17December2017

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I was recently asked to make a speech in front of AWiB partners on why supporting the development of strong women is good business. While writing the speech I felt I should share my thoughts with a wider audience on the AWiB blog, not just for representatives of organizations interested in working with AWiB, in the Business of Developing Strong Women Leaders since 2012, but also for every woman and man that will chance upon this piece. Yes, you.

To start with, I am thoroughly opposed to making a business case to supporting women’s leadership development or gender equality for that matter. Mostly because I believe we should not need to justify women’sGod given right to be all that they can be. It is simply the right thing to do all in our power to right social injustices of any kind, including but not limited to the skewed gender participation rates in leadership. Do you not agree? Maybe you need a bit more? Fine. Here goes.

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Of course I had to write about cake for my last AWiB blog of this year. Why? Because I had the best cake made for my son’s first birthday this weekend and it needed to be acknowledged. This year has been one amazing journey of growth and development for me; every speed bump, every traffic jam, every U-turn, with a little road rage and all. I have learned so much from others, and so much of myself. I have managed to, both, praise and disappoint myself, fall and get back up again, loose focus and redirect myself once more all in one year and surprisingly I am so much more aware of how much more I know is out there to learn. It never ends lekas*!

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Nahu asked me to blog on the topic of “men who support women” after our “Menelikish Men” event last Thursday and I excitedly accepted the challenge to look within myself and write something to continue this conversation with my fellow AWiBers and readers. I looked at my screen for over two hours and couldn’t come up with anything. I mean nothing guys! I kept going back to the presentations our speakers made and listening to their conversations over and over again but was stillstomped as to where to start. All this time I’ve gone through life without once considering this topic. Or, in my particular case, it could just be that I was not mature enough to realize my surroundings and appreciate my situation.

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 I was recently speaking to a leading Ethiopian feminist activist who has parented two remarkable women and who is now a grandmother to two boys and one girl. She was taken aback when I said that I think that in Ethiopia, becoming a man is as difficult as becoming a woman. Let me explain. The more I learn from parenting my six-year old daughter and my four-year old son, the harder I have come to believe that the path of parenting children of either gender requires a surgeon's precision and a vast amount of the purest love that you can access.

Agreed, the task of raising a girl who will become a woman in this unequal world is daunting, but I am of the opinion that raising a boy needs as much conscientious effort. The notion that boys will get by because they are naturally tougher has put many many men in vulnerable positions where they feel under-loved and under-nurtured in a society that encourages them to act out in aggressive ways. It is similar to being put on a precipice that requires careful negotiation to descend while the crowds on the ground are encouraging you to Jump.

Raise them the same, but not

I think it's great when women and men say their parents always treated them the same as their siblings of another gender. If we teach our sons to bake and cook without making it a big deal, we are equipping them to feed themselves, not to 'help' their future wives, assuming they will have them. If you encourage your daughter to be physically active and to rely on herself, she will grow up to be a self-assured woman. This I believe is Feminist Parenting 101. But let's not end there.

Their Sisters' Keepers

I think that as feminist mothers, we need to teach our girls to be self-confident, for sure, but also to uplift other women. We can tell our daughters to steer clear of men who are threatened by their ambition but also to make sure that they think beyond their own gains. This takes practice but what has worked for me in developing my daughter's sensibility around gender is to to follow a strict rule of not bad-mouthing other women. I plan to call her out on any
catty remarks she might make about classmates or friends, as unlikely as that scenario seems now. Her current best friend is a boy but she has other close friends who are girls. In her short tenure at kindergarten, we have already had the difficult task of negotiating a case of bullying by another girl which required much feminist hand-wringing on my part. I wanted to use the opportunity to teach her to stand up for herself without falling into the dangerous 'girls are like that' trap that has set many women of my generation up for unnecessary angst. At the end, my daughter ended up delivering her much-rehearsed 'I will not play with you anymore as you have been mean to me several times' line and that was the end of that. For now.

I am sure there will be more people like that in my children's lives, and they will be boys and girls. There might even be a time when it is my child in the guilty seat although I certainly hope to not see that day. My feminist take on the unfortunate reality of bullying is to emphasize that it is not the natural domain of femaleness as society and exposure to Ethiopian media would have us believe.

Am I saying that women and girls are not often cruel to each other in quite specific 'feminine' ways? I wish I could argue that but we all know better. The women who eye you with aggression the minute you walk into a room and who make nasty judgements before they get to know what you are about. When my male friends observe that women are often not nice to each other, I wish I could honestly say that has not been my experience but I can't. What I can and do say is that I see through it. I see through the unnecessary competition that is bred from the misguided and patriarchal notion that there is not enough to go around - not enough beauty, not enough male attention, not enough success. I see through this lie and do not participate in it. As a feminist parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my daughter does not either. Feminist Moms, we need to help our girls brush off, and be above the 'mean girls' that they will encounter, because that is, unfortunately, a real syndrome.

