The epistemological violence of liberal Ethiopian feminism: A response to Sehin Teferra

The erasing of Ethiopian feminists with a different ideological perspective is a hypocritical exclusionary maneuver.

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing, or rather, making fun of, trends in academic diction. And no sooner had we quipped about the epistemology of the Anthropocene, then an article entitled ‘The Epistemological Violence of Awol Allo’ showed up on my Twitter feed.

The article was written by Sehin Teferra, who heads ’Setaweet’ a feminist organization which once described itself as the “First Feminist Movement in Ethiopia”. This articulated self-image became a bone of contention between me and Sehin, sparking a series of debates over the political history of feminism in Ethiopia. It is as a result of these debates that Setaweet dropped the “first feminist movement in Ethiopia” trope (if not attitude) and started ‘researching’ the student movement—all welcome steps.

Steeped, as I am, in the history of the Ethiopian Student Movement, of the various publications around gender equality that they produced, of the near mythological standing of Martha who hijacked a plane, of the TPLF army of which women were a significant part, of Tadelech whose last child with Berhane Meskel was born in prison and who would become the first Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, I couldn’t help but wonder why Sehin felt the need to discount, let alone erase these women’s histories and their conceptualizations of gender equality?

Is it a dislike of their quest for gender empowerment or a dislike of the ideologies and thinking that underlined their quest for gender equality? Is feminism only feminist when it’s liberal? Or perhaps feminism is only feminism when it comfortably aligns with a particular vision of Ethiopia’s nation building process? Is this what she means when she writes: “Where the knowledge is formed by empirical data that is nevertheless open to interpretation that could go in several directions” Is the direction it could go towards complete omission of empirical data?

I couldn’t help but understand “The First Feminist Movement in Ethiopia” as women rendering women invisible. The full force of their erasure, as anything but a virulent form of violence on women, and, on epistemology, on how we know what we know. Does Marxism cease to exist as a body of knowledge, as a formidable epistemological tradition simply because someone standing at some pulpit renamed Marx,  Mark? Is class analysis necessarily Marxist? My reading of Adam Smith says different.

A recently published book by promising academic Elleni Zeleke argues that amongst the significance of the Ethiopian Student Movement was its introduction of social science as a way to understand and examine our society, an epistemological development that’s permanently changed our historiography and introduced, in Sehin’s words “healthy competition between dominant narratives”.

I had the pleasure once of attending a conference on Wallelign’s consequential paper on the nationalities question organized by the Institute of Strategic Affairs at which Sehin pointed out that women make up more than 50 percent of the electorate and could become a demographic to reckon with “if only”, she lamented, “these women could think as citizens”.  The condescension seemed, to me, as fundamentally anti-woman as seeking to erase the histories of women, of feminists, whose politics doesn’t fully align with hers. For Sehin, women should politically be women, but be ‘citizens’ in terms of the politicization of other identity markers.

The distasteful condescension sits on flimsy conceptual grounding.

What about citizenship requires that I shun any given identity? Can one be a hyphenated American and still be a citizen of the U.S., as so many Ethiopian-Americans claim to be? Can they remain “citizens” if they include within their politics a quest for an end to police violence against black Americans, a group to which they also belong?

And yet more questions: what, if any, obstacles does my conceptualization of Ethiopia as a multinational federation create for my feminism or my ability to be a responsible citizen? Does citizenship or feminism require a diminishing of pride in my culture or language? And, if so, why? What does it mean to ‘think like a citizen’ in modern-day Ethiopia? Does it require that I think about the country’s relationship to global capital and its impacts on sovereignty? Does it require that I critically examine how well women have fared in places as disparate as Nigeria, Poland, and Brazil under the market fundamentalism espoused by wannabe ‘Chicago Boys’?

Is it to pay my taxes and make informed decisions at the polling booth? These are all questions I wished to ask, unfortunately, the moderator, another ‘citizen feminist’ with a fondness for following trends in academic diction, lectured the audience on the lack of female participation before denying me, one of the very few women who wished to participate, the opportunity to do so. Women rendering women invisible as feminism.

To infer that a woman’s political activity should be limited to a gender question that is somehow sanitized from her political orientation, from the epistemological grounding from which she approaches the question, isn’t simply an improbable proposition, but serves to undermine a women’s agency as a political subject. In this context, it also serves to present Sehin, and her work with the “first feminist movement” as ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’, a fight against oppression that is free of political action and political perspective. Sehin knows how this aids her influence as a political pundit. But there is a politics, an ideology, attached to the connotations that ‘citizen’ has now taken on in Ethiopian political discourse.

If, as she claims, “There is no credible threat to federalism in Ethiopia. Awol [no desire to align my position with his or defend his positions], and others, have fashioned a bogeyman of ‘Ethiopianness’ or Ethiopiawinet” then how could there possibly be a distinction between thinking as a citizen in a multinational state, and recognition of the multitude of nationalities that make up that state? Can pan-Ethiopianism or citizenship mean anything else in this context, if, again as Sehin claims,“We have moved far beyond the times where Ethiopia was a cultural hegemony with one state religion, and we are all the richer for a multiethnic, multicultural Ethiopia”?

