Ethiopian Feminism: Revisited

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…” John Stuart Mill


One of the most common critiques I received when I wrote Ethiopian Feminism, A critique was that my line of argument was a tired and common one i.e. arguing that feminism “ke’egna ba’hil ena haymanot wuchi new.” Some viewed it as a rather weak defense tactic used by Ethiopians unable to accept new ideas that might challenge their thinking. So I want to address this particular idea in this piece. Are those of us who are wary of accepting feminism as it’s currently being practiced- in Ethiopia and outside it- simply unreasonably too attached to traditional and religious ways of thinking? Are we being unreasonably resistant to a new idea that could potentially transform our entire society simply because we’re unfamiliar and lack an in-depth understanding of the ideology? Let us explore.


First, I feel it important to highlight and clarify some things. I do not in any way want to converse with a straw-man version of the movement basing my arguments simply against the loudest and extreme voices. I also do not believe that feminism should be condemned or destroyed in any way, this risks disregarding the positive role that feminists can, in fact, play in a society that can benefit much from the movement, such as increasing educational, political and economic opportunities for women who had traditionally been deprived of it, and potentially ridding our society from sexist and limiting attitudes towards women. Within the Ethiopian context, there are many real fights that need to continue to take place: female genital cutting, rape, gender-based violence, to name just a few specific ones. All of us, in our varied capacities, need to fight to make sure that girls are given the same opportunities as boys in all fields and are provided the secure space to do so. It has been my personal experience, that once you open up opportunities for women and you remove major barriers out of their way, they are more than capable of achieving the seemingly impossible.

I believe the overwhelming majority of individuals, traditionalist and religious ones including, support these ideas. The problem arises when we start looking at the specifics of some matters within the movement. From engaging in various conversations with others, witnessing the online bickering and spats and some hours of digging into the research, I’ve attempted to pinpoint the main differences between those who espouse to mainstream feminist thought and those who do not. I believe the divide stems from a number of premises that today’s feminist theory functions under, which are not necessarily accepted by the wider Ethiopian society. I’ll attempt to focus on one such premise: the patriarchy.

The patriarchy is a central concept in feminist theories. “Dismantling the patriarchy” is usually stated as a central goal in today’s feminist movements. The patriarchy is literally defined as the “rule of the father.” This, I believe, to be a historically accurate description of our societies. Historically, generally speaking, women were responsible for raising children and maintaining the home while men were tasked with going out to make a living, thus engaging in the social and political sphere. Because women were limited to their homes they lacked autonomy and authority in the public sphere. For instance, women’s capabilities to own property, to vote or have access to positions of political power were minimal at best. In some cases, women were even unable to control their daily activities and movements without a husband’s consent. This system left many women vulnerable, especially to potentially abusive men. All this is true. But today, under the feminist lens, the definition of the patriarchy has been expanded to mean beyond the simple “rule of the father” to mean a *the systemic bias* of a larger system dominated by men working actively against women. Meaning, when looking at history (and some current societies), rather than stating, “some men oppressed women” it is now considered that the oppression came from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society that actively chooses to oppress women. And here is where I believe the water get muddy and where the big divide exists.

Most people that have not been taught this idea, I’ve noticed, simply do not believe it. They do not recognize the patriarchy to be an all-encompassing evil that systematically oppressed all women. There are a number of questions that arise when one thinks of the patriarchy in such a manner. One rather simple one, and a question very much worth considering is why would men choose to systematically oppress women including their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, for the sake of holding power? What do men gain from such oppression? To give an example, it is argued that one way our traditions and religions, as dictated by men, have oppressed women is through preventing them from things such as expressing their sexuality, upholding virginity as an unnecessary ideal or encouraging marriage for women while not doing so for men to the same extent. This reality is viewed as a manifestation of the oppression of women perpetuated by our traditions and religions. This I believe to be too simplistic of an analysis.

