A Hidden History: Women's Activism in Ethiopia

By Burgess, Gemma | Journal of International Women's Studies, July 2013 | Go to article overview

A Hidden History: Women's Activism in Ethiopia


Burgess, Gemma, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

In Ethiopia a woman's identity is linked to her family and the prescribed gender role as a mother and home-maker, yet throughout Ethiopia's history there are examples of women who have roles that extend beyond the home and family into public, political life. This paper briefly describes this dominant gender identity of Ethiopian women before charting the changes to Ethiopian politics and women's place within them. It discusses how the shift to democratic politics opened new spaces for women's civil society activism. However, more recent political moves towards greater repression of civil society have closed the space for women's public, political activism, leaving the future of women's public role in question.

Key Words: Women's activism, Ethiopia, hidden history

Introduction

Gender relations are always varied and constantly in flux, but there are almost always hegemonic notions of femininity (2) within particular cultural contexts which shape women's' roles and relative positions (3). Imbalances in gendered power resulting from ascribed roles and embedded power relations are maintained through everyday practice (4), and, at their most extreme, maintained through gender related violence. But these power relations and hegemonic notions of femininity and women's place are always challenged and transformed by counter-hegemonic gender relations and behaviours. (5)

In Ethiopia, as demonstrated in this paper, women's place in the public, political sphere may be marginal but it is always present and has increased with changing political systems. As in many countries in Africa and Latin America, the transition to a democratic political system offered new spaces for women's activism in Ethiopia. (6) This led to the emergence of new roles for women in the public sphere, challenging to gender norms, but also shifting away from womens' public roles as part of revolutionary, armed and oppositional struggle. Whilst this new space for alternative gender identities in civil society activism was largely urban, as in many other countries, it was significant and led to gender politics reaching the national political agenda, reflecting similar successes across Africa. (7)

The most prominent women's civil society organization, the Ethiopian Women Lawyer's Association (EWLA), used the human rights framework to challenge legislation which discriminated against women and to raise awareness of issues such as violence against women. (8) However, political repression in Ethiopia has led to the closure of spaces for challenging and critical voices in civil society with direct targeting by the ruling party of civil society organizations, including EWLA. This has created an ambiguous future for women's public and political activism, which is tightly controlled from the centre.

Ethiopia is not a country that has figured very much in international research. Outside of the country, little is known about its political history. In particular, little is written about the place of women in Ethiopian political spheres and the emergence of women's activism in Ethiopia has not been greatly studied. Contributing to work on women's place in African political arenas, this paper outlines Ethiopian women's public and political roles and how they have changed over time in this relatively under researched nation. The contribution women have made to public life in Ethiopia is largely hidden. The paper shows how despite the hegemonic gender identity which places Ethiopian women in the private space of the home; women have participated in public life in different ways over time. However, it also analyses how women's public political roles have changed since the official shift to democratic politics. New spaces opened for civil society activism and women's rights activists began to take advantage of the change in political culture. But the paper also discusses how the opportunities for women's activism have diminished with the return to a more authoritarian and restrictive political culture by the ruling party. …

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