the rebranding

The Rebranding of Feminism in Ethiopia

While feminism as a movement has been around for a long time in most of the world, in Ethiopia, the term itself carries negative connotations for many people. Seen by some as a movement that only benefits a few elite women, or as something that encourages women to hate men, the basic definition of feminism as the fight against gender inequality seems not to have landed. Now, many young gender issues activists and experts are trying to reclaim feminism, and at the same time, take away the pejorative implications of the word in the eyes of the general public. EBR’s Kiya Ali reports.

Hearing stories of women who are victims of gang rape, acid attacks, child marriage, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation and the like is a common phenomenon in Ethiopia. Granted, hese issues are a problem for women all around the world, and in many cases, those fighting to eradicate these problems are women themselves.

Despite the fact that the feminist movement took a formalised shape in the 19th century globally, in many developing countries, including Ethiopia, the term has taken on an almost pejorative quality. Eden is an economic analyst and a feminist. She is active on social media and consistently advocates about gender issues. She thinks that the perception towards feminism is very disappointing. “I started to advocate for gender issues and feminism a year ago. Since then, whenever I write anything about feminism and women’s issues on social media, I receive a lot of criticisms which are not constructive,” Eden tells EBR.

The history of the feminist movement stretches back centuries, with the first known use of the term appearing in France in the late 1880s, in a piece by Hunburtine Aucleart in her Journal La Citoyenne as La Feminite, where she criticized male domination and advocated for women’s rights in addition to the emancipation promised by the French revolution, according to a 2014 study by Amina Ghorfati and Rabha Medini at the University of Tlemcen in Algeria.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the term appeared in English, first in Britain, in 1910s in America, by 1920s in Arab world and then in Africa.

Ethiopians are not totally unfamiliar with the feminist movement. According to the Journal of International Women’s Studies, Ethiopian women’s organizations in the modern sense date back to the early twentieth century. In 1935, the first nation-wide organisation, called the Ethiopian Women Welfare Association was set up under the supervision of Empress Menen. Members of the organization were drawn from the upper echelons of urban society in Addis Ababa and activities were limited to fund raising and sponsoring projects for urban women. In 1953, the organization was chartered and given legal recognition, and, before its activity was ended by the Dergue regime, it had forty branches throughout the country.

There were women’s civil society organizations during the Dergue regime too, and now more women’s civil society organizations are starting to crop up. One of the most prominent is the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) which uses human rights frameworks to challenge legislation which discriminates against women. Others include the Addis Ababa Women’s Association (AAWA) and the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Associations (NEWA), which has twenty member organizations.

But despite the proliferation of women’s organisations and a growing awareness of women’s issues and right, there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of what feminism is, even among women, according to many activists.

There are different types of feminism. The major ones are liberal feminism, radical feminism and socialist feminism. Liberal feminism aims for individuals to use their own abilities and the democratic process to help women and men to become equal before the law and in the eyes of the society. Radical feminism is a perspective that focuses on the hypothesis of patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships based on the assertion that male supremacy oppresses women. Radical feminism aims to challenge and overthrow patriarchy by opposing standard gender roles and oppression of women and calls for a radical reordering of society. Socialist feminism, also known as Marxist feminism or Materialist feminism, calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist reformation of economy. Socialist feminists view gender inequality as intrinsic to the capitalist system, which makes vast profits off women’s unpaid labour in the home and underpaid labour in the work place. Socialist feminism calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist reformation of economy.
Kidist Belete is a fourth-year engineering student. She is one of the people who identify as being against feminism. In her opinion, feminists are extremists and have strong animosity towards men. “People who claim that they are feminist blame men for every wrong action. They are extremists. I remember I heard a discussion about feminism on one of the FM radio stations and I become aware that some of them are even using it to collect money in the name of NGOs,” says Kidist.

Kidist represents what seems to be the prevailing view of feminism for many in Ethiopian society. However, for Hilina Berhanu, a PhD candidate as well as gender and law consultant, the opposite is true. Hilina argues feminism is a political language that resists all forms of oppression with a gendered and intersectional lens. In her opinion, the reaction against feminism represents how much work still needs to be done on gender issues. “The backlash we may face for embracing the label is a reflection of the power struggle. It is not a response to a singular or isolated incident, rather a systematic push back that we can actually use as an asset to further explain how complex power sharing can be,” she states.