Feminist Moms, go further and teach the women of tomorrow to be their sisters' keepers. When they come home with an award or a promotion, praise them for sure, but also ask them how their gains uplift their friends. Teach them, by example, to amplify the voices of their girl friends or at the very least, to not stand in their ways. Universal sisterhood is a difficult concept and has not always worked, but it doesn't mean we can't be strategic allies. We can pull each other up even when we don't agree on everything.


Expect as much from boys as we do from girls

We need to replace the saying, 'Boys will be boys' with 'Boys will expected to be as polite, as respectful and as considerate as girls.'

Feminist Moms and Dads, we have the unenviable task of educating our daughters about sex, and our sons about sex. In the Ethiopian context in particular, the word 'sex' is synonymous with shame. Women in particular are made to feel shameful for having sex, let alone for desiring or pursuing it. Feminist parenting requires us to break that mold. To teach boys and girls to name their body parts matter-of-factly and to recognize that as uncomfortable as it makes us, children are sexual beings who will touch and explore themselves. It's our job to refrain from messing with the curiosity that nature has given them while teaching them the appropriate where and when of self-love.

Consent is another important consideration that can't be taught too early. I learnt this the hard way. From the age of three, I taught my daughter that her private parts are her own and that no one except her immediate care takers are allowed to look or touch her there. It didn't occur to me that my son needs the same affirmations until a certain incident at his school involving the (innocent) explorations of other little boys. We focus so much on the vulnerabilities of little girls that if we are not careful, we leave our sons wide open to not only abuse but the confusions of hormones and seemingly uncontrollable libido.

Speaking of, a highly important lesson we need to teach boys in particular is the myth of men's uncontrollable desire. We are raising sentient beings who can respect women and who can think beyond sex. Feminist Dads, in particular, call your boys out if they linger too long looking at women's anatomy. Feminist Moms, you know it is not nice to be looked at like a piece of meat. Share your feelings with your sons, for sure, but do not plead with them to respect women out of deference to you, teach them that it is the only way in which they can respect themselves. Feminist mothers do not make excuses for sons who rape.

Feminist Moms, but particularly Feminist Dads, please, please  drill 'consent' into the very fibers of your kids' sexuality as they grow up. Tell your sons to stop chasing that girl if she no longer enjoys playing with him, and that real men can take 'no' for an answer. Tell your daughter that she never ever under in any circumstance owes a man sex. Teach her to look out for herself because there will always be men who won't hear her response, but also to say what she means. To not be coy and lead men on because of the dangerous idea
 that women need to play hard to get. Tell your little girl that it is ok to ask out the guy she likes.

Dating and romance are all good and can be good complements to the love we have for ourselves.  However, our daughters as well as our sons need to know that it is good to be alone and that only really great people are worth the heartbreak they will face one day. I ask my daughter Rekka who her best friend is, and she replies 'you.' If I probe harder, it will be her grandmother. But she knows I will keep asking, so she replies, 'myself.' A conscious feminist parent aims to raise a child who won't need even her.

Teach Women of the Future to Love Being Women

Feminist Dads and Moms, if your ethnicity, race or religion are important identifiers that you teach your daughter to hold dear, include in that her gender. It is the category closest to her self, often the only visible identifier and yet usually the one we women hold in least esteem. If women battled for themselves AS WOMEN the way they always have on behalf of their ethnic or religious identity, patriarchy would have fallen long ago.

Own Yourself, Woman.

Feminist Dads, talk to your daughters about the strong women you know. Let them know that you are not ok with sexist comments; make sure that if a man ever harasses or disrespects your daughter, that there is nothing in him that reminds her of you. Because unless you mess up on an exceptional level, you will be the standard male she will hold all future men against.
Don't accept an apology on her behalf, you don't own her. Because you love her, teach her she is complete in herself.

Because I am learning both feministing and parenting as I go, I often have the thought that begins, 'If my dad was still around.' The endings vary -'I would have this and not that, I never would have ended in this relationship or I would never feel unloved.'

I know instinctively that my feminist identity should be the antidote to the primordial longing for my father who as a woman, I have been taught is the pillar of my existence, but it is a battle. In an effort to pull myself up, I tell myself, in the words of Toni Morrison from her book, A Mercy, 'Own yourself, Woman.' It is easier said than done but it has been a good lesson for me in the meaning of feminist parenting. So Feminist Dads and Moms, because you love your daughters and sons, and because you can't protect them forever, teach them to own themselves, mind and body. Teach them that they can live without you.

