Kenya: I was told that I deserved to die – for being a female journalist

Publication Date: 
July 3, 2011
The Guardian
Fatuma Noor

It's not always easy being a female investigative journalist, even in the west. But imagine going to do an interview and not being able to shake hands with the interviewee or indeed even being able to sit in front of him to ask questions.

In Somali culture – I grew up in a Somali family in – it is wrong to speak and raise an opinion in front of men or even to shake hands with a man of no relation to you. Even travelling for work unaccompanied by a relative is not permitted.

Somewhere on the Kenyan-Somali border, a Somali woman was chosen to be a town chief, but she fled from the town because of violent opposition from the elders. As a journalist, I tried to get comments from the Somali elders, but they then turned on me and threatened to punish me also.

The women who attempt leadership positions or take on roles such as journalism are often intimidated and many end up giving up the profession at the early stages of their career. Political instability and extremist groups in have posed an even greater challenge, with the introduction of strict sharia. These hardline groups even disapprove of women working in informal markets or within women's organisations.

Coming from a conservative Somali background, my parents, who buy and sell clothes, refused to fund my journalism course but were ready to pay for any other. (The need to meet and talk to men was, for them, the major problem with journalism.) Three years down the line, my choice still causes a strained relationship with the family. In a way, one could understand their reasons – as a female journalist, you face regular threats and intimidation.

I have had more than a few of those in my short career as a journalist. One time I did a story about a Somali woman who was shunned by her community and was ousted by her own sons and husband because she was suffering from HIV/Aids. I received phone calls – not what you would describe as friendly calls – from men in my native Somali community who believe that some things should not be shared with the world; suffering from HIV was certainly one of those things I shouldn't share, they thought.

One of the pleasures of being a journalist is the chance to travel and meet people. But according to the strictures of the culture in which I was raised, a woman should not travel unless she is accompanied by her brother, father or husband.

As a woman, you are then left to choose between career and family since if you choose the former, there is the risk of being banished by your family. A typical Muslim man would prefer a housewife to a journalist who travels a lot and has odd working hours. Even if you persist, you are not meant to interact with men other than your husband and immediate family members. As a reporter, this poses a challenge, to say the least.

When I started as a journalist, my editor did not fully grasp the limitations that come with my culture. But after constant pestering from my parents to fire me she got the message! (Sometimes now, she is careful when determining where I should go and what I should do, though I like to push.) To do my job as an investigative journalist properly stories often require days on the road. And this has led to a constant war between my parents and myself, not helped by some stories, on more than one occasion, almost getting me killed.

Recently, I wrote a series of stories on the al-Shabaab group, "the Taliban of Somalia", a series for which last week I was lucky enough to receive an award. The series dealt with men of Somali descent, raised elsewhere, often the US, "returning" to fight for al-Shabaab. I was travelling with recruits from different countries, heading towards Mogadishu, when we were surrounded by some of the militia.

They did not care much about who we were and seemed happy for the men accompanying me to get on with their work but my presence as a woman offended them. I wasn't married and had no relation within my group– reason enough for punishment, even execution.

There then followed an eight-hour ordeal in the hands of the militia group. They had guns fixed on my head, while smashing my belongings and discussing among themselves just what sort of punishment was fitting. The elder of the group finally decided that I should be killed and only the intervention of a contact that I had previously made, arguing vigorously in my favour, saved me.

Every single time I do any Somali-related story, to avoid problems with the family and immediate relations I choose never to disclose where I will be going and who I'm travelling with. It's perhaps then not a surprise that there should be such a small number of women in the Somali media And those who survive are more likely to work as radio presenters, not needing to go out and get stories. Even then, there can be problems. Bhajo Mohamud, who was a reporter in one of the radio stations, has had to leave the country and even in exile still gets threatening calls.

Beyond the particular problems of the Somali community, there's a general scarcity of women in our newsrooms, making it difficult for burning issues to be discussed from a female perspective. 

Catherine Gicheru, a distinguished woman journalist and the managing editor of the Kenyan Star, says that a female journalist has to work extra hard so that nobody says she can't do this or that. "You must be willing to take anything that is thrown at you in order to survive in the career."

These are all issues that are faced by our counterparts in western newsrooms. But specific cultural barriers mean that fewer women, says Gicheru, want to break into the typically male-dominated areas such as politics.

As for investigative journalism, a gun to your head is not much of an encouragement.

Fatuma Noor was last week awarded the top prize at the ceremony for her investigative three-part series on the "Al-Shabaab". (You can read it at ) She is at the Observer as part of the David Astor Journalism Programme.