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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 215-217

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Book Review

Women's Voices in a Man's World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899 -1980

Women's Voices in a Man's World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899 -1980, by Lidwien Kapteijns.Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1999. xiv + 224 pp. ISBN 0-325-001133-2 paper.

A century of oral texts from Northern Somalia constitutes the subject matter of this book--a topic that may seem of in interest and relevance to only a very specific and limited audience. And yet Lidwien Kapteijns has managed admirably to produce a research report of academic excellence and sociopolitical value, which at the same time is an engrossing and even heartwarming read.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the so-called "time-free" orature (because the narratives do not deal with identifiable people, events or dates) of the colonial period 1899-1944 and reports on a [End Page 215] large number of texts in great detail. Part 2 deals with the "time bound" love songs of the years 1945-80: a new genre developed by an emerging urban middle class--both phenomena contextualized by the era of decolonization. An appendix with extensive information on the love songs and a very informative bibliography (the information on how and where colonial researchers found their sources reads like a separate narrative) appear at the end. Maps and a selection of photographs are also included.

The title of the book conveys a multifaceted theme: within the very large and divergent body of Somali orature, Kapteijns strives to isolate texts which are voiced by women. This can mean songs and stories and sayings about and by women--sometimes the authorship is explicitly female, in other instances, as is the case with the love songs, women only sing that which men wrote. Through the study of this specific form of orature, insights are gained into the constraints placed on women's literary expressions in a world defined by men; but these insights are always partial and generalized--the voices can only imply, they cannot disclose directly or in full.

Despite--or is it precisely because of--these acknowledged limitations, a vivid image of the intertwining issues of gender relations, the role of women and emerging conceptions of national identity and cultural authenticity, emerges from this research. In Part 1 Kapteijns demonstrates convincingly that these voices--be they the songs of young goat herders, married women caring for home and children, women working together and bemoaning their fate, or the odd case of a lonely woman expressing her sexual desires--formed part of a "subordinate discourse." Their voices did not publicly and clearly contest the dominant patriarchal structures, and were therefore sufficiently muted to be tolerated. But "(w)omen's categories of thought and speech were acknowledged, resisted, paralleled, echoed, and invented in the preoccupations, concerns and anxieties expressed in wider orature [. . .] by engaging in orature, by expressing their feelings and opinions, by reinforcing and undermining the gender expectations confronting them, women shaped their social environment" (77).

The popular love songs of the post war period was part of a new literary tradition that not only helped shaped the Somali people's ideals for the future, but also contributed ideas about national identity and cultural authenticity through an idealized portrayal of the past. In the love songs an interesting dichotomy developed: a new emphasis was placed on romantic love and personal desires, but women were still valued according to traditional norms of beauty, obedience, and adherence to pastoral lifestyles. In these songs, written by men and performed by women, women's rights and their personal emotions are addressed. But, "even at their very best, the authors of pop songs had a limited feminist vision and [. . .] imposed on the debate about women's rights and duties a straightjacket of terms, images, and themes narrowly rooted in their vision of pastoral traditional culture and...


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