Will the Controversy over Minister Khadija’s Pants Spark a Wider Debate

Somalia’s chaotic political and security life has recently sparked new controversy. The attire of a female minister drew the ire of a religious scholar. Those who think it’s just plain wrong to criticize pants or trousers do not appreciate its potential fallout.

Those who stick to the apparent dichotomy that emerges from the confrontation of two public figures do not see it any clearer.

Sheikh Umal’s sermon has the merit of initiating a wider debate full of instructions and capable of refocusing Somalis on their priorities.

Is wearing pants a moral decay

Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Umal recently dedicated his Friday’s sermon at his Nairobi mosque to Somalia’s growing western-inspired moral decay and the subversion of youth and women.

Sheikh Umal is one of Somalia’s most popular scholars. His knowledge of Islamic Law, his mastery of the Somali language and his eloquence make him one of most listened scholars in Somali community everywhere.

Although the scholar’s reference to matters of grave concern is not new, what triggered the public, however, was his reference to the Somali Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Mrs. Khadija Dirie, and her apparent casualness in wearing pants, he called pajamas, in public.

Sheikh Umal bluntly stressed on the subversive message conveyed by the outfit of a public figure. He also linked the message to a speech by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sadia Yasin Samatar, who blamed the ulemas for the failure of her bill on sexual liberalization.

The Sheikh criticized women in power who use their high positions to subvert the Islamic values and sow discord in the society. In fact, his exasperation with Khadija’s pants has more to do with Sadia’s most controversial high-profile attempt to to replace core Somali values with an alien culture.

The Sheikh is however not immune to the controversy himself. He often uses his chair at the mosque but also religious conferences or the media to occasionally insert himself into political and societal debates in the Somali community worldwide.

His self-assurance, uncompromising stance on social and political issues, and acerbic language also set him apart from his equals.

Some scholars of different persuasions have often criticized him either for being too extreme and divisive in his views on social issues. Others criticized him for being too soft in his condemnation of corrupt and ruthless leaders like Ahmed Madobe of Jubaland who is from the same clan.

In this last intervention, he also attacked political decision makers for only reacting when their clans are involved and for not giving priority to religion and not sparing the moral sensitivity of their society.

Khadija’s response sets the stage for a wider debate

Minister Khadija Dirie, a strong and colorful woman herself, responded by giving a press conference the following day.

She says she finds it unfortunate that some ulemas who, instead of preaching the good word and tackling the real ills of society such as endemic violence, use their pulpits or social media to attack the rights of minority clans women. She implied that her colleague Sadia was from a minority clan, which obviously is not the case.

After claiming that she was yet another victim of a hateful campaign by clerics. She mentioned that Sheikh Umal is trying to take revenge since, as Minister of Sports and Youth, she prevented him a couple of years ago from holding a mega conference at the Mogadishu stadium.

In a carefully-crafted but incisive language, as Somalis are used to with this politically adept woman, accused him of indulging not only in male chauvinism but also in discriminating against minority clans in Somalia.

As a result, Sheikh Umal’s condemnation of the minister’s outfit and Khadija’s strong rebuff gave a new twist to the place of women in politics and the rights of members of minority clans.

In the confrontation, she skillfully avoided getting into religious arguments and instead separated the man from his theological expertise. She said the scholar harbors a grudge against her, has indulged in the old discrimination of a minority clans females and that he got tangled up in his priorities.

The thing is, Khadija, who throws occasional dance parties with her peers, is not one to be intimidated easily and the shrewd politician has used the victimization card before to evade criticism or gain an advantage.

Who is Khadija Dirie

Minister Khadija Dirie hails from a clan that spans Somalia and whose members have been discriminated against for centuries for their specific skills in craftsmanship, considered impure by most Somali herding clans.

Mrs. Dirie grew up and benefited from the 1969 Revolution which equally educated and attempted to equalize the Somali society. Many people in today’s political class come from this period that ended with the 1991 civil war.

The Minister is one of the few political figures of either gender to have survived the upheavals of Somali politics and been able to retain seamlessly their posts as parliamentarians since the establishment of the first post-civil war national government in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000.

Khadija’s exceptionally long career in politics is not without controversy, however. She has been accused by her clansmen of pitting against each other as she sees fit to eliminate all competition.

She is also often accused of abuse of power. As minister of humanitarian affairs, she made headlines last year for ruthlessly firing 16 young civil servants from her ministry.

