Thanks to a former PROJECT-E volunteer, I had the great chance to join a session of the Association of Women in Boldness (AWiB) which is a feminist movement and organisation aiming on creating a safe space for women of different ages through, among other activities, offering weekly Saturday sessions on different topics that are important to women in Addis Ababa.
The session I joined was held by Zahara Legesse Kauffman. She is a psychotherapist devoted to improving the lives of women and men, the youth and children. She provides psychotherapy, training, and retreats on trauma, life skills, child protection, domestic violence, team building, conflict resolution, wellbeing, self-awareness and other related topics for agencies and to the public. She further gives gender trainings, which aim to educate people about prevailing gender-based inequalities, to public and private institutions in Ethiopia. Legesse Kauffman started her career in the United States and has spent the last decade in Ethiopia. She holds a bachelor’s in Psychology and Human Services and Creative Arts in Therapy from Russell Sage College and two master’s degrees in Art Therapy from Maywood university and in Social Work from Addis Ababa University.
The overall theme of this session was “Unconscious Bias”. An unconscious bias is an immediate thought, perception or judgement towards someone or something. One sentence that is still stuck to my mind was “even as women, we prefer men”. I immediately had to think of a situation in which I trusted a male employee in a sports store more than I trusted his female colleague. Why is that so? As feminists and empowered women, we strive to embrace other women. We hope to create a community in which women feel free and safe to bloom, to grow personally and to become aware of their own abilities and worth. However, we need to acknowledge that we all grew up in a society in which, for many centuries, men have been seen as worthier, more intelligent and more important. Legesse Kauffman states that we have been socialised in a way that, still in the 21st century, we inherit unconscious biases – biases towards among others race, class and gender. Important is that even as women, we have gender-based unconscious biases that we harm other women with.
Zahara Legesse Kauffman further explained that the higher you climb up the ladder of success in work life as a woman, the more you fear that other women could take away your position as we are constantly being told that there are very few positions for women on these levels of leadership. Therefore, as women in business and leadership positions, some of us may not encourage other women – we rather limit their potential.
Without understating the oppression that women worldwide suffer of on a daily basis through the patriarchal system, Legesse Kauffman stresses the importance of the feminist movement acknowledging the fact that women can also be patriarchally biased and contribute to the oppression of female power and energy themselves.
Through an interesting exercise in which we came up with 28 important attributes that we would wish for or rather demand of the wife of a beloved male friend or family member to own, like always having to smile, be successful but not too successful so that the man does not feel intimidated, Legesse Kauffman pointed out that we at times put expectations on other women which we are by far not able to fulfil ourselves. We can be way easier to judge women than to judge men. A common example is the phenomenon of “slut shaming” where we judge women for having „too many sexual relations“ whereas a man is rather praised as a Casanova when he has a lot of different sexual partners.
She sees the root of this phenomenon in the “feeling of not being good enough” which is inherited from day one and reinforced through media and advertisement throughout our lives. So, how can we get rid of these biases that we inherit and which, ultimately, limit the rising of women in leadership position and the empowerment of women in general in our day-to-day lives? According to Legesse Kauffman, the first step towards deconstructing these biases is acknowledgement of their existence, acknowledgement of how we, as women, contribute to the oppression of other women. Only if we reflect ourselves and acknowledge the above-mentioned, we will be able to pause, take a deep breath and work on how to get rid of them.
It was very impressive and inspiring to see such a strong and self-determined woman who represents her passion of advocating for gender equity while also promoting awareness for mental health. Through AWiB members opening up about their experiences, we ended up talking about mental health, sharing experiences, thoughts and having someone professional to give individual advices and input. We have talked a lot about how to get rid of toxic feelings, toxic relationships and that only if we accept the fact as part of our life right now, we will be able to work through them.
Mental health is an enormously important topic that we do not yet really have a discourse about. 27% of Ethiopians are mentally ill according to a research study carried out by the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. In Germany, for example, it has been around 37% of women suffering from mental illness in 2011 („Bevölkerungsanteil mit“, 2011).
Feminism and the deconstruction of biases can be tools to rehabilitate from mental illness. By becoming aware of the biases you inherit, it mostly gets much easier for you to understand why you feel a certain way. This, of course, strongly depends on the stage of illness women find themselves in! Nevertheless, let us empower other women, let us embrace the success of every single woman and open up more safe spaces for women to get inspired, where they can reflect on themselves without being judged and are being supported by women that have already worked on developing themselves over a long time. Empowering women is a powerful feeling that, in the end, has a healing effect on everyone involved!
„Bevölkerungsanteil mit psychischen Erkrankungen in Deutschland nach Geschlecht und Altersgruppe im Jahr 2011“ (2011) https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/221496/umfrage/psychische-erkrankungen-in-der-deutschen-allgemeinbevoelkerung/ Accessed 1 April 2019.
Written by Hanna Rössner