09 / 1993
When Piet Demey, a belgian volunteer in Ethiopia, was asked how he perceived the role of women in the Amharic culture, he told about an experience at a friend’s house : "I had been invited for a "chat" session. "Chat" is a branch with dark-green leaves. Arab Islamic men chew the leaves during social gatherings. Usually women do not join. The floor is covered with blankets and pillows on which men sit or lay. As a side effect of chewing chat, you get a very dry mouth. So, after a while, a woman will serve tea or coffee. When I arrived at my friend’s house, I was introduced to two girls Mulu (which means "full", "complete")and Negist (which means "queen"). After saying hello, Mulu and "Queen" Negist left the room. After a while Queen came back and started to wash my feet. I realised I was an honoured guest but I felt uncomfortable : I prefer to wash my dirty feet myself. Washing somebody’s feet seemed to me to be the task of a slave. But I was surprised to see that she enjoyed it. Instead of feeling humiliated she felt honoured to wash my feet. She showed me that it doesn’t matter what task you do or what role you play the moment you learn to enjoy it and develop the knack of passing it on to the others. She was really feeling like a queen washing my feet. I felt happy because she made me feel welcome. I understood that washing feet becomes a slave’s job the moment the person doing it considers it a punishment. She didn’t question the task. She knew that by doing it she can feel happy and make other people happy, and so did not worry about the act and her role. She was the key person by showing that I was the key person. By welcoming me as a king, she became queen.
Some time later, I invited my friends at my house. I asked Mulu to take charge of the ceremony, a highly unusual proposal since it was not normal for a woman to act as master and to distribute the chat branches. She accepted the role. She did so because in Addis Ababa European culture is a new wave; she had sometimes dreamt of breaking role patterns but the scone for doing so was severely restricted by society’s condemning attitude. The atmosphere together with my presence and my proposal were an invitation to accept it. She could do it because she was ready for it. Socially it was safe since it could be considered as a game, as a theatre piece organised by me, a one-year-old child in Ethiopian culture.(...)
She guided the social gathering in a traditional way, but showed, consciously or unconsciously, how a woman would do it. As usual she gave everybody a chat branch, and involved both her arms and her whole body in this act of giving, as Amharic culture had taught her.(...)She wanted to please us, to care for us so much that she didn’t even want us to pick the leaves ourselves.(...)
There was a feeling of complete caring, of being in a mother’s womb - a paradise experience only women can create.(...)I was glad to spend the day with them because they taught me that questioning male and female roles is only one road to freedom and emancipation.(...)Their way is a soft and tender road to emancipation, one which does not use boycotts and aggressive methods to compel respect. I still have a lot to learn about hospitality and self-feminism.
Although this narrative relates a man’s experience of the way women perform their role in a given cultural destiny, it provides an interesting indication of the way in which women in other cultures themselves may perceive and practice their role. It shows in a subtle way that the feminist approach to achieve emancipation is only one of the many possible ways to face reality.
DEMEY, Piet, NGO EC LIAISON COMMITTEE, 1989/04/01
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