Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a much larger study conducted by Ayalew Getachew Assefa in partnership with the The Danish Institute for Human Rights.
The report, Customary Law in Ethiopia: A need for better recognition, was published in 2012 and is avilable online. It is presented here only for information purposes. The full, formated report can be accessed here (PDF).
Wayyuu, Siinqee and Gora among the Arsi
Arsi Oromo is one of the branches of Oromo people inhabiting the Oromiya Region, mainly in the Arsi and Bale Zones. They claim to have descended from a single individual called Arse. The Arsi in all zones speak the same language Afaan Oromo, and share the same cultures and traditions. Among the cultural norms observed, the concept of Wayyuu is the primary one.
Wayyuu, constituting part of the Gadaa system, is one of the major constructs in a traditional Oromo worldview and is a concept with clear religious connotations. It is reflected in various cultural practices and has played a decisive role in defining the position and the rights of women in traditional Oromo society. Among other things, seems to have played a preventive role when it comes to sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
Not easily translated into English, the following are some representations given by researchers in attempts to give meaning to the word Wayyuu: something that is sacred or something that should not be touched. The respect that is reflected in Wayyuu is not ordinary respect. It is a special respect that comes from God. It is a mutual respect. God has given respect to all things. Everything has its Wayyuu. God is also Wayyuu (Waqnii Wayyuu).
Heaven is also Wayyuu (Samii Wayyuu). As a result, people dare not speak bad things about heaven because heaven is the home of God. This is the holiest place since it is the place of God and it is Wayyuu. God is the greatest Wayyuu. He is the one who created everything. This concept of Wayyuu in Arsi Oromo is also extended to women of different status.
For instance; a female in-law is Wayyuu, a woman who gave birth to you is Wayyuu to you, co- wives of your mother is Wayyuu, a married woman is Wayyuu, a virgin girl is Wayyuu, a pregnant woman is Wayyuu, a woman who wears the Qanaffa is Wayyuu, a woman who wears Hanfala is Wayyuu and a woman who holds Siinqee is Wayyuu. The list could be extended even further. As Marit states ‘everything has its Wayyuu’. This list suggests the considerable extent to which the Arsi Oromo associate Wayyuu with women, and with material objects and locations, which belong to the female sphere. Since it is beyond the scope of this paper to embark on a detailed discussion of the various implications of the different persons and objects that are said to be Wayyuu, I will rather focus on the Wayyuu as the Siinqee stick symbolizes it.
Siinqee: Women’s customary institution in Arsi
Siinqee is a stick (Ulee) symbolizing a socially sanctioned set of rights exercised by women. The Siinqee is a special stick, which a woman who gets legally married will receive on her wedding day. My informant describes the Siinqee as ‘a woman’s weapon’, symbolizing the respect and the power that a married woman has. The Siinqee stick is given to a woman in order to protect her rights. My informant explained that: ‘if a woman has a Siinqee she has to be respected, nobody should fight with her’. Here, it is very important to note that Siinqee is applicable to women who have been married in accordance with the Gadaa system. If the marriage is concluded outside the rules and regulations of Siinqee, like in the cases of marriage by force (butta), the woman does not enjoy the protection accorded by Siinqee. On the other hand, if a woman is married based on Siinqee, like in the case of kadhacha (marriage based on agreement between two families), she has full rights to enjoy her privileges under Siinqee.
Regarding the origin of Siinqee, Tolosa states that ‘this symbolic matter [Siinqee] was handed over to Abba Gadaa by the Qallu-the ritual leader of the Oromo society in the framework of the Gadaa system’. It is believed that the Qallu gave it to the Abba Gadaa in order to hold the Bokkuu (another important wooden stick among the Oromo) for himself, and the Siinqee to his wife. Due to the strong attachment that the Oromo people have to the Gadaa system, every sanction it imposes on the society has a chance of being met with respect. Therefore, it is warranted to conclude that the value embedded in Siinqee emanates from the overall respect given to the Gadaa system, and reverence to the stick has long been associated with this respect.
It is also important to note that Siinqee is not merely a term for a material symbol, it also refers to an institution, namely to a women’s organization that excludes men, and that has both religious and political functions. Kuwee Kumsa indicates that the Siinqee institution was given to women by Gadaa laws and it was highly respected by the society. Women used to use their Siinqee in various religious, social, political and economic contexts, to protect their property rights; to assert control over sexuality and fertility; to protect their social rights and to maintain religious and moral authority.