Consider this: the birth control pill was not invented until 1960. It did not start to be used in Ethiopia until many years later. In 1990 the prevalence of contraceptive use stood at a mere 2%. Meaning, until this point in history, sexual intercourse that lasts a minute could result in pregnancy, a historically life and death situation for women. Even today only 34% of Ethiopian women of reproductive age have access to contraceptives, meaning a single sexual intercourse, can initiate unimaginable consequences specifically for the woman and the unborn child. So, looking at it from this angle, promoting marriage, celebrating virginity and limiting sexual liberation was societies collective attempt at protecting women, children and the community at large. Men, on the other hand, were not tasked by nature with the bearing and initial nurturing of children, thus affording them fewer restrictions. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering, the type of men that our traditional and religious societies choose to celebrate are the family men who carry the responsibility of their families, communities, and nations, not those who exercised their sexual liberation. It is worth mentioning here, this is not an argument against the utility of sexual liberation, given modern technological advances that argument can be had on a different day, this is to highlight the utility traditions and religions provided to deal with the rather harsh and arguably unfair realities of existence.

I believe it is because most Ethiopians see the nation’s history from such a standpoint that, while they acknowledge that our systems have patriarchal structures, even at times oppressive ones, they fail to see that the underlying basis of that structure to be one of oppression of women by men. I share in this view. When I look at our society, what I see is a social structure that was built by fallible individuals based on basic religious ethos to deal with the challenges of existing in a poverty-stricken land that had no mercy to men, women and children. This, of course, is in no way an attempt to draw some idealized version of history where women and men were “equal” (whatever equal means). This was not and is still not the case. Men’s ability to engage in the public sphere, while women were limited to the private sphere, coupled with their lack of biological obligations of childbearing and rearing, had given them an economic, educational and political advantage that women were unable to access. But prioritizing a narrative of men as oppressors and women perpetual victims is simply not only to fail to look at the full picture but to also, possibly unintentionally, paint women as weak objects without any agency.

So, while it is possible to argue that women are dealt with a unique set of sufferings throughout history and up to this day, it is difficult to reasonably put that at the feet of all men or a system that purposefully and systematically oppressed women for the sake of power. I think of all the men we’ve sent to war to die for our nation, and the wives and children who carried their set of responsibilities on the home-front, I think of the men that take on all the dangerous jobs – the electricians, construction workers, miners – who leave their homes for days on end to provide for their families, I think of the men being humiliated daily by poverty, unable to provide for their families yet wake up the next day to fight yet again… It’s when I think of such realities that the phrase – the oppressive patriarchy – gets choked in my throat.

From my vantage point, I find it extremely difficult to view the world with all its complications and decide that the majority of an individual’s or a group’s major sufferings is a result of one cause – in this case – the patriarchy. I always try to be wary of a single-cause explanation for complicated problems. For me, today’s Western-styled feminism, the way I’ve understood it so far, seems to offer essentially one explanation to the complicated problem of existing as a woman in this world, making it difficult to accept, without due diligence, the solution it brings forth to solve these problems; especially those that are presented with the simple premise that men are oppressors and women, victims. We need to appreciate the complexities of the challenges women face and be open and willing to have conversations, even difficult ones, so that we’ll achieve what I believe we all want, a just society for both men and women. We need to acknowledge that religious and traditional teachings that have served civilizations across the globe for thousands of years might still offer explanations and solutions to human challenges, even to our seemingly ‘woke’ 21st-century ones.

As stated at the beginning of the article, this piece is not an attempt to dismiss the work that Ethiopian feminists attempt to do, far from it. This is my attempt at diversifying the conversation, to possibly add some nuance to a dialogue that seems to be dominated by mainstream feminists who are, at times, too certain that their perspectives of our societies and their prescribed solutions to Ethiopian women’s problems are the only ones worth considering. This is my attempt at highlighting the fact that those who have disagreements with some aspect of the movement may actually *not* be uneducated, ill-intentioned, nurturers of “fragile masculinity,” “guardians of the patriarchy” –  ignorant to even know that they’re being oppressed, thus “complicit in their own oppression,” or out of touch – as some have suggested. Such accusations, I find to be dangerous, intellectually disrespectful and damaging to the very cause feminism stands for. One who is standing on the side of reason and logic has no need to demean or insult. In fact, what he/she will have is the courage to engage in difficult conversations, opening him/herself up to have his/her beliefs questioned, even ripped apart, knowing the end result will be having a respectable firm ground to stand on. These conversations matter because ideas matter. Ideas we hold shape who we are as individuals, communities and nations. So, if we hope to build strong individuals, communities and nations, we need to discuss these ideas with integrity, humility and courage. The way I see it, that’s the only way we’ll be able to move forward with relative success and minimal suffering for all.