Of Female Sexuality & Ethiopian Women

“The systematic suppression of women’s sexual and erotic inclinations has led to the conflation of sexuality and reproduction within a hetero-normative cultural and social matrix. This suppression is maintained through vigilant cultural surveillance, and has led to the muting of what I define as our feminist sexual memory and instinct. The result is a sexual and political cul-de-sac of violation and repression: all too often, women find themselves in a dark, dreadful place, windowless and airless, with seemingly no way out.

The above short paragraph is an extract from Zimbabwean Feminist, Patricia Mcfadden’s article entitled Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice, in which she uncovers some critical points on the treatment (or lack thereof) of female sexuality within Africa. Mcfadden’s piece highlights a glaring truth of the intersection between sexuality, power, women and the fear that surrounds such an intersection, carefully policed by “culture” guards of both the male and female gender.

In her analysis of sexuality and freedoms, she continues:

“A fundamental premise of patriarchal power and impunity is the denial and suppression of women’s naming and controlling their bodies for their own joy and nurturing. In all patriarchal societies, women and girls are taught, consistently and often violently, that their bodies are dirty, nasty, smelly, disgusting, corrupting, imperfect, ugly and volatile harbingers of disease and immorality. The redemption of the pathologised female body is seen to come through males of various statuses: fathers, who protect and defend the family honor through them; priests, who experience holiness and godliness through them; brothers, who learn through women and girls how to become authoritative and vigilant; husbands, who realize their masculinity through sexual occupancy and breeding; and strangers, who wreak misogynistic vengeance upon them for an entire range of grievances, imagined and otherwise. A denied right, misinformation, a frown, a disapproving scowl, a raised voice, an angry reprimand, a verbal insult, a shaken fist, a shove, a slap, a punch, rape, a slit throat – these are part of the routine processes of socialization and gendered identity construction through which girls and women are persistently reminded that they are the chattels of men in our societies.”

Mcfadden’s observation as above became all to accurate for me in witnessing the debacle that took over Ethiopian social media and airwaves sometime in June 2013 in response to a certain female that became an overnight media sensation owing to her alleged sexual encounter on the set of Big Brother Africa. While the issue of whether her encounter should or should not have occurred, was or was not staged is not within the scope of this entry. Rather, the main issues I would like to raise for discussion here is the collective response to an expression of female sexuality experienced some months back and the repression that surrounds an “agentic” expression of sexuality. (The term ‘agentic’ in this regard derives from the term agency which is the capacity for human beings to make choices and impact those choices onto the world).

The collective response to an expression of female sexuality

As a feminist, it’s difficult to not be enraged by the display of bigotry and hatred expressed online towards the person in mention. In scanning various news and social media platforms related to the Big Brother controversy, a majority of the comments give testimony to our intolerant, hasty and emotive temperament as a collective. Comments in opposition to her assumed deeds carried tones of racism – “othering” and “animalizing” the male involved in the said act because he is “not of us”. The torrent of insults, degrading language used towards a woman we know not of, the language of shaming, the moralizing, the patronizing – all symptomatic of a collective which is ill at ease and insecure with its identity in relation to an expression of female sexuality and a collective governed by a patriarchal norm of reference to how a woman “should” behave in public.

What does the response of the dominant collective say about that collective, beyond the frequently cited label of “conservative”? Although the torrents unleashed are haphazardly commented to be contextualized within the “obscenity” of the alleged live act, what has the response of the dominant collective shown us about the ingrained misogyny and intolerance of women who choose and express their sexuality? Are such responses not worrisome to us? Or do we just continue business as usual and not seize this opportunity to reflect upon collective assumptions about culture, sexuality and the female body? Ultimately, this is about power over, rather than representation as I find erroneous the notion that an entire country and its population is represented in the female body. Had this been the case, all the daring voices that emerged would continuously chime how they have been “betrayed” by the sexual violence experienced by countless female bodies in addition to how they were “betrayed” by a female body experiencing pleasure.

 

Repressing “agentic” expression of sexuality

Most times I hear Ethiopian men lament that Ethiopian women are sexually frigid and become less reserved when with partners of other nationalities. (Inherent to this statement is the male’s desire for more expressive and confident sexual partners). Then the sexually liberated, “unfrigid” woman is characterized as “loose” and “immoral” when she is expressive. (Inherent to this characterization is the desire to control and tame a woman’s sexuality). Both subjected to the patriarchal scrutiny and measuring stick. The latter, however, at more risk of being controlled and repressed by “culture guards” or as Mcfadden put it “suppression maintained through vigilant cultural surveillance.” A culture that is more tolerant of the pains and violence experienced by the female body, most commonly through rape, than tolerant of an expression of female sexuality based on mutual consent. Surely, we shall soon begin to see the absurdity of it.

