Our diverse feminists must team up to disavow epistemological violence
By Martha Kuwee Kumsa, December 16, 2020
If feminists have the courage to curb our claims of innocence, we have the potential to engage in genuine critical conversations that bring people together.
(Ethiopia Insight) — I am delighted to see that feminists continue to trouble male-dominated spaces of polarizing nationalisms in Ethiopia. I thank the person behind ‘Mistir Sew’s’ response and Sehin Teferra for inspiring me to jump into this conversation on epistemological violence. Normally, I stay away from such public spaces, but the ominous clouds cast by the dangerous polarization of narratives urged me to contribute my share, however modest.
I enter this space bowing my head to honour my foremothers. Their deep wells of knowledge inform my particular epistemic positioning of transnational siinqee feminism, as nested within broader feminist epistemologies.
It pains me that ‘Mistir’ is anonymous in this conversation while Sehin and I speak from the privileged spaces of our professed identities. To me, this is a form of epistemic violence in and of itself. But I honour her choice of anonymity because I know from my own experience that self-effacement can be a form of self-preservation, ironically.
Testing the waters
I start this piece with what I interpret as our commonalities.
It seems that ‘Mistir’, Sehin, and I were all at the 2019 symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Wallelign Mekonnen’s landmark paper on the question of nationalities. May he rest in peace.
Like most Ethiopians, I sense that all three of us appreciate Ethiopia’s federalism as a unique democratic political development richer than the single cultural and religious hegemony from which the country evolved. I also sense that we all share a basic understanding of epistemic violence which we posit as a practice of silencing others’ knowledge, truths, stories, and voices. Finally, I sense that we concur on the idea that how we know what we know (our epistemology) is a process inescapably entangled in broader narratives larger than us individuals.
Building on our crucial commonalities and moving into our equally crucial differences, I use the siinqee lens as an act of epistemic disobedience to shift the geopolitics of knowing from Western- or Eastern-dominated frameworks to local African perspectives, particularly Oromo women’s in this case. By so doing, I also seek to honour our particularities as variously positioned women. Feminism validates local truths because of its own origin in grassroots women’s movements and because of its commitment to social change and transformation.
As self-identified feminists, I call on all three of us to have the courage to shed our innocence and critically engage the epistemic violence of the grand narratives we embody. If we want to bring people together, we need to embrace women’s ways of knowing and relating, and refuse the divide and conquer strategy in the meta narratives of both the East and the West. We need to come together from across the dividing practices of nationalist and internationalist ideologies, liberal democracy and revolutionary democracy, to facilitate unique people-to-people and people-to-state relationships for Ethiopia’s unique context.
For this, I offer the entwined siinqee strategies of calling out (confrontation, adversarial) and calling in (invitation, collaborative). Calling out names the injustice and calls attention to the muted truth. Calling in, invites into collaborative spaces of negotiating redress and charting fair pathways to reconciliation and healing.
But these twin strategies must work together if we want to eschew the epistemic violence of our polarizing narratives without shying away from naming or calling out the injustice. For me, the metaphor of pointing fingers captures this neatly. Pointing a finger and calling out injustice is very important. But if left there, it degenerates into a dangerously polarizing blame game. We need to step back into the responsibility of calling in and collaboratively examine the three fingers of our complicity in systems of injustice.
Now, this is not a panacea. Nor is it new. It is just what I can offer from my limited knowing. I offer it as an invitation for others to join the conversation with their own limited knowing. That way, we can all bring together our particularities and pave new ways towards new relationships, reconciliation and healing without one epistemology having to erase others.
Both ‘Mistir’ and Sehin raised many important issues that I won’t be able to do justice to. So, I will only identify what I see as the most salient and discuss them in two themes: issues related to identity, and those related to violence.
I’m separating identity and violence here simply for the convenience of crafting my response. I’m not implying that identity and violence are mutually exclusive; they are not. I see violence as woven into the narrative subtlety of epistemic violence that twists the truths of identities and paves the way for the brutal physicality of violence contained in wars and skirmishes. So, I see identity and violence as inseparably entangled.