The word Siinqee is thus often used to describe various mobilizations conducted by women. As Kumsa states, when there were violations of their rights, women left their homes, children, and resources, and travelled to a place where there was a big tree called Qilxxu and assembled there until the problems were solved through negotiation by elder men and women. According to Kumsa, married women have the right to organize and form the Siinqee sisterhood and solidarity. Kelly explains this more and states that:
A man who violated women’s individual and collective rights could be corrected through reconciliation and pledging not to repeat the mistakes or through women’s reprisal ritual. A group of women ambush the offender in the bush or on the road, bind him, insult him verbally using obscene language that they would not normally utter in the direct presence of an adult male … pinch him, and whip him with leafy branches or knotted strips of cloth. In extreme cases, they may force him to crawl over thorny or rocky ground while they whip him . . . they demand livestock sacrifice as the price to cease their attack. If he refuses, they may tie him to a tree in the bush and seize one of his animals themselves. Other men rarely intervene.
The following words by a woman who exercised her privilege in Siinqee illustrate how Siinqee has been applied in an attempt to mobilize women against violations and the injustices they face from their communities:
Two years ago one of my male neighbors insulted me sexually saying; ‘all women are like old empty milk containers (Koonka), but above all you are the worst’. I found this insult to be so serious that I brought it up before our women elders. They discussed the case and concluded that it was necessary to call for Ateete. All the women in my neighborhood went to the man’s house with our sticks (Siinqee). We confronted him with what he had done. The man refused to admit his offence and to settle the case. He did not respect our Ateete; arguing that he did not believe in this tradition anymore, now that he had become a Muslim.
All the women in our neighborhood gathered outside his house regularly for more than two months. Outside his house we were chanting songs dominated by sexual insults; (among others saying that we hoped he would be infected with HIV) in order for him to accept his wrongdoings. He refused this, and we ended up cursing him. After a few weeks we saw him coming to the clinic with a serious skin infection on his face. He also lost 5 of his cattle, they were hit by lightening. All this happened in accordance with our curse.
These facts illustrate how disrespect for women, and in particular denial of women’s requests when they have mobilized within their Siinqee, can have serious consequences that manifest themselves in various forms. My informant has also clearly expressed his view on his fear of women in general, and during Siinqee mobilizations in particular, and with no doubt this is related to a strong fear of the female curse. The respect for, and fear of the married women, seems to have given Arsi-Oromo women some degree of religious as well as political power. But why do these women enjoy this sacred respect? The answer to this question is related to the religious role of the Arsi-Oromo women.
Marit T. Østebø has conducted extensive research on this question. During an International Conference on Ethiopian Studies in 2009 on ‘Wayyuu: women’s respect and rights among the Arsi-Oromo’, she stated that the fear of the Siinqee stems mainly from the perception that women are closer to God than men. This notion, she writes ‘was continuously supported by all [her] informants, and in turn sustains the idea that women among the Arsi Oromo have had an important religious role.’ My informant has also confirmed that women are feared and respected because of their religious power. Women are closer to God because they are more humble; they are soft, they are innocent and they do not fight. This leads to the conclusion that God tends to listen more to women than men.
This idea was best articulated in the following expression among the Arsi Oromo: ‘what a woman blesses will be blessed, what she curses will be cursed’Despite all the contributions and functions it renders to the society in general, and to women in particular, the Siinqee institution has faced several challenges through time. As Tolosa has indicated, the institution has recently been exposed to an unprecedented degree of influence by religious institutions. With the advent of religious revival after the collapse of the socialist regime in 1991, and the developments of various new sects like Wahhabism in Islam and Protestantism in Christianity, Siinqee has been viewed as an utterly traditional, if not unreligious institution, and has been barred from playing its previous role. The role played by the Siingee institution is increasingly reduced to a ritualistic role. In addition, processes of modernization and formal education – by distancing the youth from their culture – have endangered the very survival of the Siinqee institution.
With regard to women’s mobilization against sexual harassment and injustices, it is currently reported that women rarely organize themselves under Siinqee against the perpetrators. This is partly because of their husbands’ insistence on maintaining loyalty towards mosques and churches rather than traditions. This in turn results in a new form of gender challenge. The role of the Siinqee institution is clearly declining, undoubtedly affecting the peace of the society. This does not necessarily mean that Siinqee must cease to exist, but its role and function as an institution for the protection of women’s rights is diminishing, eventually reducing the institutions to its ritualistic aspects.
