NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENENEWS)–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.
"One time, around 1 o’clock while I was going to the mosque, I had the young men throwing stones at me after they were told by the elders that I’m cursed in the community," said Sirat.
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.
"They have chased me and I am not even allowed to step in the region I am representing," said Sirat. "It’s just a cultural thing. The elders don’t want to hear anything about my being chief, saying that they would not sit and listen to a woman talking to them."
‘Women’s Place in the Kitchen’
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.
"Luckily my child and husband were not around because they would have been hurt. Another time while just walking around the DC’s location I was stoned by young men," said Sirat, who rarely ventures outside the district commissioner’s compound.
"People point fingers at me in the street, in the mosque, they whisper. Neighbors tell my visitors that I’m cursed and bad luck," she said.
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.
Giving Back to the Community
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.
"I decided to work where I will have a say in policies I believe in," she said.
She landed the chief’s job after a competitive interview conducted by provincial administrators.
"It’s hard," said Sirat. "I’m at a place that I don’t know a lot of people except my husband, son and the district commissioner. I would love to go home."
She says her parents, who encourage her to succeed, have also been estranged from their friends.
Muhummed Duale, Sirat’s father, was visiting his daughter at the compound when Women’s eNews was there for the interview. He says he worries about the high price she is paying for trying to break a cultural barrier like this.
"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.
Sirat’s husband, Nuno Abdi Sirat, is an army officer. During the Women’s eNews visit, he was away on work and Sirat’s sister-in-law, Abdia Abdi, was helping to care for the couple’s young son.
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."
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Fatuma Noor is an award-winning investigative Kenyan journalist who works for The Star Newspaper in Nairobi. She covers human rights stories and refugee and women’s issues.