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‘SITAAD’: The Somali Women’s Traditional Spiritual Gathering

Muna Ahmed & Hamda Raage

It was Friday afternoon. We have been planning to attend a Sitaad session for quite some time. Today is the day. The place we are heading to opens its doors only on Mondays and Fridays and is closed for the rest of the week. While Monday is a working day, we have decided to go on Friday. We have not made a booking or anything else because it was not needed. Every woman is welcome to join as long as she is following the rules, which are pretty simple: you should come early, you should not enter in the middle of a session (in this case, if you come in the middle of a segment, you should wait at the door until that segment is over), you should participate (sing and clap your hands), you should not make distractions (no side talking, talk on the phone), you should respect everyone and bring Sadaqah (small amount of money for the purpose of donation and the maintenance of the place). After forty minutes of drive, we finally arrived at the destination. It was an old house with one big room, a kitchen, and a veranda. The session room was about six to seven-meter square. Its walls were covered with curtains and some calligraphy and writings. There was a big green flag on the right wall of the room with Arabic calligraphy which said ‘لا اله الا الله محمد رسول الله’, which means ‘There is no God truly worthy of worship except Allah’. On the left wall, is the name of the place: Xadrada Hooyo Diran: Mother Diran’s Spiritual Place.

“SITAAD is a genre of religious panegyrics laced with spirituality and a yearning to emulate and fuse with some respected earlier women of Islam” (Awale, 2013)

As the woman in charge of the place told us before the beginning of the session, the place belonged to her grandmother, Diran. This place was her house originally, and she was the one who turned her place into a spiritual gathering location. She was the session leader as well. Once she passed away, her daughter took over, and now, the granddaughter runs the place. It is obligatory, and the place should run as long as possible.

There were about thirty women in the room sitting in a circle. The middle space was empty as it is inappropriate to sit in the middle because it is the praise dancing area. Apart from the woman, the flag, and the calligraphy, there was also a very big Durbaan (Drum), a few bottles of perfume, a small container of Uunsi: frankincense (Somali prepared scent), a pair of curtains on the window, and undeniably loads of positive energy. The lady in the middle started playing the drum loudly with two sticks. With a thunderous and pure voice, she also started a spiritual song. The rest of the women started chanting and singing after her. She and a lady next to her were leading the session and the rest of us were chanting and clapping. The rhythm, drumming, and clapping were balanced and spiritually uplifting. After a few intense intones, two women reached their spiritual climax (Jibbo), started shaking, and finally fell to the floor.

Sitaad (Sittaat) is also known as Xaawiyo Faadumo (Eve and Fatima) or Madaxshub (the anointment of the head) and particularly in the south as Abbaay Sittidey are songs throughout the Somali region. Sitaad forms part of a rich and varied range of cultural expressions of Islamic devotion in the horn of Africa, forms of worship that are often directly linked to Sufi brotherhoods. (Kaptjeins, 1995)

The word Sitaad has different meanings. The most familiar name is that the word is from the Arabic term Sayidaat which means mistress or a respected woman with authority. Arguably the Sitaad culture began a long time ago, during the Prophet Mohamed’s time. While there is no accurate information, it is believed that the daughter of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), Fatima, was somehow the initiator of Sitaad because she organized a feast for poor women and children while pregnant with her sons (Hassan and Hussein). The purpose was with this act was to ask or beg Allah for safe delivery. In Somali culture, this tradition is called Taraaraysi, a ritual act performed during the last month of pregnancy. (Awaleh, 2013)

Sitaad is very familiar among Somali women, specifically older women. In Somali culture, age and gender have always defined society’s social roles and responsibilities. The status in society is usually determined by age. For example, older men were always the community leaders because of the patriarchal culture. Both cultural and religious leaders mainly were older. Likewise, older women were more respected among the women as well. The traditional midwives, decision-makers, and Sitaad session leaders mainly were older women. These women have specific and essential roles, obligations, and status in society and are very well respected.

Married women had a distinct social circle because of their expected roles, duties, and challenges. They have everyday responsibilities, including wifehood and motherhood. This special bond in which they usually share their daily challenges, pray together and link their roles and responsibilities to the previous Muslim women as role models is one of the main reasons Sitaad forums were formed and became popular among Somali women. Sitaad is an empowering forum for women. In every session or occasion, they use to console those among them who experienced misfortune: sickness, poverty, infertility. They also advise themselves from the evil doing. The ideal goal of every woman in the Sitaad is to become Raalliyo (the Good Woman) because their end goal is to be in the heavens.

