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.

14 thoughts on “Ethiopian Feminism, A Critique

  1. While I admire your bravery to take on such a controversial issue, you line of argument is barely unique. In fact, it’s one of those common defence mechanisms in Ethiopia to the ideals of feminism. ‘Kegna bahal ena Haymanot wuchi new’ they would say. The thing is, why preserve a part of a culture that marginalizes half of its population? Besides, it takes two to maintain these male-female traditional relations. And some of us women are done with the double standards, and the unrealistic expectations that crucify women for not performing their triple roles (or burdens), while celebrating men for being born men. Otherwise, you would’ve seen women fighting alongside men to preserve this ‘culture’ of male dominance.

    Also, playing traditional male and female roles isn’t as simple as it may seem. Because it doesn’t stop there; but it travels to schools, the work place and everywhere else and affects each and every aspects of our lives, and not in a good way. What do you think will happen when you tell girls to speak on low voices as girls should, or let boys brake the rules ‘ as they are only being boys’. And you wonder why we don’t see many women leaders and why we see many men resorting to violence to settle their issues. These ‘traditional ‘ roles reinforce these chuvenistic views which have no place in the modern world.

    Last but not least these prejudices are the root causes of the gender gap in human development that we observe every where today. And closing the gender gap isn’t something we get to once we achieve economic development or overcome poverty; closing the gender gap is how we achieve human development. So, I respectfully have to disagree with your argument here.

  2. Tsega, thank you for your comment. I do hear your frustrations. I was born and raised in Addis and know too well the double standards. If you reread my statements, you’ll realize I am not saying ‘Kegna bahal ena Haymanot wuchi new,’ only that we should only adopt ideas after fully understanding them. I recognize the problems you mentioned exist, how we are going about solving them is what I’m finding problematic. What I have observed is a lot of preaching to the choir (which I’m a part of btw) and no real wrestling with the foundational ideas of feminism. Unless strategies are changed, people that need to be reached out to, will never truly hear the message you’re sending. I think, first we need to do a deep analysis on what message we want to send, why and how we want to send it. There also need to be more research to fully understand the problems themselves. For example, is it really the case that “prejudices are the root cause of the gender gap in human development?” The root cause? How do we know this is the case? what studies have been done to make this a fact? We can’t state it as fact because we feel it to be true. And are men really more “developed” than women?… What worries me, all the arguments I hear from feminists in Ethiopia is almost a direct translation of the language that’s used in the West, frighteningly so. This makes me wonder if feminism in Addis is simply an ideology that’s been pushed without the necessary studies of both the pros and cons of the said ideology. There have been many studies that have been replicated that contradict (empirically so) some strongly held feminist views, but I have not heard a single one of them being discussed to say the least. I don’t see nuance in the discussions. My final point will be, I’m not denying the problems exist, we need to be aware of how we’re going about solving them. Otherwise we’ll be having the same discussion 50 years from now. I appreciate hearing your take. Thanks!

    1. Rihana, I apologise for the late reply, I lost the page 😦

      You asked whether I have proof of the claim “prejudices are the root cause of the gender gap in human development?” and if men really more “developed” than women?
      There’s huge body of both empirical and theoretical literature which can attest to these facts. Just refer to the annual gender gap report (WFP, 2017) and you will see how bad we are doing in all sub-indices starting from economic to political empowerment.

      What else explains the gender- gap in human development, the feminization of poverty, the gender- segregation in the labour market? but prejudices against girls/women, the conviction of what their roles and place in the society should be, and the disregard for their potentials and challenges.

      I do understand your concern about the influence of Western Feminism in our country, and the need for context here. But, we have leant(and still learning) many great ideals from West the like democracy  . And what if I don’t want to be mansplained and interrupted by men in the office or refuse to be boxed in to what patriarchy dictates me to be (as an urbanized women), will that take away my fight for poor, rural women of my country? I think not.

      Sincerely ,


  3. Thank you very much for taking your time to share your ideas on this subject, I appreciate the effort. It makes me to question myself, thank you!

    If I comprehend all what you wrote very well, your concern/critique is on how ‘Addis feminism’ is being implemented, ways in which the idea of feminism portrayed simplistic, how it embrace the western feminism ideology without hesitation and imposing it to ourselves or/ country, the way it is communicated, framed, how the very idea of the west is implemented without backing it with the necessary research, as a result, how the actions and deeds might never reach the “women” we all hope to benefit because of our lack of strategically accommodating social norms, above all how it failed in looking feminism from the broader view of complex history, culture, politics, religion and power.

