By Saba Alemnew
Ever since I arrived to Ethiopia, I have noticed that public spaces are predominantly occupied by men. Whether it is the streets I walk on, the taxis I take, or the cafes I go to, I’ve noticed that men tend to outnumber women. I have also noticed that women are often expected to behave passively. So I was quite surprised when I heard about an active feminist group here in Addis Ababa called Setaweet.
“Setaweet (which means “of women” in Amharic), is the first feminist movement and business in contemporary Ethiopia.”
The leaders of this organization envision an Ethiopia where women and men have equal opportunities to pursue their dreams and to lead fulfilled lives.
When I walked into the meeting on a Tuesday after work, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. I observed a cozy office space with numerous quotes and infographics about feminism and the dismantling of patriarchy. The organizers provided a disclaimer at the beginning of the meeting that Amharic would be the language spoken and they encouraged all attendees to speak in Amharic as well. In Setaweet’s tradition, attendees begin by discussing something that has happened in the past month that enraged them, as well as something that has made them hopeful from the perspective of a woman. As each woman shared their story, I sat and listened in admiration of each woman’s capacity to use Amharic to not only describe their experiences, but also using certain terms in Amharic to articulate their frustrations as a women which directly related to certain feminist concepts.
When the time came for me to share, I spoke about how I have been frustrated that every time I go to a restaurant or café, the bill is always given to the man at the table (if a man is present). Even if a woman ends up paying and goes out of her way to give the money to the server, the change is still given to the man. I found this cultural norm to be problematic because it implies a woman should not act as a provider, but instead, should always be dependent on someone to provide for her. I could see from everyone’s body language–including finger snaps of support and head nodding–that they could definitely relate to my experience. For the first time, I felt truly heard as an Ethiopian woman living in Ethiopia, and despite my frustrations, I am still hopeful for women here. In my daily routine I see many Ethiopian women running businesses, whether it’s a small kiosk, larger retail store, or an advisory firm.
“Seeing Ethiopian women in positions of power, and having agency over their lives provides younger Ethiopian women with a bigger vision of what is possible.”
It eventually pushes the boundaries of gender roles and invites conversations that may have not been discussed before.
I really appreciate the safe space that Setaweet fosters for women like me to express their highs, lows, as well as in finding ways to push cultural norms for women here in Ethiopia. I plan to continue going to Setaweet’s meetings and events, and encouraging other women I meet here to participate, engage, and challenge some of the cultural norms that they feel are holding them back from achieving their dreams.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, the organization, and the leadership.