When in 1887 Susanna Madora better known as "Dora" was elected as the new mayor of Argonia, Kansas in United States, Somaliland was in the hands of its colonial master –Britain- which at the time was ruling most parts of the world. Dora was a politician and activist and became the first woman elected as mayor and the first woman elected to any political office in the United States (United Nations 1960). Khadra X. Ismail Yonis widely known as Khadra X. Gaydh has just become Somaliland’s first female mayor but already she seems relaxed in her pioneering role as she strolls around her community clad in traditional beautiful Somali dirac (a flowing lightweight dress) and a purple shalmad.
She will be a good leader, just like her father who was a successful businessman," says Hussein Warsame, an elderly man wearing the traditional white galabiyah robe, who made a point of climbing off his donkey to greet the new mayor. "And besides, a woman is in power in Germany," he adds with a smile.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson graduated in 1865 as Britain’s first women doctor (News of the World July 2011). Anderson had later gone to become the female mayor in England. Somaliland was in colonial coma in this dark era and was not known to the world beyond the Arab Peninsula. Khadra, a 46 year-old political activist and councilor, voted against the former mayor to become a mayor of the predominantly male society in the town of Gabiley in western Somaliland. The former mayor was accused of engaging in corrupt practices and local embezzlement. The Somaliland’s National Audit Office requested the Gabiley Local Council to strip the mayor’s title and honour so as to put him on trail in a court of law.
Khadra joined the ruling Kulmiye Party of President Ahmed Silanyo in 2002 during the local governmental elections. Khadra admits that things are moving slowly for women in the male-dominated society. "I am the first woman mayor, but believe me there will be others," she said, pointing to a group of young girls around her.
The appointment of a woman to the top civic role in the community of livestock breeders, defying the trend in the increasingly conservative Muslim nation, was confirmed by the interior ministry in May 2011. "I don't believe it. I am the first woman mayor of Somaliland," she says as a band of children swarm around her, smiling in admiration.
"My father stood for the parliamentary seat in this district in 1969; I was born in this region. I was not parachuted out of nowhere," said Khadra. She admits, however, that the younger generation supported her more than the old of the town of 30,000 people.
Her appointment has certainly shaken the norms in Somaliland, where women lag far behind men in politics. Although Somaliland was the first conservative Muslim country to hold free, transparent and fair elections in the last 2 decades, women’s progress in the public sphere has been slow over the decades amid both increasing conservatism and a moderate Islamic revival.
Despite the remarkable progress of women in many professions in Somaliland, politics is not one of them. Indeed, in Somaliland, women have been conspicuous by their absence in decision and policy making in government. When the United Nations First World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City in 1975, the international community was reminded that discrimination against women remained a persistent problem in many countries; and even though governments were called upon to develop strategies to promote the equal participation of women, political participation was not yet identified as a priority. The concept of democracy in Somaliland will only achieve true and dynamic significance when political policies and national legislation are decided jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population.
Today there are only3 female MPs in Somaliland's 155-seat parliament (both upper and lower house). Only one was elected while the other 2 were appointed under presidential decree. Khadra’s nomination as mayor echoes a long tradition in rural Somaliland that administrative positions are handed down from father to son. "My mother was unhappy when I was born because she had wanted a boy," the new mayor recalled.
As a woman, and a Muslim, Khadra knew she would have to face up to huge challenges as she battled her way into the male-oriented politics of Somaliland, a Sunni Muslim dominated country.
Poor infrastructure impedes access to resources and markets in Somaliland. Khadra has already taken some drastic actions, she put new surface on damaged paved roads in the town. She built new offices for the council which previously had only one office and one meeting room. I believe that Gabiley collects enough revenues, if not surplus, therefore I have to think about our hospitals, schools, roads, the environment and waste management, she said. Khadra’s role and new post have been hailed as a success by substantial local political commentators and her rating is now standing at a staggering 72%.
The vast majority of women from all walks of life opted for wearing scarves to cover their heads in keeping with a strict religious dress code; said Khadra, who insists that citizenship should prevail over tribal and clan differences. "We must, first and foremost, proclaim ourselves as Muslim and Somaliland." She said.
Somaliland’s women community is said to account for an estimated 40 to 55 percent of the country's 3.5 million inhabitants.
By Ahmed Ali
(Ahmed Ali is a freelance writer and a political activist)