Spiking taboos in Kenya

Somali refugees stay true to tradition while challenging taboos.

Published March 20, 2006 11:48PM (EST)

Thanks to reader Katherine, from New York, for alerting us to a story that continues this weekend's sudden eruption of Broadsheet-relevant articles in the New York Times. The piece highlights an interesting development at a Somali refugee camp in northeastern Kenya that is at once radical and traditional. Women are sporting hijabs -- a traditional flowing head scarf--while daring to play volleyball, despite strict religio-cultural ideals that hold such play as unfeminine.

But the hijab doesn't quite keep up with the fast pace of the game -- it shifts at all the wrong moments and gets tangled around one's legs. Quite frankly, it seems entirely incongruous with athleticism. But I couldn't be more OK with that -- these women are already negotiating incredibly thorny cultural taboos. Just the sight of women spiking the ball, jumping and lunging is enough to stop traffic (in this case, typically foot traffic) at any of the three refugee camps surrounding Dadaab. As Farhiyo Farah Ibrahim, a volleyball player in Dadaab, told the Times, this rebellion, while muted by their adherence to traditional dress, is still pretty provocative: "Some people think that if girls play sports they are prostitutes. Our parents were embarrassed. They had bad feelings about girls playing outside."

Interestingly, the U.N. has partnered with Nike to bring the ladies of Dadaab uniforms that are a little more conducive to jumping and running around in the often stifling heat. In a surprisingly culturally sensitive move, Nike sent designers to Dadaab last year to listen to the girls' concerns. The resulting designs were discussed at a community meeting, and one of the less conservative designs was chosen. The new design chucked some of the problematic excess material but stayed true to traditional head-to-toe covering. "Our arms will be free now," Hamdi Hassan Hashi told the Times. "There won't be as much cloth in the way." Here's to all the unrestricted digs and spikes they can dish out.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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