I have been back in Ethiopia now for close to three months and I’ve had many opportunities to network. Every time I talk to people who don’t necessarily work around my area of interest, I get an “Ohhhh, you’re one of them” look. Most of these looks come from men.
Sometime in October 2010 I attended a lecture that was organized by the Goethe Institute at Addis Ababa University titled “Perspectives on the Changing Role of Women in Ethiopia”. One of the panelists was the former Minister of Information Netsanet Asfaw who shared her perspective on the role played by the revolutionary democrat women in different parts of Ethiopia during the armed struggle against the DERG and the significance of that legacy in changing the status of Ethiopian women. While I found her lecture informative and amusing, it left much to be desired in terms of addressing the many aspects of what a “changing role” entails.
Nevertheless, a statement made by a man in the audience during the question period resonated with me for some time afterwards. He stated that his impression and that of many in his circle was that these changing roles of women in Ethiopia are challenging established norms and in that sense breaking down family ties. In his statement I confirmed my assumption that the “Ohhh, you’re one of them” looks I get meant that myself and many other women who are gender sensitive and who consider themselves feminists are viewed as radicals who threaten the traditional family structure.
I understand that anything that challenges established norms can can be perceived as a threat. However, my sense is that there is a general misconception about what Gender and Feminism is in Ethiopia and beyond. Therefore, in this post and the next one, I would like to briefly share with my readers what these two terms mean to me by placing them within an Ethiopian context.
Gender is not a women’s issue. It is an issue of both women and men. In defining it, gender is a social construction of roles, attitudes and behaviours ascribed to both women and men based on their sex identity or biological make-up. Its socially constructed aspect, categorizes and assigns behaviours and actions considered masculine to only men and feminine to only women. For example, emotional reservation is considered a masculine behaviour while the opposite, emotionalism, is labelled feminine. Therefore, per society’s standards a male exhibiting emotion is considered effeminate and a female withholding her emotions is considered masculine. I grew up in Addis hearing boys and men being accused of ‘crying like women’ or ‘gossiping like women’ as if crying and gossip were female creations.
Additionally, gender is the social construction of women and men’s roles in society. The woman as the caretaker of a home, family and the nurturer, while the men play the role of the provider. In a recent conversation I was having with a research contact in Addis Ababa, he expressed to me that before he became gender sensitive, he and a group of his male friends had consistently teased and therefore discouraged one of their group members out of becoming a male nurse – a career he was really interested in pursuing. He shared with me that in their minds roles were fixed in career, education and so many other aspects that they found the idea of a male nurse laughable as that was a female role. Similarly, he also shared with me how he had unknowingly discouraged his younger sister from pursuing an engineering degree because he thought it unsuitable for women.
Such widespread fabrications, as I would like to call them, of what men and women should be like and are capable of, have disruptive social, economical, political and developmental repercussions. The glorification of men’s capacities and diminishing that of women’s is an attitude deeply entrenched in the fabric of Ethiopianism. That men in Ethiopia get better than their fair share in all aspects is a fact. And because of this socially constructed discrepancy, gender work may seem to have only a woman focus because it is mostly women who have been and continue to be systematically excluded from the equation. Nevertheless, gender remains both a male and female issue because it is not only women who are suffocated by these norms of social constructions.
In subsequent posts I will elaborate more on what I mean by repercussions and share my views on how I think men in Ethiopia are also suffocated by gender norms.
Love & Light