And so when a few weeks ago a friend emailed me a Reuters article which outlined how a group of lawyers were preparing to take to court the Big Brother Africa contestant for committing “obscene acts” in public, my jaw dropped! Because in a country of around 86 million of which around half are women of which according to studies a high percentage of these women are subjected to sexual violence, I would much prefer to hear that our legal folks are also as highly concerned of the “obscenity” in acts of sexual violence committed against women.

Female Sexuality in Ethiopia

About a year ago I sent out a short survey to female friends and asked them to forward it to other female friends in support of my research interests. At that point in time I was attempting to write my MA thesis on Gender and Sexuality. The following are responses received that are not conclusive by any means of female sexuality in Ethiopia given that the sampling is very small, but nevertheless indicative of why Ethiopian women need to get louder – no pun intended here!

  1. 1.      I feel shy talking about sex and sexuality.

27% of the respondents said they feel shy talking about sex and sexuality and 73% said they don’t.

  1. 2.      I talk about sex with my friends frequently.

45.5% stated that they do and 54.5% stated that they don’t.

  1. 3.      I can confidently approach a man for a sexual encounter.

18% stated that they would approach a man for a sexual encounter and 82% stated that they would not.

  1. 4.      I can openly discuss my sexual desires with a sexual partner

82% said they would and 18% said they would not.

  1. 5.      I am confident in expressing what I like and don’t like in bed to a sexual partner.

73% said they are confident in such expressions and 27% stated they are not.

  1. 6.      Do you think Ethiopian women should have more open discussions on sex and sexuality?

91% stated that Ethiopian women should have more open discussions whereas 9% said they shouldn’t.

  1. 7.       If yes to above question, please state in short why it’s important.

–      For individual satisfaction …mostly women are not expected to enjoy sex in Ethiopia.

–      Being able to talk about it helps. At a bigger scale it helps to address reproductive related health risks such as AIDS, STDS ..etc

–      Because we humans in general and women in particular are sexual beings so it is very important to openly discuss our sexual nature in order to produce knowledge about who we really are and develop experience in order to understand our commonalities and differences.

–      It would result in better sex for the women.

–      Female sexuality is ignored in Ethiopia almost assumed non-existent

–      It’s important for Ethiopian women to have more agency over their bodies and sexuality and sexual expression

–      It is important because in most cases women are not allowed to be pleasured by sex. Also since childhood girls are allowed to express any emotion nor was it acknowledged!

–      The issue of circumcision also affect sexuality and the act of sex for Ethiopian women.

–      Because you cannot expect someone to know what you do and do not like without sharing and it can make a big difference in having a safe and fulfilling relationship

–      As a culture girls are not given the chance to express their feelings or even freely express what they need. Therefore it is very important to have open discussions to minimize the abuse that women face as the culture has impacted the women not to express their feeling and shy away.

–      Shows confidence in proving oneself ideologies and sending a message across.

–      Could save lives.

–      As it is not only men who should reach Orgasm the women need to be able to experience the climax that can only happen through talking and expressing one feeling so discussion about it is very important.

–      It is important as it facilitates ways for us to learn from each other’s’ experiences, which will make us ready and equipped for all the circumstances coming our way.

–      Open discussions with our partners is important in making us feel like we are in the partnership together, for also pleasure and feel in control of what is going on in our life, especially sexually.

 

  1. 8.      If yes to question 7, please list the reasons why Ethiopian women CANNOT discuss sex and sexuality openly.

–      Because of the cultural perception that ‘good” women don’t enjoy sex.

–      A multiple of cultural barriers exist that restrict women from embracing their sexuality.

–      Women who have sexual agency are shamed and not respected in the various Ethiopian cultures

–      It is not part of our growing up.

–      We are not used to talking about sex with parents and so this habit/culture is not strong in us.

–      Because women feel they need to be subservient to their husbands.

–      Because of religion.

–      The cultural influence

–      Family Institutionalization

–      Peer Influence

–      Tradition where women have to exercise restraint when it comes to discussing sexuality or sex.

–      Consistent harassment, abuse from childhood destroying any confidence.

–      Cultural limitations (women are expected to be shy, or women discussing sex are promiscuous)

–      Sex is almost all the time considered as sin

–      Discussing sexuality, or any for me sexual preferences is all taboo.

 

  1. 9.      Do you think Ethiopian women are sexually repressed? If yes, shortly state why you think so? (A majority said yes and a few chimed in as follows)

–      I don’t know if repressed is the word but I think sex in Ethiopia is something you don’t talk about openly especially for women. The importance put onto virginity and the way it’s linked up with purity and obedience is one thing that comes to mind.

–      It is very hard to say that Ethiopian women’s sexuality is repressed or not because, our sexuality is constructed and influenced by culture, environment, values and language as well. So, considering the existence of all these different constituencies, we are unable to make a conclusion about Ethiopian women sexuality.