Also, she is locked in a legal battle with the owners of a building she rented. They accused the minister of having refused to pay her rent or vacate and for rejecting court orders using her immunity to prosecution and even using her security detail to chase away a court officer who wanted to serve her a notice to appear.

In politics, Khadija has been criticized for being Machiavellian. She is able to defend a policy or a president wholeheartedly one day and then take the opposite direction the next. This ability to turn her jacket always on the right side, however, served her so well to be a minister in the last three governments.

As a survivor of Somali politics, she is also respected and feared by male politicians for her sharp rhetoric and unrivaled knowledge of the corridors of power, but she has also made many enemies. Some of them said that with her current controversy, the Minister has used what she is so good at: muddying the waters and get away with it.

Others join the fray

The case drew backlash from many supporters on both sides, political commentators and other clerics, including Sheikh Abdi Hersy, an eclectic cleric based in Canada. Sheikh Hersy said he was forced to join in because the minister cited him as one of the ulemas who exceeded his religious competence.

The most unexpected and somehow enlightening reaction, however, came from Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweis. The former veteran general, former president of the Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabab spiritual leader, under house arrest for years, gave a historical perspective on the struggle between religious and secular revolutionary elements.

He said those secular elements who martyred ulemas and persecuted clerics during the 22 years they were in power, and kept a low profile since 1991, are coming back to life lately.

Like Sheikh Umal and Hersy, Aweis agreed that these public protests and the wave of sexual violence in recent years are attempts to gently impose foreign laws on the country. Sheikh Hersy would later give an exclusive presentation on sexual liberalization and the Norwegian government’s funding of a UN-led initiative to redesign Somalia’s conservative penal code.

The controversy over Minister Khadija’s pants ultimately revealed a gap in perspective on local morality between women in the diaspora and women living in Somalia, between the post-civil war generation who did not benefit of a state education and those who received a secular and formal education under the revolutionary regime of Siyad Barre.

While many Somalis have supported Sheikh Umal, others, less visible in society but very numerous on social networks, qualified his words as inappropriate, even discriminatory, without however defending the Minister in question.

In a wider context

The polemic on the pants has tumbled to other societal issues that risk diverting attention from the real issues of concern.

Overall, it is clear that Somalis do not want to criticize the rigorous religious morality in place for patriotic rather than religious reasons. Religious scholars were present to provide rules and guidance when the state left a vacuum after 1991.

For this reason, the deep respect that Somalis have developed for religious scholars means that no member of government would dare to support the embattled minister. Thus, their silence.

The ulemas, now caught between the murderous extremists of Al-Shabab who give themselves the exclusive right to define the Muslim and politicians with dubious morals, are trying to distance themselves from these two groups and secure the public support.

Sheikh Umal and other scholars frown upon these venal rulers who bow without resistance to Western diplomats’ demands and allow thousands of foreign-funded NGOs to penetrate deep into Somali home privacy and foreign-funded think tanks posing as the civil society.

Until the return to a sovereign decision-making position, the efforts of the natural leaders of the society, the ulemas and the independent elders in the lead, should resume their inherent talent for the leadership of this society struggling with multitudes of scourges and in dire need of direction.

Their primary focus should be to mobilize society in helping law enforcement regain control of Somalia’s security, to urge Somalis to open their doors and their wallets to those displaced by the drought and war, to fight against the out of control corruption and to hold political leaders accountable.

In the end, the pants controversy turns out to be more than just a conflict over religiosity, gender, clan, age, residence, education or wealth but rather a conflict between those who care for their country and those who try to sabotage its progress by creating divisions.

AbdiQani Badar

AbdiQani Badar is a historian, political commentator and avid writer. He has written extensively on Somali issues and historical events.

One thought on “Will the Controversy over Minister Khadija’s Pants Spark a Wider Debate”

  1. Sheikh Umal preaches about morality he does not practice. He supports Al-Shabab members who carry out heinous criminal activities, killing innocent children, women, and anyone they choose to die. Umal does not believe in equality and individual rights. Therefore, his opinion about our culture, and Somali ways of life, is his own. He does not represent the opinion of the majority Somali people. He practices an exported radical Islam for his own benefit.Many so called Ulumas adulterated our norms, and Islamic beliefs, and their distorted views have no place in our society. Let them keep threatening women, but our societies are moving along with the rest of the world. We should protect our people from these lunatic, Al-Shabab supporters, who are financed by foreigners to destroy our people.

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