Tuesday March 8th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

March 8 is upon us, and with it another day to reflect on the role women have or may not have in our respective societies. For Ethiopians, it has long been lauded as a day where we celebrate critical advances made in the endless fight to achieve gender equality, while unfortunately it is also a time where we lament the many impossible to ignore shortcomings that have our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters languishing in ordeals brought upon by chauvinist thinking and patriarchal norms from centuries aback.

No matter what part of the globe or what country you may reside in, there will always be a woman’s fight for equality of varying degrees depending on many circumstances. There are fully functioning governable countries in the 21st century inhabited by taxpaying populations where the idea of women being anything more than concubines or cleaning machines is to horrific to fathom. According to the twisted logic of the men of these nations, a community’s honour can be quashed with a girl’s simple flashing of her ankles. Lucky for them, they can count on their whips and lashings to prevent the frightening sight that is woman’s bare shoulders from being exposed in public and avoid shame being bestowed upon their entire existence. Yes this millennia old struggle is still being fought by the insecure macho elite in many countries today.

100 LASHES FOR YOU! A woman in rural Afghanistan cowers as a whip delivers the punishment for indecency (Photo: Reuters)

Meanwhile, there are many countries where despite voting rights, education and the right to a lawyer being guaranteed for women by legal legislation, systematic loopholes, and indirect discrimination have forced women to continue fighting and swerving past barriers setup by images portrayed of them in the media or the sulking losers of the past, unable to accept that the era of playfully slapping the behind of your female coworkers is no more. In these countries, women have the luxury of bonding and grouping together to create organisations and associations dedicated to advancing their causes. “Feminists” have been doing this for decades now across the western world. The coups and victories they have won over the past fifty years will have them go down in history as agents of reform and change, despite their loathing of female beauty pageants and their recent preference of topless human wave “banzai” charges at protests to make a point.

In terms of reasoning, there are various factors that push people to support women’s causes. Principally, there are those who will go out of their way to side with women out of pure humanity. It’s touching to see such gestures from people. But when it comes to changing mentalities and thinking structures, the “women are people too” argument doesn’t register. It’s cute to see this new trend of men calling themselves “feminists” and claiming to speak on behalf of women and chastising male dominance wherever they go. Perhaps in the western world these “male feminists” will be counted as moon hoping frontier crossing saviour of the oppressed. But men denouncing men will not do much for the cause of women in countries where they face too many obstacles. I’m talking about countries like Ethiopia.

In order to convince a hard headed conservative farmer that his daughter can produce an equal harvest for him as his son, one would need to cater to his interests. A prancing city kid singing songs of equality will probably be chased out of the village by an angry mob. Since such rhetoric is considered blasphemy to many of our people, the only way we could convince people to unshackle their daughters from the cultural chains that have been passed down to them by their ancestors would be to show them the benefits they would reap by doing so.

This is what I meant by catering to one’s needs. Ethiopia will always benefit from the female contingent in our army. It’s more gun toting soldiers on the front lines that could be sent to Somalia, so what if they have monthly periods? Put them on the front lines and male or female, all soldiers will eventually bleed. A bullet fired by a female soldier is equally lethal. Female teachers and doctors? Why not? The more qualified professionals, the merrier. The gender of your son’s teachers or professors won’t make his graduation certificate any less valuable. A second source of income, another qualified source of input. What’s not to like? Increased chances of winning sporting titles which can serve as a source of national pride or propaganda value. Thank you women.

Derartu Tulu made history in 1992 when she became the first Black African woman to win Olympic gold in Barcelona (Photo: IOC)

There’s a lack of emphasis on the benefits of equality and an increasingly concentrated effort on demonizing the cultural norms which keep us backward. Not that they don’t need demonizing, a lot of what our forefathers considered catalyst to a girl progressing to womanhood is abhorred and rightly so. But we will only be creating hostility between progressives and far right conservatives if we focus on belittling one side. Hence my earlier declaring the new age male feminism as futile in Ethiopia and nothing more than a trend or in the cases of some men, a masked attempt at landing a pity lay.

So now that we are somewhat on the same page, we can agree that highlighting the major coups made by Ethiopian women that have eventually proven beneficial for our society could help curtail the thinking that they are not as valuable beings as their brothers.  What contributions have Ethiopian women made to our fledgling development and self improvement throughout history?

Whoever had the idea that the current miseries Ethiopian women face are due to the traditionally submissive role that our women may have is sadly mistaken. Many Ethiopian female historical figures from as far back as we can remember were known for their robust stances and self belief. The Axumite empire of the tenth century was rocked by the emergence of Emperor Yodit. The Jewish queen is said to have laid waste to the foundations of churches, killing and maiming all who opposed her ways during her rule. She was the head of a powerful military force that fought for conquest of lands well beyond the Axumite empire of modern northern Ethiopia. Countless male nobles and heads of armies submitted to her as she enforced her power and became among the most powerful, feared and respected personalities in Ethiopian history. The idea that a woman could strike terror in the hearts of so many men may seem unfathomable for some Ethiopians, but anyone who opened a book on ancient Ethiopian history will know that long before Cleopatra of Egypt became the inspiration for so many Hollywood classics, the likes of Queen Sheba and Queen Yodit were at the helm of some of the biggest empires in the region.

