Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

John Bowen


I argue that most Somalis living in exile in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya are deeply concerned with morality both as individually performed and proven, and as socially defined, authorized and constructed. In this dissertation, I explore various aspects of Somali morality as it is constructed, debated, and reinforced by individual women living in Eastleigh. I examine a variety of ways in which Somali women in Eastleigh identify morality and ethical behavior. I argue that this metaethical project is not an artifact of analysis, but is a useful way of capturing how Somalis in Kenya and elsewhere are undertaking a dialogue and exploration of what constitutes "the moral." The contours of such projects vary depending on local context, and I endeavor to look carefully at how this unfolds in one specific place, at one specific time. Yet I argue that some of the processes of metaethical reflection I describe here, and how they related to people's sense of Somali identity in diaspora, are active in other contexts as well. As I will show throughout this dissertation, this metaethical project designed to define the good and bad serves not only social ends, but individual, spiritual and psychological ones as well. This process has not created a univocal narrative or definition of the moral. Identifying the moral takes place within tensions between the clan structures, which organized social and moral worlds, and some nascent or even purely imagined social orders. It also emerges amidst and within the tensions among diverse ways of understandings Islamic commands and ethics, and within debates about mental and spiritual health. The metaethical project undertaken by Somalis in Eastleigh is one of multiple moralities and is therefore multivocal and contextually varied, even while it is the case that most of the people with whom I spoke saw themselves as engaged in such a project. Here I wish to highlight that the project of cultivating moral personhood extends both deeply within individual persons as well as extending far beyond them.


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