Marwo: An Alphabet for Conduct Somaliland Cyberspace

Marwo: An Alphabet for Conduct

From Maroodi Jeex: Somaliland Alternative Newsletter,
No. 2 (Winter 1996/97).

By Mohamed Bali

Since the dawn of history, human societies, even largely mobile, nomadic communities, have all developed folkways and mores to regulate the conduct of personal and social relations. The oldest known book on conduct, The Instructions of Ptah Hotep, attributed to the ancient Egyptians, contains instructions of a father to his son about proper manners.

If the land is said to be "teeming" with poets, the Somali poetry and proverbs are found replete with many references of women's proper conduct and manners (Adan,1981). Poetry, especially women-specific varieties, were perhaps the most responsible for reinforcing the traditional gender roles and conduct. Much more rested on the female etiquette, the family's, and even more importantly, the clan's honor perched squarely on the proper conduct of its womenfolks: "The conduct and bearing of women plays an important role in clan esteem, for however honourable a man might be, his wife's waywardness can ruin his reputation and that of his family and the clan" (Drysdale, 1964:12).

Central to this emphasis to proper conduct is the preservation of the family structure, the most basic of human institutions. As well known, the family performs the four functions fundamental to social life: the sexual, the economic, the reproductive, and the educational. While the marriage, as the foundation of the family, is an invention of the legal system, the family, on the other hand, is a social invention that emerged out of people's needs.

Historically, monogamy has been the most common form of marriage, probably because an approximately equal number of males and females reach maturity and are available for mating. Once widely practiced, polygyny in Somaliland is now considered to be in long-term decline. Today, the custom, which is the scourge of women's life and therefore feared and opposed by women, is more limited, both because of the diffusion of western values and because it is expensive to maintain a number of wives and the children they produce.

As in all pastoral and in many agricultural societies, in the Somali society, the traditional family existed in the extended form, which contained not only the nucleus of husband, wife, and their offspring, but also a number of blood relatives who live together and are considered a family unit. In these societies, it is advantageous to cooperate in order to secure a better livelihood; this pattern not only increases the size of the average household but also the number of relationships within the household. Psychologically, too, an extended family provides benefits: child rearing is a communal responsibility and the child forms affectionate relationships with many persons. Parents are thus relieved of the entire burden of socialization. On the other hand, the individual must stifle personal goals and desires since the welfare of the family unit takes priority over the welfare of the individual. Recent changes, however, have somewhat undermined the traditional family structure.

In the contemporary urban Somaliland, of course, we are neither patrilocal or matrilocal. Occasionally, a young couple will move in with either the bride's or groom's parents immediately after they are married, but this is rarely intended to be permanent. More often, it is a temporary arrangement, entered into for economic reasons. Also, contemporary social custom imposes no rigid structure upon family. Today, a family may be largely patriarchical or it may be a democratic-cooperative family in which decision-making power is shared among all the family's members. Moreover, the selection of a marital partner is increasingly regarded as a personal matter and is largely left up to individuals involved. Parents often are asked to approve of a choice, but their approval is not considered essential. Instead, parents end up resignedly tendering their traditional Duco, or blessing, upon the done-deal, or showering the baraka upon the offsprings. However, this represents something of a break with the past.

The definition of the marriage relation includes guidelines for behavior in matters of sex; obligations to offsprings, in-laws, and kin; the divisions of labor within the household, and other duties and privileges of marital life. According to Kapteijn, the marriage was much more than a union between a man and a woman; it represented a locus in which to enforce what she termed as "a ideology of kinship":

The purpose of this brief note is to introduce an old poem by Saahid Qamaan, which in the words of John Drysdale, who translated it: " a marriage proposal by an elderly man to a young girl in which he lists the "alphabet of conduct" - a guide to the way his wife should behave if she is to perform her duties in accordance with the accepted standards of his family. He emphasises good manners and appearance of safe-guarding the good name of the clan" :

  1. ...I have chosen you not only because your skin is like brown amber
  2. But because you are well born, unlike many other women.
  3. Hearken then to my words, O woman, as I remind you of the alphabet of conduct.
  4. The wife of an ignoble man does not use the incense burner to scent herself:
  5. Never be forgetful therefore about the cleanliness of your body and your skin.
  6. Always clean your teeth with the aday brush and apply shadow to your eyes.
  7. You must know too that my clan will put your breeding to the test.
  8. They will approach you arrogantly and will insult your dress;
  9. So always wear those ear-rings and those ornaments which are in your tent.
  10. And put on your necklace of purest quality and the very best of clothes,
  11. For they may come at any hour and you must be prepared.
  12. In the late afternoon perhaps, or at sunset, you may see guests striding to the camp.
  13. Some will shamelessly approach the entrance to the courtyard
  14. Along the dusty bridle paths used by horses, sheep and goats;
  15. Not so my clan! Its pride does not permit an error such as this.
  16. Go out then when they come. You will know them for what they are.
  17. They are not like any other people and you will not fail to recognise them.
  18. In my absence, Muslims and other guests may still approach and call out my name.
  19. If deficient of provisions, don't say "I swear by God I have nothing for you".
  20. For the news will reach me, however far, and shame will be brought upon my name.
  21. Be generous always, particularly to the girls, for they must never curse you.
  22. Princely qualities can also belong to women, give them expression with the elders.
  23. Be prudent and be bashful, especially with my cousin who shares my ancestry.
  24. Be on your guard, measure your words, and control your manners.
  25. Steady the poles, clear out your tent and brush the courtyards,
  26. For guests must not kick up the dust as if it were a camel pen.
  27. The mats in the corner where I sleep must be well woven, with no loose ends,
  28. So that they will also give comfort to my honoured guests.
  29. Finally, if I should have to beat you for your mistakes
  30. You must suffer it in silence and never weep.
  31. Now that I have stated my position, be so advised.
  32. If, on the other hand, you do not accept my advice,
  33. Whoever God may find to be your husband, it is not I.

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