14 Nov Talking Back: Hilina Berhanu and Aklile Solomon
In the second interview in the series, Talking Back, Rama Salla Dieng speaks to Hilina Berhanu and Aklile Solomon about the feminist movement in Ethiopia. Founders of The Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University, they speak about Ethiopia’s patriarchal society, the momentary hope in the new government and their continued activism across the country.
Rama: Can you tell us about yourself? And what led you to your activist work?
Hilina: I am a native of Addis Ababa, and I grew up in a multicultural, idea-driven household that mostly embraced fluidity in self-expression. I have always been an advocate for social equity and justice, not just in school or formal spaces but even at home, in sharing the tiniest of household chores among siblings. I am the first born, and that naturally requires braving the first set of social expectations thrown at you either from your parents or the community at large. Speaking out and defiance were very much part of my upbringing. Activism in a way was an extension of my normal lived experience. I started activism in public spaces in my third year of law school in response to a gender-based violence case. I got frustrated with the short-lived social outrage which typically and ultimately ends up in blaming the survivor. It was both reactionary and action-oriented because although I wanted to challenge the collective wilful blind eye and deliberate ignorance, which also biased the justice system at the time, I was determined to carry the activism consistently beyond defending that particular case.
Aklile: Like Hilina, I also grew up in Addis Ababa in a family that discusses and argues social and political issues. While I have always questioned the injustice in the community, I did not see how I could change it. My activist work started when I began my third year at Addis Ababa University law school after the Aberash Hailay case. I think I found a community that was motivated to do something about the injustice and inequality which inspired my activism.
Rama: Please tell us why you chose to organise as a movement and why the colour yellow?
Hilina: As Aklile just mentioned, the Aberash case was a critical moment. In October 2011, an Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant named Aberash Hailay lost her eyesight after her ex-husband stabbed both of her eyes with a wine opener. Her case seized the attention of many, eliciting a national outrage with repeated calls for justice and pledges that her name would never be forgotten. Despite the uproar, the outrage was short lived. We realized that our collective response to violence against women, often heard of on a daily basis, had become habitual. As law school students at the time, along with our gender and law lecturer, we started our activism in breaking down the court hearing and sharing the information with the wider public. We decided to initiate a consistent conversation in wanting to draw attention to issues of violence against women in Ethiopia. The name yellow came to be used because of the optimism of the colour, and our work that is grounded in the possibilities of change and positive disruption.
Aklile: For us we are aiming at changing the society and moving it towards equality. Our unique way of organizing fits more into a movement. This is partly because the colour yellow was not attached to another cause but also because yellow is bright and the colour of the sun which really speaks to why we organise.
Rama: Why was the movement formed at the Addis Ababa University? And what has inspired your main campaigns such as Valentine’s Day, and the distribution of stationery and sanitary pads?
Hilina: We were based in Addis Ababa University at the time as students of the School of Law. Hence, it only made sense that we try and impact the community we exist in first before reaching out to others. Activities like that of Valentine’s Day fundraisers are only complementary to what we set out to do initially. We see ourselves as the small but consistent voice that speaks up for gender equality on a regular basis. A voice that challenges accepted but harmful practices on dispute resolution, ideas of violence, gender roles and social expectations on sexuality, success and performance of women.
Aklile: Yes, as Hilina mentioned, the simple answer to that is because those of us that initiated the movement were at Addis Ababa University. The celebration of Valentine’s day was becoming increasingly popular in Addis Ababa and at the same time there were several flower farms in Ethiopia so we thought if those flower farms could donate some flowers to us and we sold them, that would be a great way to raise some funds. We wanted to fundraise, and support students so they could afford their basic needs because as students on the campus we saw that there were several students that couldn’t afford sanitary pads, soap, pen….so we decided to lift some of the stress from those students so they can focus on their studies.
Rama: How are you using the law in your activism, especially in the current political context?
Hilina: Following the talk of legal reform in the new administration, a working group has been formed and we are working with members of the group and the media in highlighting the need for a gendered approach in legislative drafting. We have made direct suggestions, hosted external meetings in support of those in the working group, written articles in magazines and co-hosted talk shows in breaking down patriarchal barriers in law. As the great South African activist and judge Albie Sachs once said, ‘While one should always be sceptical about the law’s pretensions, one should never be cynical about the law’s possibilities.’ I am aware that law in its current form serves as both a symbol and a vehicle of male authority, but I am also hopeful with the right feminist lens, that can be changed.
Aklile: I concur with Hilina, the law shapes the social structure especially in the current political context there are several legal reforms that are being undertaken which is why we review laws, comment and make efforts to make them gender responsive. Even when our recommendations are not being considered we use that to problematize the issue and show a lack of commitment from the state. The law also shows the intention of the government which is something we use to show the much bigger structural problem.
Rama: There has been a lot of optimism with the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the fact that he has appointed feminists in key positions. In addition, Ethiopia is being hailed as a ‘developmental state’. How are women’s rights faring in this context?