Here I will eschew other forms of identity and focus just on Ethiopia. Sehin calls out Awol Allo on what she understands as his epistemological violence in denying the self-proclaimed identities of millions of Ethiopians who view themselves as Ethiopians. She goes further and charges that Awol and others have fashioned a bogeyman of Ethiopianness, or Ethiopiawinet, which, she asserts, is a reductive version of the current multiethnic and multicultural Ethiopia.
On her part, ‘Mistir‘ calls out what she understands as the epistemological violence of Sehin’s version of Ethiopianness. She charges that this version undermines women’s agency as political subjects by erasing the multiplicity of women’s political identities in multinational Ethiopia and by sanitizing the epistemological ground from which women approach the question. This reduces women’s political activity to issues of gender citizenship, she argues, highlighting the connotation “citizen” has taken in the current Ethiopian political discourse.
I hear them all as a woman positioned within the narratives of Oromo nationalism but as one who simultaneously thinks with and against all reductive nationalist narratives, whether Oromo, Ethiopian, Amhara, Canadian, American, etc. I respond from the position of a feminist seeker of liberation and justice
In my view, erasing the self-proclaimed identities of those who identify as Ethiopian constitutes epistemic violence. Denouncing those who articulate a different vision of Ethiopia as fashioning a bogeyman also constitutes epistemic violence. Erasing women’s agency as multinational political subjectivities constitutes epistemic violence. Denying the voices of women who identify just as women citizens also constitutes epistemic violence.
We are inescapably entangled in webs of unequal power relations. But that doesn’t mean every position is right or justified. In my view, that is determined by how ethically we respond to others, or how we treat others as we wish to be treated, as in the Golden Rule, or better still, how we treat others the way those others want to be treated.
So far, we have all successfully pointed our fingers and called out the epistemic violence others do to us—but not the violence we do to others.
If we leave the conversation here, we risk entering the dangerous slippery slope of endless blame games, so dragging each other down. But instead we can lift each other up in empathy if we realize that what we point outward to others is what we harbour within ourselves. Every pointing finger engenders responsibility for stepping back and examining its own three fingers of complicity within systems of injustice. None of these narratives are innocent, so none of us can claim innocence as we are embedded in and embodied by these discourses.
We need Wallelign’s incredible courage to trouble our innocence and expose our complicity in the injustices committed in our shared names. Ethiopia is a complex society of over 80 nations, nationalities, and peoples with many languages, cultures, histories, faiths, competing narratives, and contradictory political aspirations.
In my view, referring to this complexity as ‘ethnic federalism’ is not innocent; it is a political act with a political currency for ruling elites. It is a pejorative insult coming from nationalist elite who idolize western models of nation-states to disparage any possibility of homegrown African models of governance as tribalist and uncivilized.
‘Ethnic federalism’ is a demeaning term and it constitutes epistemic violence by erasing the self-knowledge and self-reference of the people it refers to. There is no single reference to ethnicity in the constitution that starts as “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” Ethnicity is a violent epistemic erasure of the truths and voices of the people who came together and declared the “we” of the country’s composition.
Arguably, this constitution is the glue that is holding Ethiopia together. Is it perfect? No! It is neither adequate nor all-inclusive. In fact, a recent survey found that 69 percent of Ethiopians want it reviewed but a staggering 92 percent want citizens to be consulted in the review process. The peoples’ desire is clear.
I call on Ethiopian feminists from across the many nations, nationalities, and peoples, to refuse the innocence of our polarizing nationalist narratives and bring our peoples together. Claiming innocence is committing epistemic violence. We need to find ways of crafting new egalitarian relationships where people can speak for themselves. We will not agree on the hotly contested meaning of Ethiopia. But we can bring all our disparate meanings into a conversation, without resorting to force of arms, and in that manner fashion a new Ethiopia that reflects all of us.
