Gender Misrepresentation and the Responsibility of Literature: A Dialogue with Meaza Hadera
Meaza Aklilu Hadera is an Ethiopian author whose book, A Feminist Analysis of “A Good Man in Africa” and “The Bride Price”: A Comparative Assessment, has been translated into nine international languages, with the tenth on the way. She currently works as the Journal Manager at Ethiopian Medical Journal.
Most of her work is focused on gender, and gender-based violence, as she uses her profession to teach and empower women. Her short works and stories have been previously published in Writers Space Africa Magazine, and The Big Yellow Post. Previously, she has worked as a newsroom journalist in Ethiopia for four years. She is also a filmmaker and has produced a short film called Gender’s Gift, which is available on YouTube.
In August 2019, she represented Ethiopia in the Creative Enterprise Program in Kampala, Uganda. This was organized by British Council. Through this workshop, she founded the African Creative Minds, an NGO open for everyone who wants to teach, promote, and empower African women using creative art. The organization currently has 25 members from six African countries. She serves here as the Chief Executive Officer.
Meaza is a wife and a mother of one beautiful daughter. Her family is her strength.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation takes place between the African Union city, Addis Ababa, still celebrating its New Year season, and Nairobi, a city that is celebrating the reopening of bars after lockdown restrictions were lifted; via email and WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you for joining me, Meaza! I’m so glad to be finally having this conversation with you.
First of all, congratulations! Your book, A Feminist Analysis of ‘A Good Man in Africa’ and ‘The Bride Price’: A Comparative Assessment, has now been translated into nine international languages! When you were writing it, did you imagine that it would have such a far-reaching readership?
Meaza: Thank you!
When I wrote it, it was just for my Bachelor’s Degree thesis. And I only wrote it for two reasons; one, to earn my degree and two, to express my disappointment in the literary world. But when I started writing it, things became hard. I needed gender review articles on African literature, but couldn’t find any material to support my argument. Nothing! And that made me angrier. With much struggle, I finished and submitted it.
My advisor and lecturers were pleased with it, and put it in the university library. And eight years later, it got the attention of an international publisher in Germany, Lambert. It is now available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese and Russian. I am also planning to translate it into Amharic. Thankfully, I have received good feedback from students (in Ethiopia and abroad) thanking me for the book. They used to have problems finding literary material related to gender and literature, and are very grateful for the book.
Edith: Nobel of the heart! I remember Ngugi wa Thiong’o saying that for him, things like prizes, awards and public recognition like the Nobel prize were not as important as the ‘Nobel of the heart’, which is when people tell you how much they appreciate your book, or how much it has impacted them. So, you already have that Nobel. Well done! And it’s amazing how much power the written word has. Sometimes we may think we are just writing for us, or for the present moment, but then our work magnifies and finds a whole new lifeline, goes further than we can ever reach. Congratulations on this great achievement once again.
As a reader and writer of African literature, I understand the difficulty you talk about in getting material that reflects nuanced female characters. There is still a lot of gender bias in literature, and it’s up to us writers to change that. I remember when the book Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Ibrahim came out; the book, among other things, talks about how a Muslim woman in the conservative northern Nigeria finds sexual liberation from an illicit affair with a gang leader 30 years her junior. And readers were shocked that this female main character has such a ‘scandalous’ role, and was finding emancipation from her life choices. It’s almost like readers have been conditioned to see women in books within a specific docile lens, so that it causes uproar to read about women who are challenging the status quo, whether sexually, professionally or academically.
Meaza: Yes. In books, women are commonly misrepresented and restricted to specific roles, such as being sources of children (fertility machines) or caregivers, whose job is to take care of her husband, children and parents. They are also considered not to be worthy of education, or their education credentials are dismissed. Additionally, they are portrayed as sex objects, and we also have writings that makes jokes about gender-based violence.
Edith: I have seen so many of these themes in books. It’s like when you pick a book, you unconsciously expect to find a suffering woman, or a woman in trouble who will be saved by a man. And this is not to dismiss the challenges that women still face and have faced in the community, but women have made so many strides in science, politics, arts, education, and other sectors. But we still hold this notion that afflicted, gloomy, inconsequential women are the core of African story. And this is sometimes rightly blamed on culture.
Here on the continent, we still have cultures that oppress women. And yet looking at your work, some of the essays you have written, like My Christmas vs Gena, Tihlo, and Ashenda—where you describe the Ethiopian cultural festival that you participated in with your daughter—are beautifully descriptive, and they promote Ethiopian cultural celebrations and foods. This is the positive side of culture. How is it that culture, which is at most times used as a tool to oppress women, can also be used to empower them?
“In books, women are commonly misrepresented and restricted to specific roles, such as being sources of children (fertility machines) or caregivers, whose job is to take care of her husband, children and parents.”