    I would love to know if I get you right or if I am close enough.

  4. Edom. Yes, you got it. It is a complicated topic and I feared that the depth of analysis taking place was not deep enough. We can’t look at feminism without, like you said, understanding history, culture, politics, religion, power and even subjects like human biology, psychology, evolution. I also realized, while the movement is slowly picking up, for it to be effective it has to deal with real critique from others, otherwise the chances of growth will be quite limited. I’m very happy that reading this made you question yourself, (My goal in reading anything is to always question myself and my assumptions), if I’ve actually done that, then my job is done for the day =) Thank you for your comment Edom!

  5. Thanks for making it clearer, I feel I understand your perspective well now.

    Most of your concern, am sensing is the way it is implemented or communicated. The people who are doing it are not backed by any institution be it government or anything other than volunteerism. Making the general effort a novice. That is not a way to get an excuse, but it is the reality. Including a very critical perspective like you do, will be an advantage and gives me a hope to look in to.

    Here are some of my questions, what kind of deep conversation regarding the feminist movement is missed/hidden/shadowed? how can we make it broader and inclusive, how can we show its complexity while keeping it simple? How did we engage other groups be it national international without undermining our uniqueness? How can you personally contribute to this “movement” in addition to the conversation you already started?

    1. I’m glad you pointed out that the movement is being initiated by a group of people who’re not being backed by any strong institutions, be it government or otherwise. I always try to remind myself of that fact and be understanding of the current limitations of the movement.

      You ask very important questions! I’m not sure I have the answers. In terms of practical suggestions, for instance I think it would be great if different researches can be reviewed and debated around topics, such as the gender pay gap, implicit bias, mansplaining, male privilege… We should not take these, often cited phrases, at face value and take them as fact. They might be fact, but we should do enough research to be able to explain how we came to that conclusion. Also, I’m not sure how active/strong Addis Ababa University is on research around women’s rights. But More research needs to be conducted around the topic. It would also be great to have conversations with other men and women who disagree with the movement and really hear them and see how best their concerns can be addressed. These are only a few suggestions I can think from the top of my head. In terms of what I personally can contribute, based on my circumstances, I think my efforts will best be useful If I attempt to facilitate different conversations around the topic and of course, continue to educate myself. Thanks Edom!

  6. I do feel your concerns and I really appreciate you coming out about it. It is such kind of brevity that is lacking in our women, including myself. And I do share your point that by preaching ‘Feminism’ and introducing some catchy concepts in to the narratives of ‘the struggles of Equality’ in Addis or in the country in general might not be all that we want. I also understand your fear that the concepts and ideas contained in them might be ill fit to our context.
    But I believe that if we are to give names to the problems that women, even those of us who are believed to be better off, are facing, I am afraid we won’t go much further than those very terms used in the feminist movements of the West. That is because feminism is to women as socialism was or is claimed to be the ‘Proletariat’. It is an ideology of the oppressed trying to give names to the problems. The struggle is Universal and has a similar root in society. The same system, social structure, and set of beliefs are to be held accountable. I stand to be corrected but I do not see how those concepts might not be employed to a similar context in our countries. However, certain qualifications must and should be required, and making it ‘perfect fit’, and molding it should be our job. That is an important observation.

  7. Wonder, I hear you! In terms of not seeing how “these concepts might not be employed to a similar context in our countries. I think, the context is different. The causes of the problem might be similar, but the solution will not be. For example, while gender inequality might be a problem in one nation, another nation might be facing gender inequality and poverty and religious persecution and political unrest… so the way we’ll be able to solve the problem is going to be different. Different things will, unfortunately, need to be prioritized. Solutions will also vary based on the context, for example you can’t use the same language to solve a problem with a group of atheists and a group of Muslims. Their basic values and belief systems are different, so you’ll have to use language and concepts they will relate to (or at the minimum start the conversation that way, otherwise they will dismiss it). And, agreed on your last point – qualifications must and should be required. Thanks for engaging! I think it’s an important conversation to have!

  8. Hi Rihanna,
    So where does Third World Feminism, Black Feminists Thought, and African Feminism fall in all this?

    1. Nice hearing from you Enguday! All those would need their own set of research and analysis on my part. The goal of this post was to reflect on Ethiopian Feminism as it’s practiced today. Thanks!

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