.C. at Z-, minuted
" For inquiry and return please." The latter sends
the following reply:
" The woman Atub Handulla states: ' On hearing of my
late husband's death I went to X to see if any of his tribe wished
to marry me. When I got there no one wished to do so and I was
unable to get any support from the tribe. I could not complain
to the D.C. as he was away from the station, but I went to the
Kathi and he told my husband's tribe to pay me money for maintenance,
which they refused to do. I therefore came back to Z where I
have lived all my life and where I have a house. I am quite ready
to be married to any one of my late husband's tribe and would
ask that any one who wishes may come to Z to fetch me. Of the
people of this tribe in Z no one wants to marry me." Dated
at Z-I0/I2/I8, No. 56/I8.
It looks very simple on the face of this, and back comes the
following from D.C., X--
" With reference to your No. 56/I8 of 10th December, the
Akil Jama Awit will send Kahim Elmi, Arab, Gulaneh, to marry
the lady. Dated X , 7th January, 1919."
It is evident from above that Kahim Elmi has been selected
by the deceased's relatives to marryAtub Handulla, an arrangement
she ought to agree to as she has evidently been paid her mehr.
Though it does not transpire who he is in the correspondence
as yet, Kahim is probably a cousin of the deceased. The next
letter is from him to the D.C., X , and proves I am right in
my supposition. It is in the same strain as the one addressed
to the same officer by Abdillahai Deria and is not worth repeating.
It is sent on to the D.C. at Z with a memo requesting him to
send the woman to X as Kahim Elmi is now too sick to travel.
The D.C., Z-sends the following reply:
"With reference to your minute No. 95, the woman Atub
Handulleh left for Jibouti when she heard that she would be required
to go to X-."
This last letter is dated March 11th, 1919, so time has been
passing and the matrimonial affairs of Atub Handula (I stick
to Abdillahai Deria's spelling) are no nearer settlement than
they were last year. The next letter addressed to D.C., Z- discloses
the name of the person from whom Abdillahai heard the woman was
going to marry some one at Z-. He is a relation of the deceased
and a policeman at Z . Apparently the lady, on the strength of
his relationship by marriage, has induced him to provide her
with food, for which expense the second man to marry her is ultimately
responsible. As she has gone to French territory it appears to
him that he may whistle for the money he has spent on her, but
is he downhearted ? No ! He writes the following to the D.C.
" Re Atub Handulla's case who fled away to Jibuti I most
humbly beg to state that I was maintaining her for the last two
years, when her husband in Tripoli and dead there. As her husband
was of my relation and she promised to pay me musruf [maintenance,
return of, is meant] when her husband came down to or from his
relations. Now she refuses to marry to my relation and she promised
to pay me musruf but fled away to Jibuti, all this done by mother
of woman, I had paid her the following: 4 of « tobe mahmudi
[cloth] Rs. I6/-, 5 nos futa [defeats me] Rs. 29/-, and on her
departure now to Jibuti she took the following clothes and Icash.
Cash rupees ten, 5 lbs. ghee, one futa value seven rupees, «
tobe Rs. 4/-, and three gallons of water daily for two years.
As if the said woman is willing to marry to one of my relations
I shall not claim for the above articles, if not I want my claim
from her or from the man who will marry her. And the man who
going to marry her is a policeman in French service."
It might be as well to explain that water is carried some
miles into I, where there is no water supply, and is an expensive
item. The lady has had a daily supply for the past two years
is what is meant above, and has gone off without paying for it.
The policeman four days later, 12th April, reports that Atub
has returned from Jibuti, so we have not seen the last of her
yet. She has heard of his letter to the D.C., I, and counters
with the following:
"To the D.C., Z-,
" Reference to the complaint filed against me by a policeman
I most humbly beg to state that I was married to one Ismail Haid
so he was absent three years in Tripolis and about eleven months
ago he died and since that time no one of his relations paid
me a single pie. Then his property was sent to X , so I went
for my share and mehr and I was given one hundred rupees in mehr
and one hundred and twenty is still due by his relations. My
late husband have no nearest relations at all, and at that time
I was at X no one come to complain against me so I proceed to
I. As since my husband's absence at Tripoli my mother was maintaining
me; also I am indebted to several people here, but if the complainants
will pay my balance of mehr and settle my debt I shall go with
them. I therefore request your honour to consider my claim fully
and grant me justice as I am an orphan woman and have no one
to complain to him or help except your honour. As my late husband
had married me at Z and I came here when I was two years old.
By doing me this act of kindness I shall ever remain grateful."
The D.C. thought now that the lady had returned she might
come to court and explain certain matters that required clearing
up. She came, and the following letter addressed by the D.C.,
Z to the D.C., X explains what happened at the interview.
" In reply to your minute No. so and so, Atub Handullah
is an epileptic or at least suffers from fits of some kind, and
is quite unfit to travel to X-. I do not think Kahim Elmi can
be aware of her state of health or he would not want to marry
her. So far as I can make out he does not stand to gain financially
by this marriage. Will you communicate these facts to him and
let me know what he wants to do about it.
" P.S.-Since writing the above the woman has had a fit
outside my office. It would be perfectly impossible to send her
to X --."