If this is true, then wouldn’t Ethiopianism, Ethiopiawinet, citizenship and feminism now all comfortably belong within this re-imagined Ethiopia? Wouldn’t to think as a citizen be, by definition, to think in terms of a federal Ethiopia unified through respect and political acknowledgment for the diversity of its self-governing constituents? Can such an Ethiopia afford civil society activists that unabashedly make generalized statements such as “Would he set a moderate middle ground for the Qaarrees and Qeerroos who might listen to his words?…ethnic labels are lethal…it is now Oromos who kill and terrorize Others”?

The choice of associating “Qaarrees” and “Qeerroos”, a self-proclaimed militant group, with moderation, and “Oromos” with killing and terrorizing exposes, however inadvertently, the writer’s biases, her ideology, the body of knowledge that informs her thinking; her lack of ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’. It is the ultimate betrayal of the “kindly Oromo landlady” who saved Sehin’s cousin by “vouching” for him in “Afaan Oromo”. Can we view, to borrow from Elleni, civil society as neutral arbitrators of conflict? As depoliticized, de-ethnicized citizen-feminists who occupy an imagined moral high ground from whose perches they preach to us women who have failed to understand that we could be a demographic to reckon with, if only we could think as citizens? Who said we aren’t ?

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Main photo: Sehin Teferra at the Institute for Strategic Affairs event; 6 December 2019; Twitter.

Editor: William Davison

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About the author

Mistir Sew

This is a generic byline for all anonymous authors. The anonymity could be because they fear repercussions, as they are not authorized by their employers to express their views publicly, or for other reasons.


  • Do you actually have a proposal or insight of your own as to how everyday action can be taken from the pubic and state as to not endanger women in every aspect of life? Any thoughts on doing work to move the needle forward? Since women are being raped, killed, assaulted, abused everyday and perhaps that should be a national shame we carry collectively…?

  • Identity politics is a destructive tool used by otherwise unaccomplished, incompetent and unqualified political cadres and ideologies of a political party or members of any political movement to capture state resources and milk Ethiopians. How Ethiopians fall for this dirty trick of political opportunists decades after decades is mind boggling. This is a sleight of hand, now showing you a white bird and then pulling a red handkerchief in a matter of seconds.

    In the 1940s- 1970s, Ethiopia built a respectable bureaucratic infrastructure, educated many youth, (predominantly males) and hired them in the various branches of government, including the military, banking, health, education, and several other economic sectors. These early professionals of the era thus started acquiring a living standard higher than the average Ethiopians- the majority of them being farmers and living in rural areas. The more educated Ethiopians lived closer to the few but major city centers, including Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Dessie etc. The major facilities like hospitals, roads etc thus concentrated in major cities, creating a rural vs city or in the case of Addis Ababa, metropolitan divide. This phenomenon was not unique to Ethiopia. Even extremely well developed countries in West Europe and the USA have some regional, rural and city infrastructure divide or variations.

    In Ethiopia, at that time, a small but eventually visible private sector also started, developing creating an even wealthier and more affluent class. This new class of merchants, small scale industrialists, international traders, including foreign expats (Armenians, Greeks, Italians etc) together with the above mentioned bureaucratic professionals also lived closer to the cities, further extending the rural vs city divide. The Imperial Regime in addition had a ruling class of high officials and families of the monarchy and relatives.

    It is in this background, the derg regime arrived. The new political opportunists of the derg from the lower echelons of the military and lower ranking members of the bureaucracy, emerging student youth framed themselves as progressives (teramaj), Marxists, Leninists, Socialists, Communists etc, they swarmed the various sectors to occupy lucrative government posts, the lower ranking military men like Mengistu Haile Mariam, Debela Dinssa, Atenafu etc, suddenly put themselves on the front seats.

    The very little that was accomplished in building a meritocratic, bureaucratic system was aborted and became a political showmanship. The 1974 revolution could have evolved into creating a more equitable society. The rural vs city divide, questions of land reform, if they had not been politicized and framed only in Marxist Leninist ideologues propaganda would have led Ethiopia and Ethiopians to a different future. If the extra judicial killings of first high ranking government officials, then the masses in the tens of thousands through the red terror had not been perpetrated by die hard derg fanatics and Marxist Leninist ideologues, true reforms of the judiciary could have been implemented, building on what was accomplished in the 1950s.

    Unfortunately, the misery of the nation and Ethiopians has no end. In 1991, there was a second opportunity for Ethiopia. But the same ills of the past followed the nation. Former die had hard Marxists and Leninists, Socialists and Communists like Meles Zenawi could not capture state power as such, they had to invent themselves as ethnofederalists and milk the system once again. Out goes meritocracy, comes in clan politics, to the demise of the dreams of the many, poor Ethiopians who wanted their share of the pie.

