Personal Choices

Sep 24 , 2018
By Hanna Haile

Hanna Haile ( is an Ethiopian writer and social worker. She is one of the organizers of Poetic Saturdays at Fendika Cultural Centre in Addis Abeba and at Terara Bar & Kitchen in Hawassa, where a stage is open to those who celebrate art through performances on the first and second Saturday of each month.

A social media frenzy has been on full blast this past week. It involved a claim by the Office of the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, not to be referred to with the titles weizerit or weizero.

The former means “Miss” while the latter means “Mrs.” The issue dominated topics over mediums frequented by Ethiopians such as Twitter and Facebook and conversations over coffee and beer.

It was overwhelming to see how enraged people have become at this. While such decisions may not have been made to create public discourse or outrage, they seem to have done just that regardless.

The outrage was uncalled for and retaliatory. If indeed the press secretary made the statement, it was a personal preference, an isolated stand that may inspire others who feel the same. In a communal country like ours that prides itself on mass solidarity and tradition, the fact that someone chooses to do what makes sense to them is inspiring.

Strong positions and opinions by a minority will do plenty to make one feel out of place. And it is in standing one’s ground on issues that matter to us and by validating our own voice that change will come.

If some of us were under the impression that having women - or groups previously underrepresented - in key leadership positions was going to reaffirm the status quo, then we are in for a surprise. Women challenge tradition every day. Of course, when they want to use their own voices as public figures, the backlash is heavy.

I have worked with all types of women coming from all walks of life on topics ranging from early marriage to women with disabilities that make a living in red light districts. Each time I have discussed these incidences, there has always been someone letting me know that I am working for the wrong type of woman, defending a less worthy cause. The kind of backlash that has stormed the title issues is about the gatekeepers of cultural change.

We cannot debate whether one made the right decision or not, but this was their decision to make. One can make this out to be an Ethiopian feminist issue, but the issue is not that one chooses to be referred to as weizero or weizerit, it is that this is a choice. This is the culture people are against when debating this issue.

Making a decision to use any preferred title and rejecting a cultural practice that does not suit their life ought to be a right.

Sendu Gebru, the first woman in parliament, stood for the dignity of Ethiopian women in a hall dominated by men. And in that time, she had many critics while today she is revered. Little is accomplished by conforming but by speaking up and refusing to apologise for the positions we take. And in time, the public will be able to talk about it without the need to feel emotional or threatened.

Yet today is not that day. Today is the day when those that have been represented are berated for any cause that they uphold. When it comes to women, labels like “Sheraton feminism” are thrown around to put down those that are working toward equality of any kind.

When harassment and rape are discussed, the masses answer “not all men.” When one dares to air a personal preference, the masses scream “not our culture.”

Indeed, the dynamics might have changed, but the principle has stayed the same. The day will come when women’s opinions can be looked at as steps to contribute for our collective good and not seen as a selfish assault on culture and norms. The day when we do not need to grade women’s traumas to deserve justice is the day I am awaiting.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 24,2018 [ VOL 19 , NO 971]

Hanna Haile is the founder of Zellan Creative & Cultural Center. She can be reached at (

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