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Understanding Ethiopian Feminism

Understanding Ethiopian Feminism

Every girl has a story to tell when it comes to the sufferings and discrimination she has faced or seen her colleagues face because of gender biases. This ranges from exposing females to harmful traditional practices to division of labor. Although there are some progresses in urban areas regarding the way women are treated and seen among the society because of some activism and increasing awareness, Ethiopia has still a long way to go to realize equity of women. Much of the activism for women rights and equal opportunity are observed in the urban area especially among the educated youth. Among those that felt the lashes of societal perception of the women is Kidist Tadesse, a fourth-year engineering student at Addis Ababa University.

“Growing up in Ethiopia, I have felt that the society here is a very patriarchal society. It is not rare to hear expressions like ‘this is or isn’t a woman’s job’. And until this day, there are sayings that are used within the community to undermine women,” says Kidist.

Kidist shared her experience with The Reporter indicating that even if earlymarriage had been curbed and education opportunities are expanding, women are still expected to get married as soon as they graduate in order to take care of their family; in most cases their husbands are not willing to let them work alluding to the toxic masculinity system that seems to be deep-rooted in the society.

In many societies, there are number of groups that organize themselves to stand against the unfair privileges men enjoy only because of their gender and the challenges women face for the same reason. This activism has widely been understood as feminism; although the word has been understood differently according to who talks about it.

Feminism is a wave that has moved globally, and there have been many movements that support feminism. Here in Ethiopia, the concept of feminism is not as well known; however, there are the likes of yellow movement and a few groups that are promoting and advocating for feminism. While feminism is a less prominent concept, there are still struggles to ensure the equality of women in Ethiopia.

While these rights and equality movements in Ethiopia are advocating for a wider understanding regarding women, their place in society and the privileges that men have in the society, some are appreciative of some government actions like appointment of women in significant positions.

One applauded action is of Prime minister Abiy Ahmed (PHD) is making half of his cabinet female, appointing a female president and putting a woman at the head of the Supreme Court for the first time. But, many worry those changes will not sufficiently address the deep-rooted bias against women, subsequent harassment of and violence on women in the country. Ethiopia is on the bottom of the United Nations list on gender equality, ranking 121st out of 160 countries in 2018.

While feminism has been a general reference to women rights and equality in Ethiopia, historical background of feminism in Ethiopia is controversial. While some say that the Ethiopia community long before was a matriarchal society and that the country had some powerful women in history, like Queen Zewditu; yet, toxic masculinity lurks in the background of the society. For instance, cultures such as “Telefa,” where a man abducts a girl when he chooses to marry her; and others like female genital mutilation (FGM) are still practiced in some remote parts of the country.  

The term feminism, although not fully agreeable, is globally described as the political, cultural, and economic movements that aim to establish equal rights and legal protections for women. Over time, feminist activists have campaigned for issues such as women’s legal rights, in regards to contracts, property, and voting; body integrity and autonomy; abortion and reproductive rights, including contraception and prenatal care; protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape; workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; and against all forms of discrimination women encounter, according to various literature.

Setaweet (meaning ‘of women’ in Amharic) is the closest terms in Amharic language to carry the meaning of feminism. Tsion Molla, office manager of Setaweet, a feminist organization founded in 2014, says that more than 50 percent of the society in Ethiopia is not open to the idea of feminism. Setaweet has female as well as male members in their organization and they organize events, open sessions and panel discussions to increase awareness in the society. Most of their discussions focus on unpaid care work, domestic workers, religion and feminism. The organization is trying to bring consciousness to the idea of feminism.

They are currently planning to launch a survival project which includes a dedicated hotline that provides counselling for women. Tsion told The Reporter that some people think that when they advocate for the idea of feminism, they have another agenda, which is not the case. However, there are claims that some people are using the feminist badge for personal advantages, such as fame and to receive funding, as some movements and organizations are backed by funding.

Setaweet have also raised their concern to the justice reform groups around issues of domestic violence, gang rape and sexual harassment. For instance, street harassment is so normalized that it is not seen as a problem. They are working to amplify other women’s voice and provide training by various women scholars.

While, it is not uncommon to hear that feminism does not align with Ethiopia’s society, culture and religion, many believe that there are also economic problems in relation to this situation. And that western feminism does not apply to Ethiopia.

However, Tsion concludes by saying that it is a human question of equality and that the question of women equality also applies to Ethiopia not only the western world as the concept is global.

Feminism in Ethiopia may have different meaning for different people. Fedessa Aberra, a second-year medical student, claims to be against feminism because he believes that it tries to raise woman at the expense of men. Fedessa, however, says that this does not mean that he is against equality between men and women. Affirmative actions should be considered only for those who have been under-privileged. For instance, girls in rural areas should benefit from affirmative action because positive discrimination can sometimes create psychological impression that women are less capable than men. He says that he would even dare call it “extremism at its best”.

Some believe that the word feminism cannot be directly used in Ethiopia, as the society has a different culture and historical context and that the question of the equality of women is not a new one. When the word feminism is applied, it carries a political context within it. When feminism is adopted, it comes with its own politics of translations. Women’s right struggle can be seen throughout history of Ethiopia. For feminism to be applicable in Ethiopia there is a need for the realization of historical accountability and political category.

But, despite arguments that women are even uncelebrated in religious scriptures and other literatures that the country boasts to have inherited since more than a couple of thousand years, some mention that there are religious scriptures that celebrate women more than anything including ‘gedels’ (celebrated religious struggles or deeds of saints) of the Ethiopian orthodox church. Among these fewer known scriptures is ‘gedle Welete P’etros’ who is said to have struggled to women’s sexual liberations.

Feminism movements started in the US and the movement is characterized by generations named waves which were rooted in the US and so far, it is argued that there are three or four waves. During those times, there were discussions that feminism did not apply to African Americans as their struggles with others were not the same. Woman struggles differ from cultural, political and geographical context.

It could be realized that the word feminism in itself has to some extent a tainted image. It has been associated with men hatred, and other biases. In Ethiopia, the struggle of feminism is not a given, there is a need to understand the historical context so the essence of feminism can be used and applied.

Since this is a relatively popular phenomenon in Ethiopia currently, there is still a need to deeply analyze historical, cultural, religious background to understand the depth of the problem and the existence of toxic masculinity.

Contributed by Sesina Hailou