Woman Named Chief Has Now Fled Her Home in Kenya

The first female Somali district chief in Northeastern Kenya has fled her district in fear. Male elders outraged by the idea of a woman presuming to political leadership threw stones at her and made life unbearable. It’s dangerous where she is now too.

Before she sought refuge two months ago at the compound of her provincial district commissioner, Amina Muhumed Sirat tried to carry out her duties as the first district chief of Meri, in the northeastern part of Kenya.

She would wake up before 6 a.m. to tend to household chores. Then the 29-year-old Somali would don her uniform and get to the office by 8 a.m., where she would help members of her district resolve disputes involving family, business and land matters. Some days she would officiate at a public function.

But two months ago–10 months after her appointment in July 2009–she gave up and fled the persistent hostilities of the male elders in her community; men who had known her all her life. They would throw stones at her when she tried to walk along the street or carry out an official function.

The district commissioner’s compound–300 kilometers away–became the temporary refuge for herself, her husband and their young son. She does not even dare visit the division she is supposed to administer.

Sirat’s province in Northeastern Kenya, one of the country’s seven administrative regions, is dominated by ethnic Somalis who are Muslim.

In this community, Sirat says, most men think women’s place is in the kitchen, not political office.

The Habasweini division where she has sought refuge is also a threatening place for her.

At Habasweini–where Sirat says she does nothing but try to keep safe–her life has been threatened twice. Once her house was invaded and everything inside destroyed.

District Commissioner Gabriel Ochuda, 46, says it is still a taboo among the Somalis for a woman to lead. But he says he is doing what he can to change that.

He says he has been engaging the hostile elders of Sirat’s community and trying to persuade them to accept her as their chief. He said she is very qualified to do the job.

Abdi Noor Abdi, an elder in Sirat’s Meri district, says women in leadership positions goes against Islamic teachings.

“For a man it’s different because there is no time that we are going to take maternal leave. Whereas for women they have to and they have a lot of responsibilities at home,” he said.

Sirat graduated with a diploma in community development from the University of Nairobi in 2007.

For some the degree represents a ticket to well-paying jobs in government or the private sector.

But Sirat says she wanted to give back to her community of about 30,000 people. She opted to join the provincial administration. Having grown up there, she thought she understood the problems of the people and she wanted to make a difference.

She landed the chief’s job after a competitive interview conducted by provincial administrators.

She says her parents, who encourage her to succeed, have also been estranged from their friends.

“Despite being happy for Sirat’s achievement, I’m scared for her life. I want her to live a normal life but she can’t do that as long as she remains a chief,” her father said.

He says that according to Somali culture, a woman is not supposed to hold any public office, but that some aspects of his culture are outdated.

Even though she is not on any active duty, Sirat dresses in her official khaki uniform– a long skirt and black headscarf with a beret on top.

“I’m decently dressed, I don’t wear tight skirts and I do cover my hair,” Sirat said. “And I still do my wifely duties, getting home early to take care of my son and my husband.”

Part of a longer article at http://www.womensenews.org/story/traditions/100723/kenyan-named-chief-now-has-fled-her-home where you can also add a comment

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