Hawo Tako 1930s-1948

Hawo Tako (also known as Xawa Taako or Hawa Osman) was a political activist who has become a symbol of Somali nationalism. Although the reality of her life is largely unknown, she is an important figure within the Somalia’s oral culture, representing the country’s struggles against colonialism.

In January 1948, a panel of Allied powers called the Four Powers Commission was convened. Comprised of the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, and held in Mogadishu, it was established to distribute Italian territories in the Horn of Africa in the aftermath of World War II. The existence of the panel became a flashpoint for political acrimony between the Italian community and the Somali Youth League (SYL) of which Hawo Tako was a member. Each group sought to influence the commission in favour of their respective interests. For Italy, bruised by its defeat in World War II, retaining Somalia was a matter of honour. They sought to administer Somalia for another thirty years. On the other hand, large numbers of the Somali population demanded independent nationhood.

On the 11th of January, the SYL organised a demonstration in support of independence for Somalia. Demonstrators waved flags and chanted poetry by the Somali poet Hawa Jibril. The Italian colonial governor sent police and Somali mercenaries to counter the demonstration, and a melee broke out between the groups. The aftermath was a bloodbath which left 51 Italians dead, as well as 17 Somalis – including Hawo Tako.

One account of her death is that when the Italian-led forces arrived, the SYL split into two groups, one of which was led by Hawo, where she fought valiantly until she was killed. According to Halimo Godane, she and Hawo had remained in the headquarters of the Somali Youth League when the violence erupted. Godane says that as the Italians attacked the SYL building, Mohamed Hirsi Noor – a founding member – was shot in the doorway. Hawo was killed when she came to his aid. Other accounts present more dramatic details: that she was killed by a poisoned arrow; that she died in front of her children.

The following year, riots broke out in Mogadishu when Somalis learned that the UN General Assembly was considering returning Somalia to Italian rule. Ultimately, a compromise solution was brokered through a proposal from the SYL: Italy were granted trusteeship of Somalia – but under close supervision and with the requirement that Somalia would be independent within a decade.

Within Somalia’s oral culture, Hawo Tako became a symbol of Somalian nationalism and the role of women within that movement. Her iconic status became formalised in the 1970s after Sayid Barre took power in a military coup. President Barre’s socialist regime capitalised on her fame in order to identify his government as being supportive of women’s interests and to attract the support of Somali women. Accordingly, he condemned the exploitation of women in the family and the workplace on political grounds.

Significantly, a law which instituted a modernised code of family law was pronounced on the anniversary of Hawo’s death in 1975. Barre announced the law by stating ‘As from this day Somali men and women are equal.’ Twenty-four years after her death, Barre built monuments throughout Mogadishu in ‘honour of symbolic nationalist figures and events in Somali history’. One of these monuments was a statue of Hawo Tako, erected near the National Theatre, depicting her armed with a sword and a stone. She also appears on the 100 shilling bill, carrying a rifle and a shovel, with a baby strapped to her body, representing a vivid symbol of Somali women’s courage, strength and endurance, and their role in the building of the nation.

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