A holiday just for women
Starting from the wee morning hours of Thursday morning August 22, the town of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Regional State, was overwhelmed by the festival like feeling of Ashenda. From the beginning of the week, markets and hair salons have been so busy the entire week, many businesses were open late unlike other times of the year as well as hotels were booked up by international and mostly local tourists. As the days of the holiday approached, Ashenda songs were heard everywhere from tv and radio stations. You can see women getting their hair done and going back home late in the evening. During the day, the market is full of people trying to buy traditional clothes and jewelry for the holiday. From early in the morning on the first day of Ashenda, women dressed in traditional clothes and hair done in a traditional style, started dancing with drums and signing. They enter many of the neighborhood’s cafes and danced and sang and did even more when they get rewarded for their efforts.
On the eve of Ashenda, Nahomin, who is a middle school student age 14, said: “I am always excited for this year-round, when Ashenda is celebrated. I have been getting ready for a while and been planning my outfit. I have been trying on different traditional dresses in order to choose which one I like the most and I have finally chosen a Raya traditional dress to go with my hair. I am getting my hair done in style called Gamearab, that originates from Raya as well. I feel overwhelmed about the holiday” and when asked about women empowerment she said, “there is a huge connection between Ashenda and women empowerment and the concept of feminism”.
During the first day of Ashenda, women were excited and going around town and singing. Even men were dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothes as well as taxies had the traditional grass on the front or the back of the car. Unlike previous years, this year’s Ashenda was celebrated enormously. More than 100,000 people were celebrating Ashenda inside the Tigray International Stadium, Mekelle. People came together to celebrate in unity regardless of their age, gender, religion and political opinion to celebrate this holiday. Women said they felt empowered and excited about the holiday. The holiday’s focus is women and even though the concept of feminism may not be as well known, but the feeling of empowerment and being celebrated was well-felt. From a feminist perspective, Meheret, who is an activist and member of the yellow movement stated that “Ashenda is an inspiring culture for women, it is about self-expression and creativity”. She also added that this culture encourages women to be out-spoken and to embrace their identity.
Like many others, two sisters, Rahel and Senait from Addis Ababa who are in their twenties came with their family to Mekelle to celebrate the holiday. They claimed that they were excited as it was the very first time that they are celebrating Ashenda. They were surprised by how people unite together to celebrate the holiday. They said that they felt extremely happy to witness the unity of society in such a cheerful way. This was the first time that they have celebrated Ashenda and they found it empowering and an enjoyable experience. And said they will continue celebrating for years to come.
There were many local people celebrating the holiday, and the Diaspora community was also present in participating on Ashenda. Like other Diasporas, a mother and daughter also came from Saudi Arabia to celebrate Ashenda after eight years, it has been many years since they have celebrated Ashenda and said they were so excited to celebrate with the local people after so many years. Both the mother and daughter were dressed in beautiful traditional clothing. They felt emotional to once again reunite with the community and celebrate Ashenda.
During the celebration in the stadium, many artistes attended the event with a multitude of people singing and dancing. All the women were dressed in traditional clothing and most have had their hair done in Shuruba or Gamearab. During the first day of celebration the President of Ethiopia Sahlework Zewdie made a speech where all cheered to her words. President Sahlewerk mentioned that this is women’s day, that women’s rights should be respected and protected. This day is special for all women and it does not discriminate by religion or culture, she said. All women from all religions celebrate this holiday whether they are children, youth or elderly. She also added that “we will fight until Ashenda/Sheedey is registered by the UNESCO” as a cultural heritage. People in the stadium cheered up on hearing her speech. Alongside President Sahlework, there were other officials including Vice President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD).
According to public relations officer of the Tigrayan Women Association, Elsa Mehari, this holiday displays women rights, freedom, and responsibility. Ashenda has also helped the society become aware of women’s rights and equality, she told The Reporter. It is a holiday that makes women feel empowered, she said.
During the days of Ashenda, all the focus is on girls and women. However, as much as Ashenda is such a beautiful and unique holiday, she mentions that there are still some negative aspects, for instance some youngsters might get in trouble such as irresponsible drinking and unsafe sexual activities.
This holiday is dedicated for women and is traditionally celebrated for three days by city girls. Then girls from nearby villages celebrate it for another 3 days. So totally about one week starting from August 22. After this ends there will be Ashenda in Axum for two days called Ayniwarie. They gather around different areas of the city or villages and divide into small groups and start singing, playing drums and dancing. They stop at every house within the neighborhood to sing as well as dance for the people passing by. It is a custom for people to give them food, drinks, money and other items for their performance. In Ethiopia, there are many cultural and religious holidays. This specific holiday is dedicated to girls and women, which makes it very special unlike other national or religious holidays. It is celebrated Tigray and Amhara regional states. The holiday starts right after the end of two weeks of fasting period of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church in commemoration of the Virgin Mary.
Public relations co-ordination of the Culture and Tourism Bureau of Tigray, Abado Desta, said that Ashenda is a holiday rich in language, culture, clothes and jewelry. He claims that the season of Ashenda is very attractive. The jewelry they use and the clothes they wear are unique. Ashenda songs contain many appealing lyrics. There has been an application sent on March 31 for Ashenda to be registered by the UNESCO as a cultural heritage. Abado says: “Ashenda gives Ethiopia a positive image. The holiday is both historical and religious. Through religion, it starts right after the fasting season of Filseta ends and traditionally women go to church first thing in the morning of the first day of Ashenda. Throughout history, Ashenda has been celebrated since ancient times. Moreover, culturally, this is a women’s holiday and it is a day of freedom, freedom of women.”
He also said that there are over 80,000 local tourists; however, the number of international tourists is small as it is not well known. He added that the Ministry of Tourism and Culture are working on promoting Ashenda internationally by preparing festivals, encouraging it to celebrated locally, and through many media promotions. He also said that other people can celebrate Ashenda, as it is mainly celebrated in Tigray and parts of Amhara, however, he invites others to celebrate Ashenda and promote the holiday in other places.
Ed.’s Note: Sesina Hailou is on an internship at The Reporter.
Contributed by Sesina Hailou