A “Feminist” Ethiopia? What’s Really Behind the Country’s Recent Reforms?

The reforms of Ethiopia's Prime Minister, including a cabinet with 50 percent women ministers, have attracted interest in his country and beyond. What has really changed for the population?
Sahle-Work Zewde, UNON, Nairobi, Kenya
Teaser Image Caption
Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia

"ሴትን የሚያንቋሽሹ ያልሰለጠኑ ብቻ ሳይሆን ወደፊትም የማይሰለጥኑ ናቸው"

those that trash-talk women are not only regressive, but will not be enlightened in the future #AbiyAhmed


Under the new leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia embarked on an ambitious reform process. This resulted in the historic peace accord with Eritrea, for which Abiy Ahmed was named the 100th winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019. The reform process further led to an internal creation of a ministerial position for peace, a cabinet with 50 percent of women ministers, and the first woman head of state - Sahle-Work Zewde - in the country’s modern history. It also led to the appointment of the chairperson of the National Election Board,  Birtukan Mideksa, who was the founder and leader of an opposition party and has been living in exile, and the appointment of the women’s rights champion Meaza Ashenafi as the country’s Supreme Court president, amidst many other gains. More recently, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also initiated a tree planting campaign to combat deforestation and climate change and set a new world record by planting 350 million trees in a single day.

These monumental reforms initiated by the new administration were triggered by various factors in the Ethiopian political discourse, including a rising awareness of human and economic rights, a change in mindset in resisting oppression, demanding political and civil rights, and reclaiming equitable sharing of resources with the desire to end ethnic domination. It was also driven by online and offline Qeerroo political organising and interconnectedness brought by the digital age, political will, the global-consciousness created by the #MeToo movement to bring about feminist ideological transformation, and the Ethiopian youth movement pushing for change supported by diaspora communities wide and far.

In a country where state-sponsored violence wreaks havoc, by adopting not only a pan-Africanist foreign policy but a universalist one, the new administration brings hope to Ethiopia. However, there are still significant challenges to overcome. In this article, I seek to contextualise the various reforms brought about by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which focus on women and assert his administration’s commitment to destabilise patriarchy. It will highlight both internal and external factors that propelled the country’s recent ‘feminist decisions’, discussing whether these reforms are enough, and the different challenges ahead. I argue that, in times where backlash against civil society organisations and women’s rights persists, national borders are being closed, international treaties are being denounced, and international cooperation is being replaced with domination and armament, the current Ethiopian government went out of its usual way to open up space for opposition and civil society engagement, to reach out to former enemies, and ensure women’s and feminist perspectives are considered in forging domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, Ethiopia’s policy directions have already had a positive impact on the wider region.

Democratic Space for Women?

Patriarchy’s link to structural powerlessness of women in Ethiopia can be dissected through the narrative that in our society leadership has been the birth right of men for centuries. So, while democracy is defined as a structure of decision making where power is exercised by the people, because our default definition of people is ‘men’, democracy can be understood as ‘the rule of men’. The deliberate positioning of women ‘in the kitchen’ unpaid, with the responsibilities of rearing children and tending for their husbands, was/is the norm, and anything that disrupts this was and is still considered a social anomaly. Traditionally, hegemonic gender identities dismiss the contribution women have made to public life in Ethiopia by placing women in the private space of the home; despite this, women have participated in public life in several ways. The work of various women at different times have influenced the new developments that the country witnessed recently, although their work is often invisible or altogether erased. These include the Ethiopian Student movement, the non-hierarchical non-gendered commune Awramba, Girls’ Forum, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). More recently, feminist organisations and initiatives have also brought about a change in mindset induced by advocacy work promoting a cultural shift. Recent examples include Setaweet, the university-led Yellow Movement, YEGNA, the UN’s annual Sixteen Days of Activism, and other women and girls empowerment initiatives by local and international organisations.

Today, for most actors in a position of power, the women’s issue is considered an afterthought, a perfunctory attempt to appease international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), or shot at geo-political gains, seeking Western cooperation. Yet, if the aim of these aforementioned initiatives is the mere joining of exclusive clubs, becoming gatekeepers of patriarchy and state repression, and an alibi for NGO dependency syndrome, opposed to focusing on how women can continue to thrive in Ethiopia, little progress will be made.

However, it cannot be ignored that the return to democratic politics through recent reforms has facilitated the creation of new spaces for civil society engagement, enabling work to foster women’s rights and activists to take advantage of the right to organise, lobby, and act. Progressive reformers were the architects of formulating a sweeping gender policy in a country gagged by lawlessness, a track record of gender antagonism, and dispossession. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is injecting hope for plural politics and multiculturalism by prioritising the women’s issue and ensuring a record high of 50 percent women ministerial representation. As the Ethiopian political ecosystem evolves, not only the ceremonial presidential position will be filled by a woman but also the more powerful position of head of government. The high-ranking women appointees bring their lived experiences to the various positions that are unique to women with an unparalleled level of excellence and competency.

How Much Feminist Disruption is Accepted?