The case of Gora among the Bale Oromo
This sub-section discusses the manner through which an unacceptable sexual behavior is regulated under the customary laws of the Bale Oromo. The Bale Oromo is located in the Bale Zone of the Oromiya Region. The following observations are based on my personal observation. I was born and raised in this very part of Oromiya region, and during my childhood I have witnessed the applications of most of the customary practices. I have also drawn on findings from empirical studies, including Marit’s.
In the Bale Oromo, the gadaa system has provided a mechanism through which the young virgin, as well as any married woman isprotected against an unacceptable sexual behavior. In order to have a better understanding of regulation of these sexual offences, a brief overview of some of the features of the customary law as articulated in the Eastern-lowlands of Bale is required.
According to many researchers and my informant, the customary laws among the Bale Oromo regulate four levels of crime:
- Guma- where there is manslaughter.
- Gora – where there is visible injury or the injury has a psychological impact – the latter related to shame. Often mentioned examples are a broken front tooth or a broken leg. Gora is also applied to rape and loss of virginity.
- Qotaa – less serious injuries that are not visible, often illustrated with the damage of a person’s back teeth.
- Yakka – a minor issue, if one insults a person.
It appears that these terms are used both for the crime as well as for the corresponding punishment. If a crime is classified as Gora, the punishment will be Gora, which in cases of sexual crime is equal to 8 cattle. Since sexual crimes are grouped under Gora, I limit my discussion to Gora and to how it regulates the sexual crimes perpetrated against the women in Bale Oromo. A better understanding of Gora requires a discussion on the concept of Wayyuu as it relates to clothes among the Bale Oromo.
As I have indicted in the previous discussion, among the Oromo everything has its own Wayyuu. With regard to clothes, my informant has indicated that Qirii, a large piece of cloth, which a woman (or a girl) ties around her neck leaving her shoulders bare, is considered Wayyuu. Thus it is prohibited for a man to touch or untie these clothes without the will of the woman or the girl. This concept is well elaborated in the following saying: Qiriin obolessa kute yoo isiin toola gote, tola yoo isiin gora gote, gora, meaning; when a man unties the clothes (Qirii) of a woman, if she says that it is ok, it is ok; if she says that it is Gora, it is Gora.
This expression seems to emphasize the decisive role of the girl (woman), as she is said to be the one who determines whether the sexual action is acceptable or not. First, unless the girl reports an unacceptable sexual behavior, such as rape or loss of virginity, there will be no action, as nobody will have knowledge about it. Secondly, and this is perhaps the most important implication articulated through this expression, if a girl or woman says it is Gora (a crime), it will be Gora. This expression appears to reveal a strong trust in the girl’s word in such cases; it is believed that these cases are of such a character that she will not lie.
As Marit indicated, there might be cases where the man will deny the accusations, but if a man has been accused by a woman of rape or of taking a girl’s virginity, the elders in his clan will do everything possible to convince him to accept the accusation. What can be prevented is for the case to reach the level of oath giving (kakuu). If a case reaches such a level it can have serious consequences. This is particularly so, if the man does not speak the truth. It is believed that if a man lies while under oath, not only will he, but also his whole clan as well as his descendants, be cursed. For a woman to be under oath appears to be very rare. This strong belief in the words of a woman, as I have explained above, has resulted from the representation of a woman as humble, soft, and closer to God. Once again, one can see an illustration of how a woman’s traditional and religious position among the Bale Oromo plays a great role in protecting women from unacceptable sexual behavior.
Women under the customary laws of the Guji Oromo
The Guji people are members of the larger Oromo group in Ethiopia and occupy the southern highland and lowland’s semiarid areas. The Guji social structure consists of gosa (clan) at the highest level, and extends down to mana (lineage), warra (extended family), and maatii or maayaa (nuclear family). The latter consists of the husband, his wife (wives), and their children. Warra includes the brothers of the husband, his father and mother, and his brothers’ children, in addition to the nuclear family members. Gadaa constitutes the customary practice of the Guji Oromo. This sub-section therefore, aims at explaining the representation of women in the Gadaa system of the Guji Oromo.
Women’s representation in traditional institutions of the Guji Oromo
The Gadaa broadly encompasses the social, political, and economic institutions of the Guji and other Oromo branches. Before the invention of the Gadaa institution, according to the Guji tradition, five kings and five queens ruled their people. The transition to the Gadaa system took place due to bad governance and widespread lawlessness under the queens and kings. The queens’ and kings’ administrations did not effectively maintain peace and stability, and arbitrary measures became the rule rather than the exception.
In addition, there was population growth and territorial expansion, but kings and queens did wield effective control over the people living within their enlarged territory. As the territories under the Guji increased, it became necessary to delegate power to the clans and to introduce the Gadaa administration. As it is also practiced across other Oromo sects, the system allows only men to become members of the Gadaa grades.