Bell Hook, a feminist and social activist stresses in her book, ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre’ that misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most people learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. Most people, she contends, do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem.

Hook defines feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. “I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism,” she explains.

Hilina also agrees with the notion that Ethiopia is a deeply patriarchal society where male dominance is asserted through social, economic, political, legal and cultural ways of life and is seen as a norm. “Hence, having lived in a female body and experiencing first-hand the occupational hazards of being an Ethiopian woman, I believe that feminism can serve as an essential tool to understand gender relations in the country. Feminism can mobilise rage in a positive way and move us to more scientific ways of understanding gender injustice in the country,” Hilina argues.

While activists on the ground tend to work all the time on women’s issues, it is only sometimes that victims of violence seem to capture the national imagination. One of those women was Aberash Haile, a cabin crew member at Ethiopian Airlines. A few years ago, she was attacked by her boyfriend and blinded in one eye. At the time, there was a national outcry. Many discussion forums were even created to talk about gender based violence. However it was not consistent or long lasting. Many of them disappeared very quickly. This flash-in-the-pan phenomenon did fire up some activists to create their own movements.

“We came up with the idea of creating a consistent platform that will work on gender issues. We made our dream a reality and established the Yellow Movement,” Mihiret Equbay explains. Mihiret is a mentor at the Yellow Movement, established at Addis Ababa University (AAU) to support female students.

Members initially started working on creating awareness of gender issues via discussion platforms. Then they started collaborating with the AAU Gender Office, and started to raise funds for poor students, by selling flowers on Valentine’s Days to buy sanitary pad and stationery materials. “The first time we fundraised by selling flowers on Valentine’s Day, we were able to raise around ETB 4,000 and during the following years, we were able to raise as much as ETB 302,000. We are currently supporting more than 200 female students,” explains Mihiret. In addition, Yellow Movement members give mentorship service to female students in AAU. “Basically we are working to change the inappropriate ideas which are found in our culture and are a source of violence or inequality, since action starts from idea,” Mihret adds.
Other than the Yellow Movement, there are efforts being made at the individual and organisation levels to bring the issues of feminism and gender equality into mainstream politics. Yet the government, as well as opposition political parties, do not consider feminism as a priority and or part of political discourse.

“As far as I know, no political parties, including the government, use gender issues as means of mobilization. During elections, I have never heard them make promises about what they will do to end gender based violence if they are elected. Although more than half of our society is women, gender issues are not a priority. I am always surprised and amazed when parties ask me to vote for them while ignoring those major problems that affect me every day just because I am a woman. Mainstream media are also gender insensitive. In general, instead of criticising feminism and feminists all stakeholders should collaborate with us and bring gender based violence to an end,” Eden concludes.

One organisation that tries to mainstream gender issues is Setaweet. It was established in 2014 by two Ethiopian feminist activists, Billene Seyoum and Sehine Teferra (PhD) with the aim of articulating the meaning of feminism in the context of Ethiopian women. To achieve its objectives, Setaweet is works on creating awareness using different platforms like social media and discussion forums. In a program called Setaweet Circle, participants can discuss research based feminist topics. In addition, every three months, the organisation holds discussion sessions that is open for both men and women. In addition, they have developed a feminist curriculum for Ethiopian secondary schools.
Eden who is also a member of Setaweet argues feminism is considered a western culture, funded by western NGOs. Some people think that feminism is the issue of only elite women. “Yet most of the people who criticise us do not understand feminism at all. I wish they could understand that we stand for human rights.”

Despite being a near slur in Ethiopia, many feminists and gender based organisations have addressed problems that the government has yet to solve, whether it is sanitary and educational needs of women, or providing them with legal protections and advocacy.
But the bottom line, according to Mihiret is that feminism has its own goals: to create a world that will render equal opportunities in political, economic and social aspects for all human beings regardless of their gender. “Yellow Movement members have not chosen feminist ideologies like radical feminism, or liberal feminism. However, we are working on the basic idea of feminism, which is about respecting women’s rights. We are working to solve our social problems.”

8th Year • Mar.16 – Apr.15 2019 • No. 72


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