The systematic suppression of women’s sexual and erotic inclinations has led to the conflation of sexuality and reproduction within a hetero-normative cultural and social matrix. This suppression is maintained through vigilant cultural surveillance, and has led to the muting of what I define as our feminist sexual memory and instinct. The result is a sexual and political cul-de-sac of violation and repression: all too often, women find themselves in a dark, dreadful place, windowless and airless, with seemingly no way out.”
The above short paragraph is an extract from Zimbabwean Feminist, Patricia Mcfadden’s article entitled Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice, in which she uncovers some critical points on the treatment (or lack thereof) of female sexuality within Africa. Mcfadden’s piece highlights a glaring truth of the intersection between sexuality, power, women and the fear that surrounds such an intersection, carefully policed by “culture” guards of both the male and female gender.
“A fundamental premise of patriarchal power and impunity is the denial and suppression of women’s naming and controlling their bodies for their own joy and nurturing. In all patriarchal societies, women and girls are taught, consistently and often violently, that their bodies are dirty, nasty, smelly, disgusting, corrupting, imperfect, ugly and volatile harbingers of disease and immorality. The redemption of the pathologised female body is seen to come through males of various statuses: fathers, who protect and defend the family honor through them; priests, who experience holiness and godliness through them; brothers, who learn through women and girls how to become authoritative and vigilant; husbands, who realize their masculinity through sexual occupancy and breeding; and strangers, who wreak misogynistic vengeance upon them for an entire range of grievances, imagined and otherwise. A denied right, misinformation, a frown, a disapproving scowl, a raised voice, an angry reprimand, a verbal insult, a shaken fist, a shove, a slap, a punch, rape, a slit throat – these are part of the routine processes of socialization and gendered identity construction through which girls and women are persistently reminded that they are the chattels of men in our societies.”n her analysis of sexuality and freedoms, she continues:
Mcfadden’s observation as above became all to accurate for me in witnessing the debacle that took over Ethiopian social media and airwaves sometime in June 2013 in response to a certain female that became an overnight media sensation owing to her alleged sexual encounter on the set of Big Brother Africa. While the issue of whether her encounter should or should not have occurred, was or was not staged is not within the scope of this entry. Rather, the main issues I would like to raise for discussion here is the collective response to an expression of female sexuality experienced some months back and the repression that surrounds an “agentic” expression of sexuality. (The term ‘agentic’ in this regard derives from the term agency which is the capacity for human beings to make choices and impact those choices onto the world).
The collective response to an expression of female sexuality
As a feminist, it’s difficult to not be enraged by the display of bigotry and hatred expressed online towards the person in mention. In scanning various news and social media platforms related to the Big Brother controversy, a majority of the comments give testimony to our intolerant, hasty and emotive temperament as a collective. Comments in opposition to her assumed deeds carried tones of racism – “othering” and “animalizing” the male involved in the said act because he is “not of us”. The torrent of insults, degrading language used towards a woman we know not of, the language of shaming, the moralizing, the patronizing – all symptomatic of a collective which is ill at ease and insecure with its identity in relation to an expression of female sexuality and a collective governed by a patriarchal norm of reference to how a woman “should” behave in public.
What does the response of the dominant collective say about that collective, beyond the frequently cited label of “conservative”? Although the torrents unleashed are haphazardly commented to be contextualized within the “obscenity” of the alleged live act, what has the response of the dominant collective shown us about the ingrained misogyny and intolerance of women who choose and express their sexuality? Are such responses not worrisome to us? Or do we just continue business as usual and not seize this opportunity to reflect upon collective assumptions about culture, sexuality and the female body? Ultimately, this is about power over, rather than representation as I find erroneous the notion that an entire country and its population is represented in the female body. Had this been the case, all the daring voices that emerged would continuously chime how they have been “betrayed” by the sexual violence experienced by countless female bodies in addition to how they were “betrayed” by a female body experiencing pleasure.
Most times I hear Ethiopian men lament that Ethiopian women are sexually frigid and become less reserved when with partners of other nationalities. (Inherent to this statement is the male’s desire for more expressive and confident sexual partners). Then the sexually liberated, “unfrigid” woman is characterized as “loose” and “immoral” when she is expressive. (Inherent to this characterization is the desire to control and tame a woman’s sexuality). Both subjected to the patriarchal scrutiny and measuring stick. The latter, however, at more risk of being controlled and repressed by “culture guards” or as Mcfadden put it “suppression maintained through vigilant cultural surveillance.”A culture that is more tolerant of the pains and violence experienced by the female body, most commonly through rape, than tolerant of an expression of female sexuality based on mutual consent. Surely, we shall soon begin to see the absurdity of it.