    So now as seen in the article, the so called identity politics is even important for women to organize as feminists. The quest for equality by women in other societies are well defined. They range from equal pay for equal work, equal access to education, equal rights to property ownership, to equal access to political
    representation through voting and political office election. One does not have to be an Amhara woman, an Oromo woman , a Harari woman, a Sidamo woman, a Tigre woman or any other ethnic group female member- it is a quest by all Ethiopian women, in particular and all women of the world in general. But in Ethiopia today, vanguards of identity politics, lest their demagoguery and self serving hypocrisy be exposed through logic and critical analysis, fight tooth and nail any aspirations of the people of Ethiopia for universal rights of the individual Ethiopian regardless of place of birth, gender, native or mother tongue. After all if say 10 positions open for women in a highly patriarchal society, why not just claim you fight for the rights of Oromo women or Tigre women only and claim all 10 positions for your ethnic group, thus effectively becoming the exploiter of all other women in one stroke.

    “Misqinwa Enat” Ethiopia when will you ever see a path to normalcy? When will ever your true children be free from the shackles and demagoguery of the political cadre who changes his or her color as a chameleon now calling himself or herself as a socialist, Marxist, Leninist, communist, ethnic-federalist, only to steal your resources, to occupy a post without training, education, work experience or merit? When will you ever be free from the political opportunist-vulture that wants to be appointed without deserving to a post to loot, steal, amass wealth, live in better housing, send his or her kids to private school and abroad all on lousy GOVERNMENT SALARY while the masses of Ethiopians toil day in day out to live in hunger, poverty, misery on the same lousy GOVERNMENT SALARY, after having given an arm and a leg to get a job having gone to school, studied hard, submitted applications and gone up and down to compete and earn a living based on their merit???????????

  • Balderas is just one party . Balderas does not have support in Addis Ababa. Balderas called for a meeting to be followed by a rally in Addis Ababa and less than a hundred people showed up at the rally of the people who showed up at the meeting, a dozen of them were there to denounce Balderas which clearly shows Balderas is not the voice of the Addis Ababa people. The Ethiopian electoral board needs to remove Balderas from the list of the political parties for not having enough supporters and for the leader engaging in terrorist activities. Balderas needs to get dismantled never to recuperate again. All of the other political parties such as Ezema need to let their stands known in regards to Addis Ababa becoming a region before Balderas starts more havoc within the city be pretending the question of Addis Ababa becoming a region is a question of the Addis Ababa residents.

  • If saying to think as citizens has an implicit meaning to side-step or diminish one’s cultural identity, in the multicutural setting of Ethiopia, I would find such notion of being a citizen narrowly defined and almost selective. Upholding and celebrating one’s language/cultural identity does not diminish a person’s commitment to the idea of thinking and acting as a citizen. And that essentially is one meaning of federalism – you are who you are in your own social identity, but you are also an Ethiopian citizen – a national identity you share with all Ethiopians.

  • So a person who is criticizing Sehin of saying “the first feminist movement” has actually started from a woman who hijacked a plane and her likes who were totally lost with the fictitious socialist philosophy of the time. Patethic! Where is Tayitu, Zewditu, Shewareged Gedle, Sendu Gebru…..? I see only an ethnonationalist view in the “idea”, and it is not even a response to what Sehin orginaly addressed.

  • Eventhough I detest epistemological violence of feminism and the reverse empowerment and discrimination against the male gender, I am in full support of women”s basic rights and struggle for equality in the rigidly Patriarchal societies and cultures such in the Ethiopia. The least one expects from feminism ideology and movement is supposedly being strictly race, ethnic and religious neutral withn given society.. They should be playing less with patriarchal fires, plots and violence in the larger society by flirting with idea of ” Us” versus “Them”. Instead they should be advancing the role of peacemakers , reconcailers and consoles, who bridge societal differences and fight against
    gruesome violence episodes. Sadly, as The author alluded, it seems that Sehin’s stance and writings don’t reflect those values and basic principles, if not the revese is the case, and it is deserves to the feminism ideology and the very cause itself.

  • In my opinion, this article wishes to link what is not possibly plausible to link or associate. After viewing a title of this peace ,I was interested to read the full article expecting to get rational argument in the battle of idea as a rejoinder to Sehn’s article.Unfortunately, only the last two paragraphs of 14 proportionally equivallent size paragraphs is relevant under the title. I am not dismissing writer’s argument aganist Sehen’s notion of Feminism,but I found it irrelevant as a response to her article on Awol Alo.The writer attempt to associate Sehen’s argment on Awol with the feminism subject of Sehen seems under the given title seems a lack of valid argument aganist her article.The article do not deserve to be entitled as a response to Sehen’s past article.

  • I was interested in the article until I saw how pretentious it was. Get off your high horse and talk like a normal person.

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