The role of Women in the Oromo National Liberation Movement

  1. Ad Naamat Issa

    In any given liberation movement the role of women is equally important as the role of men to make the objectives of the movement a reality. Without women’s participation in the struggle for political, socio-economic and cultural freedom, independence cannot achieve its goal in the shortest possible time. Roughly the Oromo women constitute 50% of the population. Therefore, we cannot expect a genuine national liberation struggle if we ignore or marginalize half of the Oromo population.

For us the Oromo women, taking part in the Oromo national liberation movement is our right as well as our duty.Our fate is intertwined to who we are. We the Oromo women suffer from the same political persecution, economic oppression, and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Abyssinian regimes on men. In addition to the national oppression, we also face gender discrimination which denies us equal access as men to political, economic and social rights. Therefore we also have a great desire for freedom from tyranny.

2, During the first two decades after the formation of the OLF in 1974 there were a few Oromo women who broke the barrier of gender discrimination and joined the struggle for freedom from oppression. They consciously and actively participated in Oromo politics and directly or indirectly contributed to the struggle. I would like to give a few examples to pinpoint the role played by these women to show not only the contribution but also the limitation.

The late Addee Tsahai Tolasaa who staunchly supported her husband’s participation in the struggle provided logistics and humanitarian help to the families of imprisoned members of the organization. She also witnessed the terrible sight of her husband’s abduction. Finally, she herself tasted the harsh interrogation, torture, and humiliation under Mengistu’s regime. And after 9 years and 8 months of imprisonment without trial was set free in1989.

Addee Demeqech Bekele was the backbone of the logistics. She took great risks by allowing her house as a meeting place and as an archive of the OLF’s documents. She also helped the liberation movement procuring and supplying medicine for the Oromo liberation army. She ended up in prison in 1980 leaving two small children to their fate of being brought up ”for almost ten year” without mother and father.She was released in September 1989.

Addee Kuwee Kumsa was left to fulfill the heavy burden of bringing up her three children after her husband joined the struggle. Even then she became a member of the publication committee and contributed a lot to the Oromo literature in which she has a great talent. She was arrested in 1980 and released in September 1989.

Addee Addis Alem Geneti participated in the logistics and humanitarian help up until she was arrested in 1980. While she was in prison she was confronted with the most painful experience of the loss of her second child Melba. She was released in September 1989.

However superfluous it may seem to speak about one’s accomplishments, I would like to say few words about myself. Almost from the very beginning, I became the first Oromo woman to work in the central committee. I was assigned to the foreign relations and logistics affairs. I tried to establish contact between the OLF and the diplomatic circles, in some of which I succeeded. This relation enabled us to send to and receive from the OLF foreign office important documents and information.Working with the coordinating committee in Finfinnee  I also contributed to logistics. After being arrested during pregnancy in 1980 I gave birth to my son Mossissa whose health is permanently affected due to lack of timely help during delivery. Even my unborn son had to pay a price for his country.I was released in1989.

During the same period, there were many Oromo women who joined the Oromo Liberation Army. According to my source whom I interviewed, Oromo women participated in military, medical and communication sectors.There were also combatants. They have made great contributions and sacrifices, including their irreplaceable and precious lives to their country and the freedom of their people.

Under a dictatorial regime like in Ethiopia, no one has the right to organize. Therefore, Oromo people could only participate in underground work and the backbone of these organizations was logistics. Specially Oromo women have provided the bulk of the logistics to the struggle for freedom. They have allowed their houses as meeting points, fed and sheltered the freedom fighters, relayed information and materials, took the responsibility of bringing up the children and took care of the elderly family members of the absentees.

Most of the Oromo women whose family members have been arrested have equally suffered as those in prison. They had to provide the prisoners with food, clothes and other necessities. During visits to their relatives in prisons, they faced all the arrogance of the security guards, verbal and physical abuses and inappropriate bodily contacts. Even these humiliations did not deter them but made them stronger and stronger. It gave them the stamina to go on supporting the freedom fighters and women’s hunger for freedom increased each day. All the above mentioned, unknown by name but deeds are the heroes of the then struggle for liberation from tyranny.

Last but not least, I would like to mention the Oromo women in the diaspora who supported the movement by playing active roles within The Oromo Student movements. Some Oromo women have also allotted their knowledge, time and energy for Oromo humanitarian help.

I mentioned the contribution of the above few Oromo women to give you an insight not only of their contribution but also the type of assignment allotted to them.

3. When the Oromo nation ruled itself through the Gadaa system the Oromo women had a small window of participation which was the management and responsibility of the family. But they were excluded from the political and military structures. After Oromia came under the Abyssinian occupation even that small window was closed. The Oromo patriarchal society totally adopted the most repressive Abyssinian system which denied women from playing a role in political, and socio-economic activities in the society. Women were reduced to domestic help and sex objects.

