I called her a few days before I interviewed her. The authority and clarity in her voice throw me off balance for a second. This is my first interview, I am nervous but confident. However, when I meet her, her energy and smile uplifts all my worries, as she kindly ushers my friend and I into her office at USIU-Africa, where she is the Program Director and an Associate Professor of International Relations. Her office is neat, its walls adorned with pictures and its tables, awards, speaking volumes about her accomplishments. She is beautiful, with a focused gaze that is intimidating yet inviting. She sits on her chair and is ready to begin. My goal is one as I sit before her; to share with the world the life and thoughts of this remarkable woman; Dr. Fatuma Ahmed Ali. We begin…
Q; Who is Fatuma Ahmed Ali?
A; (smiles) I am a Kenyan-Somali, and a Muslim woman. I am a mother, a wife, an aunt, a sister and a daughter. I was born in Mombasa and bred in Eastleigh, Nairobi. Professionally, I am an Associate professor of International Relations at USIU-Africa and the Program Director for International Relations. I am an Independent consultant in the fields of social development, peace, conflict, gender and security. I am an academic activist; my area of activism is violence against women. As an activist, I use the academic platform of research, conferences, teaching, writing and publishing; I have just published a book (hands us the book) titled, ‘Mujeres y Guerra: Deconstruyendo la noción de victimas y reconstruyendo su papel de constructoras de la Paz’ (Women and War: Deconstructing the notion of women victims and reconstructing their role as peace builders). I am also a Visiting Faculty at Universitat Jaume I in Castellon de la Plana in Spain. Academically, I have a Bachelor of Arts International Relations (Major) with Minors in Sociology and Management (Hons) from United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa), an International Masters and European Doctorate (PhD with distinction) in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from Universitat Jaume I, Castellon de la Plana in Spain.
Q: You are very accomplished Maa shaa Allah, how did you get where you are today?
A: I never received anything on a silver platter, but rather I had stepping stones, thanks to all the support I got from my family, friends and academic mentors such as Professor Macharia Munene and Professor Vicent Martinez Guzman and of course Allah who has graced me abundantly. Growing up I didn’t attend fancy schools. I schooled in Eastleigh, for primary and secondary education. However, it is the discipline I acquired at St. Teresa Girls Secondary School that shaped me into the morally upright person I am today. It was a catholic school run by the Loreto sisters (nuns) and they were strict on how a girl should be bred, regardless of her religion. I learnt principles such as discipline of time and promise keeping.
Q: Tell us about your time in Spain
A: Let me first begin by saying that, I have visited all continents except Australia and nothing beats my experience in Spain. It was the turning point of my life. Prior to the first time I went to Spain, I had never slept outside my parents’ house and being there on my own, I had my life in my hands. It is then that I learnt to manage my time, finances, my social life, practically my life and deal with culture shocks. I also learnt so much about my culture, values, Spain and about the Spanish people. I love the Spanish language and consider it my first language and I express myself better in it than in any other language. Even though I studied in Spain, in the last 10 years I have been going back there every year from August to December for professional (as a visiting faculty to teach the introductory course on Peace and Cultural Studies at the Universitat Jaume I in Spain) and personal reasons.
Q: What were your challenges in Spain?
A: Wearing the hijab in Spain was definitely a challenge. Spain was colonized by Muslims during the Islamic civilization for 7 centuries; this history, the recent stereotypes, image regarding the hijab and their experience with their neighboring Maghreb countries I guess makes nervous about the hijab and the implications it represents. There is proof of the Islamic civilization in Spain; for instance, there are Arabic words in the Spanish language, names, and some aspects of culture, especially in places like Granada and Cordoba. Too many people who have limited contact with Islam, the hijab for them represented oppression of women, so to some people around me, I represented an oppressed Muslim woman who was incarcerating herself despite being miles away from home. I always say my dress my choice.
Q: Maa shaa Allah, how do you balance being a career woman and family? Does one lag behind?
