Somalia & the Jilbaab Phenomenon: on civil war, Qur’anic interpretations, and the loss of a culture

One of the most interesting social phenomenons that I’ve observed during my time in Mogadisho is that of the jilbaab. For those who don’t know, the jilbaab is an Islamic full-length garment that is quite loose and covers both the head and hands.

the jilbaab

the jilbaab

In Mogadisho, practically EVERY woman and girl wears the jilbaab in public – no hijabs  in sight.

When I asked my uncle how the hijab was perceived in relation to the jilbaab, he told me that if you’re driving somewhere, its cool if you’re wearing a hijab. However, he continued to say that if you’re walking somewhere, it’s a safer decision to wear the jilbaab. I don’t think he meant this in the sense that I’d get harassed, but more-so that I could avoid attracting unnecessary attention and blend in more easily with the jilbaab on.

Consequently, now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’ve rocked the jilbaab many times.

being silly in my jilbaab

being silly in my jilbaab

I think what’s most interesting about this jilbaab phenomenon is how much it differs from the Somalia my mother’s generation grew up in – particularly, the pre-civil war/Siad Barre era (circa: 1969-1991).

The thing is, my mom grew up in an era (1970s/1980s) where Somali women expressed their modesty through traditional Somali clothing – not through Islamic dress. This was a time where women walked down the street in sifaleetiis, garbasaars, and baatis, and girls often showed their hair in public for a majority of their lives.

young Somali girl in 1980s Mogadisho

young Somali girl in  early 1980s Mogadisho

Mind you, the traditional Somali clothes I’m describing are not immodest – its more so that they don’t fit into traditional Arab conceptions of Islamic dress.

Woman wearing a Somali dress called a guntiino

Woman wearing a Somali dress called a guntiino

Woman wearing a sifaleeti and garbasaar on her head

Woman wearing a sifaleeti and garbasaar on her head

A Somali dress called a baati

A Somali dress called a baati

With the end of the Siad Barre era and the onset of the civil war, it seems that Somalia retreated into an era of religious conservatism – particularly affecting dress. And suddenly, with the on-set of al-Shabaab and a host of other Islamic fundamentalist groups into the country, our traditions went from being the norm, to being deemed “un-Islamic”, and consequently, not fit for public spaces.

I suppose this is why almost all Somali women still wear baatiis at home, but now, would never wear them outside.

What women in Mogadisho look like today

What women in Mogadisho look like today

My question is this: did we lose our culture (as in what is traditionally Somali) to the Arabization of Islam?

Why do Arab countries get to set the standard for modesty?

And most importantly, where do we draw the line between what is Islamic and what is Somali?

Or does that line even exist at all?



  1. Great post, Yasmin! I totally get you about the arabization of what is Islamically deemed as “modest” — like, once I was a out in a skirt, dress shirt, and my hijab and some Desi guy was like, “Sister, you should wear an abaya, what you’re wearing isn’t modest.”

    I feel like as a whole the ummah has this problem with discerning what is rooted in Arab culture, and what is rooted Islamic teachings. But that being said, I think the reason why you aren’t seeing such a push of culture that was seen in our parents’ and especially our grandparents’ time is more so due to political reasons than anything. Remember that Somalis lived divided in separate colonies back in the day, so there was a large nationalist sentiment to create a “Somali” state (which included present-day Djibouti, parts of Northern Kenya, and the Ogaden region occupied by Ethiopia) to reunite us again during our decolonization.

    This nationalism carried into even Siad Barre’s repressive regime, and was the reasoning behind our war with Ethiopia in the 70’s (we have to free our brothers and sisters in Ogaden and what not). Speaking of Barre, it’s important to also remember his military occupation also pushed forth a more secular Somalia, which was why most Somali parents would tell you the reason why they were wearing a tank top or shorts in that picture you found was because they “didn’t know deen” — there was not real push to know it since Barre really wanted Somalia to be Muslim by name, not in practice. You could also almost say that the rise of Islamism in Somalia today could be a response to years of secular reforms Barre instated.

    Anyway, with us losing the war and Ogaden, and Dijbouti becoming an independent nation, as well as clan-based movements attempting to overthrow the dictatorship had all assisted in weakening this nationalism we had. Clannism as a ideology really was able to take a stronghold in Somalia because with Barre failing to provide this Greater Somalia everyone dreamed about, there was really no excuse (as little argument as that excuse provided) for the gross abuses he committed, especially to Somali clans living in the north.

    So with the subsequent collapse of government, erosion of the state, and civil war our nationalism was pretty much killed it allowing for other ideologies to replace it. Such a shame too, since cultural we’re so rich. InshaAllah we find ourselves with a cultural revival sometime in the future.

  2. thank you for you comment Edna! You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about :)

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