Artistic portrayal of Empress Yodit shows her clutching a dagger riding a warhorse


Abebech Gobena is known for her selfless actions that saved many children from a sun parched demise during the horrible famine of 1984. Forcibly married off at the age of ten as per customs, she broke free of the confines of her non consensual union, fleeing her rural home and settling in Addis Ababa where she managed to complete her education. Heartbroken by the plight of orphans, she would open an orphanage that would become the home for thousands of children and remains operational today. She has contributed to the education and self sufficiency of a generation of needy children who would have otherwise gone through the hardships of extreme poverty. She later became an internationally renown humanitarian and her gestures have touched the hearts of many. She is a shining example of what girls can do if they aren’t simply married off and imprisoned into holy matrimony. Her actions saved lives and turned doomed children into educated, productive members of society.

Internationally known as the “Mother Theresa of Ethiopia,” Abebech Gobena is seen here photographed with several of the children she is raising (Photo: Michael Westermann)


A bit closer to today, Meaza Ashenafi is one woman who has spent her life putting a massive dent on the widespread belief that women are limited in their capabilities. A lawyer by trade, she and fellow likeminded professionals created the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). The EWLA was a blazing phoenix, lighting the path for women to rise up, grab the reigns and make their voices heard in the Ethiopian financial sector, political world and other fields. Becoming a champion of human rights and girls’ rights in particular, her years of outspoken activism and decisive action have no doubt contributed to our increased sense of enlightenment on a national scale. In 2011, she spearheaded the launching of the Enat bank, a bank whose equity is mostly in the hands of women. The empowerment of women and an overall access to equity for women are Enat Bank’s main virtues as they head into the second banking quarter of their fifth year as an institution. Her palmares of accomplishments are more than impressive as they are, but she appears far from stopping and will no doubt serve to inspire countless more Ethiopian girls to make the leap and defile the invisible boundaries setup all around them by the elite of yesterday.

Embroiled in a lifetime fight against ignorance, Meaza Ashenafi continues to strive for the right of girls to exceed cultural limits and excel where they traditionally might not belong (Photo: @Ammazingseries)


These are but a few examples of women who proved to the Ethiopian nation that they can be as powerful, as useful, and as influential as their male counterparts if given the chance to spread their wings and fly. There are countless more operating in all fields, doing every kind of work imaginable and anyone with an open mind would see how the involvement of women has paid and is still paying dividends. I sincerely believe that by showcasing the wealth of female talent at our disposal can we open minds and hearts. There’s plenty of evidence, even for those who really have the wool pulled over their eyes.


It is because of my knowing all too well of the contributions that Ethiopian women have made to bettering our existence that I often find myself in somewhat of a somber mood when International Women’s day approaches. It might be guilt, self loathing, regret or something else.

Ethiopian men are still culturally inclined to belittle and taunt women. It’s something you won’t have to go to the rural countryside to notice. We can’t blame this on a lack of education, the social elite of urban zones like Addis Ababa can be seen mocking and demeaning girls perceived as inferior or of a lower class onboard taxis or in bars and restaurants. Girls are expected to lower their heads, take it in and silently walk away. The stereotypical drunk husband returning home to physically abuse his wife is also an image born from the realities of the urban lifestyle. The national statistics tracking spousal abuse, rape, forced marriage and similar grim horrors may have dipped but are still strikingly too high for any Ethiopian to clink a champagne bottle on the 8th of March. The fact that people who have proven throughout history to be priceless assets in our steep march upwards are still trampled upon on such a scale in the 21st century is extremely worrying and says a lot about us that last week’s Adwa day celebrations didn’t bother mentioning.

The daily task of fetching water is a woman’s daily task in many parts of rural Ethiopia (Photo: Girl Rising)

In 2016, Ethiopians have become numb to news of Ethiopian women being abused, raped, or killed in Middle Eastern countries. It is treated like a nuisance to hear, a buzzing fly that we ought to swat away, so we simply drown out the cries with anything around us, sports, politics, or rumours of war. The nation benefits greatly from the economic return it gets when these women send much needed foreign currency back home from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Bahrain, but turns its back on them when they are mistreated and left on the brink of suicide.


“It has been already remarked that these (Abyssinian) women are beautifully formed, and if any parts of the body are more finely fashioned than the rest it is the hand and arm. No woman have prettier or softer hands.”

“Another woman a Galla (Oromo) was of a beauty of the rarest kind…her face was of the richest and most delicate oval, dimples in the cheek and chin, and eyes of the most lustrous light.”

Quoted by 19th century British historian John Camden Hotten.

Timeless smile (Photo: Vincent Bournzael)

Historians have long depicted Ethiopian women as smiling desirable beauties, traits which we boast about to this day. But perhaps those historians could have discovered hidden stories of pain and burden behind those smiles if they took the time to communicate with those women instead of the chieftains they were serving. They may have recorded more than just their outer appearance. It is obvious that the Ethiopian women of the era had an immense tolerance to suffering meted out by their patriarchal upbringing or had perhaps developed some sort of immunity for the hardships that come with being female. That immunity still remains today and this is due to continuous punishments that Ethiopian society dishes out to our up and coming sisters.

From this we can conclude that the glorious, uncolonized, patriotic men of Ethiopia have more than let their countrywomen down. Betrayed might be an even more befitting term.

As an Ethiopian man, I now look upon March 8th with scorn and sorrow. However, I will raise my head with pride on another International Women’s day when Ethiopian men as a whole stand up one fateful day and engage themselves in debate over much needed recognition and even reparations (why not?) for centuries of neglect and torment Ethiopian women have gone through at the hands of those supposed to be preventing it at all costs.

As it stands, it remains a pipe dream.

Happy International Women’s day!

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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