According to Kapteijns, in his article: Sittaat: Somali Women’s Songs for ‘The Mothers of The Believers’, the singers of Sitaad explicitly emphasize their everyday problems as wives, mothers, and providers in the urban slums of underdeveloped countries. They also appeal to their common bond of womanhood with the famous women (mothers, wives, and daughters) of early Islam. In doing so, they assert the values central to their lives. They sing in praise of eve as humankind’s first wife and mother. They celebrate the loyal wifehood of Khadija, so beloved by the Prophet. In Fatima, they praise the significance of daughterhood, her wifehood to Ali the fourth caliph, and her motherhood to Hassan and Hussein. The imagery used in the Sitaad concretely links the singers to the heavenly ladies through chains, ropes and ladders. (Kapteins, 1995).

The big question is, how did the Sitaad start? According to the only written book about this topic: Sitaad: is dareen gelinta diineed ee dumarka, ( Somali Women’s Self-teaching in Islam through Sitaad ) by Ahmed Ibraahim Awale (2013), it all started with the love for the religion and the scarcity of the basics of Islam among Somali women decades ago. It has been said that the knowledge of the religion among the Somalis, in general, was insufficient. At the same time, there were no available religious schools in the area, and families and communities sent selected male individuals to Harar (Harar is an old city in eastern Ethiopia that is also known as the 4th holy Islamic city because of its historic role in Islamic teachings). The reason for sending those young men was to study religion and return to educate people back home.

Unfortunately, men were the only privileged ones who used to receive such knowledge, and women were always left behind. Not only women had not received these opportunities, but they also could not attend the teaching sessions. Women then started to become very curious about the Islamic knowledge that only men discussed under the trees, and to get any insight, one of them used to sneak to the men’s religious gatherings and learning sessions and listen to their discussions. With the bit of information they overheard, women started to learn about Adam and Eve, the Prophet’s names, Prophet Mohamed and his families, caliphates, and more. They started composing spiritual songs based on their hearsay along with rhythm and chanting to spread the little information they had among other women. That is how Sitaad was born. To educate the religion among women.

Sitaad was the only place women found anything related to their religion. Every session was educational and inspirational as well. Furthermore, they expressed freely the love they had for Xaawa (eve) and the other Muslim women figures, including Khadija: the wife of the Prophet. Fatuma: the daughter of the Prophet and others. For example, this song:

‘Ummooy hortaa ma jirinoo
Hooyooy hortaa ma jirinoo
Hortaa, heybedley, hortaa
Hooyo la isma odhan
Xubkeed xariiraay'

'Before you (the name of) mother did not exist
Before you 'mama' did not exist
People did not call each other mother
Mother eve, silken beauty.'

Sitaad session is also a place of awareness. Women constantly remind themselves of the consequences of bad deeds like gossiping and backbiting. There is always a constant reminder of death, afterlife and how every woman should prepare herself for the day of judgment. Look at those verses:

‘Lama ridhoo reer adduun raasamaalba maleh
Ballami maysaane, waa kala baqoolaysaan
Minkaaga oo buuxa waxa laga baxaa madhnaan
Adiga oo diiran baa dawga lagu marshaa
Qasil la qooshiyo biyaa lagugu qoynayaa
Adiga oo qaawan baa qayd laguu xidhaa
Adiga oo qudhiya waxa lagu dhigaa qabriga
Adiyo camalkaaga cidladay isku mudanaysaan’

'The people genuinely have no wealth (wealth is useless as we shall all pass away)
There will be no promises amongst you to meet rather, you'll all leave each other
You shall leave your entire home empty-handed
Naked, you will be carried down a road
They will wash you and apply qasil on you
And whilst naked, they will wrap you in cloth
And you, by yourself, will be lowered into the grave
You and your deeds will be with each other alone.'

In recent times, the Sitaad has been in line with the progress and civilization of the modern world, and women discuss and raise awareness on the recent issues. For example, during elections, they warn themselves not to vote for tribalism but to vote for one who is in their best interests and those of the nation, while in times of conflict, they urge each others to take part in conflict resolution efforts and to contribute to peace.

Apart from the spiritual uplift and the constant reminder of the religious rules, Sitaad can also be a group counselling session. Challenges of wifehood and motherhood are sincerely discussed and sung by the women in the session. After the chanting and the rhythm, women usually feel lighter and supported. The songs and the chanting get rid of any negative feelings and troubles, eventually making them feel relieved and full of optimism and positive energy. At the session’s end, they feel strong, motivated, and happy. Sitaad is like immediate healing to everyone who attends. This particular feeling causes commitment and punctuality among Sitaad practitioners because Sitaad session is the only place in the community where women do not feel judged, lonely and unsupported. For example, those verses below highlight how helping each other is an obligation.

‘Naa tiina xaaska ah ku xurmeeya baa la yidhi
Middiina dhali wayda u dhabreeya baa la yidhi
Dhallaankiina u diroo dhawra baa la yidhi
Oo naa waa is dhaantaane, isu dhiiba baa la yidhi’

'It has been said; the wives amongst you, respect them
It's been said; the ones who cannot give birth fight for them
It's been said, and send your children to them and protect them
You vary in ability so give to each other'

Sitaad has psychological benefits for women, especially the stay-at-home moms & wives, because those women have low or zero social life except the Sitaad colleagues. The sessions have given those women a platform to connect, socialize, chat, empower and, most importantly, have fun.