4. The obstacles to the emancipation of women are complicated and come from different aspects of the society.

(a) lack of education and poverty

(b) traditional cultural repression

(c) luck of Oromo women’s organizations

(d) family responsibility

(e) religion

(f) total irresponsible behavior of  OLF

(a )  Education plays an important role in the general political economic, social and cultural development of a society. Boys are generally given priority over girls as far as education is concerned because most parents especially who had low income and education thought that girls could get married and be financially supported by the husband. By doing so they condemned their daughters to the kitchen and the household job; while they promoted the boys to be educated to be self-sufficient. Even when girls get the chance to go to school and become one of the best they are considered as the exception rather than the norm. When boys find out that girls could be smarter than them they try to destroy their reputation. Every step forward for a woman is blocked one way or another. Therefore, the number of Oromo women who could get the chance to get formal education to develop their talent politically, economically and psychologically self-sufficient is very limited. This has negatively contributed to their low level of political consciousness and lack of self-confidence, which has, in turn, limited their participation in Oromo politics.

(b)  Occupiers not only exploit the occupied land and subjugate the people but impose their language, culture, and religion. The Abyssinian culture is the most backward and repressive system which reduces women to nothing. Through time the Oromo men who lost control on their own lives became tyrannical abusers of women. They deprived them of the little right they were given by Gadaa political institution.They put them down used them as punch bags. Finally, they simply became control freaks.The women themselves went along with it, lost their confidence, accepted the abuse, and became submissive.  A self-confident woman is considered as unfeminine by men and laughed at by women for being the vanguard of women’s rights.

(c)  Due to the above-mentioned reasons, Oromo women never learned how to organize themselves and combat suppression in any shape or form. The only organization they understand is the social ones. As I have already mentioned, individually, there were Oromo women who broke the cultural barriers and participated in different activities, from humanitarian to armed struggle. There are many who sacrificed their lives to the cause. Unfortunately due to the lack of organization “Without organization, the best intentions of the most talented individuals can yield only scattered results.” (Eisen,Arlene,Women and revolution in Vietnam, 1984:119) so we go back to square one.

In the Oromo family framework even though the bread winner of the family is the father, the mother plays a much more important role in the lives of the children. She not only looks after their material needs like cooking washing and housekeeping but also their emotional problems. Therefore the children believe that their mother will always be there for them if and when they needed her. Consequently, Oromo children find it easier to open up to their mother when they are faced with problems. Because of the responsibility bestowed upon them and the motherly feeling most Oromo mothers are hindered from leaving their children to be cared for by someone else and join in active politics.

(e) As is well known in the past history of the world religion is one of the most ruthless tools of occupiers. In Oromia, the appearance of the foreign religious beliefs has influenced the fate of the Oromo women. These religions neither gave prominent religious positions nor allowed women to become religious scholars. In a patriarchal society like present Oromia religious institutions teach the submission and inferiority of women. Because of their belief, women endorse it and the men applaud it because it gives them more advantage over women.

(f) The inability of the OLF to implement its own program had a detrimental effect on the promotion of the participation of women which has resulted in its slow pace to success.

5. In order to promote the participation of Oromo women in the National Liberation Movement and the building of the future Oromia; their equal rights have to be recognized not only on paper but in deeds by OLF. The current stereotype allotments of duty like logistics and humanitarian help have to be replaced by more inclusive aspects of all other responsibilities. They should be recruited encouraged, supported and promoted according to merit so that women could reach the highest level of the leadership hierarchy. But not blocked and discouraged from aiming and reaching higher. It is the responsibility of the OLF to organize, politicize and mobilize the Oromo women in a way that they could be more effective in their contribution to the Oromo National Movement.

Within the family structure, equal opportunity to education should be given to members of both sexes. This would enable women to continue higher education, exploit their talents and practice their skills and participate in the building up of their country.

Men should be educated to recognize that an Oromo woman is more than a sex object, domestic servant and inferior to Oromo men. They should learn to be more than sperm donors because their children will be the generation who would carry the responsibility of ruling Oromia. The Oromo society has to free itself from the alien culture which allows men to treat women to be used and misused as their personal effect. The pretext of the division of labor, men as breadwinners and women nannies and domestic help is a story of the past. Women have proved that they could be educated and have achieved the same level as men, in education, science, and technology when they get the opportunity to do so. And that is why they should fight for it. Women should organize themselves to prove to oneself that anything is possible if one tries hard.

The equal rights of women as men would accelerate the achievement of our goal which is to liberate the Oromo people from the existing suppressive government. Other wise we would have lost 50% of our potential and lengthened the duration of occupation.

Freedom is never a gift. It is the result of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Oromo women also have to assert themselves and fight for their rights. They should come to the for front support each other and organize themselves instead of looking for the shortcomings of the ones who try to liberate themselves as well as other Oromo women. The way to emancipation is believing in oneself and being open to work on ones belief make mistakes and learn from it. Unless Oromo women shake off the pressure of the society they will never achieve their goal.

The Gadaa system should not be allowed to remain only as the most democratic system of its time but must be upgraded and brought up to the level of the 21st century and include women in its political and military structure. As I have already mentioned if the ideology of division of labor based on gender:  housekeeping and child upbringing remain women’s domain whereas politics, economics and military matters are reserved to men Gadaa system will loose the respectable position it occupies and be only a history of the past. It would be a dream come true if it could be upgraded to suit the present and go on living forever as a treasure and heritage of all Oromo men and women.

Finally, emancipation does not solely belong to women. It has to be shared by both men and women.We Oromos could be examples to humanity if we could work on the emancipation of women and men simultaneously. Emancipated men don’t hinder the emancipation of women which will help women to take their rightful place in all walks of life. This would finally accelerate the appearance of the dawn of freedom of Oromia from political, socio-economic, and military occupation.

Naamat Issa


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