It is obvious from above that the D.C., is getting more than
a little tired of Atub and her affairs, but he has not heard
the last of her yet. Nevertheless I shall be very surprised if
she marries Kahim, and the odds are she sticks to the mehr. As
for the policeman and his claim he has given up hope; but he
smiles if any one mentions the fact that poor Atub suffers from
The Somal has some conceit as to his ability to understand
the fairer sex. The following story was related to me as illustrative
of this claim and concerns a man who had four wives. One fine
day this fellow came to town to sell his ghl and a few head of
cattle. Before setting out for home he purchased a present for
each one of his wives. For the first he bought a silver necklet,
for the second a pair of silver earrings, for the third a silver
armlet and for the fourth a silver anklet, tying the four articles
up in a parcel which he placed on one of his camels. Of the rice,
dates and sugar he had bought he made four equal loads, one for
each wife. Coming close to his encampment he took the silver
articles from the camel's back and hid them in the bush. This
done he went on to his wives and gave each one her load of food.
That night when darkness fell he stole out to the bush and took
from the parcel the silver necklet. Returning to the hut of wife
number one he said to her: " See ! Here is a present I have
brought you from the town: take it, but on your life keep it
secret from the other women, or they will be jealous." She
promised not to show it to the others or say a word about it.
The following night he repeated his visit to the bush and returned
to the second wife with the earrings, which he gave to her, saying:
"Here is a present I have brought you from town, on your
life do not show it to the others or they will be jealous."
She promised to keep the present secret. On the third and fourth
nights he went to the bush and brought back the presents he had
purchased for the other two: They were both cautioned not to
tell the others and both promised not to do so. Each wife was
under the impression she had received a present from her husband
and the others had received none.
A few days passed without incident, until one evening some
trivial thing happened that upset the women and there was an
open rupture between all four wives. Next morning the first wife
arose with the fixed determination to show the others that in
the eyes of her Lord and Master she was still number one. She
clasped the silver necklet round her throat and walked into the
open: striking an attitude, she ostentatiously played with the
ornament as she called out to a small boy: " My son, drive
the camels out; drive the camels out; do you hear me, drive the
camels out.' " But almost simultaneously the second, third
and fourth wives appeared on the scene, one shaking her head
to attract attention to a pair of earrings; another pointing
her hand and waving an arm adorned by a silver armlet; another
screaming out for the love of Allah that some one would come
quickly to remove a thorn she thought had entered her foot, held
out for inspection, and above which glittered a brand new silver
anklet for all the world to see. Then the women looked at one
another and realised they had been hoaxed: their husband laughed
in his beard and walked away. Now that's the only part of the
story I can't believe. I mean that the man walked away. From
what I know of Somal women I am positive the husband of the four
wives left very early in the proceedings- RUNNING.
It often happens that women contract bigamous marriages. A
French Somal soldier under orders for Europe left his wife (at
Jibuti) an allotment of three dollars a month and sailed away.
Another Somal soldier became acquainted with the lady and, unaware
of the first husband's existence, married her. He too was ordered
to France, and left her an allotment of three dollars a- month
ere he sailed. Then a third soldier appeared on the scene and
married her before he left for France, also leaving her an allotment
for a similar amount as the others.
On pay day the woman veiled her face and collected three allotments.
All went merrily until one day the three husbands returned from
the war on the same ship. When they could get away they naturally
went to see their wife, arriving at her house at the same moment.
The real husband wondered why the other two men looked like taking
up their quarters in his wife's house. They, as a matter of fact,
were thinking along precisely the same lines as he. After a time
some one suggested all three men should repair to a cafe for
a cup of coffee; each thinking it was an excellent opportunity
to get rid of the other two, readily agreed. Leaving the coffee
shop they said good-bye to one another, and carefully separated.
When out of sight of each other they all turned and headed for
their wife's house, arriving there at identically the same moment.
The woman had to make a clean breast of it; a fight ensued and
one of the men was killed, the woman barely escaping with her
One last story of a marriage complication. In Berbera court
a tall fine-looking Somal soldier from Jibuti complained against
an old man who had accepted a yarad from him ere he left for
France two years or more before. The yarad was paid for a daughter
who was in the court with the old man, but both stated the soldier
was mistaken as to the girl's identity. He was, they said, confusing
the girl in court with her sister, whom he had betrothed and
who was perfectly willing to marry him. The soldier smiled and
swore he was making no mistake.
The father was asked to swear a divorce oath that he had not
betrothed the daughter present in court to the soldier. He refused.
The girl likewise, although very voluble, refused to swear an
ordinary oath that she was speaking the truth. It was obvious
they were both lying. As the man was wearing the Medaille militaire
and the Croix de guerre with palm-leaf, we had made inquiries
and learned he was the first man into the German trenches at
the retaking of Douaimont. The D.C., pointing his finger at the
soldier, said to the girl: " It is obvious to me you are
not speaking the truth. Here is a fine fellow who has made a
name for himself, and whom any girl might well be proud to marry;
a man whom the General picked out and decorated, before the whole
army, for magnificent bravery: God knows how many men he has
killed with his bayonet. You must keep to your contract."
Then the girl swore. Straightening herself up, she declaimed
passionately that the man she loved and was going to marry had
killed two men for every one THIS fellow - with a contemptuous
sweep of her hand - had killed. As for bravery, he - snapping
her fingers in the soldier's face - was not to be compared with
her man. Dropping the tobe from her shoulders she wound it round
her waist like a scarf, and holding the ends with both hands
swore by everything a woman can swear by that she'd marry her
own man and no other. What could the poor D.C. do but send them
all out of court to settle the matter amongst themselves. I never
heard the end, but were I a Somal I should have no hesitation
in swearing blindly any kind of oath that that woman got her
African Society Journal,
VOL. XX No. CXIV., 1920, pp.23-30.