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I realized recently that for the longest time I have been perhaps asking a seemingly outdated and passive question: “who’s at the table?” As of late, this question has popped up in my mind persistently on several occasions. Watching local and international news and witnessing who is invited to provide expert analysis on a given issue; panels and political gatherings; convening elders for dialogue on key national issues; political party negotiations; peace agreements; design of economic policies and interventions; decisions on national and international security, etc. The list of what are considered ‘hard’ subjects goes on and what continues to be glaringly apparent is that these spaces persist as male dominated arenas bearing the same results. But inclusion is not the only issue that dwells in this dilemma. Diversity of strategies is also an issue.

I define my tiresome question of “who’s at the table” as ‘outdated’ because the finding is a foregone conclusion. At least every time I have asked this question, I have seen only men claim these spaces as second nature and recycle the pattern of patriarchy that they have also been socialized to accept is the only way. The alternate male voices that imagine a system beyond this are far flung and unable to penetrate the patriarchal system for too long. See, the treacherous thing about leading with patriarchy is that it designs everything as a zero-sum game – there’s a winning side or there’s a losing side, but never a common ground. It leads from a place of assuming power for individualistic pursuits and not for influencing for the common good. It views the environment as a resource to be plundered and exploited and not balanced and harmonized for the collective. It thrives on divisiveness as a method of control. And it builds the narrative of scarcity so strongly that those under its influence are controlled by fear and hence plunder away. 

In the roles we have been expected to assume as women in society, we have all played the part of caretakers, homemakers, mediators, compassionate listeners in the private sphere. There may be women who have not played the role of decision-maker in the public space, but without a doubt there is not a woman who has not played the ascribed gender roles in the private space. We clean up after the mess; we care for the ailing and the sick; we are required to mediate between two or three warring factions in our households with impartiality; we whip up an “injera lasagne” by layering shiro and injera when that’s all we have; and we have intel on the happenings in our households and perhaps others; we listen to our partners, our community elders, our religious leaders, our political leaders. We are continuously subjugated to listening!

I remember a female friend I admire greatly stating that “If there’s something we consistently do as women everywhere, it’s that we listen.” Yet, in our socialization that has required us to listen more than speak; to care for others more than ourselves, we may have picked up on many insights and wisdom that have not been much more urgent to vocalize and utilize in the public arena as a unifying force, now more than ever. 

“It starts with the art of listening — the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes and build solutions from their perspective. Listening itself can be an act of generosity. You learn to communicate across lines of difference, and in the process, you develop a sense of your own identity as well as that of those around you. This entails work, to reflect on how you see yourself and also how others perceive you. You start to recognize the biases you hold that stop you from knowing others for their full humanity. Along the way, you develop the vision to imagine the world as it could be.”  

The above is an extract from a piece entitled “What It Takes to Move the World: 5 Traits for Moral Leaders.” As Ethiopian women who have listened quietly for long periods of time, now is the time that we’re being called upon to collectively shift our private sphere values and capacities into the public sphere towards the healing of our communities and nations. Not by replicating patriarchal patterns, but capitalizing on the compassion and care we have been socialized into, towards imagining and realizing a different political, economic and social system that thrives on unity and principles of social justice and equity.

This means that I and others like myself stop asking “who’s at the table” and begin making our own tables together. But not the kinds with plates, cups and pots at Iddirs. Rather, the kinds of tables where political, economic and social policies and actions are designed imbued with the values we have been led to believe are a sign of weakness – compassion & listening- yet are the saving grace we need to heal a broken world!

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Billene is the Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions (www.earuyan.com) and also writes at www.africanfeminism.com

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Once a year, a great celebration is hosted; a fancy gala dinner is thrown in the name of some very phenomenal women who have dedicated their energy and sacrificed their time, to put all they had in their individual crafts to bring change. Diamonds hidden amongst our people, paving the way for younger women to boldly pursue positions that are prominently male dominated and inspiring eager open-minded females to confidently and courageously follow their dreams. It’s a celebration of a much-needed appreciation of women who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to our communities and who deserve to be glamorized for the true role models they are. Our wonderful “Association of Women in Boldness” has put together five amazing females worthy of being the titleholders of this year’s Women of Excellence. This year though, we not only celebrate these women but we also acknowledge and reward the work of “The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA)”.

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AWiB would like to proudly acknowledge its partners for the year.

2015-2016