I am a perfectionist. That means I rarely delegate any duties to anyone and this can be very exhausting. I am all about the finer details, but eventually I try my best to balance between my private and professional life. And also give my family quality time especially during the weekends.
Q: Tell us a bit about family and motherhood
A: I have two beautiful children, Kamil and Khairan, and an amazing husband who also doubles as my friend and confidante. They are my source of happiness and inspiration. My husband is a Somali, Tanzanian and works in Spain, which means that our marriage is a long distance one. We are now married for 7 years. We communicate all the time and we are part of each other’s day despite the distance. It is usually family time when I go to Spain for the 4 months to teach and I unwind then with my family by spending quality time.
Q: You put your career before marriage which is odd being a Somali lady, what can you say about that?
A: (laughs) I am the ‘untypical’ Somali woman. The path I took did not allow for marriage. I had goals to achieve. When I was doing my undergrad I knew that I would have to delay had decline marriage proposals because I didn’t want to multi task-with a new family on one hand, and studies on the other. Being the eldest, in a Somali household I was expected to get married quick so as to pave way for the others. Continued studying was peculiar for a girl my age. I was however able to overcome the pressure and I kept my eye on ball. Actually, my circles got used to my single status, respecting and accepting it as well.
Q: You are passionate about women, what is your take on those who undergo domestic violence.
A: It is unfortunate that domestic violence has been normalized. However, domestic violence represents a variety of different types of violence such as psychological, physical, emotional, structural and cultural violence. I know many women who accept abuse from their spouses and justifying it. Sometimes, ladies in our community especially in the Somali community don’t understand the meaning of love. They think love is when a man who buys you gold, but is cheating on you proves his love. I try to create awareness on violence, material love and that that is not how it should be through my academic activism.
Women have to stop conforming to the norm that make them deaf, dumb, blind and numb to things happening around them. Also do not pressurize women to marry early because this may lead to a loveless marriage which might be a cause of domestic violence.
Q: Is there a way out for these women?
A: The first thing they need is Courage to realize their situation in order to change. They need to stand up for themselves. They could seek help from the Khadi’s court. Open up forums to enlighten these girls. Talk to them about these things. Give these women psychological support. We come from of a culture of shame. ‘Don’t bring your family or the honor of your family down’, is what they are told when they address their issues. To the future girls; Break the chains; don’t follow the norms just because they are norms.
Q: What are your challenges as an individual?
A: Networking. I want to be noticed for my merit and not because of who I know. Today that is almost impossible as you have to know somebody with influence to get into jobs/schools. I applied to several places but I have not received any responses despite being qualified.
Secondly, being a Muslim Somali woman people don’t expect me to be a PhD holder. They usually expect an older woman and there are a lot stereotypes and myths of oppression surrounding educated Muslim women as lacking agency and their voice.
Some people have the assumption that we Muslim women are just good at making Pilau. I tell such people; I know how to cook that Pilau, but I also have a PhD.
Q: What are your future goals?
A: To be able to start an initiative to allow girls and women opportunity to also excel academically. Secondly, I would like to represent my country internationally. I feel more proud as a Kenyan when I am abroad. I would also like to further broaden my academic activism concerning women’s issues.
Q: Given that you have such a busy life, how do you unwind?
A: I spend time with my kids. They give me so much pleasure. I like walking a lot because it helps disconnect and relieve tension. Of course I like to watch telenovelas (smiles). That’s actually how I partially learnt Spanish. I love reading, mainly autobiographies; Currently, I am reading Wangari Maathai’s autobiography UNBOWED.
Feeling quite empowered, we leave Dr. Fatuma’s as she has to rush to class. She sees us off, just as she had welcomed us; with grace. I choose to call her La paloma que despliega sus alas (The dove that spreads its wings) because she truly explored her full potential through the stepping stones that were availed to her by the people in her life. She is an achiever. Maa shaa Allah.
This interview was carried out and first published by muslimahacks.com.