Years ago, on a bleak winter afternoon, I had my tongue professionally pierced in Toronto. I had numerous piercings beforehand so my family should have been accustomed to my piercing tendencies. Unfortunately, judging from their reactions—ranging from bemused to horrified—that was not the case. The most vocal critics were my parents: my mother bemoaned at what she considered a desecration of a God-given body and my father, more secular, dismissed it as a sign of immaturity and a passing phase of rebellion. Despite the superficial differences in responses however, both were vehement in their views of my piercing as an act: first classified as ‘un-Somali-like’ and second, relatedly, considered a betrayal of the privileged values my parents readily invested in, where decorum mattered.
The rhetoric surrounding my parents’ dismay revolved around their concept of an ideal Somali female particularly in terms of dress and behaviour. Words such as ‘modesty’ and ‘shame’ were tossed around, reinforcing the seemingly connected notions of Somali gendered identification, femininity, and modesty. This idealized Somali womanhood is what I refer to as ‘gabar xishood leh’, a modest girl. The Somali word gabar contained within the phrase ‘gabar xishood leh’ means maiden in English. Therefore, regardless of the age of the girl or woman as long as she is of a marriageable age but not married, she would be considered a gabar. Xishood in Somali is defined primarily as modesty—a socio-religious norms dictating decency and propriety. Implicit in the definition of the term xishood is the idea of ‘sexual modesty’.
Within the dominant discourse of gabar xishood leh, there is a categorical disjuncture between female modesty and female sexuality in such a way that the condition of modesty becomes synonymous with an asexualized womanhood. What this means is that this demarcation which props gabar xishood leh as the hallmark of modesty further brackets any expression of Somali female sexual desire outside the gabar xishood leh paradigm, resulting in the overt silencing and denial of women’s sexual desire and agency.
I thought about this concept of sexuality vis-à-vis modesty and femininity since my return from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, resulting in a short story of which these words were the foundation:
I heard of a woman from across the sea who bewitched men on their Umrah trips. She cast her spell making them forget their former lives. And they become nation-less like her. Nothing else about her was known. Or maybe it was intentionally forgotten. (1)
In part, my story is shrouded in elements of female sexual desire and agency. But more than that, I realized I was intrigued by certain behaviors that I considered physical manifestations of modesty, which dictated modes of sociality, in particular those surrounding concepts of ‘belonging’. As the word ‘nationless’ indicated, the woman in the story and men who succumbed to her sexual potency, suffered the same fate—deemed stateless people.
Through writing this story, it was evident to me that explicit heterosexual female desire and agency not only deconstructed the barriers and borders that systematically upheld gabar xishood leh but also more importantly appeared to be the impetus for social exclusion, if one deviated from heteronormative standards of sexuality. Perhaps it was this transgressing of borders in my parents’ eyes, particularly with the erotic inclinations associated with oral piercings, that led to their disapproval.
Ben Okri succinctly expresses that narratives and discourses shape identity formations when he claims: “…we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness.” (2). There is no doubt that the gabar xishood leh rhetoric is prevalent—drawing the parameters of being and social belonging with the Somali social imaginary.
However, by focusing solely on this outward production of Somali womanhood effaces all other articulations. There have been female poets and singers throughout the 20th century, from the pastoral lands and urban centres in Somalia to the Somali diaspora, who expressed female sexual desire in their work. These women socialized within the gabar xishood leh discourse do not consider themselves outside the framework. Rather, I consider them and their undermined voices central to this narrative of Somali womanhood.
Brinkley Messick, in his work of Yemeni authoritative texts, examines a phenomenon of the text within. In his analysis of the matn (basic text) and sharh (commentary), he shows how “[t]he commentary…is inserted in spaces opened up in the original text. Although they remain distinct, the two are not physically isolated from each other….” (3). In a similar way, these women’ voices are not silenced within the dominant discourse of gabar xishood leh but heard in between the pauses, if one only listened closely.
(1) Bilan Hashi, Those Nights in Port Said (forthcoming)
(2) Ben Okri, A Way of Life (London: Phoenix House 1997), 46, quoted in Thomas King The Truth About Stories (Toronto: House of Anansi Press 2003), 153.
(3) Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 31.