The Role of Women in the Oromo National Liberation Movement
This paper by Adde Na’amat Isa was first published in the early 2000’s. It’s republished below in order to celebrate and honor Oromo women’s contributions to the Oromo national liberation movement on this International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016.
By Na’amat Isa
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 full participation, the struggle for the social, political, economic and cultural independence cannot achieve its goal, at least in the shortest possible period.
The Oromo women constitute nearly 50 per cent of the total Oromo population. Therefore, we cannot talk of a genuine national liberation struggle if we ignore or marginalize half of the Oromo population. For the Oromo women, it is their national duty as well as their right to take part in the national liberation movement and in the socio-cultural, political, and economic developments of future democratic Oromia.
Since their fate is related to the fate of their nationality, the Oromo women share all the political persecutions, economic oppressions and human rights abuses perpetrated against the Oromo people by the Abyssinian regimes. Therefore, the Oromo women also have great desire for freedom. But, the potential has neither been fully exploited by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) nor consciously and systematically interpreted into practice by the Oromo women themselves.
In addition to national oppression, the Oromo women face gender discrimination. However nominal for the Oromo as a whole, Oromo women are denied equal access as men to political, economic and social rights. Even the Gadaa system, the most democratic system of its time, has not given equal opportunities to men and women in its political and military structure. But in the traditional Oromo society, Oromo women still had quite significant authorities on their administrative domains, particularly on family matters.
The Abyssinian occupation, which imposed its language and culture on the Oromo people, totally raped the Oromo women of the rights they had in the traditional Oromo society. Cultural barriers, combined with the most oppressive Abyssinian colonial rule, have curtailed the political participation of the Oromo women in the Oromo liberation struggle. However, even under such an oppressive Abyssinian colonial rule, many Oromo women have still made considerable contributions to the struggle.
2. Contribution of Oromo Women to the National Liberation Movement
It is more than two decades since the OLF has provided the Oromo people with a secular political organisation and a concrete political program, which reflects the socio-political and economic interests of the Oromo people. At the early stage, after the formation of the OLF in 1974, there were a few Oromo women who, consciously and actively, participated in Oromo politics and who, directly or indirectly, tried to contribute to the Front. A few names come to my memory, including, Addees Tsahai Tolasaa, Demekech Bekela, Kuwee Kumsa, and Addis Alem Genetii.
3. Personal Narrative
Even if it may seem superfluous to speak about one’s accomplishments, I would like to say few words about myself. Almost from the beginning, I became a member of the OLF and served in my capacity in the foreign relations and logistics. Using my relations with diplomatic circles, I tried to establish contacts between the OLF and the diplomatic circles, in some of which I succeeded. This relation enabled the organisation to send to and get from the OLF foreign office important documents and information. Working with the then coordinating committee in Finfinnee, I also contributed my best to logistics. Being arrested during pregnancy in 1980, I gave birth to my son, whose health is permanently affected because of lack of timely help during delivery. I was released in September 1989.
I mentioned the contributions of the above few Oromo women, because I personally know them and I worked with some of them. In the last two decades, there have been many Oromo women who joined the OLF, particularly the Oromo Liberation Army. They have made great contributions and sacrifices, including their precious lives, to the independence of their country and for the freedom of their people.
There are also many other Oromo women in the diaspora who have played active roles in the Oromo students Unions, like TBOA, and others in North America and Canada, which are the integral parts of the Oromo national liberation movement. Some active Oromo women have also devoted their knowledge, time and energy for Oromo humanitarian works.
A struggle for liberation is not confined only to politically structured hierarchy. Under a dictatorial regime like in Ethiopia, no one has the right to organise oneself. Therefore, people participate in underground organisations, and the backbone of these organisations is logistics. Many Oromo women have provided the bulk of the logistics to the struggle for freedom. They have allowed their houses as meeting places, feed and sheltered the freedom fighters, relayed information and materials, took the responsibility of bringing up the children and taking care of the elderly members of the absentees.
Most of the Oromo women, whose family members have been arrested, have suffered equally as those in the prison. They had to provide the prisoners with food, clothes and other necessities. During their visits to their relatives in prisons, they faced all the arrogance of the Abyssinian colonial security forces, verbal and physical abuses like touching their private parts and the like. But rather than being discouraged, they became more and more conscious of the just causes that their relatives were detained for. Instead of abandoning them, they gave them full support.
4. Obstacles to Women’s Participation
Although there are aspirations on the part of the Oromo women to fully and actively take part in the Oromo national liberation movement, they are confronted with many problems to interpret these aspirations into practice. The following are among the major contributing factors to the low-level of Oromo women’s conscious and active participation of Oromo women in the national liberation movement: lack of education, traditional cultural barriers combined with colonial repression, lack of Oromo women’s organisation, and family responsibilities.
