As I was doing low rows at the gym this morning, I noticed two Somali women enter the personal training area. They were covered head to toe—one wearing a bomber jacket and skirt to the floor; the other in pants under a mid-length skirt with a long-sleeve shirt and bulky athletic jacket on top. Of course, their heads were entirely covered except for their fresh, young faces. I was both excited and curious to see them there—how would they exercise bundled so intentionally as so very completely?
I got frustrated—”WTF! Don’t do this to yourselves, young ladies!” And then I remembered what I learned from the book I finished last night—From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis—they reflect the culture and religion to which they have committed.
20% of the U.S Somali population resides in Minnesota. They have made their home across the state including corners of Minneapolis that I once called home. The massive, ramshackle Cedar Square apartment complex that Kathy, Jan and I lived in as sophomores in college is now called “Little Mogadishu” reflecting the ethnic composition of the building today. And there is a television pilot underway (also called Little Mogadishu) to bring the new culture of my old community to life across America.
I’m still unraveling my thoughts about the book or, rather, my visceral response to it—a tough thing to do when you are seeking to understand and empathize, yet the beliefs and values fly in the face of your own.
The book did its job: it educated me. I learned about Somali culture and religion, and their perspectives on integration and assimilation. I was informed of the challenges Somali’s face in business and in health because of language, employment, dietary and other challenges. However, in full transparency, as a professional woman who spent a lifetime fighting for girl’s and women’s equality—including my own, I walked away from the book feeling both sad and concerned.
I felt sad because the expectation for young Somali women is unequivocally clear and unequivocally marginalized: get married, have as many children as you possibly can to elevate your stature in your community, commit your life to Allah and to your husband and, generally, live your life in the shadow of others.
The problem for me? What IF a young Somali woman’s dream flies in the face of cultural convention? What if she wants to create shadows, not hide in them? What’s to happen to her dreams, her hopes, her life?
Then there are the larger societal issues. The Muslim religion is the fastest growing religion in the world. Today, they face crushing obstacles and discrimination as a minority in a white and Christian-dominated America. What will happen when the tables turn—when Caucasians and Christians are the global minority? Will racial and religious diversity be embraced? What about gender equality? Will conservative social values dominate our world and our culture? And in a world where Muslims are the majority, why should they treat us any differently than we have treated them in our homeland? Why can’t we think bigger? See farther? And see that we must learn to coexist if we wish to exist at all.
Rational or irrational, these are the things reading From Somalia to Snow that stirred inside me. You give it a read. What does it stir inside you?
This is a good book for connecting to yourself, your world and your future. It’s also a good book for connecting to them, their world, and their future. In truth, we are one in the same.