–      Yes they are

–      The lack of expression especially sexual one can be costly

–      Lack of expression, to some extent exposure I think can be repressive

–      Yes. Most of the time it is expected a girl not have sex before she marries and after that might not have the experience, confidence etc. to dictate what she wants in her married sex life. So often, it could lead to an unsatisfying relationship with her partner.

–      Yes, due to our upbringing and lack of open discussion in the household

–      Yes, the reason is similar to what was said above, our culture does not allow as to be expressive and if one breaks the rules and be expressive, she is considered to be outrageous and men will shy away from beginning relationship with. As a result instead of being rejected by men and society Women prefer to be inexpressive and repressed.

–      Yes. Throughout history women were seen merely as home makers. In the 1950’s a woman in the Ethiopian parliament presented an argument to stop treating women as property of men asking for bill of rights to liberate women from such inequity. ONLY ONE PERSON PUT UP THEIR HAND FOR APPROVAL. The woman stormed out of the parliament. This was only 6 decades ago. We have gone little since then.

–      I think so cause it’s not “Yetelemede” to talk and express it but the generation is changing

–      I think we are. Despite the differences in background and education status, most of us are very private and not willing to speak about sex or sexuality even in our closer circles. I personally think it is not even a matter of discussion, though I know it would be important to.

 

  1. 10.  Do you think Ethiopian women are sexually liberated? If yes, shortly state why you think so. (A majority said no and a few chimed in as follows)

–      I think it is a common understanding for many of us that in different parts of Ethiopia, women/girls are not assumed to be sexual so are not allowed to express and practice their sexual desire openly, but we need in-depth study about the issue to conceal our assumptions and the reality.

–      No, but there are changes, I think the new general is more open-minded and less hypocritical about sex.

–      Some are in urban and rural worlds. Lots of babies being born, so lots of sex being had but is it liberated? Not sure. Some places have husbands, wives and mistresses so maybe in that world and the world of infidelity is the ‘liberation’? Not sure.

–      Yes, I honestly do think so because if given the chance Ethiopian women will please and be pleased sexually. As a witness for this we can talk to our mothers and grandmothers as to understand how much they know and liberated they are with the issue and how they teach and talk about it if closely asked about sex.

The Sexuality discourse

If nothing else, I think the Big Brother fiasco has proved to all of us that we need to start having open conversations about sex and sexuality more often. It seems in our earnest appeal to be within “our culture” we have rather taken our sexual curiosity or hypocrisy to the world wide web where in 2013 alone Ethiopia ranked 3rd on Google Trends on a list of countries searching the word “sex” on the internet. On my statistics page, I often see that one of the search engine terms through which browsers land on my blog page is “ethiopian sex”. This is not surprising as my previous entries have dealt with commercial sex work, sexual violence, etc. Nevertheless, given how little human sexuality and more importantly to this entry, how little female sexuality is understood in our cultural context, I would say that our need to engage in such discussions, beyond the sterilized conversations surrounding HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, is of paramount importance, especially to women.

Conversations surrounding repressed female sexuality are not endemic to Ethiopians only. Many a nation have experienced their own bouts of contention between the “natural” and the “cultural”. Plenty historical public debates regarding female sexuality have taken place even in the Western world where many point fingers towards, when notions of female sexual liberty are at play. I quote an Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, who for me sums it up succinctly – “Since the dawn of humankind, men have not only feared women’s sexuality, they have also, to a surprising extent, measured their power in terms of how effectively they could suppress the rights of women on a variety of fronts”.

Yet in talking of female sexual agency and liberation within our cultural context, I also view it as something to be addressed in tandem with deconstructing the culture that condones female chastity for male virility.

There are many more discussions to be had on this topic, and this is just the beginning. It is my hope that Ethiopian women can begin leading these discussions.

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~ Love & Light

7 thoughts on “Of Female Sexuality & Ethiopian Women

  1. Excellent reflections, Bilu. I especially like the comparison between the self-righteous rage around Big Brother and the acceptance of regularized and routine violence meted out to Ethiopian women on a daily basis.
    Keep on telling the Feminist truth.
    Sehin

