Somali wedding ceremonies — an ‘unnecessary extravaganza?’

'Diaspora' weddings can include long-standing tradition, new extravagances

Hawa and her new husband Mahad decided to have a quiet wedding unlike most of their Somali peers in Minnesota while Guled and his new wife, Safiya, have opted for a wedding in Abubakar Sadique mosque. Mahad was escorted home, where he met the women with the bride ululating at the assigned time. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have any fanfare or dancing for their wedding ceremony. All the wedding formalities were performed in Nairobi where most of the family of the bride stays. In another setting, Jamila and Mohamed had a fully fledged wedding ceremony with a lunch feast, reception and dancing for the night in a hotel ballroom.

Marriage is one of the few social institutions that are hard to die and constantly develop despite the chaotic situation of the Somali society. The roles of the different members of society are clear. The elders are responsible for ensuring the welfare of the youth. They make sure the family of the chosen bride or groom is one that is worthy of marriage to their son or daughter. The men elders are the ones who ask for the hand of the bride during the Nikah, marriage contract, or sometimes in a preliminary meeting, dadabgal, for negotiation between the intermarrying families.

The women elders usually are busy getting the bride ready for her new home. They also take the responsibility of making sure the couple has a comfortable home at least for the first few weeks or the honeymoon as it is called in the west. So they acquire and set the home furniture and decorate the house. The bride makeup and dress also falls on their shoulders. Traditionally, the bride was washed in a basin full of a diluted fluid of dates and other scents mixed with water to make her skin shine. But modern day makeup needs her to be taken to a beauty salon for a hair do and hand and leg henna.

In Somali culture, the general management of a wedding ceremony is usually the work of the family of the bride. It takes weeks or even months of painstaking labor to fine tune the different aspects of an event. The family of the bridegroom is generally confined to the financing aspects of the new family wedding.

Something common for all Somali weddings is the set of cultural and Islamic rituals performed including the Nikah, tying the knot, and the asking for the hand of the pride by the elders of the bridegroom’s family or sub-clan. Usually this happens during and after the lunch feast. Speeches are interchanged by the representatives of the two families. The family of the groom asks — sometimes in fact begs — for the hand of bride to be married to their son. The Nikah stands for the actual marriage after the consent of the guardian of the pride. Ululations from the womenfolk follow the pronouncement of the words of the clergyman or the sheikh that the pride and groom are man and wife.

This is followed by the distribution of the sooryo, a sizable amount of money divided among those present. Each person around gets $10 or $20. Dozens of people usually get a share of it. Back in Africa, the sooryo was very important and was talked about for weeks after the wedding. The family who provided more money is perceived in a better social standing.

It is very common these days for divided families to have their weddings organized in different countries or continents, for that matter. Lunch feasts and Nikah meetings may be held in both the USA and Somalia or Kenya at the same time. Modern technology and the love of Somalis for travel have facilitated the exchange of images of the parties. The parents of the bride and groom can enjoy watching the wedding ceremony in VCR or DVD until they are satisfied that the necessary social requirements were performed. This has also the effect of all young girls aspiring to the standards of former weddings.

“Was the mother of so and so informed?” That is the typical question you hear asked during the approach of a Somali wedding ceremony. The oral invitation takes the place of the formal written invitation distributed by modern-day parties. There is a flurry of excitement and rush for weeks before the actual wedding date. Certain personalities are important for any successful wedding. It is a common thing to hear “I am not setting foot in that wedding unless I am formally asked by the family of the bride.” It is culturally taboo that a relative to the bride or the bride-groom, especially a woman, be invited to the wedding by a non-relative.

It seems the only news all Somali women follow tirelessly is the dates of weddings being held in their community whatever the individual reasons. Each of them gets ready weeks before the event for any wedding she is invited to. During the approach of the wedding ceremony a main preoccupation of all women is to talk about the new family, their ages, their characters, what kind of family they will make. A lot of gossip flies around.

The strange thing is that every woman must wear a new dress, dirac (a translucent nylon garment) for every event; something different from whatever she has worn for any wedding in the past. What is not known is where all the old diracs go. For sure they can’t wear them as common dress for work as it is too thin for that purpose. The see-through nature of the dirac is one of the reasons why men are not welcome in many women’s dancing halls. (Ironically, these dances are almost always video-taped and end up being watched by anyone who wishes.)

