The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture

The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture

by Heather M. Akou


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The universal act of dressing—shared by both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, minority and majority—has shaped human interactions, communicated hopes and fears about the future, and embodied what it means to be Somali. Heather Marie Akou mines politics and history in this rich and compelling study of Somali material culture. Akou explores the evolution of Somali folk dress, the role of the Somali government in imposing styles of dress, competing forms of Islamic dress, and changes in Somali fashion in the U.S. With the collapse of the Somali state, Somalis continue a connection with their homeland and community through what they wear every day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223135
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2011
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Heather Marie Akou is Assistant Professor in the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, Indiana University Bloomington. Her work appears in Contemporary African Fashion (IUP, 2010) and Fashioning Africa (IUP, 2004).

Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture

By Heather Marie Akou

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Heather M. Akou
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35629-1


The Political Symbolism of Dress

Oh my god what is the world coming to?! Sen. Barack Obama has shocked the world by daring to dress in traditional African clothes, and wear a Turban too! To many this will look 'Muslim' and of course we all know that's officially A Bad Thing. How can he be President now ...? —, February 25, 2008

In September 2006 — five months before he announced his candidacy for President of the United States — Senator Barack Obama went on a diplomatic tour of Africa. One stop included the city of Dire Dawa in southeastern Ethiopia, which had recently been hit by a flash flood that "killed more than 600 people and displaced tens of thousands." U.S. naval engineers working under the Combined Joint Task Force, an anti-terrorism group, had erected tents to shelter people affected by the flood, including many Somalis. The most notable stop on Obama's tour, however, was Kenya — the birthplace of his father and a strategic location in the U.S.-led "War on Terrorism." In honor of his visit to the northeast province of Wajir (an area near Somalia with a high concentration of Somalis), elders dressed him in a traditional Somali outfit consisting of several pieces of white fabric — one piece wrapped around his lower body (like a sarong), a second piece wrapped in an X across his chest, and a third piece wrapped around his head as a turban. A photographer captured Obama wearing this ensemble over his own khakis and polo shirt. This wrapped style of dress dates back to the nineteenth century and conveys a strong sense of Somali nomadic identity, connected with Islamic and anti-colonial symbolism. Other dignitaries visiting the region — including several Kenyan presidents and a representative of the British monarchy — have been dressed in the same, now ceremonial, style.

During Obama's campaign for U.S. president, this photograph of him in Somali dress — which had been displayed on the East Africa-based media website for months — was held up by some as "proof" that Obama was indeed Muslim (despite his statements to the contrary) and a "non-citizen" with connections to terrorist organizations. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, accused rivals working for the campaign of then Senator Hillary Clinton of releasing the photograph, calling it a "disturbing pattern" of dirty tricks and "the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election." Regardless of the story behind it (which most Americans were probably not aware of) this photograph was widely circulated through television and the Internet, becoming an important visual symbol in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

Clearly, many Americans were willing to believe that Barack Hussein Obama was hiding the truth about his religious background, but why did they read the outfit in the photograph as Muslim? Alec Rawls, author of the blog Error Theory argued, "There really isn't much excuse for reporters not knowing that this is symbolically Muslim attire." The key piece of information, according to Rawls, was the turban — a garment worn by members ofAl-Qaeda in anti-American propaganda videos. Ignoring the fact that turbans are worn by hundreds of thousands of men around the world (including non-Muslim Sikhs and Hindus), this perspective reduces the turban to a symbol of "Muslim" and by extension "terrorist" identity. The complicated history behind this outfit and the intentions of the Somali elders who dressed Obama were barely considered; American viewers merely looked at the turban and read their own meanings into it.

Why so much fuss about a piece of clothing? This high-profile case is one clear example of a process that occurs constantly even in everyday life — the politicizing of dress, the body, and appearance. In The Empire of Things, Fred Myers observed that "cultural objects externalize values and meanings embedded in social processes, making them available, visible, or negotiable for further action by subjects." Using dress, identities like "Somali" and "American" can be embodied and played out, making these abstract concepts available for critique and refinement. A nation cannot be seen or felt, but it can be expressed through the body; shouldn't a candidate for president of the United States look "American"? Even ordinary people are often expected to fit the mold. Hair-straightening was a nearly universal practice among African Americans until the civil rights movement. Conversely, whites with dreadlocks have often endured criticism for deviating from the norm. Whether or not a person intends for his or her own dress to be viewed as a political symbol, the perspective of the viewer is also important — sometimes more important — in the creation of meaning surrounding an item of dress. The Somali men who dressed Obama had one set of meanings in mind (to dignify him as an honorary nomad and warrior), but many non-Somali viewers had a completely different interpretation.