Here I will engage violence in its association with qarrees and qeerroos and in its evocation of selective outrage. I sense epistemic violence in ‘Mistir’s’ characterization of qarrees and qeerroos as a self-proclaimed militant group and in Sehin’s categorical association of them with violence. This narrative homogenizes the experiences and voices of qarrees and qeerroos. It erases the multiplicity of their truths and flattens out the rich contours of their differences.
In my own categorization and my own truth, qarree and qeerroo are sacred. They evoke the image of justice-seeking freedom-loving young Oromos who rose up against tyranny. While qarree is a recent addition to address women’s exclusion, qeerroo is a coveted name I grew up with. Even in the last five years, many praised them to the skies when those fearless, peaceful protesters spilled their blood and brought down a repressive regime that possessed formidable military might.
Over the last two years, however, I have sadly witnessed political activities dehumanizing them as menga (herd), girrisa (flocking birds), hooligans, mobs, terrorists, etc. Their sacred name now evokes such fearful hate that folks are terrorized by the very mention of qeerroo. Highly placed generals advising the government have publicly called on the military to shoot young Oromo protesters. Once qeerros are narratively demonized, any violence against them is justified.
This narrative conflation of attaching violence to young Oromos serves the political purpose of excluding them from the category of good citizens. Such exclusion has dire material and political consequences.
As justice-seeking feminists, can we take ethical responsibility to minimize the epistemic violence we dole out? Can we do so without erasing the identities of the said self-proclaimed militants or reducing everyone to militancy? We also need to clarify what we mean by militancy. Is it peaceful protest, civil disobedience, armed struggle? Or is it something entirely different?
Coming to the second theme on violence, Sehin calls out Awol on what she sees as his selective outrage only when Oromo lives are threatened. Focusing on the violence following Hachalu’s murder, she charges that it “is now Oromos who kill and terrorize Others”.
No matter where they are born, the loss of innocent lives breaks my heart. I am outraged by the cruel killings in Agew, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Gedeo, Qimant, Sidama, and Wolayta, to name just a few in the last two years. But I have not publicly denounced these atrocities, although I critique them in my field of work. Here is my invitation to Sehin, ‘Mistir’, and all other seekers of justice to join me in confronting our innocence and examining our own selective outrages—for the sake of healing the deepening wounds on all sides.
It pains me deeply that Haacaaluu’s name is attached to violence in this way. To me, Haacaaluu is the sacred name of a fearless truthteller. He spoke truth to power through the power of his music and inspired an entire generation and people from across national divides. I evoke his name here only to examine our selective outrage following his tragic assassination.
The narrative shift in which Oromos are categorically transformed from victims of violence to perpetrators is dramatic. Initially, various global media reported Haacaaluu’s assassination along with the historical grievances of Oromos. The dramatic narrative reversal seems to have unfolded in the 23 days of total Internet shutdown. When news started to come out again, it was with stories affirming Sehin’s assertion that “it is now Oromos who kill and terrorize Others.”
In my view, this selective outrage against Oromos is a carefully engineered political activity. For every evidence reported, there are evidences narratively supressed, in effect, demonstrating that Oromos were killing non-Oromos. Actively suppressed is the evidence that more than two-thirds of victims were Oromos, even by the government’s own public admission on EBC and VOA. Officials who offered evidence of negligence at high levels of government and those who revealed a different reality on the ground were thrown in prison.
These suppressed truths stated that those who took lives and destroyed property were not known in the communities, that the killing and destruction did not target people from a specific nation or religion. Although not heard, these truths also told that most protesters expressed their rage at the assassination of their icon peacefully.
The formulaic swiftness with which atrocities were happening is as mindboggling: assassinating an icon, arresting prominent Oromos and other political leaders, shutting down the Internet and independent Oromo media, arresting journalists, deploying security forces, killing protestors, inter-communal violence, destruction of property, and the mass arrest of thousands of Oromos.
All these atrocities are drowned out by selective outrage and Oromos are narratively constructed as the sole perpetrators of violence in a twisted reversal. The narrative also constructs Oromos as Islamic extremists killing Christian Ethiopians. Social media is steeped with images conflating qeerroo and Islamic extremism.