Women participate in many wedding ceremonies during the wedding season from spring to summer in Minneapolis. Back home, the nomadic wedding season was always coinciding with the rainy season. No rain or a drought meant no marriages for the youth that season. Likewise, there can be no celebrations here during the cold winter season when it is snowing which resembles the dry season in Somalia.

Nowadays two types of wedding ceremonies are held. We can call them the mosque versus the hall or ballroom. In the mosque no music is allowed and it is favored by the religious conservatives, while the hall is more of an extravagant affair where music, dancing and food are intermingled. In the Mosque women and men are separated by a curtain, but both can follow the proceedings conducted by the men folk during the Nikah. In the dancing and music hall, usually a rented hall in a hotel, men and women participate together.

A wedding is a happy event, and all involved should act that way. A lot of congratulations and smiles are interchanged by the neighbors, acquaintances and guests. Knowing smiles nudge the bride and groom. However, that doesn’t mean a wedding ceremony is without controversy.

Most arguments involve economic aspects. The huge amounts of expenses incurred are said to be too staggering for families from a poor country like Somalia. In Minnesota few wedding ceremonies move forward without the blessing of a Buraanbur writer. Fadumo Ali is the poet all prides aspire to have at the single most important occasion in their lives. Considered the guru of Somali Buraanbur and wedding poem writer, she pointed out in an interview with the Bridge the unnecessary extravaganza of some wedding ceremonies. “A huge amount of money, which is not appropriate, is spent during the wedding ceremony. They rent a ballroom in a hotel or another hall for $1500. Around $2000 is spent on the food feast for the lunch in the daytime and reception at night.”

Ali also believes that the women’s practice of having a new dress for every different event is a bad idea that should be changed “All their resources are exhausted in having a new dirac for each wedding. They don’t usually wear the one they had worn for a former event. To have a new one for every wedding ceremony is detrimental to their economy.”

Another matter which many people don’t agree to is the organizing of wedding ceremonies in mosques. Ali has a strong opinion about the matter and said “surprisingly the mosques are nowadays acting like hotel ballrooms for rent.” She went on to say: “To play dance and Buraanbur in the mosque is not an idea appealing to me.”

Food is distributed in all weddings though the mode of eating is different. In the mosque eating with the fingers and squatting on the floor is preferred while in the halls and ball rooms spoons, forks and plates are used in the European style and food is served on tables.

The big night is when the bride is taken home, as the Somali wisdom goes. Whether from a mosque, a ballroom or simply from the bride’s former home the escorting of the new family to their new home is a grand action taken seriously. As Ali points out, traditionally the men brought the groom walking among a group of men with a Dikrisalaan (singing with praise for Prophet Muhammad). But nowadays he is escorted with Somali music played by a band of professionals. Mostly the bride and groom move slowly with a lot of grandeur among the clapping guests and dancing musicians to the exit for them to board a limousine.

Sometimes during the ceremony of the big night the bride and groom dance a little with the other guests. That is a new custom to the Somali culture, which is borrowing more from other cultures such as their American and European counterparts. We may even see some couples kissing in front of the guests. This still looks rather weird in the eyes of some people.

Finally, the couple goes home and the organizers get some rest. The bridegroom must stay inside the home for the first seven days and enjoy life with his sweetheart. Any venture outside is frowned upon and may mean to some that there is something wrong with the lady. The groom’s family is obsessed with the virginity of the bride and they are waiting for a signal from their son. An early exit of the groom is sometimes used to indicate there is some complaint on his part. But almost all weddings are nowadays ended with success, as townspeople don’t have such complexities.

After a successful wedding, the episode is concluded with a farewell session called shaashsaar, which is strictly for women. This is an equivalent of certification that the bride is ready for motherhood. All the women who visit her during the shaashsaar must bring a present including a headscarf for the bride. Some bring dozens to be distributed among all the visitors. It is a custom dating to when only married women wore a headscarf, but unmarried girls were recognized by having their hair open and braided.

Asked whether he thinks he is better off now that he skipped the lavish wedding ceremonies of the day, recent groom Mahad said, “I don’t see why I should spend so much money. It is unnecessary extravaganza.”

While some might agree, Mahad may miss the high rating of his wedding on the short list of the ‘wedding of the year’.

last revised: October 1, 2008