With these new reforms, women are now in the room, but are they ‘allowed to’ make noise?  How loud are their voices in amplifying the concerns of everyday women of Ethiopia? The potential downside of being the Prime Minister’s troop is not fully owning the space for feminist leadership. How much feminist disruption is tolerated by the Prime Minister and those others in power? There is no doubt that these women who are now situated in powerful positions are inspiring the next generation of women leaders, and the terrain has changed for the better: young girls can now aspire to be more than housewives. They have new visible role models in the women in positions of power, for example the trailblazing Ethiopian president and arguably the most powerful women in Africa, Sahel-Work Zewde, the first Ethiopian Women Federal Supreme Court President Meaza Ashenafi, or the first woman former Defence Minister, Aisha Mohamed who hails from Afar region (a region in the northern part of Ethiopia and historically excluded from mainstream politics), or the former speaker of parliament who holds a key position as the country’s first-ever Minister of Peace. The big question is: How are these women building movements and acting on their collective responsibility beyond personal ladder climbing? Now that they are in power, how are they empowering others? How much systemic change does this bring about? What does their ascension to power mean for the woman on the street? The prolific author Toni Morrison taught us that “the function of freedom is to free someone else”. The fight is not to sit at the same table with men and serve patriarchists nor satisfy the male gaze – the end goal is to end patriarchy indefinitely. We demand more safety; we want to be unburdened. We demand justice for women who told their stories to the African Union Commission about sexual harassment at the workplace. We demand a safe home, school, street, workplace, place of worship, nightclub, and country. We demand feminist-coalition building with those engaged in similar social justice projects. As the social condition of women changes, the knowledge and practical engagement to resist and push for transformation must also change.

Peace With Eritrea and New Partnerships

In response to the normalisation of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the relationship between Eritrea and Djibouti has also improved, leading to Eritrea’s re-admission to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), unlocking the potential for articulating a peaceful foreign policy. Ethiopia’s active peace-making role in the region is emphasised by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s role in mediating power skirmishes in Sudan. Pacifism and feminism go hand in hand. Seeking peace in foreign policy and geopolitical relations is seeking the wellbeing of women whose bodies are often the battlefield for war-mongering men.

Ironically, the Prime Minister has close allies for bilateral investment with the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, which is another attempt to mitigate fundamental economic problems by being in bed with totalitarians and monarchs and cannot be considered a feminist partnership at all. For instance, on 15 July 2019, the “Prime Minister Abiy presided over [the] signing of a $100mil grant MOU b/n FDRE Minister of Finance & UAE Government” according to the Office of the Prime Minister’s Twitter page. This was a clear signal that the new administration is seeking to form new global partnerships and address investment opportunities beyond those offered by China.

The new administration is cognisant of the fact that the way forward to sustaining peaceful coexistence is social justice, equity, political open-mindedness, and economic cooperation. However, their regional mediation has been viewed suspiciously by Ethiopians who say, Abiy Ahmed is “stirring somebody else’s pot while his own is burning”, with specific reference to addressing the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Ethiopia, which is in need of a feminist leadership response.

The Challenges Ahead

Ethiopia suffers from cultural determinism. As a ‘culturally sensitive’ patriarchal society it hasn’t escaped the common misconception that feminism is all about ‘always angry, man-hating, bra-burning, hypersexual lesbians, who are an enemy to the fabric of the traditional African society and funded by the west’. A caricature of feminism in the reaction to a specific horrific incident – an almost pseudo concern for women while sustaining the social order of the time. The original high-spirited welcome, embrace, and joy following the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed by the public is now replaced by resentment, rage, concerns about state fragility, and accusations that the Prime Minister is not “man enough” to maintain law and order in the nation and act with urgency. The gap between the initial hope and joy, and the current resentment and uncertainty is widening daily.

The challenges are immense: the re-emergence of an ethnocratic state, ethnic rivalries with a secessionist tone, and new dynamics of ethnic nationalism fuelled by male chauvinism challenging the federal autonomy, exponential cyber-bullying fuelling ethnic tensions, social media raving with hate speech, harbouring trolls spewing violent rhetoric and hatred, the closing-up of digital space for ethnic minorities with little human capital, and women targeted daily by misogyny.

Additionally, hegemonic aspiration of the ethnocratic Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which historically has been dominating the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which in turn is now chaired by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo Democratic Front, pose serious challenges for the government and the society as a whole. Old habits die hard and the TPLF is struggling to accept the loss of power Abiy Ahmed’s election has meant to them. They are desperate to consume its stolen leftovers. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, while working to reinvent himself, has given enough room for his colleagues to embark on a self-reflecting journey, but his visionary ways are misinterpreted by those who are crippled by their fragile masculinity.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed exhibits all of the qualities of an honourable change-maker, diversifying his approach for reconstructing the nation, but with no solidarity from the hardliners, he is seen as a traitor who is mistrusted, met with rebellion, treachery, and inexcusable, deceitful, and unlawful activities. The recent ‘coup’ attempt (June 2019), the assassination attempt on him are all actions aimed at wounding his ego by those who see his transformative efforts characterised by diminished masculinity.

