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Marrying across Somalia's caste lines

By Mohammed Olad Hassan
BBC News, Mogadishu

The family of Sahal Abdi-kafi no longer talk to him following his wedding to his long-time girlfriend Zamzam Ahmed, a member of Somalia's lower caste Yahar community.
Sahal Abdi-kafi
Sahal says the Islamist edict persuaded him to go ahead with the wedding

Despite his family's strong disapproval, the couple went ahead with their marriage, encouraged by an edict from the Islamist group which has taken control of the capital, Mogadishu, and much of southern Somalia this year after 15 years of lawlessness.

Sahal and Zamzam had been seeing each other secretly for five years but neither ever really believed their romantic dream would end in marriage.

"We were very different - in lifestyle, in thinking, in tastes," said Sahal, who runs a big electronics shop in Mogadishu's main Bakara Market and who comes from a prominent family of merchants.

In contrast, Zamzam's father has died and her mother sells the popular stimulant khat.

"Yet we fell in love, we expected the heavens to fall when my parents would come to know of our affair, we expected the worst and were prepared for the worst," Salal says.

After centuries of deep divisions, cross caste weddings like Sahal and Zamzam's are now becoming more common.

Prejudice

Union of Islamic Courts leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed recently said Somalis should marry good Muslims, whatever caste they were from, in an effort to break down centuries of prejudice.

"Islam recommends choosing your partner according to whether they follow their religion and whether they are of good character but not because of their social level," he said.

Sometimes life is indeed like a Bollywood movie
Zamzam Ahmed
Sahal, 35, supports the Islamists and says Mr Ahmed's speech convinced him to go ahead with the wedding, despite his parents' opposition.

Somalia's caste system is extremely complicated.

While some members of the lower castes, such as the Yahar, Midgan, Eyle, Boon, say they face constant discrimination, several members have risen to occupy prominent positions in society.

Many members of the lower castes perform jobs such as metal-working, hunting with dogs, shoe-making and hairdressing.

Marriage is the area where traditional prejudices remain strongest, with men who marry lower caste women often ostracised by their families.

Beloved

Sahal knew his family would be upset by the wedding and felt unable to tell them that he and Zamzam had gone ahead and tied the knot.

When he did break the news, his father immediately told him to divorce his new wife and choose another, higher caste, woman.

Map
"My parents promised me they would pay a large amount of money for the cost of my wedding if I married a woman of my caste, but I could not disown my beloved one," he said.

"She is beautiful, polite, obedient to me, pious and God-fearing, so there was no reason not to marry her."

Zamzam says she only knew that she loved Sahal and never thought about their difference in social background.

She said it was beyond her wildest dreams to see herself sharing a life with Sahal.

"Love knows no age, no caste, and no creed. There can be no other explanation why Sahal could have fallen in love with me," she said.

"However, he married me against the wishes of his parents, jeopardising his relations with his relatives and friends and that of the community he comes from," she added.

"Finally, he was mine and I was his. Sometimes life is indeed like a Bollywood movie," she said, smiling.



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