Gender: Mind your Language


About a month ago now, I posted a story for everyone to read and I hope some of you enjoyed the charming, heart-warming, “love conquers all” tale 🙂 (If you missed it you can catch up on it here)

In that post, I told you that the first time I read that story, I had a very unexpected reaction to it.

The first time I read that story, my reaction went something like this:

“WOULD YA BE WELL?! The woman is after taming a bloody LION while her FAT husband sits down on his big FAT arse at home complaining about the length of time she spends in the market buying HIM food to cook HIS dinner FOR HIM and now she’s supposed to save the BLOODY marriage as well??!!!! Oh yeah! Grand job! No bother to her! She’ll get right down to it now after she’s finished preparing a coffee ceremony for everyone and handwashing everyone’s clothes and grinding the grains for their dinner by hand and picking stones out of a bag of lentils and peeling 20 kilos of garlic and carrying a jerrycan of water for miles and fomenting alcohol for him to drink and rearing his children! Too easy! Oh and by the way, I just LOVE the fact that the wise old sage just so conveniently HAPPENS TO BE A MAN in the story as well. Lovely touch! Would almost go unnoticed! Old men, yes, they are so very, very wise! And women are so very stupid! Let’s all bow down to men in their superiority and sagacity and become completely subservient to them! (*sarcasm*)


Yes. This was my actual internal monologue when reading this simple children’s story.

Another person might venture that this story is a lesson in the rewards of perseverance and diligence in a marriage and may not consider any gender implications whatsoever. Later, in an effort to be more measured, I conceded to myself that my reaction to the story was borne as much out of my own personal gendered experience of Ethiopia as it was to do with representations of women in Ethiopian literature and that it must be considered in that context.

Mine was definitely an emotional reaction but it is abiding because such representations of women here are/were pervasive and I feel are an insult to the millions of Ethiopian women living in poverty and fear in this patriarchal society.


At home in Ireland you get the occasional funny (brave) man.

Q: “Why do women have small feet?”

A: “So they can get closer to the sink!”

I can just about tolerate this type of thing and hopefully narrowly avoid being labelled “a dry shite” when I remember that he is probably only trying to get “the rise”. Here in Ethiopia, I am not good enough with the language to enjoy jokes and something tells me the humour wouldn’t translate but I did come across a list of Ethiopia proverbs recently, some of which read like jokes. Except I seem to have lost my sense of humour 😦

Here are a selection of them. I use the word selection purposely; I have selected them to illustrate my point. Most of these however I find derogatory to women and some are derogatory to men. All very clearly assign specific gender-roles and characteristics to Ethiopian men and women and give specific advice on how the sexes should behave towards each other.

“A shy priest, a blind donkey and a courageous woman are useless.”

My friend Zerefa, who grew up in Woldia, runs a support programme for local orphans and their carers.  Often the carers are the grandparents and so the orphans are the ones caring for the “carers”.

My friend Zerefa, who grew up in Woldia, runs a support programme for local orphans and their carers. Often the carers are the grandparents and so the orphans are the ones caring for the “carers”.

“Even if a woman has knowledge, only a man can utilize his knowledge.”

One of the orphans, learning her ABCs :)

One of the orphans, learning her ABCs 🙂

“Women know how to grind, but they don’t know when to stop.”

Hadiya, grinding. Here's hoping she knows when to stop! ;)

Hadiya, grinding. Here’s hoping she knows when to stop! 😉

“Women make a good dish, but not a good speech.”

One of the pupils from the local Preparatory School who was the chair at an English debate.  The motion was, “The older generation are better than the new”. I thought she made a good speech!

One of the pupils from the local Preparatory School who was the chair at an English debate. The motion was, “The older generation are better than the new”. I thought she made a good speech!

“One who has spoiled his wife eats roasted barley for his dinner”


“To talk is womanly and to work is manly.”

“Women are like spice – you do not need much.”

“When there are many women, the cabbage will be spoiled.”

“For women and children, the stick is matchless treatment.”

“A woman that dominates her husband will not at all value her neighbors.”

“A husband who fears his wife cannot be a good father to a child.”


So what, you might say. This is Political Correctness gone mad, surely! What’s the harm in any of it? It’s only words.

Are such representations of gender powerful enough to warrant this kind of concern? Do they contribute to the lowly status of women in Ethiopia? Can there be any link between the two? Are the next generation of Ethiopian boys and girls being inculcated by them, affecting how they think and behave towards each other or do they have little effect?

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about such things to comment on that.

