On Monday morning this week I was invited to speak to an undergrad gender empowerment class at the University of Gondar. The degree program is Gender Studies, and graduates end up mostly in government jobs working towards mainstreaming gender issues in development work and other policies. It’s a lofty goal, and I was pleased to see the room about half men as well. It’s about gender, not women. It’s about economic development, real strategies on the ground, and not just “empowerment.”
During the course of the morning I was asked about almost everything under the sun gender – from “are you a feminist?” to “why are you so passionate about these issues if compared to Ethiopia women in America are so empowered?”
Am I feminist? No, not really. Not of the 1960s militant theoretical variety anyway. Though the older I get, the more places I live, the more feminist (or mindful of gender inequality) I become.
Why am I passionate? Because we still have issues in the US as well. Because health is one of the strategies to bring women up or keep them down. In Ethiopia, too many women die in childbirth because they didn’t have access or weren’t allowed to go to a health center by family pressure. In America, I won’t even get into the slew of conservative state law going on the books this summer. Because my mother had to deal with a man’s world of upper management. Because I get harassed on the street. Because I lived in Jordan. Because I live in Ethiopia. Because I have had a lot of opportunities these Ethiopian women have had to fight so hard to get. Because I know I’m lucky, and I want those opportunities for others.
So how do you move towards a more equal society? You encourage education, especially for girls. It starts in the family. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have made the education and career choices I’ve made if my family didn’t think I was just as capable as my brothers. And that’s a generational, long term answer. It’s exciting because I really think this generation in the universities now is going to be great role models for its kids. Women are on a precipice here, it’s this generation that will get to see that change.
There are still pockets of families in the US who would rather encourage motherhood and housewifery instead of college or work. But as gender norms go, that’s not too bad. And many women choose that path, but at least they had a choice. Some families in Ethiopia are still encouraging early marriage and high rates of female genital mutilation. I’ll take “make me sandwich” any day.
But to switch gears a bit, if gender norms here can be incredibly stiff, gendered symbols are not at all. In America, pink is for baby girls, blue for baby boys. Girls get barbies, boys get tonka trucks.
In Ethiopia, I was sitting in a café that afternoon after talking to the class and two deaf streetkids I know came up to say hi. The boy was wearing a dress and pink rainboots, and his sister had a dark green sweater, no shoes. He got the rainboots, my guess, because he was the boy – colour be damned. My sitemate and I were painting our nails and offered to the kids. No matter, he went for the bright pink. She thought the blue was great.
Men drape over each other in cafes and hold hands or link pinkies as they stroll down the street. Women can be very shy and quiet, even meek, but still wearing the tightest ,most stylish pants. Short hair for all kids is a must during rainy season – better to keep an eye out for head fungus.
So poverty, practicality and no cultural significance to westernized gendered symbols can mean an interesting mix of cultural norms.
So encourage those women in your life. Encourage the men in your life. No matter where they live, they probably face some preconceived notions. And always have a camera, in Ethiopia, it can mean a very fun gender neutral afternoon.