The state of the roads in Ethiopia’s Oromia region (a western region bordering South Sudan) are not for the faint of heart – nor week of spine. Worse yet was the speed with which our driver dodged crater-sized potholes and slip-slided through meters of slick red mud. This drive might have been a teeth-clenching test of endurance had it not been for the verdant green pastoral landscape that stretched out from the road on all sides. Having traveled in numerous countries in western and eastern Africa, I was more accustomed to views of dense, tropical jungles or semi-arid savannah, not to a landscape that more closely resembled Ireland with its greener-than-green fields dotted by grazing animals. The only striking difference being the dirt road that blazed like a red ribbon lain haphazardly over green velvet.
As our ancient Range Rover moved with alacrity through this landscape, my mind drifted back to the conversation I had had with my colleague on the airplane from Addis Ababa to Assosa. She had asked, innocently enough, about my other work at MEDA and I launched into a discussion about my projects and MEDA’s approach to women’s economic empowerment. This somehow took a turn to discussing the state of women in Pakistan (site of a MEDA value chain project focusing on women’s entrepreneurship), and as I discussed honor killings, acid attacks, and the Islamic custom of purdah (limiting women’s mobile outside the home), my colleague’s face became one of astonishment. I was surprised, however, that my colleague used this information as further evidence against Islam and not as a discussion point for women’s equality more broadly. Ethiopia, she informed me, did have this “problem.” While it may be true that Ethiopia doesn’t have the same kind of violence towards women witnessed in some parts of Pakistan, Ethiopia is not a shining example for the equitable treatment of women, despite being predominantly Christian (Muslims make up approximately 33%). While Christianity may not have as overt cultural practices segregating women, are not the subtle messages of submission and subservience on the part of women found throughout Christian teachings indicative of a pervasive, and deeply-rooted prejudice toward women?