An Introduction to the Somali People

This book is about a complicated set of issues involving politics, refugees, globalization, gender, and Islam as a global political/religious system that both unites and separates, much like the Cold War created a gulfbetween the West and Communist countries. Somalis — as much as they have fought for survival and tried to determine their own fate — have often been like passengers in a small boat adrift in a stormy sea. In a little over two hundred years — the span of time that is necessary to understand the history and meaning of the outfit given to Obama — Somalis have gone from herding camels to hijacking supertankers with grenade launchers. If the "discovery" of this photograph had occurred several months later — during the height of the "Somali pirate" story — Americans might have been more interested in the Somali connection. For the most part, when Somalia has been featured in the American media the images have been distinctly unflattering — the site of Black Hawk Down (a book that was turned into a movie and later a popular video game), a "harbor for terrorists," part of the "War on Terrorism," a failed state, a training ground for jihadists, and now the home of modern-day pirates "living the high life" on ransom money while millions of people in the Horn of Africa suffer from drought and endemic violence. Looking through the lens of dress, this book tells a parallel but somewhat different story — one of succeeding generations of Somalis using material culture to navigate through complicated social changes. Most Somalis are not pirates, just trying to live a dignified life filled with friends and family and all of the things that are important to most ordinary people. Although the act of dressing is both ordinary and very personal, dress nonetheless communicates in ways that are very public and political. These symbols can and should be analyzed to gain a greater understanding of Somali culture and politics beyond the limited depictions offered by the mass media.

When I moved to Minnesota in 1994 to attend college, Somalis were just starting to arrive from the refugee camps in East Africa. I remember seeing them as I rode the bus through downtown Minneapolis. From the women's clothing I could tell they were Muslims; from the color of their skin and their language I could tell they were Africans (not African Americans), but who were they? I really had no idea. Their clothing was unlike anything I had seen during my college semester abroad in Mali (in West Africa). By the time I started graduate school at the University of Minnesota I knew they were Somalis. When I decided to focus my research on Somali dress, I discovered that there hadn't been a systematic study since the late 1800s. In fact, there was nothing really spectacular that would have attracted most researchers interested in dress — no embroidery, no printing, no complicated weaving. Even before European colonization much of their clothing and jewelry had been imported. Why study Somali nomadic dress that is simply made of plain, white, American-made factory cloth?

From my perspective, Somali dress is a fascinating case study in globalization. Somalis were far ahead of their time when it comes to borrowing items of dress from other cultures, combining them in new ways (a practice that postmodern writers call bricolage) and making them an integral part of their own culture. I was also impressed by the layers of religious and political symbolism in Somali dress. Some people would tell me that being covered head-to-toe was "religiously mandated" or even "traditional," but others would scoff and tell me about the dangers of "Arabization" and dressing like non-Somalis. Everybody had a strong opinion! Educating myself about the history of Somalia and Somali dress was the only way to unravel this ball of contradictions. The more I learned the more interested I became.

Somalia was a nation named after the Somali people, created by joining the colonies of British and Italian Somaliland. Although there has been debate over who exactly the "Somalis" are and where they came from, two things are clear. First, the nation of Somalia included both Somalis and a fair number of people who were non-Somali or partly Somali — the descendants of settlers from the Middle East and South Asia, slaves from Central Africa, European expatriates, and the Saab, a caste of artisans who might have been the original inhabitants of that territory. Second, as a result of colonization, the Somali people were artificially separated into what are now four different nations: southern Djibouti, southeastern Ethiopia, Somalia, and northeastern Kenya (see map). Therefore, in this book I use the term "Somali" instead of "Somalian," since the latter term refers only to the citizens of Somalia.

Somali territory occupies a large portion of the Horn of Africa, the pointed section of East Africa that extends out into the Indian Ocean. Much of this area is a desert, although there is an agricultural area in southern Somalia fed by two rivers as well as an important grasslands region called the Haud, which is now in Ethiopia. Since the northern edge of Somali territory is less than 100 miles from the Arabian Peninsula, Somalis have a long history of connections with the Middle East and were very early adopters of Islam. This is a point of pride for many Somalis, albeit one that comes with baggage; many are just as concerned as Americans about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in East Africa — its strict interpretations of the religion conflict with many aspects of traditional Somali history and culture.

