Is Israel Really Liberating for Ethiopian Women?

Reke Mullu is a 24-year-old Ethiopian woman from Gondar province who has mastered Hebrew and found a good job in Tel Aviv. Women like Reke Mullu, however, are a tiny minority. Most Ethiopian women in Israel have so far adapted minimally to Western ways.

Since Mullu’s immigration in 1977, 7,000 Ethiopian Jews have arrived in Israel via Operation Moses; an estimated 10,000 remain behind.

Most Ethiopian adults have been given housing in absorption centers for immigrants in development towns and small cities such as Ashkelon, Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, Nazareth Elit, and Migdal HaEmek; very few live in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. Some 96% of the children are living away from home in Youth Villages.

Although the absorption process has been difficult for all Ethiopians, who are placed in the position of having to juggle the realities of modern Israeli life with their traditional ways of living, it has been extremely hard on the women.

Ethiopian women were used to a society where their sole role was that of a caretaker of the home and children. They rarely made decisions, and their day-to-day lives were confined to their huts and the perimeter of their villages.

Mesfin Ambaw, former head of the Ethiopian Jewish Immigrants Association and now its treasurer, summed up the role of the Ethiopian woman in describing his mother. “She rarely spoke,” he said, “and when I or another man would come into the room, all the conversation centered around us and she said nothing.”

The women are shy and not used to speaking in public. It was extremely difficult to find Ethiopian women willing to be interviewed or photographed, and those that did agree often said nothing. In one interview, a woman sat surrounded by her husband, sons and some older men, and most of the questions asked other were answered by them. When she did finally speak, it was in a whisper of a voice and she could only say “things are good here, better than in Ethiopia,” no matter what the question.

Anthropologist Shalva Weil, who works at the National Council of Jewish Women’s Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University, has spent many years studying Ethiopians and their culture. She finds the Ethiopian men are far more up-front and visible than the women. “This doesn’t mean that the women aren’t proud, but just that the men take over when it comes to external public relations.”

“In the typical family in Ethiopia, the woman stays at home and rarely even goes outside,” said Reke Mullu. ‘The husband does virtually everything, but not in the house. There, he doesn’t even get up to get himself a cup of coffee.”

Men do manual labor or work as blacksmiths, potters or weavers, Mullu continued. In some cases, the woman goes to work with the men, but then returns to the house at the end of the day and must then take care of everything with no help at all from her husband. This is the accepted way there.

In Ethiopia, the women can go to the synagogue, but services are primarily attended by men. The women’s section is in the back of the sanctuary where kessim (priests) conduct the service in Gez, the liturgical language of ancient Ethiopian origin. Only the kessim. can read Gez and they then translate into Ethiopian. The kessim read from the Torah.

Up until ten years ago, according to Mullu, clitiordectomies were performed on girls in Ethiopia. Most people say the ceremony takes place at the age of 11, but one person interviewed said it took place In Infancy.

The operation was performed by a kinterkoraj, a woman trained like a mohel (ritual clrcumcisor of Infant Jewish boys) to do the operation. According to Ambaw, genital mutilation is more an Ethiopian practice than a Jewish one and is no longer done at all in Israel. The women were more reluctant than the men to discuss this and seemed embarrassed about it.

Most of the women, some of whom are literate and some not, are married very young in Ethiopia through arranged matches. It is not uncommon for girls to be married at the age of 10. After the wedding, the bride and groom live with their respective parents until the girl is about 15 and then move in together.

“In Ethiopia, being 18 years old and unmarried makes you an old maid,” said Mullu. “If I were still there, I’d probably already have 10 children!”

Because birth control is nonexistent in the small Jewish Ethiopian villages that surround larger cities, families are large, and it is not rare to find 8 to 10 children per family.

There are high rates of pregnancy complications and of infant mortality because of the low level of health care available.

The mainstay of the women’s participation in Jewish life in Ethiopia is ritual purity. Once a month for seven days, as the Torah specifies, the women separates herself from her husband and family. She goes to live in a special mud-and-grass hut called a mergemogodjo. At the end of the separation period the woman immerses herself in the mikvah (ritual immersion area) next to the river.

Women willingly accept the separation as part of their lives, believing they are protecting their husbands and children from their “impurity.” For many of the women, this break from the drudgery of their daily chores is welcomed, and many do weaving and pottery during this time.

The menstrual hut is usually located on the outskirts of the village and surrounded by a ring of rocks, which sets the limits for how far the women can wander. During this week, the woman has no contact with other villagers except for the other women in the hut or her children. Food brought by family members is not handed to her directly but placed in a specified area. Ambaw recalls bringing his mother meals and sliding it across the dirt “as if I were feeding a dog.”

After giving birth, a woman goes to a similar hut, where she stays for 40 days if she has had a boy and for 80 days if she has had a girl. The longer time period for a girl is due to the fact that females are considered more “unclean” than males.

The greatest problem for the Ethiopian women living in Israel is the issue of family purity, according to Weil. “Recently I was at a meeting where Ethiopians were discussing how they could preserve their tradition and religion, she said. One old woman stood up to complain angrily about the lack of a menstrual hut here, and suggested one be built.”

