Kenyan leader challenges cultural biases

Traditional attitudes toward women are changing

Male-dominated Kenya is being dragged figuratively kicking and screaming into the modern world, the principle architect of that movement being The Honorable Sophia Abdi Noor, former Member of Parliament and founding member of Womankind Kenya. Noor spearheaded a drive, in 1997, to right institutionalized wrongs historically done to girls and women.

(l-r): Judge LaJune Lange, Sophia Abdi Noor, Tracey Williams-Dillard,
(l-r): Judge LaJune Lange, Sophia Abdi Noor, Tracey Williams-Dillard, Coventry Cowens

In the wake of that movement, she and women like her are, today, effecting desperately needed change. They continue to tackle issues like early marriage, wife inheritance, and the medieval cruelty of genital mutilation.

Noor introduced legislation to advance the human rights of women and girls. “I was able to mobilize other women,” Noor says while seated in the MSR conference room, “to come together.” Accordingly, advocates have been able to do something about problems that previously they didn’t even dare discuss.

These boons to women haven’t been welcomed by everyone; in fact, they are a bane to men who would just as soon things stayed the way they were. “Many men resent what we have done,” she says. “They think we have taken their power. They don’t like it.”

Which is too bad, because Sophia Abdi Noor and her colleagues are not about to be turned around now that they enjoy such a strong platform. Now that there has been progress.

“At one time, only two percent of girls were able to go to school. Today, it is 30 percent.” While that number still needs to improve, the progress to date is certainly impressive. “We have many girls who go to high school and to universities.”

What moved her to fight for equality in Northern Kenya, a region known throughout the world for relegating girls and women to second-class citizenship? She had to know it would be an uphill climb.

“I saw my mother divorced at a young age. She didn’t have any formal skills, working as a maid to support us. I saw sometimes that she was in so much pain. I didn’t want any other woman to suffer that way because of injustices in society.”

Her initial effort did not end well. The region’s first female to seek political office, running for Parliament, her nomination was cancelled by the president on the basis of cultural and religious contentions that a woman cannot lead in a Muslim community.

She refused to be set back. Noor spent several years as chief executive director of a local non-governmental organization, Womankind Kenya (www.womankindkenya.org). Then she turned around and ran again, this time winning a seat in the 10th Parliament of Kenya. Efforts to obstruct her had exactly the opposite effect.

“By this time I was visible and able to gain support from many people to change the infrastructure. It gave me a lot of courage, a lot of confidence. I didn’t stop one bit. I continued.”

She adds that this encouraged others to follow suit and work for change. “It gave me motivation, a platform. I was stronger than ever.”

If her name is news to you, search for Sophia Abdi Noor on the Internet and you’ll find pages featuring individual accomplishments and partnerships in social progress, such as her association with Twin Cities luminary Judge La June Lange. Lange, among career highlights, served on Hennepin County’s Fourth Judicial District Court, teaches international human rights and civil rights at William Mitchell College of Law, and is president of the International Leadership Institute (ILI) in Minneapolis. She is honorary consul to South Africa for the State of Minnesota.

Noor pursued her master’s degree in executive management and organizational development from African American Institute’s Transformational Leadership Program (TLP) at the United States International University in Kenya. She credits this program with fostering in her the confidence to pursue a political path improving disenfranchised neighborhoods.

To be sure, she has worked to help not only women but all victims of such plights as terrorism and natural catastrophes. In April 2015, gunmen stormed Garissa University College in Kenya, killing 147 people and injuring at least 80. Thanks to Sophia Abdi Noor’s efforts and her work with ILI, survivors of the attack are receiving aid, including bedding and school supplies. “Every Kenyan [has been] impacted because of my role in the constitutional review process, which has totally changed our system.”

 

Donations for ILI ‘s program in Garissa helping WomanKind Kenya can be mailed to LTL International Leadership Institute, 5021 Vernon Ave. South, PMB 136 , Minneapolis, MN 55436. There is a gathering Friday, June 12, 6–9 pm, at Kellogg Square Apartments’ event room, 111 Kellogg Blvd E., in St. Paul, hosted by ILI member and attorney Tisidra Jones. For more information, email info@internationalleadership.org. The Honorable Sophia Abdi Noor will speak about the challenges in Garissa for women and girls. The public is asked to bring twin-size bed sheets and school supplies.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.