Since the start of the civil war in the late 1980s and the total collapse of the government in 1991, the Somali people have been dispersed all over the world. Some of the largest refugee communities outside of East Africa are in Italy and the United Kingdom (the former colonial powers), but there are also sizable numbers of Somalis in Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. In the Netherlands, a Somali woman (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) was elected to Parliament. In the United States, the highest concentrations of Somalis are found in Minnesota, followed by Columbus, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; and Phoenix, Arizona. This is due in part to immigration policies, but also to the Somali nomadic practice of "scouting" new locations to live: instead of looking for pastures, refugees have been looking for housing, jobs, and low crime rates. In spite of the freezing cold winters followed by intense, humid summers, Minnesota was attractive to Somalis looking for friends and family, a good public education system, jobs, and the availability of goods such as halal meat (essentially, a Muslim version of kosher, "permitted" meat where the animals are ritually slaughtered) and clothing imported from East Africa. From this point of view, Minnesota offered virtually everything a refugee might hope to obtain in lieu of returning home.

Without their own functioning government Somalis are extremely vulnerable to the winds of political, economic, and cultural change happening in other parts of the world. Because of this, Somalis must carefully consider the images they project through their dress. Should Somalis wear Islamic dress and align themselves more closely with the Islamic world? This path might offer personal satisfaction and hope for positive change in Somalia, but it also puts many refugees in conflict with the societies in which they have resettled. The constitution of the United States, for instance, is designed to protect freedom of religious expression, but in schools and workplaces many Somali refugees feel intense pressure to learn English and wear Western styles of dress. For men, this is typically not a very difficult choice; pants and shirts had been the dominant form of dress for men in Somalia for several decades. The same is not true for Somali women, who bear the major burden of keeping their families and culture intact through cues such as language, ritual, and dress. Choosing what to wear in the United States involves a complex intercultural negotiation.

Uncovering Clues about Somali Dress

Studying Somali dress under these conditions has been captivating, but also extremely challenging. Museums and libraries in Somalia were destroyed by the civil war. Although there are some collections of material objects in Europe and North America that are useful for understanding dress in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more contemporary objects and images are difficult to come by. Fieldwork in Somalia — particularly southern Somalia where the fighting has been heaviest — is nearly impossible. Speaking with refugees, I quickly realized that many were preoccupied with the day-to-day challenges of trying to make a new life. One middle-aged woman I met at a public forum on employment issues had earned an engineering degree in Somalia and worked for the United Nations. In the United States, however, she found it nearly impossible to obtain any kind of job since her first language was not English and employers would not recognize the degrees she had earned in Somalia. Teachers and doctors had found themselves working as cab drivers and parking lot attendants just to support their families. An American colleague in Minnesota who was interviewing Somali women about dress and employment issues found that many were suffering not just from a lack of employment but from post-traumatic stress after being raped or witnessing the murder of family members. Being a non-native speaker with no family ties to Somalis, I was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Perhaps if I had converted to Islam while I still lived in Minnesota I would have found more common ground (I did later convert, but not until March 2007, almost three years after leaving Minnesota). After the events of September 11, 2001, and the backlash that followed, many refugees seemed suspicious of my motives for doing "research." How could they be sure I wasn't working for the FBI? Terrifying experiences with the government of Somalia had quickly turned into fears about the motivations of the U.S. government.

Because of these challenges I had to be very creative in my search for information about Somali dress. Although I spent a lot of time at the Somali malls buying garments and talking to merchants, I also took tie-dye lessons from an elder Somali woman (it turned out that she had been taught by an American, perhaps someone from the Peace Corps), attended community and university seminars on issues pertaining to immigration in Minnesota, did archival research at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and bought objects with images of dress such as postcards, stamps, and currency on the Internet. Living in Saint Paul I encountered Somalis on an almost daily basis. In the process of collecting data I built a binder with hundreds of images. It was exciting to show this to Somalis who had never been in Somalia or left as children, since many had never seen these kinds of artifacts and archival images before. This research began in 2000, with the most intense activity occurring in 2003. I also continued to add more data and analysis after I completed my graduate degrees, based on valuable feedback from numerous readers.


Excerpted from The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture by Heather Marie Akou. Copyright © 2011 Heather M. Akou. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Timeline of Events
1 The Political Symbolism of Dress
2 The Origins of Somali Dress—Prehistory to 1800
3 A Class of Civilizations—1800 to 1945
4 Dressing the Nation—1945 to 1991
5 Dress in a Time of Extreme Change—1991 to 2010
6 The Relevance of History
Appendix A – Stamps issued in Somalia, 1960-1980

What People are Saying About This

University of Rhode Island - Linda Welters

Close studies of non-Western dress are few and far between. African examples are even more rare. This is a welcome addition.

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