Weil points to the insensitivity on the part of the Ministry of Absorption when providing housing for the Ethiopian olim (immigrants). “It wouldn’t have been hard, especially in absorption centers with large Ethiopian populations, to make one apartment in the building a place where menstruating women could go. It would have made a big difference.” Weil concluded:

“Grandmothers, mothers and daughters are upset by this now, although future generations in Israel won’t be bothered by it since it is finished, as a tradition, in Israel. But meanwhile, those that saw it as so important are very troubled. Many teenage girls living at Youth Villages throughout Israel are troubled that they are allowed to go to the synagogue when they have their periods.”

A second aspect of the problem relating to the observance of ritual purity in Israel has to do with mikvah and this issue is tied up with that of the rabbinate’s position on the Ethiopians’ status as Jews.

The Israeli rabbinate, which questions the Jewishness of the Ethiopians, demands that they undergo a conversion ceremony which involves immersion in a mikvah. The Ethiopians, who have lived under oppressive conditions for years believing that they are the holiest of Jews, have angrily refused. As a consequence, many have turned away from religion, although they carry on their traditions in the home.

This controversy has caused a particular problem for the women, who have been instructed by their male community leaders not to go to the mikvah once a month since that immersion would make it seem like they were giving into the rabbinate on conversion.

Most of the women still separate from their husbands during the week of menstruation regardless of the fact that they don’t go to the mikvah. Many sleep in separate rooms and do not prepare meals or come near the family, said Mullu.

She cited one extreme case where the husband wanted things done as they were in Ethiopia and he sent his wife out of the house when she got her period. She was temporarily given shelter in an unused apartment, but eventually that was taken away. She now lives on the balcony one week a month, even when it is blazing hot, raining or freezing cold.

Married Ethiopian women, especially older ones, also find it difficult to adjust to modern Israeli society because their contacts with it are limited. In the absorption centers where they are living with other Ethiopians, their social contacts are primarily limited to other Ethiopian women. Most still spend their time cooking, cleaning, shopping, and caring for the children.

Women in their 40’s experience problems in finding work but many do get jobs. Women over 50 usually do not. Joey Singer, an American immigrant who serves as community organizer for the four-year-old Association of Ethiopian Immigrants, says there is an attempt to give the women job training and education and help them find work. Bikur Holim Hospital in Jerusalem for example, has a special nursing program for Ethiopian women.

But working at jobs, triggered by the necessity of the family for a second income, plus the exposure to Western values, often lead to a breakdown in family life. This, after the purity issue, is the second most important problem Ethiopian women face, Weil said.

The status of Ethiopian women has always been lower than that of the men, added Mullu. “But here in Israel, they suddenly see that this is not the way it has to be and that they can be equal to men in most ways,” in the home as well as the work-place.

“This is very difficult for the husband to take,” she continued, “Not only does his wife suddenly do what she wishes without asking his permission, but she also places demands on him to help her around the house and with the children.”

Many husbands, unable to deal with their wives’ newly discovered identity, outspokenness and independence, become resentful. Some leave their wives—or their wives leave them. There are numerous cases of separation in the Ethiopian community in Israel, something unheard-of in Ethiopia.

“It is not that the Ethiopian woman’s role is so low,” said Weil, but that in Israeli society the woman’s role is being elevated as the male’s role is being diminished, and this causes countless problems. The Ethiopian woman’s self-image is going up, while her husband’s is going down because he feels he is no longer in control.”

Another problem for the Ethiopian family is the reversal of roles between parent and child. “In Ethiopia a child never talked back to a parent, the parents’ word was holy,” says Mullu.

“But here, suddenly the children take on the parental role in many ways, since they often understand the language and society best. They bring Israeli social patterns which are foreign to their parents into the house, and this causes further identity crises for both mother and father.” Mullu concluded:

“Everything these women have known, their religious life and home life, has broken down,” said Mullu. “Suddenly, there are options open to them. This can be freeing—but it can also be frightening.”

Israeli society has the greatest impact on the younger generation of Ethiopian women, those still in their teenage years. With most living away from home in Youth Aliyah villages, they are coming into contact 24 hours a day with Israeli culture, said Weil. “The teenage girls there are extremely fashion-conscious and really take getting dressed up seriously. They seem to be modeling themselves after the Israeli female.

“But when you stop to talk to them, you see they are troubled. At 15, many would have been married and had children in Ethiopia; their sexuality is budding and they don’t know what to do. They don’t know if they should date, or if they should date Israeli or Ethiopian boys.”

Some of the girls in these schools are, in fact, already married, but told the authorities they were single in order to have the opportunity to study.

Mullu says that her chances of marrying an Ethiopian man are slim because of their closemindedness and lack of acceptance of a modern woman’s role in today’s society. She suggests workshops and classes that help the men to understand Israeli society.

Despite her successful absorption into Israeli society, Mullu says that she still feels uncomfortable being the only Ethiopian woman to attend Association meetings. Her fellow Ethiopians, she says, are the ones who make things most difficult for her.

“It’s hard to be an intelligent and independent Ethiopian woman,” she says, in flawless Hebrew. “Most Ethiopians here think that I am weird and abnormal. Maybe in a few years it will be okay, when the men and women alike learn that it’s possible for such a woman to still be a good Ethiopian woman.

“I come to them talking about everything, and laughing and they just can’t accept that. They still think that a good Ethiopian girl should sit at home and be quiet and shy.”

Andrea King is a journalist living in Jerusalem.