Accounting for Sexism

If you walk around with your ‘gender lens’ fully switched on as I do, Addis Ababa ensures that there is no shortage of incidents to give you pause, give you food-for-thought or depending on your temperament, to make you angry. A couple of weeks ago, an incident over a problematic car tire provided me with a classic look into just how deeply entrenched sexism lies in our society.

The left rear tire on my small car kept going flat, and after driving around with a comically small spare tire, I decided to consult a professional. I pulled up to the curb of the first gomista I saw, and needless to say, a man in overalls welcomed me.  He examined carefully my bust-up tire, diagnosed five separate holes and informed me what I had gathered by then, that I needed to purchase a new tire. As I thanked him and he was putting the useless tire back in my trunk, I asked, by way of conversation, what brand of tire he would recommend. It was then that he said something that made my head swirl around in astonishment; he suggested that he should memekaker with my husband on how to proceed with the complicated task of purchasing a tire.  When, with gritted teeth, I asked why that would be necessary, he helpfully informed me that ‘’women do not usually understand such things.’’

I didn’t even know where to start dissecting this problematic if well-meant suggestion. Firstly, to assume that I am married – unless he had seen the ring on my finger which I doubt he had time to, assumes that all women are married, and robs us of the choice to not marry. Secondly, to suggest that a grown, obviously professional woman cannot be trusted to remember one brand of a tire from another borders on an insult. Honestly? Ethiopian women are running companies, flying planes, farming, managing families on meager incomes, conducting surgeries but need men to buy and change their tires?

Needless to say, I left my tire professional with an earful lecture and no tip. I told him that his view was outmoded and had insulted me. I explained that his prejudice towards me based on my gender is as baseless and comparable to someone else assuming that he was incapable of a certain task based on prejudice around his religious or ethnic affiliation. He had apologized about five times by the time I left but the incident stayed on my mind for a few days after.

As somebody who has made a career out of her passion for equality between Ethiopian women and men, it is my job to think through such incidents. And as it is almost too easy to blame such expressions of sexism on men only, I want to address my comments here to the women-dominated readership of AWIB. I want us to start a meaningful conversation on not only how we deal with sexism when we encounter it, which we do often, but also what we do or do not do to make men believe that we don’t understand or cannot do so many things.

Thinking about what I now think of as ‘the tire incident’, before delivering my lecture, I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask the hapless gomista why he thought women do not understand such things. I bet he would have said that many women customers have told him so, or proved it implicitly by asking him to tell their husbands where they should buy tires.

I think of the number of times I have tried to direct driving couples to my house, and after the second line of instructions, the wives ask that I explain the directions to their husbands who are also doing the driving. I think of the many times some male passerby I don’t even know to have a driving license has offered to park my car for me, and the guarded ‘’gobez nesh’’ I have been awarded when I managed to get into a tight parking space all by my female self. I know in those moments that I was fighting to prove  myself as capable and how easy many women would have found it to give in to the ‘Damsel in Distress’ syndrome that wins us concessions in the short-term but takes us Ethiopian women backwards in the long run.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes give in to my own gender’s stereotypes that we are not good with math or electronics – I have often waited for my husband to come home to hook up some gadget or asked my brother to look into a problematic mobile phone. However, I am blessed to be surrounded by men who fully believe in women’s equality and my actions are not used to justify the sexist notion that women are incapable. In my equal sub-society, my driving the car with my husband on the passenger seat is no more notable than his efficient change of our daughter’s diapers, or my brother’s excellent cooking for his wife.

However, my world is hardly typical and the struggle to engage with and resist sexism whenever we see it persists. Therefore, when I came home and told my husband about ‘the tire incident’, he asked me if I had given the man a piece of my feminist mind. I joked at first that I had given the man my husband’s number, but then affirmed that if I had failed to challenge his sexist notions of what a woman can understand or do, I would not have been me.