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Women and singing in Somali culture

This article was written for Music In Africa. #AuxSons has translated it in french as part of a media partnership agreement. Some extracts have been abbreviated (…). To read the full article, visit the Music In Africa website.


Singing is not only an integral part of daily life for Somali women but also a medium through which they can express their grievances and criticise paternalistic social norms that have solidified men’s hegemony over women and limited their social participation to certain stereotyped roles. Somali women’s sung poetry conveys messages and stories about their status in society. 


Engendering social reform through lyrics

When looking at the below folkloric lyrics, one can see that Somali women refused to be bystanders in the debate for social change. They led an awareness campaign through their sung poetry to engender the kind of social reform they aspired to achieve.

In the following example, which scorns the expected role of a bride, a woman warns her female friend, geelo in Somali, about the predicaments she would face on the first night of her marriage. 

Haddaba geeladaydii  (Oh, my dear geelo)
Ila garan ogtaydii (My graceful dancing partner)
Caawaba dirqaad geli (Tonight, you will enter a forced bondage)
Dirqi wiil yar baad geli (The bondage of a young boy)
Dabka iga shid baad geli (Who will command you to make the fire for him).

Polygamy is another topic that Somali women frequently crticise in their sung poetry, as reflected by the following well-known lines of the ‘Godadle’ song, which women sing when pounding grain with a mortar and pestle:

Godadle godadleeyow godadle (Oh, you man with many hovels)
Godadle xiisaalow godadle (Oh, you with a fickle desire, you with many hovels)
Gabadh yar uu gabayuu (Oh, you man who after neglecting his young wife)
Uu guduudiyayuu (And beaten her red)
Uu gogosha ku cunayuu (And killed her with nagging in bed)
Way gabtaa yidhiyee godadle (Then accused her of ignoring him).


 Somali women, therefore, do not miss an opportunity either to criticise the social norms that pigeonhole them into certain roles or to express their opinion about how they want things to be. 

Work songs include those sung when churning butter. In melodic voices, women talk to the milk container, known as haan, urging it to ferment quickly while scolding it for being obstinate. The songs also highlight the amount of work involved in the process as well as the value of butter.

Finally, some of the most famous lines invoked when talking about Somali folk poetry are those that women sing while making mats, or kabad, for their nomadic huts. Each line has a message to convey: 

Awdal laga keenyeey
Alalag dheereey
Il bari looga soo oriyey  (The mat which has been brought from awdal. What a fanfare you cause. Oh, how much they sing your praises. In the farthest corners of the East)

Koronkor cuni maynoo
Kariba maynee
Karuur geel ma la hayaayey  (We cannot eat millet. Which looks like a hopper band. Why not offer us sour camel milk?)

Naagta kabada leheey
Kaalin culuseey
Adaan kayd hore u sii dhiganeey  (Oh, you woman, owner of the mat. Why do we find your work so heavy? Because you didn’t save provisions for such a job.)


Somali women have hundreds of similar sung poems for everything they do and every event in which they partake. This strong female singing tradition explains why, when modern Somali music was born in 1943 and pioneered by Abdi Deeqsi Warfa (Abdi Sinimo) with his balwo songs, there was Khadija Iyeh Dharar (Khadijo Balwo) by his side as his partner. She even borrowed the genre’s name, balwo, as her nickname.



Modern female singers 

Khadija Balwo was soon followed by other trailblazers such as Shamis Abokor (Guduudo Carwo), the first Somali woman to record a song for Radio Hargeisa in British Somaliland, and Khadija Abdullahi Daleys, who became the first female singer in Mogadishu (Italian Somaliland). Dalays was honored in Minnesota shortly before her death.

During the golden period of Somali music from the 1960-80s, Somali female singers seemed to have outnumbered men. Iconic singers who captivated music lovers during this era included Fadumo Abdillahi (Maandeeq), Halima Khalif (Magool), Zainab Haji Ali (Baxsan), Farhiya Ali, Hibo Mohamed (Hibo Nuura), Sahra Ahmed, Amina Abdillahi, Khadra Dahir, Zeinab Egeh, Shankaroon Ahmed, Fadumo Qasim Hilowle, Maryan Mursal, Khadija Mahamoud (Qalanjo), Qamar Abdillahi (Harawo), Saado Ali Warsame, Saafi Duale, Marwo Mohamed, Ruun Haddi Saban, Amina Fayr, Kinsi Haji Adan and many others of the celebrated Waaberi band.


The decline of women’s role in music

When the Somali government collapsed in 1991, female artists fled the country in droves, while those who remained in the homeland stopped singing after radical groups such as Al-Shabab took control in 2009. The daring few who remained behind and attempted to practice some form of music were heavily punished. Concerts were banned and even male musicians turned away from performances and towards religious conservatism.

Although there is still resistance to music by many Somali people, as seen in the rejection of Nasteexo Indho to perform in Hargeisa in August 2016, and the failed attempt by religious clerics to prevent the holding of a concert by Kiin Jama Yare in April 2018 in Mogadishu, the Waaberi artists who emigrated overseas have revived Somali music in many parts of the world – and a new generation of diasporic female artists have taken up the mantle. 

Among the most celebrated singers from the diaspora are Zainab Laba Dhagax, Deeqa Ahmed, Farhiya Fiska, Naseexo Indho, Hodan Abdirahman, Kiin Jaamac Yare, Halimo Gobaad, Rahma Rose, Nimo Dareen, Nimo Yasin, Idil Barkhad, Amina Faarax (Amina Gacanla) and others.

Second-generation Somali women, predominantly living in the West, are also extending Somali music into new frontiers, such as the singing sisters known as Faarrow, who are working in the Afropop genre. Finally, one of the missing links in Somali women’s otherwise remarkable contribution to music was also recently filled by Fawzia Haji, who has become the first Somali woman DJ working under the stage name DJ Fawz. 


The way forward for Somali women’s music

Looking at the Somali music landscape today, one cannot miss the robust role that women have played in refashioning classical music and in pushing social boundaries and confronting cultural taboos. Due to the presence of large Somali communities in the diaspora, where young female talent finds more freedom and opportunities to follow and fulfill their passion in music, and where the explosive growth of social media helps to amplify women’s voices, one can only expect this trend to continue. 


In Somalia today, female musicians are pushing back against conservative pressure and breaking new ground for themselves. Apart from Sahra Halgan and her revolutionary music house Hiddo Dhawr in Hargeisa, which has created a positive outlook among the youth, another legendary female musician has embarked on an ambitious project in Mogadishu. Muslimo Hilowle, one of the first Somali women to play musical instruments professionally and who emerged as a musician in Waaberi, recently started promoting the music of girls at an orphanage in the Boondheere neighbourhood.


This article was written for Music In Africa. #AuxSons has translated it in french as part of a media partnership agreement. Some extracts have been abbreviated (…). To read the full article, visit the Music In Africa website.



Bashir Goth

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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