And so when a few weeks ago a friend emailed me a Reuters article which outlined how a group of lawyers were preparing to take to court the Big Brother Africa contestant for committing “obscene acts” in public, my jaw dropped! Because in a country of around 86 million of which around half are women of which according to studies a high percentage of these women are subjected to sexual violence, I would much prefer to hear that our legal folks are also as highly concerned of the “obscenity” in acts of sexual violence committed against women.
Female Sexuality in Ethiopia
About a year ago I sent out a short survey to female friends and asked them to forward it to other female friends in support of my research interests. At that point in time I was attempting to write my MA thesis on Gender and Sexuality. The following are responses received that are not conclusive by any means of female sexuality in Ethiopia given that the sampling is very small, but nevertheless indicative of why Ethiopian women need to get louder – no pun intended here!
1. I feel shy talking about sex and sexuality.
27% of the respondents said they feel shy talking about sex and sexuality and 73% said they don’t.
2. I talk about sex with my friends frequently.
45.5% stated that they do and 54.5% stated that they don’t.
3. I can confidently approach a man for a sexual encounter.
18% stated that they would approach a man for a sexual encounter and 82% stated that they would not.
4. I can openly discuss my sexual desires with a sexual partner
82% said they would and 18% said they would not.
5. I am confident in expressing what I like and don’t like in bed to a sexual partner.
73% said they are confident in such expressions and 27% stated they are not.
6. Do you think Ethiopian women should have more open discussions on sex and sexuality?
91% stated that Ethiopian women should have more open discussions whereas 9% said they shouldn’t.
7. If yes to above question, please state in short why it’s important.
- For individual satisfaction …mostly women are not expected to enjoy sex in Ethiopia.
- Being able to talk about it helps. At a bigger scale it helps to address reproductive related health risks such as AIDS, STDS ..etc
- Because we humans in general and women in particular are sexual beings so it is very important to openly discuss our sexual nature in order to produce knowledge about who we really are and develop experience in order to understand our commonalities and differences.
- It would result in better sex for the women.
- Female sexuality is ignored in Ethiopia almost assumed non-existent
- It’s important for Ethiopian women to have more agency over their bodies and sexuality and sexual expression
- It is important because in most cases women are not allowed to be pleasured by sex. Also since childhood girls are allowed to express any emotion nor was it acknowledged!
- The issue of circumcision also affect sexuality and the act of sex for Ethiopian women.
- Because you cannot expect someone to know what you do and do not like without sharing and it can make a big difference in having a safe and fulfilling relationship
- As a culture girls are not given the chance to express their feelings or even freely express what they need. Therefore it is very important to have open discussions to minimize the abuse that women face as the culture has impacted the women not to express their feeling and shy away.
- Shows confidence in proving oneself ideologies and sending a message across.
- Could save lives.
- As it is not only men who should reach Orgasm the women need to be able to experience the climax that can only happen through talking and expressing one feeling so discussion about it is very important.
- It is important as it facilitates ways for us to learn from each other’s’ experiences, which will make us ready and equipped for all the circumstances coming our way.
- Open discussions with our partners is important in making us feel like we are in the partnership together, for also pleasure and feel in control of what is going on in our life, especially sexually.
8. If yes to question 7, please list the reasons why Ethiopian women CANNOT discuss sex and sexuality openly.
- Because of the cultural perception that ‘good” women don’t enjoy sex.
- A multiple of cultural barriers exist that restrict women from embracing their sexuality.
- Women who have sexual agency are shamed and not respected in the various Ethiopian cultures
- It is not part of our growing up.
- We are not used to talking about sex with parents and so this habit/culture is not strong in us.
- Because women feel they need to be subservient to their husbands.
- Because of religion.
- The cultural influence
- Family Institutionalization
- Peer Influence
- Tradition where women have to exercise restraint when it comes to discussing sexuality or sex.
- Consistent harassment, abuse from childhood destroying any confidence.
- Cultural limitations (women are expected to be shy, or women discussing sex are promiscuous)
- Sex is almost all the time considered as sin
- Discussing sexuality, or any for me sexual preferences is all taboo.