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  2. I absolutely agree with the author’s discussion about the incident with Betty (Big Brother Africa House Mate), the allegations and responses to her sexual expression. There is cultural surveillance when it comes to embodiment and sexuality in Ethiopia and we have a long way to go in finding the balance between social justices for sexual repression and violence; and preserving cultural heritage that is important to us as African women. We have to be careful not to universalize Ethiopian women’s experience based on a survey conducted with a selected urban few. Which Ethiopian women are we talking about in the survey or in the article at large? There are rural, urban, class, ethnic, religious and cultural variations and similarities that we need to account for before we write tittles such as “Female Sexuality in Ethiopia”. What about the liberty in which numerous rural Wollo women express and perform their sexuality through language and culture? Where would such experiences fit in the generalized assumptions that the survey makes about “Ethiopian women”. Yes our lawyers need to pay attentions to gender based violence as much as they do to repressing female sexual expression. We feminist also have to pay attention to what we mean by Ethiopian female sexual expression? And the ways in which we decide to argue a concept such as sexuality in the context of Ethiopia. We have to ask ourselves who we are speaking for and if the multiple voices and desires of different groups of women that make our collective (Ethiopian women) have been accounted for.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your concerns Yamrot. Your points well take. However, i do make the disclaimer in my analysis that the survey is by no means conclusive of Ethiopian women’s experience: “The following are responses received that are not conclusive by any means of female sexuality in Ethiopia given that the sampling is very small, but nevertheless indicative of why Ethiopian women need to get louder” …personally, i strongly maintain the opinion that expressions of female sexuality are very much suppressed and contained…you do point to Wollo women’s expression and performance through language and culture and i understand you to refer to such expressions performed in azmari culture, which until very recently has been taboo. Please correct me if i misread your statement. Again, this post by no means speaks for others as the collection and sharing of the few women who shared speaks for itself rather. The purpose of this post however is to indicate the lack of a discourse around these issues. The few women who willingly shared may not represent the entirety and diversity of women in Ethiopia, but they are nevertheless Ethiopian sharing their experiences.

      Taking this opportunity, i invite you to share a guest blog, if you are interested, that expands on the suggested liberty of rural Wollo women.

      Thanks for stopping by and keep reflecting.

      cheers.

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    • i also believe the article lacks objectivity and evidence. It is inconsiderate of the diverse context Ethiopian women live in. The understanding of sexuality is as diverse as the ethnic and religious diversity of the nation. sexuality in remote areas of the south and the communities therein is completely different from the one in north, south or even in urban centers such as Addis Ababa. i may mention Fikremarkos Destas ‘kebuskaw bestejerba’ as a case study for this which shows the fact that the concept of sex and sexuality is so much like what this article would perceive to be ”western”. We don’t exhaustively know the role of women and the level of ”freedom” or ”oppression” that exist inherent in our cultures. from experience i also know the eastern part of the country has a distinct outlook and culture on the subject matter of this article.
      so we need a lot more evidence before we conclude oppression is innate in our culture.
      the case of the women from Ethiopia on the Big brother Africa, she committed a crime as provided under the law of the country, to which she is subjected to, thus, her prosecution is justifiable. are there cases of violence that go even unnoticed let alone prosecuted? there are and it represents our failure as a nation. but it does not make the act in the show right? wrongs does not cancel each other. i don’t know much but as a nation we have values attached and that constitute who we are as people. expression has a limit, and there is a difference between perversion and manifestation of sexuality. having sex when one knows she/he is under a regular camera surveillance is .. different from women sexuality.

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      • Thanks for stopping by and sharing a perspective Lemlem. To avoid being redundant on my part, i invite you to read my previous comment that this article is hardly conclusive evidence and i don’t claim it as such. Merely indicative of conversations needed to be had and more research to be done.

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  3. Thank you so much for your essay!

    As an Ethiopian who grew up in the diaspora (USA) one of the hardest things for me to reconcile between my American and Ethiopian identitities was the sexual liberty I experience and expect. There’s a lot to say on the topic of identity in the diaspora but this isn’t the place so instead I thought I’d raise a question that came up for me in trying to compare your beautiful post-modern critique of gender expressions to the larger cultural shifts I’m told are happening back home.

    I’ve been told that Ethiopia is rapidly shedding much of her cultural expressions and there is a greater adoption of western attitudes around things like material goods, definitions of socializing (clubs vs large family gatherings) and in general the sorts of reactive cultural changes that new technology and foreign media naturally bring.

    So, I guess my question is, if critical theory is a tool for exposing the assumed and monolithic nature of social and mental structures that are actually separate and constructed, how do we as critical consumers of culture use our awareness to piece together meaningful alternatives to the automatic nature of the structures we’ve internalized?

    This might be incredibly vague so I’ll ask a more concrete question that’s rooted in the same concept.

    If we do the work to uncover that the mainstream construction of Female Gender in Ethiopia is disempowering to women then what is the process for shaping a narrative that won’t accidentally reproduce a male-centric reality for women like the sexual revolution here in the states did.

    Thank you so much for reflecting me and the beauty and possibility of radical self-love and self-respect that we can create by holding space for one another, Bilene!

    You can’t know what it means to know that I’m not “too American” because of these thoughts and questions and I know I brought up a lot of stuff and my perspective on how things are back home is pretty much worthless (I was last back for 3 weeks in 2004!) so respond to whatever interests you!!!

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