A massive misinformation campaign targeting Oromos both in Ethiopia and in the diaspora was launched in the name of stopping hate speech and calling on Ethiopians to take urgent action against Oromo individuals and organizations they see as extremists. Alas! Oromos are now categorically persecuted as extremist perpetrators of violence.
Sehin also troubles over how the term ‘neftegna’ that was used to denote benign reference to non-ethnic Oromos living in Oromia has now morphed into a rallying cry for ethnic cleansing. Yes, words do have dire consequences. I do not at all endorse ‘neftegna’, ‘ethno-nationalist’, ‘Islamic extremist’, ‘qeerroo’, or any other term that has been used as a rallying cry for killing.
My own understanding, and therefore my truth, is that ‘neftegna’ refers less to people and more to a system. As others also attest, ‘neftegna’ refers to the legacy of the violent conquest through which Ethiopia was formed as a modern state. I did not learn the term from Wallelign in the 1960s. What he wrote made sense to me only because ‘neftegna’ was a household word I was born into and grew up with. It is a family story of pain and struggle that my late father articulated eloquently. It is a story he documented in his Life and Times and passed on to future generations.
Slipping out of my own innocence and examining what my three fingers point back, though, I see that ‘neftegna’ is not innocent. It is a political term, much like ‘qeerroo’, ‘radical Oromo nationalist’, ‘ethnic extremism’ and ‘narrow nationalism’.
How then can we, justice-seekers, facilitate healing and reconciliation without erasing people’s truths and discounting their pain and suffering, or causing new pain and anguish in others? I believe that troubling our innocence and examining our complicity has the potential to get us to a place of empathy where we can listen to each other’s stories and truths, however disconcerting.
Sehin has passionately articulated the pain and anguish of those who live in fear in Oromia. In a deeply moving cry, she asks some desperate questions: “Where can you go when the place where your grandparents were born labels you with a target on your back? What choice do you have but to fight, or to die, or to die fighting?”
I hear the echoes in Oromos and other nations and nationalities pouring out the same pain and anguish, asking: “Where can we go when the only place we have known as our ancestral homeland labels us with a target on our backs? When our young ones are dragged out and killed or thrown in prison, when our leaders are killed or imprisoned? When we are attacked in our own homes for who we are, what choice have we got but to fight, or to die, or to die fighting?”
Wounds are raw and open on all sides. Nationalist narratives are extremely polarizing. But coming together and charting ways of healing together is not a choice; it is an imperative. Ethiopia is sitting on deep-seated historical fissures exacerbated by current provocations and denials.
We cannot heal if we each hang on to our own pain and anguish and deny or diminish the pain and anguish of others. We can use our pain as a space of empathy to understanding the agony of others. We cannot heal if we simply keep pointing to others and breeding hate. We can trouble our innocence and find the hate we point to others deeply entrenched within ourselves.
We cannot heal if we keep perpetuating the polarizing narratives of our respective nationalisms. We can trouble these narratives and bring our peoples together.
To feminists and all other justice-seekers, I offer an open siinqee invitation to refuse the innocent pride of our respective nationalisms and come together in humility. To me, siinqee is a symbol for justice equality, reconciliation, and unity. Let us each bring our unique symbols to examine our unequal relations of power and facilitate healing, reconciliation, and unity.
To Ethiopian leaders, I offer my unsolicited advice to honor women’s soft power and support their effort to facilitate healing and reconciliation. Clamping down and stifling dissent with military power may buy a few years in power—but it is dangerously unsustainable.
To the international community, I offer another unsolicited advice: do not repeat your past mistakes. Outsiders have propped up dictatorships in Ethiopia by choosing law and order over democracy, and they have said that they lost both law and order and democracy. Ethiopia is at a dangerous crossroads, once again. Here is an opportunity to right the wrong. Don’t look away.
Oromia is central to Ethiopia, just as Ethiopia is central to the entire region. Oromos are de facto the grout holding Ethiopia together demographically, economically, and geographically. Facilitating democracy in Oromia is imperative for stabilizing Ethiopia.
May we all have the wisdom to avert the impending tragedy.