7 July 2017

Ethiopia: Feminism Is Still a Timely Issue

opinion

If you ask someone about the issue of the rights of women in Ethiopia that is, if you inquire about whether they are equally treated as men and that the issue of so called 'gender inequality' or disparity is timely, they may shrug their shoulders implying their surprise and suggesting that you may need to catch up with certain facts and figures.

They would, probably with a bit of irritation suggest that it cannot be a hot issue any more these days. Rather they would argue to the contrary that nowadays it is often men that need to be more assertive and have their rights respected or protected, instead of women because there seems to lack a mechanism to that effect.

They would insist there are so many more opportunities for women in the employment sphere, for instance, and that in many instances the ads say 'women are encouraged to apply' or 'we would prefer female candidates' and the like. This appears to be an 'indication' that if a male and a female candidate present themselves for a post, with more or less equivalent qualification and experience, the company or agency would very easily opt to take the female one!

Be that as it may, it would not be very difficult to prove that this issue of 'gender equality' or 'equal treatment of women with men' or 'equal opportunities' of women as men is not as we or most of us actually would very optimistically like to believe or assume it is. It would rather be described as a 'work on progress.'

We need to be just a bit more reasonable and honest than what we actually are to admit that women have not yet 'attained' such podium of equality or fairness and that despite any extent of progress registered in the sphere, there are still considerable distances to go before we assert that they are equal to men or have achieved the status of equality.

In the end, it would rather be a risk to believe and equally make others believe that the issue of equality of women with men is a settled and done issue. This would lead to complacency and dismiss the issue.

Undeniably, no one expects the treatment that women were reserved a hundred years ago to apply to today's reality or society, including in the remotest of communities.

Old habits may be hard to die, traditions may be resistant to change, but it is difficult to find completely insulated communities from the influence of the entire world and not feel the pressure of changing times, the pressure of female emancipation or empowerment. Similarly, no one expects that colored people in the United States are treated the way they were treated a hundred years ago. There has been tremendous progress albeit with immense sacrifice and suffering, the concerned bodies would add. It is more or less the same story when it comes to the issue of women as well.

A lot has been achieved, lots of legislation that provide for the equal treatment of women with men have been passed even though the implementation may have left a lot to be desired just as there have been several legislations in the US for instance regarding the equal treatment of minorities such as African Americans and people of other races, Hispanics, people of a particular sexual orientation, beliefs etc when it comes to enjoying equal opportunities.

In many multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual societies including ours as an instance, the issue of equal treatment of all heterogeneous people becomes a delicate, sensitive and at times thorny issue. There might still be people on the other side of the equation.

There might still be die-hards of the old school, the 'ancient regime', if you like, that are still reluctant to accept the new modern order where rights are entitled to me as they are to you. There are still people who believe that 'blacks are inferior to whites' and have their own prejudices when it comes to employment, to renting their house or marrying their daughters to a colored person. At times, this feeling may not be overtly expressed but the behaviour may show it. One can see or feel the prejudice lurking underneath, may be at the sub-conscious level and some day it transpires or shouts when a crisis of some kind materializes.

The issue of equality of women with men has even more physical and psychological roots that date back since times immemorial. Men and women have always lived together and they have always had need of the other, and you see that may be the racial divide is not as deep rooted and glaring as the gender issue.

There are societies that may not have seen people of a different colour or race, and hence for them it could even be a novelty or a surprise when they discover that there are people of other races other languages and other ethnic lineages. The same cannot be said of women because there are women in every society and the issue becomes one of physical difference and hence the establishment of a certain hierarchy begins to establish for the sake of survival and other natural phenomena.

History books, anthropological researches teach us that once up on a time the roles of women and men were well distinct and demarcated and there was no way of transgressing as they were almost unanimously abided by.

Just as giving birth to a baby and rearing children was the 'natural gift of God' bestowed exclusively upon women, it was thought that the less challenging and less physical things must be reserved to them as at the same time men on the other hand should take the upper hand in the more physical and burdensome activities where strength would play a huge role.

To a certain extent for years and years such demarcation was well received and accepted, but nowadays there is practically no difference between what a woman can do and what men do excluding the purely physiological duties such as bearing children.

In a certain way, the gaps have now been filled or narrowed so tightly that the difference has almost disappeared in physical terms; but it has not disappeared and continues to linger in the minds of people who still entertain the attitude, the mentality, that women are 'less' than men in some respects and there is this tendency to justify many wrongs committed in this respect.

For years and years, the belief has lived on and it has become practically impossible to eradicate such frame of mind from societies. In many ways, it has become part of our cultural makeup, part of our language in the form of idiomatic expressions, dictums and proverbs, and the paradox is that it has become an accepted norm in many societies even by women themselves.