Shaadali (complimentary tea) is usually distributed during Sitaad sessions. Most Sitaad venues serve complimentary tea during every session and free food on special occasions like the birth of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). The free food (mainly meat & rice) is sometimes given to the neighbours or poor people. During and after the Sitaad session, the woman leader collects money for different purposes. Some of those purposes can be found in this song:

‘Isku samroo isku miciinay Sahri ina tidhi
Naa waa is dhaantaane, isu dhiiba baa la yidhi
Oo tiina gaajoota u garaaba baa la yidhi
Naa tiina kici wayda kaalmeeya baa la yidhi
Naa tiina taagta daran taageera baa la yidhi’

'Support and be patient with each other, Sahra said to us
You vary in ability so give to each other
It has been said; the one who is hungry amongst you, be sympathetic to her
It's been said; the one amongst you who cannot stand, assist her
It's been said; the one amongst you who is weak, support her'

Furthermore, Sitaad is all about prayer and asking for forgiveness and blessing from Allah. It is compulsory to chant with many songs that are a prayer. Most of them ask Allah for forgiveness, blessing, wealth, children, ease, health etc. For example, this song is prayer, and the women ask Allah to widen their graves once they are deceased.

‘Qabriga labadiisa dhaban way isku dhawyihiin
Allahayow kala dhufooy, maalintaan dhex galo’

'The two walls of the grave are ever so close and tight
So O' God please push them apart [for me] the day I enter'

Overall, Sitaad is a joyous occasion. It is festive. Tea is delivered during and after the session. Cuud and Uunsi are always burning on the Dabqaad/Girgire (Incense burner), and the entire room smells nice the whole time. It is full of good spirit, joy and happiness. Not only women, but sometimes children like to come and celebrate with their mothers as well. It is a celebration and positive vibes.

However, Sitaad is a joyous and crucial occasion for Somali women; it has been facing a tremendous challenge for the last decades on the other hand. In general, Somali men do not value women’s poetry. A few lines from a famous poet: Hadraawi, also known as the Somali Shakespeare, define Sitaad as something far from literature.

‘Suugaantu iib maaha,
Erey iyo sunnee maaha,
Hugun iyo Sitaad maaha’

Literature is not for sale,
It is neither words nor free
It is neither humming nor Sitaad'

This is clear evidence that Somali men have not given any respect to the Sitaad and do not see it as part of the society’s rich poetic tradition. Not only have they dismissed and belittled Sitaad, but they have also tried to stop their wives and sisters from attending Sitaad sessions because some believe it is a waste of time. Some others assume that women consume Qaad (qaad is a green leaf stimulant that is popular among Somali men). Some others look at the actions of Sitaad with the suspicion of a forum to conspire against them. Recent religious ideologists also stamped Sitaad as Haram (not allowed) they specified as shirk/bida’a (means forbidden). Their reason relates to that some of the songs of Sitaad include believing and asking forgiveness of others rather than Allah only. Those challenges, along with the heavy influence from the technology: televisions, the internet, and cell phones have caused a massive decline in Sitaad sessions. So many places have been shut down.

However, Sitaad is still familiar among Somali women, and it is performed both in Sitaad places and at weddings. Nowadays, it is common to hear some of the Sitaad songs at traditional weddings and other women’s various occasions and festivals.

References:

  • Awale, Ahmed Ibrahim. Sitaad: Somali Women’s Traditional Devotional Space. Afrikan Sarvi journal 1/2014. Finnish Somalia Network.
  • Kapteijns, Lidwien with Maryam Omar. Sittaat: Somali Women’s Songs for ‘The Mothers of The Believers’. African Studies Center. 1995.
  • Awale, Ahmed Ibrahim. Sitaad: Is dareen gelinta diineed ee dumarka. Iftin Publishers. 2013.
  • “Sitaat as Part of Somali Women’s Everyday Religion.” In Perspectives on Women’s Everyday Religion, edited by Marja-Liisa Keinänen, 203–21. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press.
  • Sitaad Audios. Recorded by the authors: Muna & Hamda, 2021

The article has been published previously on Dhaxalreeb Magazine Vol 18 (July issue). Photograph © Marja Tiilikainen and Afrikan Sarvi Journal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hamda Raage is a young professional lawyer, human rights activist, and researcher. She works with different organizations about gender equality, woman’s political participation and equal rights. She is also a culture enthusiast.

Muna Ahmed is a bilingual writer, published Author, and Activist. Muna works with some other robust networks to promote literacy and advocate for reading, self-development, Gender Equality, and Cultural Identity among Somali Youth.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of Somaliland Chronicle, and its staff. 

Creative Commons License

Notice: This is an article by Somaliland Chronicle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Under this license, all reprints and non-commercial distribution of this work is permitted.

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