9. Do you think Ethiopian women are sexually repressed? If yes, shortly state why you think so? (A majority said yes and a few chimed in as follows)
- I don’t know if repressed is the word but I think sex in Ethiopia is something you don’t talk about openly especially for women. The importance put onto virginity and the way it’s linked up with purity and obedience is one thing that comes to mind.
- It is very hard to say that Ethiopian women’s sexuality is repressed or not because, our sexuality is constructed and influenced by culture, environment, values and language as well. So, considering the existence of all these different constituencies, we are unable to make a conclusion about Ethiopian women sexuality.
- Yes they are
- The lack of expression especially sexual one can be costly
- Lack of expression, to some extent exposure I think can be repressive
- Yes. Most of the time it is expected a girl not have sex before she marries and after that might not have the experience, confidence etc. to dictate what she wants in her married sex life. So often, it could lead to an unsatisfying relationship with her partner.
- Yes, due to our upbringing and lack of open discussion in the household
- Yes, the reason is similar to what was said above, our culture does not allow as to be expressive and if one breaks the rules and be expressive, she is considered to be outrageous and men will shy away from beginning relationship with. As a result instead of being rejected by men and society Women prefer to be inexpressive and repressed.
- Yes. Throughout history women were seen merely as home makers. In the 1950′s a woman in the Ethiopian parliament presented an argument to stop treating women as property of men asking for bill of rights to liberate women from such inequity. ONLY ONE PERSON PUT UP THEIR HAND FOR APPROVAL. The woman stormed out of the parliament. This was only 6 decades ago. We have gone little since then.
- I think so cause it’s not “Yetelemede” to talk and express it but the generation is changing
- I think we are. Despite the differences in background and education status, most of us are very private and not willing to speak about sex or sexuality even in our closer circles. I personally think it is not even a matter of discussion, though I know it would be important to.
10. Do you think Ethiopian women are sexually liberated? If yes, shortly state why you think so. (A majority said no and a few chimed in as follows)
- I think it is a common understanding for many of us that in different parts of Ethiopia, women/girls are not assumed to be sexual so are not allowed to express and practice their sexual desire openly, but we need in-depth study about the issue to conceal our assumptions and the reality.
- No, but there are changes, I think the new general is more open-minded and less hypocritical about sex.
- Some are in urban and rural worlds. Lots of babies being born, so lots of sex being had but is it liberated? Not sure. Some places have husbands, wives and mistresses so maybe in that world and the world of infidelity is the ‘liberation’? Not sure.
- Yes, I honestly do think so because if given the chance Ethiopian women will please and be pleased sexually. As a witness for this we can talk to our mothers and grandmothers as to understand how much they know and liberated they are with the issue and how they teach and talk about it if closely asked about sex.
The Sexuality discourse
If nothing else, I think the Big Brother fiasco has proved to all of us that we need to start having open conversations about sex and sexuality more often. It seems in our earnest appeal to be within “our culture” we have rather taken our sexual curiosity or hypocrisy to the world wide web where in 2013 alone Ethiopia ranked 3rd on Google Trends on a list of countries searching the word “sex” on the internet. On my statistics page, I often see that one of the search engine terms through which browsers land on my blog page is “ethiopian sex”. This is not surprising as my previous entries have dealt with commercial sex work, sexual violence, etc. Nevertheless, given how little human sexuality and more importantly to this entry, how little female sexuality is understood in our cultural context, I would say that our need to engage in such discussions, beyond the sterilized conversations surrounding HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, is of paramount importance, especially to women.
Conversations surrounding repressed female sexuality are not endemic to Ethiopians only. Many a nation have experienced their own bouts of contention between the “natural” and the “cultural”. Plenty historical public debates regarding female sexuality have taken place even in the Western world where many point fingers towards, when notions of female sexual liberty are at play. I quote an Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, who for me sums it up succinctly – “Since the dawn of humankind, men have not only feared women’s sexuality, they have also, to a surprising extent, measured their power in terms of how effectively they could suppress the rights of women on a variety of fronts”.
Yet in talking of female sexual agency and liberation within our cultural context, I also view it as something to be addressed in tandem with deconstructing the culture that condones female chastity for male virility.
There are many more discussions to be had on this topic, and this is just the beginning. It is my hope that Ethiopian women can begin leading these discussions.
Posted on Sodere with written permission from the author.
Billene Seyoum, africanfeminism.com