What I do know is that out of 136 countries on the Gender Development Index, Ethiopia ranks as number 118.

At the very least the injustices and dangers of life for women here (as they appear to a young, foreign woman) make such glib gender representations as these hard for me to stomach. And these kinds of invidious, at times seemingly innocuous, gender stereotypes and put-downs lace every interaction here.


Three weeks ago, my landlady’s father died. I had the day off work and was at home that morning preparing to go to the funeral. Deliberating on what clothes would be appropriate to wear, much as I might do in Ireland, but with the added consideration that the funeral of this 84 year old man was to be held in a small, rural, religiously conservative town, I decided on a long black skirt which I usually wear to work and a cardigan. Suited up for this foray into unfamiliar territory, I came out of the house and rounded the corner, where the rest of the neighbourhood were gathering. My ability to impress and astound my neighbours with common sense really knows no bounds it seems, the crowd surveying my outfit, clasping each other by the arms, shaking their heads, pursing their lips in admiration. She really is a clever girl! She is one of us! She has adapted! She seems Ethiopian! (…did they think I’d come out in a pair of hot-pants or something?!!!)

As I grew closer, one of the women cried out in greeting, “Ere, wond nesh!” and all in the company good-naturedly agreed.

The problem being that this phrase when literally translated presents us with the somewhat impossible to comprehend, “Arra, you’re a man!” A rather strange pronouncement on sighting a woman in a skirt!

Of course, it was not meant to be comprehensible in that literal, crass sort of way. Something which makes Amharic such a wonderfully playful language. Rather it is meant to signify that what you have done is clever or apt or in some way impressive. You are in fact so impressive that you are just as good as a man. And it is meant of course as a compliment. You have shown that you are the equal to a man by your action even though you are a woman.

I tried a gracious smile but really what I managed I think was more of a grimace.

Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.  Maybe they are just words.  But I’m not sure really.


11 responses »

  1. Interesting post. The situation is very similar in the Gambia where the men adopt the standard superior role and the women are conditioned to accept their own position as naturally inferior. Since this conditioning takes place from birth it is very difficult to overcome.

    • Hey Mart! Yeah, some women here themselves would be very reluctant to change things and for the men why change the status quo which is working in their favour unless they have a really strong sense of compassion and justice. Socialisation of “boys” and “girls” is very strong. There are different initiatives about Gender at the moment. It’s a very “sexy” topic I think. There spending lots of money on it anyway. Maybe things will change in the future. I’ll do a post about the different initiatives another day! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Gender: Mind your Language | Under African skies

  3. Great post Aisling and I absolutely recognise this here in Kombolcha. You might like to look at a really good book by a woman called Elizabeth Laird called the Lure of the Honey Bird. She collected folk tales and stories from all over the country (a British Council project) and translated them into English to provide English readers with content that was relevant to Ethiopian kids. What I found interesting was the difference between ‘men’ stories and ‘women’ stories…and also how difficult it was to get women to become involved in the project. There is a website that gives the stories (in English and Amharic) that the book is based on. You can find it at Dxxx

    • Wow Deb, what a brilliant resource to have, thanks so much for the link! For me what you said is true also, what I found interesting was the difference between the men and the women but that was me reading it with my Irish eyes. In some way maybe I am conditioned to look at things in this way and be critical of such gender representation because of my upbringing and maybe people here are not conditioned to look at things in the same way? The real question in the blog is, does it matter? I think it does but I’m not sure how exactly. Thanks for reading! 🙂 xxx

  4. I was recently in a Bajaj on the way home from the market with our weekly shop when the driver started talking usual stuff where are you from etc etc “do you have a wife” he askes, yes said I, “then why are you doing the shopping?” Unfortunately my Amharic is not good enough (to wind him up) as my reply would have been something like “in my country the men to all of the housework, cooking, bringing up the children etc whilst the women spend all of their time making themselves beautiful” That would kill his ambition to move to the UK.

  5. Awww, Aisling, this made me very sad. Proverbs, stories, and sayings have a way of getting into people’s minds and becoming real beliefs; it doesn’t matter if “nothing is meant by them” or they’re supposed to be “funny.” Maybe one day the story of the woman and the lion will change? Here’s hoping!

    • That’s what I really worry about Siobhán- the power of words :/ I’d need to have it confirmed or refuted by some kind of scholarly article but I do think they are extremely powerful (and also are a reflection of the society). As regards to the hope that things might change, I don’t know. At the moment we do have an Ethiopian version of the spicegirls about- I’ll do a post on them another day- very exciting! 🙂

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