Education plays an important role in the general political, economic, social and cultural development of a society. But, the colonial education system is discriminatory against the oppressed nationalities in general, and against women from oppressed nations and nationalities in particular. Although the opportunity is minimal for the Oromo in general, Oromo women are particularly discriminated against in this important field. Therefore, the number of Oromo women who have a chance to get formal education to develop their talents and to be politically, economically and psychologically self-sufficient is limited. This has contributed to their low-level of political consciousness and lack of self-confidence, which have in turn limited their participation in Oromo politics.
b) Cultural and Political Problems
Traditional cultural barriers combined with colonial repression: Before colonisation, even though Oromo women’s role was better, compared to their Abyssinian neighbours, there were still very important areas in the Oromo society from which women were exclude.Gadaa, which is a socio-political and cultural expression of the Oromo society, excludes the Oromo women from its political and military structure. This combined with the most oppressive Abyssinian colonial system have totally denied the Oromo women a chance to play active role in the political, social and economic activities of the society. Even though there are some Oromo women who tried to break these cultural and colonial barriers, they have not yet overcome the problem.
c) Lack of Organisation
The Oromo women lack the most important instrument, organisation, which would have made their roles more effective. As I have already mentioned, individually, there were many Oromo women who have participated in different activities, from humanitarian to the armed struggle. There are many who sacrificed their lives to the cause. But they are not organised. “Without organisation, the best intentions of the most talented individuals can yield only scattered results.” (Eisen, Arlene, Women and Revolution in Vietnam, 1984:119).
The OLF fully recognises the Oromo women’s equal rights and the importance of their political participation in the national liberation movement. I interviewed a person who had field knowledge to know if Oromo women’s role is different there than we generally know here.
According to my source, the OLF seems more effective in encouraging and mobilising Oromo women to participate in the struggle. Women and men have equal rights in the armed struggle. Women participate in military medical and communication sectors. There are also women combatants. Promotion depends, both for men and women, upon individual merits. However, the OLF still did not form or encourage the formation of Oromo women’s organisation.
At home, it is difficult to think of an independent Oromo women’s organisation under the current repressive Tigrean dominated regime. But there are still a good number of active Oromo women in the Diaspora who could form such an organisation. But they did not make efforts to organise themselves, and therefore, they have no common voice. Their efforts are individualistic and scattered.
Without organisation, the individual efforts cannot be effective to liberate us from the Abyssinian colonial rule. Without national liberation, there cannot be women’s emancipation. Without women’s emancipation, there will not be effective contribution of women to the socio-political, economic, and cultural development of our country. Therefore, it is high time that we have recognised the importance of women’s organisation to play an important role in the national liberation Movement as well as in building our country in the future.
d) Family Responsibility
In the Oromo culture, even though the breadwinner of the family is the father, the mother plays a much more important role in the lives of the children. She looks, not only after their material needs, which is cooking, washing, and house-keeping, but also their emotional problems. Mostly children believe that their mother is always there for them whenever they need her. Consequently, they find it easier to open up to her when they are faced with problems. Because of the above mentioned reasons, the responsibility bestowed upon mothers hinders most of them from leaving the children to be cared for by the father and join in active political participation.
6. Ways to Improve Oromo Women’s Participation
To encourage the participation of the Oromo women both in the current and in the future socio-political, economic, and cultural development of Oromia, recognition and acceptance of their equal rights, in all fields are vital. The status of Oromo women in both traditional Oromo society and under the oppressive Abyssinian colonial rule must be improved and changed, respectively. That means, the Oromo nation must be open to change.
1. The Gadaa System must be upgraded in a way to include women in its political and military structure. Otherwise, under the guise of division of labour based on gender, housekeeping and child upbringing remain women’s domain whereas politics and military matters are reserved for men. I think this is a fundamental question which should be addressed.
Another important point is that Oromo men must free themselves from the occupiers alien culture, which has low-esteem for women, and which allows men to treat women as their personal effects or objects.
2. Within the family structure equal education opportunity 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.
3. The Oromo women in the Diaspora should organise themselves to make a fruitful contribution to the struggle for freedom and to the abolishment of discrimination based on gender in the future democratic Oromia. Without organisation, we cannot undertake any collective action. Without collective action, we cannot be effective. It is only in an organised manner that we can co-ordinate our work with Oromo women in the armed wing and also be voices of the majority of the voiceless Oromo women at home.
The OLF foreign office has the responsibility to organise, politicise and mobilise the Oromo women in a way that they could be more effective in their contributions to the Oromo national liberation movement. Also from TBOA and other OLF mass organisations, more efforts are expected to help the formation of such an organisation.
“The battle for democracy and liberation can only be won when women, mothers of the nation – half of the whole population – can take their rightful place as free and equal partners with men.” (Anonym, My spirit is not banned, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1986)
Anoynm, 1954. Conference to promote women’s rights: ‘My spirit is not banned’, Zimbabwe publishing House.
Asafa Jalata. 1998. Oromo nationalism and the Ethiopian discourse: the search for freedom and democracy, Red Sea Press
Asmarom Legesse. (1977?) Oromo Democracy – Gada Oromo (Unpublished paper) Swarthmore, Swarthmorre College
Baxter, P.T.W., Hultin, Jan, Truilzi. 1996 Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries. Uppsala, Nordiska Afrikainstitut
Eisen, Arlene, 1981. Women and Revolution in Vietnam. London, Zed Books
Gadaa Malbaa. 1988. Oromia. Khartoum
An interview with a member of an OLF who has field experience on the participation of Oromo women in the Liberation Army.
ISIS International Bulletin. 19. 1981. Washington, D.C.
* This paper by Adde Na’amat Isa was first published in the early 2000’s.