By Najma Sharif
In this op-ed, Najma Sharif discusses culture site “Araweelo Abroad” and its importance to the Somali diaspora in an age of increased Black Muslim scrutiny.
Queen Araweelo, an ancient Somali queen, is immortalized by the tongues of Somali matriarchs. Mothers pass down the story of Araweelo to their daughters as a way of empowering them; Araweelo defied gender roles, and actively advocated for women’s liberation. A contentious figure in Somali folklore, some even debate that she existed. But even if she only existed via word of mouth, her story and her reign is special to Somali women. The Somali word “Araweelo” tends to be used as an insult by men, but for Somali women, it’s embraced and associated with the feminist folktale of Queen Araweelo’s story. So it’s only fitting that her story would serve as the inspiration for the name of Araweelo Abroad, an online Somali publication run by Ifrah Ahmed and Sagal Abdulle, that describes itself as a “cyber-homecoming” for all Somali women across the diaspora.
Which is where Araweelo came in. On the need to create this publication, Ifrah tells me: “I didn’t see myself represented anywhere. Where were the Somali girls who were writers? Went to punk shows? Made visual art or music? Nothing in pop culture or literature seemed to strike to the core of my identities and experiences.” Once Ifrah thought this void of lack of representation needed to filled, she hit up her cousin, Sagal, who was in the process of moving away from London to a smaller city in England, making it imperative for her to have a place to celebrate life — a place of belonging that is not beholden to catering to any audience outside of Somali women.
When Araweelo Abroad launched in 2014, it was as mythic and as cathartic as hearing the story of the woman that this publication was named after. Sagal told me over email that “the endless months we spent creating this platform has been one of the most grueling and rewarding things we’ve done.” This platform was unique to Somalis, in a way that forums and the scattered presences of Somalis on social media weren’t. It’s a cultural hub with academics, visual artists, beauty gurus and regular Somalis alike that grants Somali women the ability to control every aspect of their narrative with an unmitigated realness. Araweelo Abroad does not exist to legitimize the experience of Somalis in the diaspora, instead it allows multiple women to define their experiences and it evinces the existence of Somalis in the diaspora. Araweelo Abroad takes care of and has satisfied so many Somali women’s appetites for a platform that catered to them. In a sense, Araweelo Abroad was the mother of Somali magazine/zine culture, they gave birth to and reimagined Somali existence by uploading it to the web. There isn’t a topic they’ve shied away from — from grief, to sex, to cellular memory and trauma.
But the intention of Araweelo Abroad isn’t merely representation. Araweelo Abroad is a publication that documents and accounts for the complexity of the Somali, Black, Muslim diasporic experiences. Somalis exist at the intersection of Blackness, Muslimhood and migration; CVE, Muslim watchlists impact the lives of Somalis, along with the inner-surveillance in our community. And though Somali online existence can be seen as part of that larger Black cyber existence, Somalis are particularly hyper in/visible, existing in a limbo, both impacted by how Black Twitter has been infiltrated by Russian bots, and privy to watchlists that monitor the online movements of Muslims. The line between needing to be seen and being watched is a thin one, and this reality is at the heart of online and offline existence for Somalis in the diaspora. This majority of the interactions between Somalis happen in group chats — due to this IRL and URL panoptic surveillance Araweelo Abroad seeks to come out of the shadows and emerge as a tangible safe space for Somali women to merely exist as is.
That said, as other Somali zines and magazines emerge out of the many pockets of Somali online existence, the lurking white and non-Muslim, non-Black gaze imposes its presence on this kind of cultural production. Indie Black Muslim creatives tend to create and produce art without feeling pressured to conform or cater to certain audiences, which is defiant in the face of brands that harness diversity only to capitalize off it. The pressure to be marketable and accessible to those that may not understand these realities is there, but in a world where representation is just glorified tokenization, these kind of spaces offer marginalized people an unexpected respite from the looming oversight of those that other unintentionally or intentionally them. As much as social media has held brands accountable for the lack of diversity, and people have seen gains from Rihanna being deliberately inclusive in her makeup line, it is important to note that a lot of people may just want a space where they belong and feel welcomed.
Documenting the existence of Somali women isn’t inherently radical, and it doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t need to be political either. To merely exist without the need to be more is far more interesting than inflicting on oneself with the need to make a statement of some sort. With the blatant erasure of Somalis in every space, I ask myself: what will matter in the end, the historical record of Black Muslim online existence, or the impact Black Muslims left behind? Similar to folklore, digital existence can be infinite and Araweelo Abroad has shown that there is something freeing about using online spaces to create never-ending universes and utopias that look Somali, Black and Muslim. For us, by us.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ummadda Media.