Why are we afraid of Feminism?

Readers of Capital would have seen the excellent coverage of the first session of the Open Talk series held on Friday September 19, at Capital Hotel. Economic empowerment from a gender perspective was selected as the very first ‘Open Talk’ session organized by RENED Event Management Services. Wz. Zewdie Abegaz, who has decades of experience in the gender field, gave an engaging talk on the status of women emphasizing that gains made in the educational, political and health sectors are insignificant¬† without economic empowerment.
The discussion session following the presentation was equally interesting and gender-related issues such as affirmative action in the education sector were hotly debated. What a discussant called men’s ‘psychological burden’ in terms of discriminating against women was also commented upon as was women’s lack of confidence in taking loans and running businesses. Lastly, the shocking rise¬† in cases of violence in Addis Ababa was rightly raised as a gender-issue.
As a woman who has worked on gender for ten years and who is now finalizing a PhD in Gender Studies, I was glad to take part in such intellectual discussions which are too few and far between. Studying and observing relations between women and men, which constitutes the most basic of inequalities across all human societies is an almost full-time preoccupation for me, and at the event, I pointed out that everything we discussed that evening, particularly women’s weaker sense of our own capabilities and many educated men’s inability to overcome a sense of superiority over women may be characterized as feminist concerns. I argued that as gender practitioners, it is perhaps time to add an invigorating shot to the watered-down rhetoric of gender to highlight the importance of consciousness and personal engagement.
Not surprisingly, the word ‘Feminism’ ruffled some feathers, although not as many as I would have expected, and one-on-one conversations following the event provided useful food for thought regarding the potential for feminism taking root in Ethiopian social soil.
It is worthwhile to start by defining feminism and clarifying misconceptions around the term which unfortunately gets bad press not only in Ethiopia but also in the West where it originated. At its core, feminism refers to the belief and the commitment to equality between women and men. What is retroactively referred to as First Wave feminism consisted of suffragette movements in Europe and North America for women to be allowed to vote. The second wave of
Feminism took place between 1960s-1970s, mostly in North America and provided the poster-image of feminism in the caricature of the man-hating, angry female. Second-wave feminism was heavily criticized for taking the experiences of white Western women to represent the experiences of all women, ignoring differences created by race/ethnicity, wealth and other social differences. Second wave feminism also spawned radical feminism. Some radical feminists do demonize men, and oppose marriage categorically. However, it is important to note that this is one aspect of feminism which does not represent mainstream feminist values. Unfortunately, it seems that in our country in particular, the image of feminism is indistinguishable from that of radical feminism causing Ethiopian women and men to dismiss feminism as an alien concept.
There is no doubt that Feminism is a Western concept but so are universal democracy, human rights and the rule of law as are pretty much all the economic and political models we have adapted to govern our society with. In addition, it is important to note that feminism is no longer confined to the West. One of the first women’s movements occurred right here in Africa – the Egyptian women’s movement which gained ground in the 1930’s. I have met feminist groups and individuals from Uganda, Sudan and South Africa and I have learned the ways in which they have cast the commitment to gender equality in their own cultural images.
In our own Ethiopia, both the student movement and the liberation struggle from the end of the last century had feminist components in the women’s wings. However, as the recently published book by Ambassador Gennet Zewdie argues, the women’s movement In Ethiopia may be considered unfinished business. Ethiopia made no substantial contribution to the third-wave feminism which saw non-white, non-Western women of color create their own brands of feminism, and we are likewise not part of the current fourth wave which is technology and social media led, consisting of better inter-country and inter-regional organizing as evidenced in the global-wide One Billion Rising movement.
Another common objection to feminism is that it threatens men. I respond by way of a question to this worry; why should men be threatened with the idea of equality with their wives, sisters, mothers and colleagues? Feminism does mean questioning male privilege and if in the 21st Century, there are men still clinging to the idea that one half of the human society should remain superior to the other half, then perhaps it is not a bad idea for them to experience some discomfort in the face of rising consciousness among women and men on equality.
Lastly, a participant at the Open Talk event asked me why feminism is necessary in Ethiopia. I insist that without investing in women and girls’ self-worth and without men questioning Ethiopian masculinity, we will remain a stubbornly unequal society with ever-rising violence not only against girls and women but also against boys and men with weaker negotiating powers.
In the words of Dr. Suess, master children’s story-teller, ”If someone like you doesn’t care a whole lot/nothing is going to get better, no it’s not.”
Sehin Teferra for the Setaweet Collective