Feminist Series—A Humble Man Discovers Feminism
By Girma Edosa
My name is Girma H. Edosa and I am 42 years old. I received my PhD in Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University in 2018. Based in Ethiopia, I work as a feminist and governance researcher at Includovate (Innovate for Inclusion). I take care of people, including my two baby boys, a baby girl and my elderly parents.
I was born in a rural setting known as Ameya where I experienced an identity change. Upon birth, an elderly woman gave me an Oromo name called Soorii meaning giving care. But when I turned six, my name was changed to Girma meaning His Majesty. This was justified because it would give me a better future, success in my education, employment opportunity, and wealth. The name change was politically-driven since it was the order of the day to replace Oromo names with Amharic under the Derg regime’s language policy which ignored cultural/linguistic diversity.
I was socialized in a society where patriarchy is embedded in social relations. I grew up among the Ameya clan, one of the Macha Oromo clans. Ameya represents both a geographical and social space — it is a place where the Ameya Oromo clan largely inhabits. Wherever one lives and works, in principle, all male members and adopted sons of the clan belong to the Ameya clan. Women, however, are excluded from being clan members with the associated protections/benefits. This is based on the culturally legitimate notion that women would join their husbands’ clan once they married. Yet, married women are not allowed to make decisions on even basic matters at their in-laws. Women are excluded from being a member of their own biological clan and from owning basic resources.
In the course of attending primary, secondary and university education in big towns as well as through experience in the world of work, I got a new understanding and awareness of gender and gender inequality. I realised that there are big differences between rural and urban areas with regard to gender (in) equality. In the rural setting, the majority of the girls do not go to school or else they dropout early as the existing social norms set marriage as a priority for them. In line with this, there is the Oromo saying: Dubartiin barattee eessa geessi? (Where could women reach if they attended education?). In the town, Guder, where I attended my secondary education, girls’ numerical presence in the school was far better as the restrictive social norms were less there.
Yet, during my undergraduate study at Bahir Dar University, I observed that there were only few female University students. Possibly the National Examination one had to take to enter University was difficult for women at the time because of multiple existing social pressures on them, or their parents did not invest in girls’ education. Once at University, there are multiple obstacles that young women faced compared with young men (including score passmark and GBV). I observed a striking event where a mix of physical and sexual violence were launched againist a girl student. A certain male student attempted to cause physical harm to his intended girlfriend when she chose to befriend another. This act was followed by a dismissal of the student and his collaborators from the University.
During my PhD study, I found there weren’t many female students in my department and they were generally invisible at the entire University both as teachers and PhD students compared to their male counterparts. However, women widely work in the University’s administration as officers at the human resource management, finance, library and in providing secretarial services and office management.
The less number of women at higher education, mainly as professors and graduate students, could be associated with a series of reasons. One of the major factors that hinder women to continue their study is the social responsibility they hold in a family. In Ethiopia, women at the different education levels still have more obligation to take care of babies and undertake routine household activities than men. As a consequence, most of the girls who married after their undergraduate study would delay or quit to pursue their graduate studies. The majority of the top scoring girls I knew at high school and university ended up at marriage after they received their first degree and get employed. I remember a certain brilliant girl (B) of my batch, who scored the highest-grade point (4:00) in the National Examination and did a bachelor’s degree in economics but stopped progressing beyond that. Had she continued her education, she could have become a professor of economics at one of the universities. This implies how gender norms persist to influence even the decisions of educated women, thereby hindering them from using their full potential and benefit from education.
The empirical reality of gender inequality at different levels and contexts in Ethiopia has motivated me to be a feminist researcher. As a history student at Bahir Dar University, I got a golden opportunity to know the history of some successful women who played a vital role in the making of history of their country. Abebech Gobena and Empress Mentewab are best examples in humanitarian services and political leadership respectively. Establishing a children protection and development association in 1980, Abebech provided humanitarian services for orphans. Her association gives various services, including education, HIV/AIDS prevention, infrastructure development, and women empowerment. Being one of the most powerful women, Mentewab determinedly co-ruled the Ethiopian empire with her son and grandson for about forty years, after the death of her husband in 1730. From the seat of government in Gondar, she wielded considerable influence in all corners of the empire.
However, it was during my study of social anthropology that I comprehensively read feminist theory and understood how asymmetrical gender relations function in different social and geographical spaces. I was fascinated with a feminist anthropology that employed a structuralism theory to study gender-based power relations. Structuralism draws on the premise that the subordination of women is a cross-cultural, structural, and universal phenomenon. Guided by this theory, Ortner (1974) unpacked gender-based power relations, arguing that women are symbolically closer to nature as men are to culture. Since nature is subordinate to culture, women are subordinate to men. Ortner’s work made me aware of gender issues historically and cross-culturally.
Yet, the western feminism entails some epistemological shortcomings for adopting a universalist approach, which overlooks local complexities and particular cultural practices regarding gender and gender relations. I approach the situation of women in a relativist and pluralist lens, which is helpful to unpack gender relations in the global south.
In fact, the situation of women and their participation in different societal spheres has improved since the 1990s. During the earlier regimes, the state governance structures, and the societal norms had marginalised women by constraining their access to and benefit from education. Since the formulation of the National Women Policy (1993), Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s constitution (1995) and other body of laws, women’s equal access to education and their enrollment at higher education have improved. Women’s access to education contributes to women’s economic empowerment and political leadership, thereby narrowing down gender inequality. In Ethiopia, women make up about more than 50 per cent of the total population of the country.
Over the last few decades, I observed changes in Ameya’s social system, including gender relations. Clan and marriage-based legitimation that excluded women’s access to resources of their natal family are contested as women and men can equally gain access to resources of their family by mobilising the law of the state. However, the contradictions between the state law and customary norms continue to be problematic. The social norms that constrain women and girls rights are also contested since girls can choose their partners for marriage, which is contrary to the earlier day’s practice of parent-based arrangement of forced marriage. Although the agency of women and girls can be strengthened via programme intervention and protection provided by the State law, there is a need to contextualise the changes we are witnessing.
I believe parental care and socialisation at family level play a significant role in shaping children’s understanding of gender equality. For me, my sons and daughters are the same, and I impartially care for them and invest in their education. My hope for my children is success in their education and future career. I expect them to: 1) score better results in their study, 2) respect human rights, 3) and ensure gender equality.
I now have a great opportunity to attain my mission to ensure gender equality and fight against discriminatory social norms as a feminist researcher at Includovate. I positioned myself to address my ambition by understanding and committing to the mission of Includovate: “To incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality and injustice”.
About the Author
Dr. Girma has ten years of experience in research. He has experience as a consultant in local and international development projects both in Ethiopia and globally. Dr. Girma’s research focuses on state-society relations with respect to access to land as a resource. Departing from conventional thinking, Dr. Girma’s PhD research project explores how the state-driven land formalization affects custom-based property relations and the social organization by using participant observation, transact walks, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. Dr. Girma is particularly interested in the context where plural normative orders operate, thereby affecting agency and social relations. He has also studied the challenges and opportunities for youth living in rural areas in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Nigeria and engaging in farming and non-farming livelihoods. This study combined qualitative research methods (e.g. Focus group discussions (FGDs), Interviews, life history and Photo-voice) to find out the challenges of the rural youth, the available opportunities, and migration options and decisions and destinations.
Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.