Ethiopian Feminism, A Critique

Part 1

Attempting to provide counter arguments against any idea of mainstream feminism, let alone an actual critique, quickly gets one labeled as ignorant and intellectually backward. So to avoid such knee jerk reactions, I’ll start by stating that I strongly believe in the equality of the sexes and in the necessity of providing equal opportunities for both men and women. My professional life revolves around improving the knowledge and health outcomes of vulnerable women. I’ve spent years in liberal institutions living among women who live and breathe women’s rights and I have lived it right there next to them.

In this article I want to address Ethiopian feminism in particular. Social media, that place where we all ‘speak,’ vent, and scream for thousands to hear, is where I started learning more about feminism as it is practiced in Addis Ababa. I constantly hear about how tough “feministing in Addis” can be. Living in such a “sexist society,” it seems, is taking its toll on the women trying to get their message of equality out there to the community that needs to hear and understand it the most. One source of the frustration revolves around the misunderstanding of the term feminism itself. I read somewhere coming from a particularly frustrated woman, “Do you believe in the equality of men and women? Then you are a FEMINIST!” underlying the fact that everyone should embrace feminism instead of hating, or worse, ignoring it. While I understood the frustration, my reaction was – “well… not quite.” This is my attempt to try to work/think through the why of this matter.

I grew up in Addis in a family where women’s issues was constantly a point of discussion – the lack of educational, economic and political opportunities for women were abysmal, to say the least and we were acutely aware. While we were never told to go out there and save our fellow women, there was an understanding that the minimum thing expected from us, girls, was to at least save ourselves and stand on our own two feet. Generally, it was understood that economics was the key – poverty was choking our whole nation to death, and it seemed to be choking women in particularly harsh ways. ‘Ay ye Ethiopia set’ my uncle used to say, ‘sentun chela?’

While these issues and their discussions still persist today, there seems to be a slight shift in focus. Maybe it’s not a shift, maybe it’s a broadening of the idea of women’s rights itself. I’m not quite sure. What I’m sure of, and what has been the source of slight frustration for me, is the change in vocabulary, thus discussion and focus around women’s rights. I see real issues being wrestled with, discussed and addressed constantly (real issues broadly being defined here as creating educational, economic and political opportunities for women who have been deprived of it). But at the same time, some ideas from western feminism have seeped into this same discourse without the necessary depth of analysis that is required when attempting to take and implant an idea from one particular society to another. This is the source of my concern, this is what leaves me fearful. If the discourse doesn’t change to fit our particular society, feminism in Addis will start to be viewed as not only out of touch but potentially dangerous.

To help us navigate through this discussion, I want to quickly glance through some ideas of western feminism. Western-feminism, in the US particularly, began with what is called ‘first-wave feminism,’ where the movement focused on attaining equal political and legal rights for women. Female suffrage was its principal goal (American women were granted the right to vote in 1920). In the early 1960s, what is termed as ‘second wave feminism’ began, going beyond achieving political emancipation and concerning itself with the economic and social rights of women. Increasing number of women were joining the workforce and rejecting traditional gender roles both in their homes and workplace. This was also a time when the sexual revolution of the 1960s took place, marking a time that involved a rejection of traditional sexual norms. Today’s western feminism charges even further and attempts to question and redefine ideas and words that are viewed as limiting to women. For example, gender roles (viewed as a social construct i.e. our ideas of gender are not biological but socially influenced), femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and male privilege (the thinking that men are benefiting from a patriarchal system that is victimizing and harming women) are some of the ideas that are constantly at the center of dialogue among feminists.

Western feminism has greatly influenced the way women’s rights, thus feminism, is practiced in the rest of the world, including Ethiopia. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ideas travel. If that wasn’t the case, it would have been only the Athenians practicing democracy today. Nevertheless, it is a necessity that we exhaust – through deep study, reflection and dialogue, which ideas are well grounded, thus worth inheriting, and which are weak, thus in need of disregard. We should not and cannot accept an idea simply because it’s part of a general ideology we are attracted to. There is no need for Ethiopian feminism to fully align with western feminism, we can take what works within our societies and make sure we leave behind what doesn’t.  

It’s no secret that Ethiopia is a socially conservative nation with deep religious and cultural beliefs dictating daily living. Some of our traditions have been dangerous and harmful, and we’ve collectively agreed and have worked/are still working towards eliminating them. Female genital mutilation, abduction or telefa and rape being good examples. The women rights activists I watched growing up took on these issues head on, fought to change laws and policies, organized to increase educational opportunities for girls and provided them that rare sweet opportunity of choice. They attempted to create economic opportunities so that women can work outside of their homes to contribute to their families’ income, increasing the general well-being of families. These goals, most logical men and women, religious/traditional or otherwise, could get behind, since the argument for protecting and bettering the wellbeing of the family, thus the community, is relatively an easy one to make.

Today in Addis Ababa, the dialogue seems to have broadened. Now, relatively recent concepts of western feminism such as male privilege and mansplaining (men condescendingly explaining to women about something they have incomplete knowledge of, assuming they know better) have started to be discussed alongside issues of rape and women’s lack of educational opportunities. The lack of women in high positions of power and the trampling of the proverbial glass ceiling is discussed with a higher fervor than one might expect given the fact that it’s a handful of middle and upper class women that are facing this issue. Now, feminists view the world exclusively through the ‘feminist lens’ to such an extent that at times we forget that everything in society is not about power structures between the seemingly privileged (men) and the victim (women).

Prioritizing the discussion of male privilege, for example, in a nation where men have their own set of sufferings – abhorrent levels of unemployment, poverty, literacy, and life expectancy – is akin to discussing the down side of munching on Kitfo with a beggar on the street. It’s a potentially useful information, but you have to keep in mind she/he’s currently more focused on finding some kolo to tame the grumbling stomach. When discussing male privilege, if we’re thinking about matters such as, why it’s only women who do the cooking and child rearing and not men and why it’s men who have “better” careers (legitimate concerns), then maybe we’d first want to reflect on why we imagine there to be an inherent good in working outside of the home and an inherent bad in cooking in the kitchen. Before starting to accuse men with an opinion as mansplainers, maybe we should stop to consider that the identity of her womanhood is not the first thing a man sees when talking to a woman.

While we may believe that some of our cultures or religions have held women back in various ways, we still may want to recognize that not all things religious or traditional are negative. We may want to recognize that there are wisdoms in these teachings (which at times have been backed by strong historical and scientific evidence) that modern educated liberals have not fully grasped or refuse to accept. Mainstream feminism, as it’s practiced in the west today, has moved so much to the left of the political spectrum that, while 85% of American women believe in women’s rights, only 18% identify as feminists. Feminism is not the simple idea that men and women are equal. This might have been the definition in 1920, it is not the definition today. Feminism is an ideology with a history and a belief system that, at times, directly contradicts with the basic cultural and religious value systems that have served and benefited our societies for millennia. If we hope to better the circumstances of Ethiopian women and girls that are currently trapped by poverty and lack of opportunity, we’d need to carefully listen to the heartbeat of own nation, not the remnant heartbeat of others.

Tena Yistelegn.