Today, widespread sexualised violence against women still persists in Ethiopia. Rape culture, mostly unreported, is the norm, and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), child marriage (rape), sexual harassment, and the gender pay gap are all areas that new gender parity at the state level hasn’t yet addressed. Shoving things under the rug when the going gets tough and excluding feminist activism or giving activists a bad rap is counterproductive. It must be noted that the public perception in today’s Ethiopia towards activists is concerning, activism just like feminism has become a taboo word, and it is disheartening that the animosity arises from those who have no understanding whatsoever of both its theoretical and practical notion. 

More evident challenges are also present in the desperate need for change and improvements in infrastructure for water and electricity supply, public transportation, bureaucracy, food provision, police brutality, and tackling widespread poverty. The regime is currently trying to fix such issues with neo-liberal leanings, diametrically opposite and a clear departure from the developmental state model the EPRDF had been reciting ever since its inception. Regardless, these are all inequalities that need addressing immediately.

It is a Long Road to Go

Social visionaries, innovators, artists, politicians and feminists alike are all reimagining and building a nation by mending a scrambled republic by ethnic, gender, class, religion, economic and political exclusion, material deprivation and social dispossession. However, Ethiopians still need significant conversations on collective healing, to be deeply united in our desire for a common vision for a peaceful, just, and prosperous country. Ethiopians at home and abroad need to partner with the new administration to alleviate the complex strategic policy deficit with trackable trends that are accountable, progressive, transparent, and measurable.

To fully fathom the impending changes and one’s culpability in the system, it is important to ask whether the sins of the EPRDF can be washed away by an individual? Can the amicable repentance of one man overcome the many challenges that have grown over decades? Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is yet to legitimise his hold on power by campaigning for a free and fair election. One way of redressing the feminist question will be when the constitution ratifies gender equality at all layers of decision making. In the forthcoming election, how many women candidates are there? How many of those women and men come with the political commitment for feminist change? How safe will Ethiopia be for women to live a full and dignified life? While the administration may be tirelessly working to tidy up the region, some spectators argue our own house may not be in order and there is a desperate need for a roadmap for change. But, are people looking for a roadmap or a change in direction? Some claim the time for federalist governance is over, but really, the question should be: Can federalist governments promote and ensure equity and diversity? 

Conclusion: The Remaking of Ethiopia Cannot Be a One-Man Show

Nevertheless, if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is hoarding power for building a preacher-like public persona to arm him in a popularity contest (populism), all of the positive gains will die a slow death, exacerbating the many challenges the nation faces. The remaking of Ethiopia cannot be a one-man show. It must be reiterated: If the ruling party assumes that the need for a feminist leadership and gender equality is done and dusted, the opposition will come from those they are grooming. Society has taught us that hyper-masculinity and strong leadership go hand in hand, but this is a myth. For a country that has been in an abusive and imposed relationship with the venomous masculinity of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1955 – 2012) and his apologists, Ethiopia may still be lamenting and suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Is the country fully prepared for a healthy relationship with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his administration? He wants Ethiopians to heal together, but for a country afflicted by a dysfunctional co-dependency on chauvinist leadership, recovery will take time and a willingness to submerge in an active holistic desire for a reimagination of justice for all.

This period may be a time of consolidating peaceful coexistence both domestically and regionally, but there must be more internal conversations and dialogue amongst Ethiopians themselves, a sort of intentional getting to know each other based on inclusion and justice. A culture shift and a feminist blueprint and discourse for the emancipation of the country and its imagination must be asserted. Those close and far must also use this blueprint for the project of getting their houses in order. The Prime Minister’s administration may be on point in terms of crafting populism, but the work ahead in terms of strategic institutional restructuring and democratic reform with a commitment to women’s representation in power has only begun. I believe that feminists will eventually occupy the space opened up by the Prime Minister if misogynists cannot work through their differences and display the moral courage to dismantle repression and create a just, fair world for all. Setting the tone for the proliferation of the feminist agenda is a wakeup call for a world inflicted with chronic pessimism. The Prime Minister is adamant on creating synergies amongst various groups in Ethiopia and beyond, but unification without justice is a recipe for disaster and at best remains a pipe dream.

One of the greatest achievements of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership style aside from his gender policy reform is the way he has been able to deconstruct masculinity, being a man that cries publicly and preaches love and peace in a world where seeking peace is often viewed as softness or weakness, and where aggression is seen as strength. Having always been very close with his mother may have influenced his progressive thinking, which values acts towards forgiveness and reconciliation, promoting justice, fairness, and a new type of masculinity that shocks most Ethiopians in a context where violence is usually seen as a virtue of a leader, and where power is understood by exerting force and terror. Challenging dominant gender roles and power relations are lessons that must be learned not only by those in power in Africa but the world.

Above all else, the Prime Minister’s decisions and reforms differ drastically from those in power across the world – especially in his recent efforts to tackle climate change by planting millions of trees in one day, which shows he understands the intersections of climate change and how it affects people of the periphery. For a radical feminist like myself, Abiy Ahmed and his administration may not be doing enough yet, but he has already made immeasurable changes in a country that was on the brink of demise and democratic collapse. He may even be deemed as “the messiah” and it might not be long before we see a movement called ‘Abiyism’.