No Breastfeeding, Just Work



Hanna Haile (hannahaile212@gmail.com) is an Ethiopian writer and social worker. She is one of the organizers of Poetic Saturdays at Fendika Cultural Centre in Addis Abeba and at Terara Bar & Kitchen in Hawassa, where a stage is open to those who celebrate art through performances on the first and second Saturday of each month.


Ethiopia has just gained its first female president, Sahleworq Zewde. This comes on the back of a new gender-balanced cabinet with the highest representation of women in positions of power in the nation’s modern history.

Consequently, social media underwent a storm of joy, while friends called and texted me full of optimism and delight. Throughout all of this, I felt detached though, not to mention apprehensive and lost for words. I knew this was good news, and I should have felt happy, but what I felt was uncertainty.

Though I believe in the capability of women in politics, I knew how much harsher they will be judged. The road ahead will be hard for these remarkable women.

No doubt, they have not reached such positions in government without determination against a storm of resistance and pushback. They have probably experienced a sort of scrutiny that would seldom have been afforded their male counterparts. And yet, it is hard not to feel protective of them and all that they hope to accomplish.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the air has changed. Despite all that this nation owes women, we have been left out of major decision-making positions. To say that it was unfair, and continues to be in many cases, is an understatement.

Young girls at home, at school and in their neighbourhoods are told to keep their heads down. And yet, despite the narrow channel to success that society has opened up at a snail’s pace, few saw the irony in telling women to aspire for more. All too often, we recognize that we are surrounded by a community that is not ready to accommodate strong women.

A friend of mine wrote on her Facebook status that while she was happy to see a female president, people’s reactions made her feel that they did not understand what the woman’s role in power means.

“Women are not in politics to breastfeed a nation,” she elegantly put it.

And this is what has been circulating in my mind since these appointments. These women are indeed setting a sort of new precedent in modern Ethiopian history. But there are expectations unfairly laid on their laps.

Especially when it comes to positions of power, women are disproportionately criticised for mediocre performances compared to their male counterparts. There is rarely a middle ground or a margin of error allowed for women as there is for men.

But we have an advantage. Women’s leadership is not a foreign concept in Ethiopian history. Empresses Taitu and the queens Seble Wongel and Eleni are some of the famous strategists and leaders of medieval Ethiopia. While in more recent history we have had many women engage in all forms of resistance against Italian invasions or dictatorships.

Women in Ethiopia at various times have had many diverse roles in history, and this is another important period. Hopefully, this will be the new normal, but there is also the worry that such crucial social progress could be overshadowed by a backlash.

It is evident that in a world populated by about as many women as men, the majority of the leadership positions in politics or businesses being in the latter’s lap does not make sense. Representation is important because it offers a balance in decisions, which can only arise when a diverse group of people can come together and teach one another of the struggles and strengths among different groups of people.

Advocates of women’s rights are excited at what is taking place in Ethiopia. This is a balance we have been craving and we are prepared to support. I see many apprehensive, as if bringing women to power will impinge on others’ privilege. But those that do not believe women are entitled to make decisions in politics and contribute to a better future are setting themselves up for a rude awakening.

I am excited at the idea that women are no longer encouraged to be strong for the man who is a leader but rather to be leaders in their own right. The symbolic importance cannot be disregarded either for the many young girls who will have role models to look up to in the present.



By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile (hannahaile212@gmail.com) is an Ethiopian writer and social worker. She is one of the organizers of Poetic Saturdays at Fendika Cultural Centre in Addis Abeba and at Terara Bar & Kitchen in Hawassa, where a stage is open to those who celebrate art through performances on the first and second Saturday of each month.

Published on Nov 03,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 966]


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