2/2016
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Jaana Janssen

Somali weddings in the diaspora 

Enacting sameness and difference

Historical analyses show that weddings in former Somalia had a big impact on the socio-political structure as marriage was used as a way to settle conflicts and make new alliances between clans. In the diaspora, the forms and meanings of marriage have changed.

In this article I reflect Somali weddings among Somali diasporic communities, in particular in Finland. I argue that the diverse rituals and procedures related to weddings make it possible, on the one hand, to jointly celebrate culture of origin and re-enact the cultural Self by re-connecting with home and recreating a sense of continuity, and on the other hand, to enact change and express similarities with the cultural Other and thus create a sense of belonging in a new society.

Somewhere between here and there

Held in the transnational arena Somali weddings represent a dynamic place between Now (post-migratory times) and Then (pre-migratory times), and Here (country of resettlement) and There (country of origin), where continuity and change, sameness and difference, are negotiated on the basis of both individual and group performances and practices in order to come to terms with new environments. As in most Western countries, migration from Somalia to Germany and Finland has been a rather recent phenomenon. Significant numbers of Somali refugees only arrived at Europe in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the state collapse in Somalia.

In contrast to Germany, Somalis in Finland have gained quite a prominent role being one of the largest group amongst recent immigrant populations. In Germany, Somalis live dispersed in several big and medium-sized cities, whereas in Finland they concentrate in the Southern part of the country, mostly in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area – a fact which actually made it easier for me to approach them and to build up sustainable contacts.

The empirical data used in this article was collected during ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD research in several phases from 2008 to 2011. In the study I examine home-making strategies and integration processes among Somali migrants in Finland and Germany.

Set against a transnational background, the study includes and describes also formal and informal, often border-crossing social networks of Somali migrants. For this article I draw from the data collected in Helsinki, where Somali organisations served as entry points to make the first contacts with Somali migrants. Most Somalis I came to know during my fieldwork represent the so called first generation, who were born and raised in Somalia, and who moved to Finland shortly after 1990. Most of them had developed good Finnish language skills. Additionally, I contacted younger, Finnish-born people of Somali descent.

For the purpose of my study, I participated in a wide range of daily social activities of Somali migrants in both countries. I spent time at homes, went shopping, drove around and visited family members or friends, accompanied activities at work places, congregations and organisations. I also attended meetings and celebrations such as weddings.

The importance of Somali weddings was apparent since the beginning of my field studies. Typically, it would not take long until the subject of Somali weddings came up in our conversations. Especially the women seemed to enjoy the wedding talk and felt proud to have profound knowledge of the complex rituals and procedures Somali weddings consist of.

Next I present two ethnographic examples from the data in Finland and use them to discuss the importance of keeping cultural identifications in a new cultural context as well as the possibility for cultural change. Generally speaking, I found evidence for both options in both countries. Nevertheless, the data from Finland seemed to carve a somewhat more balanced way for handling cultural identifications, allowing for both continuity and change. Finally, I present some conclusions based on the data.

Cultural meanings of Somali weddings in the context of migration

In the context of migration and diaspora, Somali weddings are important communal events: hotels, ballrooms or other appropriate places are hired to host a big number of guests (usually more than a hundred). Consequently, extensive and expensive preparations are needed, often leaving the new families with great costs and even debts. Wedding celebrations contain a wide range of cultural practices, such as folklore dances and poems (Buraanbur, Jaandheer), beauty rituals (henna), special foods and dishes, and specific decorations.

Somali weddings generally last days, some parts being more open to public audience, others more private. The legal act of concluding marriage, for example, is held in the mosque. Needless to say, there is not only one way to celebrate a Somali wedding, but practices vary greatly depending on the preferences and resources of the families. Empirical evidence show significant regional differences, and in line with the presumptions here, Somali weddings are also likely to differ according to the contexts and places they are filtered through.

Furthermore, watching wedding videos is a popular pastime among Somali women. Wedding tapes circulate and are watched even by women who do not have any private relationship to the bride or the groom.

Watching wedding videos

One day during my fieldwork in Helsinki a Somali friend took me to his aunt. A group of six to eight women were sitting together in the living room, drinking tea, talking, and laughing. Most of them were middle-aged, and born and raised back in Somalia.

They conversed mostly in Somali language, and one young woman – the aunt‘s daughter – translated some parts of the conversation for me. My friend, who was very attentive to the situation where he was the only man, suggested that I spend some time alone with the women.

Shortly after he had left the women asked, what I thought about Somali culture, followed by the question if I had ever attended a Somali wedding party.

Suddenly, they started searching the cupboards for video tapes of Somali weddings, and even though they found some, they were not happy. Instead, the aunt sent out one of the children to her Somali neighbours to get more video tapes. She and the other women claimed that the tapes they had found in the cupboards were not “good” enough as they did not show a “proper” Somali wedding. They showed some of these “deficient” tapes, and at the same time eagerly commented on and complained about the wedding arrangements.

Meanwhile, the “delivery boy” had come back, but the women were not satisfied with the new tapes either. After searching the internet for further videos, they finally found some videos that they were happy with, and proudly presented to me a “real” Somali wedding party.

After my friend had picked me up, I began to realize the strong motivation the women had about finding the “real” Somali wedding tape and showing it to me. Finding a proper presentation of Somali weddings was clearly a challenging and time consuming act. The huge effort the women put into finding “right” videotapes, reveals the importance of Somali weddings for expressing cultural affiliations and identifications: they evaluated the Somali weddings shown in the films first of all on cultural criteria. When markers of Somaliness, such as performances of Somali poems, dances or Somali music were found, their judgement was positive, but when they were missed, it was predominantly negative.

Another situation in the field provided me with similar ideas about the cultural meanings attached to Somali weddings, but in contrast, also substantially different insights on cultural change in a new context.

