Interracial marriage still new in Somali community

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When Idil Mohamed walks down the street with her husband, they often attract stares, and sometimes rude comments.

"Just the other day we were walking together and this guy yelled out the window and he said, 'interracial,'" Mohamed said. "Yeah, obviously, you can see that."

Idil Mohamed is Somali, and wears the Muslim headscarf. Her husband, Julian Chippendale, is white. He converted to Islam before they met on a Muslim dating website. Chippendale agrees that he and his wife attract attention when they're in public.

"We get very strange looks any time we are together," Chippendale said. "Often times, I myself wouldn't feel necessarily as uncomfortable, but my wife often does not even want to be seen holding my hand, because it's awkward because of all the looks."

Idil Mohamed came to America when she was 12 years old. She said culture and race were not factors for her in choosing a husband, but her family did not feel the same way.

"My family were shocked, because I was the first person to actually marry outside of my race," Mohamed said. "Except for my aunt. My aunt was very supportive of me marrying him, but everyone else was totally opposed to it."

After she married Chippendale, Idil Mohamed's relationship with some of her family members frayed. Some close family members started to distance themselves from her.

"They really want this to work out but they don't fully accept it. It sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable," Mohamed said. "I want to have a good relationship with everyone in my family. I want to be able to visit my relatives and feel well accepted. But hopefully with time it'll change."

It's been nearly 20 years since Somali refugees first began settling in Minnesota, but there is little data on Somalis and interracial marriage in the state. Hassan Mohamud, the imam of Minnesota Da'wah Institute in St. Paul, said he is officiating more interracial marriages these days at his mosque, especially between Somali women and white men.

"We see more Somali females marrying outside of the Somali culture, compared to the Somali men marrying outside of the culture," Mohamud said.

Somali women like Idil Mohamed are breaking the social norms of marriage and cultural traditions in their community.

Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, said the pattern of women being the first to marry outside the group is similar to that of other immigrant groups.

"Today it's a very strong and pronounced pattern that girls are more likely to marry out than boys," she said. "I don't think that really anyone in the scholarly world completely understands that phenomenon or why that should be."

Gabaccia said it could be due to some American men seeing foreign women as exotic. But she said one line people are less willing to cross is religion.

"I think in today's world, religion remains at least as important, and perhaps even more important, than race," said Gabaccia.

But marrying a non-Somali, even if he is Muslim, concerns many Somali parents who are not yet ready to accept that love is color blind.

Hassan Mohamud, the imam of Da'wah, said parents often have difficulty embracing their future sons and daughters-in-law.

"I had one case that the father said, 'I don't care who is the groom. I don't want my daughter to marry any non-Somali person,'" Mohamud recalled. "We asked why? He said, 'I want to communicate to the husband of my daughter, and I don't speak the language, I don't know the culture.'"

The confusion runs both ways. Imam Hassan Mohamud said non-Somali men usually come to him and ask questions related to Somali marriage, and the expectations that they give financial support to the bride's relatives and money or gifts to the parents.

Despite these big responsibilities for grooms, Julian Chippendale said about 30 of his Caucasian friends are married to Somali women, and he often gets teased by his male Somali friends.

"Often times, it's with friends of mine and brothers who are just joking with me, but often times it's just like: 'You all cadaan, all you white guys, you are just stealing our women, what is wrong with you.' They do in a joking fashion," said Chippendale.

Acceptance has come slowly from his in-laws. Idil Mohamed's parents don't speak English, so, Chippendale tries to speak to them in Somali.

"I call her 'hooyo,' mother in Somali. We are very close and we talk all the time," said Chippendale. "My Somali is not the best, but I try to get by and connect with her as much as I can."