According to Dejene, women are totally excluded from membership and can achieve this status only through their husbands. Although women have active roles in ritual practices of the Guji Oromo, men, however, control the leadership positions of the Gadaa system. As Asmerom Legesse puts it, the Gadaa in Guji empowers only the men to control the military and political activities, to engage in warfare, to take part in the elections of leaders of camps or of age-sets and Gadaa classes. Here one may ask why the Gadaa in Guji Oromo excludes women from taking these key political and social positions. The popular story told among the Guji Oromo, of a legendary queen that ruled the Guji people with an iron fist, could provide a possible explanation.
In fact, this story has also been told among the other Oromo branches, including the Borana, Arsi and Bale. Dejene presents the Guji version of the story as follows:
Akko Manoyye was one of the queens that ruled the guji. During her rule, husbands performed every task, including caring for children, and women made every decisions. One day she ordered her people to bring a bag full of fleas, an order they were unable to carry out and, therefore, they consulted a wise poor man called Hiyyo Kulle. He told them to collect a bag full of donkeys’ dung and spill it on the ground. They did it accordingly and the dung was filled with mosquitoes. The queen thought the mosquitoes were fleas and made another difficult directive, which was building a house on the air.
Once again the people went to consult the poor man on how they would carry out the order. He told them to ask her to put up the door poles, which customarily is done by the owner of the house. When they asked her to do so, she knew that she was outmaneuvered and failed to respond to their request. The poor man continued to give advice to the people and told them to dig a deep hole, cover it with animal skin, and stand a seat on it for her. When she sat on the chair, she went down the hole, during which she uttered a message to women: ‘sobi soba dhuubuli,’ which means ‘pretend to respect male authority.’ following her death, according to the story, a man called Durii Dulloo became the first king.
This story is remarkable in demonstrating to the Guji how the concentration of power in the hands of men is justified. It rationalizes the view that women are ineffective for politics and administration. The corrupt practices during the queen’s rule are dramatized in the story in order to justify the marginalization of women from the customary administration. A different story, with similar implication, regarding the military capacity of women has also been told among the Guji Oromo. The tale told here, is of women warriors who failed to successfully carry out their mission in the past. The story goes that: women fighters went to war in a group of ten. They raided animals and other belongings (Waatoo,) from the enemy and headed back to their camp. However, the enemy followed them to retrieve the raided animals and the Waatoo. Then the commander of the squad ordered her troops as follows:
Waatii buusi malee Waatoo hin buusin meaning: you can lose the animals to the enemy but never let the Waatoo go. The troops of women followed the order of their commander and surrendered the animals but retained the Waatoo. On their way home, the commander suggested counting the troops to check if any of their members had died. The women took turns counting each other, but every one of them came up with only nine and reported one person missing. Finally, they wanted to be sure about their number and sought help from a man to count them.
The man asked them to sit down, counted ten of them, and reported that no member had died. It is said that because of this incompetence, women were declared unfit for fighting. This story stresses two areas of ineffectiveness during the conduct of the war: failure in counting the exact number of troop members, and in making the wrong choice of perfumes over the important asset, livestock. After this time, according to the story, women stopped going to war, but they continued helping their husbands with the necessary preparations for war. The Gaada system continues the legacy of such stories, reserving the positions for men.
Excerpt from the conclusion:
In Ethiopia, customary laws and practices as a system of governance and an institution of ritual performance, play a great role in regulating the social, political and religious lives of the people in Ethiopia. Despite their drawbacks in marginalizing women in some aspects, these systems developed a unique and innovative mechanism for protection of the rights and interests of women. For instance, as has been demonstrated in the case studies, the customary laws and practices, including the Wayyuu, Siinqee and Gora, have revealed a greater degree of protection of women’s rights.
Therefore, these institutions and practices provide an alternative to the human rights narrative. If the role of governments and other organs, including activists, in fighting for women’s rights is based on stereotypical assumptions of the ‘oppressed African woman’ it can have significant negative consequences for women’s lives. To uncritically apply notions of human rights, without taking into account the local context, ultimately risks destroying the mechanisms, values and institutions, such as Siingee and Gora, that have traditionally given women respect, and protected them from violence and abuse. Efforts to strengthen human rights should therefore be made with great cultural sensitivity, and with the aim of both revealing and incorporating positive traditional notions of human rights into the discourse.
*Photos via Peri M. Klemm: http://www.rafgonzalez.com/oromia/#photogallery