Hilina: It is true that there has been a lot of optimism following the appointment of women in different positions of power, and the government deserves recognition, rightfully. However, the patriarchal structure that has characterized Ethiopian politics in the past appears to still be in control, and we are back to business as usual. Women are largely considered as silent actors to be appointed by the mercy of the ruling party or the Prime Minister. This is so because such rights are yet to be fully guaranteed via law and policy changes. Hence, we are under constant fear of reversibility of past gains. Furthermore, female voices in politics continue to be questioned for merit and mere existence in such a space, while their male counterparts are considered as natural power holders in politics. Although the impact of the appointment is too early to tell and better explained through research, I believe the government is under the impression that its push for parity is no longer needed, which is quite dangerous for the progress ahead.
Aklile: Indeed, there was optimism, I don’t think it lasted that long. When some feminists were elected in key position, there was hope that they would make change from within. At the same time, it meant that the Prime Minister wanted their perspective and there was hope that he may also have the commitment and political will. That optimism and hope has gradually declined so it is now almost non-existent. The decisions that have been undertaken have really placed much doubt on that hope. Ethiopia has been following the developmental state model for a while now, I don’t think that is a new development with the Prime Minister. Sadly, on women’s rights the situation remains the same.
Rama: What are the aspirations for your movement and how are you mentoring a new generation of younger Ethiopian feminists?
Hilina: I aspire to see the movement grow through the establishment of sister chapters in all public universities across Ethiopia. I would like for us to engage in hosting public discussions at municipal to national levels and in the mainstream media too. A more productive, consistent and positive disruption is what I want the Yellow Movement to be known for. My activism on Facebook is almost exclusively designed to appeal to the younger feminist base, and that is how I meet many of my mentees. Although informal, I am able to mentor others through experience sharing and providing guidance on project undertakings.
Aklile: My aspiration for the Yellow Movement is for it to grow bigger and become a national movement. I want it to be a place where young people find their voice. As a senior member of the movement, I mentor young women joining the movement. We have a structured mentorship program where I guide young members not only in activism but also their personal journey.
Rama: What are your personal and professional projects?
Hilina: I have many personal and professional feminist projects at the moment; both ambits are labours of love, passion-driven spaces in my life. I am currently working on a platform called Temsalet.org along with a male partner in featuring the stories of exemplary women of Ethiopia and hosting a Ted Talk-format platform designed exclusively for women. I have been developing visual contents along with biographies in Amharic and English for our Temsalet Monday featurette. I am also running a merit-based scholarship program under the Yellow Movement to financially support and mentor female students in different departments. I have been involved in setting up feminist libraries in Mekelle University and Addis. I am also overseeing two research projects professionally, both with a gender lens and angle. I am engaged in developing a gender training manual for those in higher educational institutions, while simultaneously engaging in giving training myself.
Aklile: I am currently working on the expansion of the Yellow Movement nationwide. It will be starting in Hawassa University soon and I am supporting that process. Outside the Yellow Movement, I am working on a research project studying the history of women’s resistance within recent armed and non-armed struggles. I am also supporting other projects which I will hopefully share soon.
Rama: Which feminist books are you reading at the moment and what are your thoughts on them?
Hilina: The reformist administration of my home town Addis is planning on introducing a new law on sex work that prohibits sex workers from operating in public streets. Accordingly the past month, I have been reading extensively on sex work and feminism in an effort to navigate the space of activism in an informed manner. I am currently reading a book of essays by those in the sex industry called Whores and Other Feminists. The book has allowed me to re-frame and expand my feminism and understand gender oppression in a deeper and at times uncomfortable manner. For someone whose first introduction to sex work was through reading the bible, I have yet to grasp the complexities of the choices women make every day. In reading the book, I am learning of the need for a paradigm shift in better understanding of women’s and men’s lives—not to forget male sex workers too, that we tend to forget, in our feminist work.
Aklile: Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed and the Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison. Living a a Feminist Life was shared to me by a colleague who is working on the research project with me. Also, with the passing of Tony Morrison, I heard a conversation on a podcast discussing body image especially with black skin and this book was discussed which inspired me to read it.
Rama: What are your acts of radical self-care?
Hilina: As an activist who operates in a highly conservative and oppressive environment, venting is top of the list. Over the years, I have developed a conscious habit of venting to male friends about the fact of living in a ‘female body’. I know women can relate to these experiences more, but I don’t want to engage them in the labour of suffering with me. I do, however, want men to understand how common and mundane it is to experience misogyny, and I want to hold them accountable for helping me heal from it. Switching off my phone and staying indoors is another one. The nature of my work means I travel a lot so turning off my phone gives me time to disconnect.
Aklile: Self-care is essential in this environment – it is good for the work and for me personally. I am privileged enough to be able to travel which gives me time to be away from all of it and it heals me so that is the biggest self-care measure. However, with work and financial restraints of course travel is not always possible so I write a journal. Journaling is a healing experience for me. Deactivating or staying away from social media accounts is also a radical measure that gives you time to recover.
Hilina Berhanu is a feminist academic and activist, responsible for the founding of The Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University, a youth-led feminist movement based in higher educational institutions of Ethiopia. Aklile Solomon is an activist with a background in human rights law who is the co-founder of The Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University.
Rama Salla Dieng is a Senegalese writer, academic and activist. She is currently a Lecturer in African and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. Rama is the editor of the Talking Back series on roape.net and a member of ROAPE’s editorial working group.
Featured Photographs: pictures show activists from the Yellow Movement across Ethiopia.
This series is dedicated to Ndeye Anta Dieng (1985-2019).