Haven't you ever heard of women who want to glorify the 'physicality' of their husbands or partners and expect that the 'men of their choice' should somehow treat them hard when they are or should be jealous of their mates? There have been several discussions on this issue of gender disparity and the treatment of women by their partners etc in several radio or TV shows and the response of the audience has been mixed.

Although it could probably be dismissed as a shameful exception, there have been women who called on the phone to state their pleasure to experience when the man is enraged and takes them up physically when he is overwhelmed by his jealousy or is any way angry about something that does not go his way! They argue that if men are not 'men' and treat us as 'women', we portray them as weak and feminine! The outrage of those who beg to differ, even among men, is of course understandable and widespread. There should not be any accepted difference between men and women in any respect that can do any harm to their personality and rights except in the areas where it is natural and in an agreed set up where there is what one could call "division of labour".

In families, there may be well established norms and division of chores and there should not be any problems with that. The problem emerges when one tries to impose one's force or influence on the other, and in a subtle but unjust manner any ways.

As a matter of fact, the difference between men and women, in the way they are treated, begins at home in very early days when we still live in a kid's world. In our context, the girls are expected to help with household chores whereas the boys are allowed to have more time to play outside, or go to school more regularly, and may be allowed to study until late in the evening etc. while the girls are deprived of such 'privilege'.

Although such ways of doing things are in diminution by the day, and today's parents are more gender conscious and do take care of such sensibilities, there are still people, particularly in the rural and remote settings where 'the equal treatment of women with men' has a long way to go before one can qualify it's ' a past story' or something that belongs to history books.

'Affirmative action' has been a key idea or phrase imported from abroad and introduced here and roaming around in our society for quite a while. It was meant to undo the past injustices and misgivings and try and rectify them. One way of trying to eliminate the long established and diehard cases of discrimination and prejudice against women vis-à-vis men should be the preparation of the level playing field for all so that they can reap the fruits of their endeavours equally.

The achievements have been substantial but not radical and comprehensive as it should have been. And by the way, this is not true of only countries such as Ethiopia but also in the most advanced states as well.

Reports show that there are still remnants of old prejudices and bias with regards to what women are allowed to achieve as compared to men. Nobody denies that tremendous progress has been made in the so-called First World when it compares to the less developed countries particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Third World. The status of women vis-à-vis men may vary from country to country and even in a given country from one community to another one.

In the case of our country, for instance, we can very easily see the issue from the perspective of the remote areas in certain communities and the ones in the urban settings; and there is a big difference even between how we regard or treat women in many urban areas as compared to the situation in the capital city.

In metropolis, the emancipation of women (and even that of men) or one should say their enlightenment, when it comes to how they view women, has changed so much that they definitely differ if you compare them to the residents of less advanced urban areas where the influence of traditional values is still rife and commands a lot of respect. To find a woman mayor is still very uncommon in Ethiopia and when you find one such person as the Mayor of Adama, it becomes a sort of news. To find a well-qualified woman football coach is still very rare and hence when you see that a certain Meseret Mane has successfully led Dire Dawa City club climb to the premier league and kept it there comfortably, people tend to applaud as a demonstration that no one can keep women from achieving what men can.

The issue then becomes at what cost does a woman beat all the barriers along her way and succeed just as men or even achieve more?

At what cost should women engage themselves to excel in a certain profession and reach the zeniths of success as do men? Some women such as Dr. Eleni Gebremedhin Zewdie, former CEO of the very successful ECX in Ethiopia, succeed very easily because they also have the full support and encouragement of their family, the facilities, the ideal environment etc. But can you imagine a girl in the remote rural areas reaching all the levels of success that she may dream looking at these very successful women in the various professions? Who gives them the right support and encouragement at the right time? Who gives them all the time they need to study and learn things and succeed in school competing not only with men in any case because of what time they are given to drill and study but also comparing to girls from well off families and may be urban families?

The level playing ground or the field is not equal to all women. You cannot help admiring girls like Yetnebersh Negussie who leads an NGO that works on disabilities and yet although she is visually impaired, she has made it to the highest of academic levels by graduating with Master of Laws and now rather delivering motivational speeches to people so that they in turn can succeed. The idea is as long as one exerts the maximum efforts with perseverance, success cannot remain a utopia for any one, not only women but even women with disabilities. She says disability is not inability.

The gender gap hence exists and we cannot deny it, but there has been a lot of progress and we cannot deny that either. There remains a lot to get the stage of saying that it has been resolved or it is an old and outdated idea or phenomenon.

But what about the violence and abuse women are subjected to just by mere virtue of their being 'women'? The so called 'gender based violence' is a chapter apart when we treat the gender gap in general. There are so many issues on this specific topic that it would take more than a 'piece' like this to address it adequately. But continuing our bird's eye view on these and related issues we can highlight the main features of the issue especially from the perspective of our society or communities.

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