Abye Tigest

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Summary : « Gender and Revolution: the journey of revolutionary women in Ethiopia »

The paper I am proposing derives from a larger research[1] which aims to understand how women in Ethiopia become activists and experience activism during the last three historical periods (1965-1974; 1974-1991; 1991-present).

Historically, a few notable women, such as Empress Eleni, Empress Seble Wongel and Empress Mentuab, are among those who have demonstrated women’s ability to be leaders (Pankhurst, S. 1957). In recent times, others, such as Empress Taytu and W/ro Shoa Regged, have not only fought wars alongside men but have also led wars. Hence, it is not surprising to see young female students joining and actively participating, in several movements including the Ethiopian Student Movement, which contributed to the Revolution of 1974, followed by a socialist dictatorship that lasted from 1974 to 1991 and was marked by the Red Terror (1976–1978) and other armed liberation struggles that emerged against the Derg dictatorial regime.  

For the purpose of this presentation I will be concentrating on the women activists that I classified as the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries include, therefore, the group of women who went through the “radicalization process” of the student movement and participated in any of the revolutionary parties and/or rebel armed groups, and the younger generation of rural women who joined rebel groups. Their aim is consistent with their action: to bring about social change through collective action if possible or armed struggle if necessary.

Consequently, this study is informed by a feminist epistemology and subaltern methodology. The choice of life story narratives as a principal approach to enquiry, consistent with my research framework, is the best way to explore how the experts, the activists themselves, reflect on and reconstruct their life stories in relation to their activism and give meaning to their personal experiences. In this paper, I will explore the life story narratives of four revolutionaries:  a former member of the Ethiopian Students Union in Europe (ESUE) and a sympathizer of Meison (the Ethiopian Socialist Movement), a former member of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and currently human right activist, a former member theTigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and finally a former cadre of the Derg, member of the Revolutionary Ethiopian Women’s Association (REWA).

The revolutionaries’ descriptions of their activism are consistent with McAdam’s (1986) account of high-risk/cost activism. Revolutionaries’ accounts of the different factors in the recruitment process more or less conform to McAdam’s model of recruitment to high-risk/cost activism. While ideological underpinnings reinforce the activists’ attitudinal affinity to the cause of an organization, the availability of structures facilitates their integration into activist networks. Moreover, the activists’ experience in the student movement provides the third factor, which is a history of activism. And finally, the age of the activists, who were in most cases university students or young professionals between the ages of 15 and 30, fulfils the remaining factor, which is the absence of personal constraints on participation. One narrative explicitly refers to ‘EPRP’s request for them to “cut family ties” in order to become the revolutionaries they had set out to be.

With regard to the question of the emancipation of women and their place in society, the revolutionaries’ analysis of the oppression of women or the “woman question” is informed by Marxist analysis. Hence, they recognize the “double oppression of women” and the triple role of women as “wives, mothers, and producers” in Ethiopian society (Dereje, 1981). Their narratives, therefore, indicate an acceleration of their feminist conscienceless, as they were confronted to gender discrimination particularly within their own organizations. As they mockingly affirm the only place where they were equally treated with men was in Derg’s prisons during the torture sessions of the red terror.

Biography :

Tigest obtained her PhD degree from the University of Bradford U. K.  Her domain of research explores the role of Ethiopian women activists during three different periods (1965-1974; 1974-1991; 1991-2015), with a thesis entitled Life Story Narratives of Ethiopian Women Activists: The Journey to Feminist Activism. Prior to that, she studied in France at the University of Rouen in Mont- St-Aignan, and the University of Grenoble. Tigest worked on a voluntary basis for the Addis Ababa University, supporting the development of Master program on Gender and Development studies. She was also employed as the public relations program coordinator at the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), a nonprofit women’s advocacy group working for the elimination of all forms of legally and traditionally sanctioned discriminations against women. Recently, she has been in charge of the gender programmatic review for the UNICEF Comoros program results and activities.

Contact : btegist@yahoo.com

Publications :

Life Story Narratives of Ethiopian Women Activists: The Journey to Feminist Activism. PhD Thesis University of Bradford, U.K (unpublished, 2016). 

Butterfield, A., Abye. K. T. (2010) Mulu Haile: An Advocate for Ethiopian Women. In Women in Social Work Who Have Changed the World. Ed. Lieberman A.  Lyceum Books, INC: Chicago, Il linois

Editor in Chief of “Dimtsachen” (Our Voice) Magazine of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA)  2 issues: January – July 2006 and  September- February issues.

Wanting it All: The Liberation of Women and the Obstacles Encountered by the Superwoman in the United States. Mémore de Maîtrise Université de Rouen (unpublished, 2005)


[1] PhD thesis entitled: Life story narratives of Ethiopian women activists: the journey to feminist activism