Wedding celebrations

I was invited to a Somali wedding party, which took place in one of the many ordinary neighbourhoods of Helsinki. Cultural elements of the wedding celebration were demonstrated in multiple cultural practices and products, such as, traditional Somali dances and singing, special Somali finger food and colourful dresses.

The hall in the youth centre was fully decorated with carpets and curtains, and thrones for the bridal pair who were expected to arrive later in the evening. There was also a clear gender-division of space: the women exclusively occupied the hall where the actual celebrations took place, whereas men stayed outside in the entrance area waiting to drive the women to home afterwards.

During the course of the evening, what at first had looked like an “authentic” cultural ritual, started to mould and become increasingly inconsistent. When the younger women started to “take over” the celebrations by occupying the dancefloor and eagerly dancing to Somali and other pop music, a variation of dressing up became evident. For instance, the young women combined various fashion styles by wearing the Somali dirca dress that is typically used in festive occasions, but adding some accessories such as big belts and small tops. Their hair was not covered but done in a fashionable way. Some girls had big hoop earrings reminding me of the flashy aesthetics of Hip-Hop singers and artists.

Another aspect that drew my attention was the divided gendered spaces which seemed to disintegrate more and more during the evening: some young men joined the dance floor (the music had changed by then into pop music), and some of the young ladies started to spend more time outside together with the young men, chatting and laughing. Previously segregated gendered space gradually seemed to lose its importance, and instead the spaces got intermingled and borders seemed permeable.

The guests, including the older women, seemed to tolerate these variations and cultural “innovations” in the wedding party. When we left the party by sunrise, I felt very grateful for having had the chance to participate in such a beautiful cultural event that provided me with so many useful insights on Somali culture – and, perhaps even more so, on cultural change and integration processes.

Reassuring Somali Self, enacting cultural sameness

The two ethnographic examples speak to cultural authenticity in different ways. On the one hand, watching wedding videos and searching for a “proper” cultural presentation may be understood through the specific circumstances of the women, acknowledging their experiences of disruption caused by civil war and forced migration as well as feelings of cultural difference and longing for home.

Engaging with the (past) experiences of Somali weddings allows for reconnecting with familiarity and certainty of the past home, situated in past landscapes and pre-migratory (happy) times, and for transferring these feelings to the present alien landscapes and, sometimes, unhappy times. However, in order to successfully reconnect with home and transfer the positive feelings it evokes, an “authentic” wedding tape was needed. Only by the means of an authentic carrier of the Somali wedding experience (here, the video tape), or what the women defined as authentic, the bridging with the past home and cultural identity was likely to work out.

Consequently, expressing negative feelings towards video material that the women assumed to be deficient is a comprehensible reaction. By choosing the past and continuity to the present, they tried to keep themselves, or the Somali community, intact from external influences and to defend their believed cultural distinctiveness. In addition, given the political context of Somalis in Finland, the effort to strengthen the cultural identity may be seen as a reasonable act of “self-defence“.

Compared to many other West European states, including Germany, Finland has a rather small immigrant population, which makes the Finnish setting clearly dominated by Finnish norms, rules and regulations. Therefore, the fear of losing one’s culture may be pervasive, and revitalizing the sense of cultural belonging on a regular basis may be deemed necessary. Furthermore, engagement with Somali culture enforces the sense of familiarity, stability and continuity in changing unfamiliar settings and situations of cultural difference.

On the other hand, the example of wedding celebrations reveals how the boundaries of the cultural Self are also porous and may allow cultural change. First of all, strong culturalisation of the wedding celebration was necessary to transform a Finnish place into a Somali place that offered the opportunity for multiple sensual experiences of Somaliness: seeing and sensing Somali artefacts and materials, hearing Somali music, and tasting Somali food.

In this comfortable and secure atmosphere of a home-like place, where people shared the same cultural practices and experiences, they could proudly express their Somali Self and feel good about it. The spatial arrangement enabled them also to emotionally recall the past and experience continuity with it.

At the same time, however, this secure context seemed to enable them to freely engage with other cultural norms and behaviours as well. For example, sharing the aesthetics of popular youth culture by Finnish girls, the Somali girls managed to connect to their dominant surroundings without putting their Somali Self at risk.

In addition, they challenged the logic of a binary understanding of home orientation on one hand, and on the other the willingness to integrate into Finland, as the sense of cultural sameness and difference in relation to the mainstream Finnish culture were simultaneously present. Hence, a wedding party appeared as a way to overcome presumably conflicting cultural norms and to handle them in an almost playful way.

Concluding remarks

The two examples briefly discussed here indicate an extended meaning of Somali weddings within an everyday migratory context of transnationality, home orientation and feelings of cultural difference, thereby expanding the intrinsic substance of a legal marriage.

The first example stresses the practice of cultural re-enactment via an “authenticity” talk about Somali weddings, whereas the second example gives an additional account of a constructive and creative engagement with the cultural difference. In the context of a wedding celebration, Somali women managed their position between two different cultural reference systems in a relaxed manner, and enacted them into one Self that is stable enough to remain distinct but also flexible enough to adapt to new cultural surroundings.

In this vein, Somali weddings are not culturally isolated events, but rather provide a space for cultural change and social attachments to the mainstream society.

Jaana Janssen 

The author is a PhD student at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. As a geographer she is particularly interested in the spatial arrangements of Somali livelihoods in the diaspora (in particular, in Finland and Germany), i.e. first, the transnationality and interconnectivity based on and bringing out social networks and organisations, and second, the place-making strategies Somalis perform in order to create feelings of belonging and insideness in their countries of resettlement.

jaana.janssen(at)uni-bayreuth.de

Photos Maippi Tapanainen, cover photo Jaana Janssen

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