Meaza: I participate in the Ashenda for two reasons. One, due to religious reasons, and two, because it’s an inherent part of my culture. Even though my community has not always been a gender equal people, this celebration allows girls and young women the chance to express their true selves. During the festival, women are allowed to have fun, unlike other times. They also use lyric and melody to express what they are feeling with no one stopping them, at least for a minimum of three days. So, while fighting for gender equality, I still celebrate this beautiful culture with my girls. And we (who are working for gender advocacy) are using this culture to advocate.
I believe that culture can be changed. Under-age marriages and female genital mutilation were all once cultures, but those were changed, and are still being changed. We can change and stop these harmful cultural practices if we teach society about them. That means there is nothing we can’t change as long as we use the right tools, the right language, and the right method while teaching.
One of the projects we have at African Creative Minds is called Diaries of Ethiopian Girls. This project will tell about the consequences of the major forms of violence against elementary and high school female students. This project will show what girls in Ethiopia are experiencing in their daily life. In this way, we teach the community by showing them the experiences of their own children. As long as we educate the society without causing aggression, or appearing like we are fighting them, then we can create the culture of empowering women.
Edith: Your description of the Ashenda is beautiful; to have the women together for three days just having fun, singing and socializing, now that’s something. When I read your descriptions in the essay, how the girls clean out their jewelry, wear new clothes, braid their hairs and apply make-up, then go out and celebrate for days nonstop, I thought, ‘that’s something I would love to take part in’. Such a beautiful culture. I don’t think we have anything specifically for women in my culture.
I also like the idea behind Diaries of Ethiopian girls. Nothing hits closer home than seeing your own children’s experiences. Tell me more about African Creative Minds. You founded it, right?
Meaza: Yes. African Creative Minds is an organization for African Creatives. Anyone with a creative talent can join us. We intend to change the narrative that African writing is used to telling. We can’t do much on what has been written or said but we don’t want any writer to misrepresent women on our watch. From now on, we will see every literary work as critical. It is time for writers to take responsibility for how they misrepresent women in their works.
Edith: I have never thought of it like that. Most of the time, we talk about the freedom of writers and how our minds are at liberty to create diverse things, but at the end of the day we should be responsible for our works. And I agree, as writers we have to accurately, responsibly and truthfully portray the different shades of women and not just continue propagating stereotypes. But things are changing, right? I now see books and stories where women are heroes, take center stage and are dignified in stories. Would you say that the current writers are doing better in terms of representation?
Meaza: I am afraid not. So, we also have a program at African Creative Minds called ‘About Her.’ Using our YouTube channel, I host various guests and we talk about different literary works, books, films, lyrics and so on. What we can see from our few episodes that even with current writers, not much is changing. And that goes even for female artists too. We have so many of them now, but we still see them making the same mistakes. Not everyone is focused on changing the narrative. The good part is, we now have more brave people, like myself, coming out to fight, question and demand better for women. We watch every move.
I have been involved in gender-related work for almost ten years now, and what I have learnt is no one wants to be deliberate about making changes. As I said in my book, the way we grow up defines the way we think. If we grow up where women are viewed as sex objects, that’s how we will portray all women, if we grow up where women are treated as equal to men, we will want to ensure that the equality is replicated everywhere else. Now, we have so many outstanding women almost everywhere, and we need to acknowledge them. But sadly, this generation still looks at women with the lens of fifty or sixty years ago. So, if we writers can change the attitude of society, then society will force the government to wake up and make changes in laws that promote women’s rights.
Edith: I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a young girl, most professional women I knew were either teachers, nurses or news broadcasters. A lot has changed now; mention any field and you will see a woman there. And they are not out of reach, they are in our communities where we can see and interact with them.
However, as you said, we are hugely influenced by how we grew up, and that is evident in our writing. Which reminds me of the works of author Junot Diaz. He has often come under criticism for creating misogynistic characters, and objectifying women in his books. And there was agreement that for most part, that is how Latina women were being treated in their culture. I am just now thinking of everything I have written before, and trying to see if I have deliberately misrepresented women in my works.
Meaza: Yes, we use literature to reflect the world we live in, but that doesn’t change the narrative. A better way to use literature is to use it as a tool that changes the attitudes of society. We already see that literature has been used to create awareness and identity on our histories, and also to influence society on a sense of belonging. It is now time for us (women) to hold the pen and write our stories.
Edith: But what about women who can’t read or write? Won’t they be left behind?
Meaza: First, if you can change the attitude of those who can read, we are helping those who can’t read in one way or another. That said, at African Creative Minds, we have created the reading project for those who can’t read.
Edith: Perfect. And when we hold the pen to write our stories, we need to do it together. Create anthologies. We need to have more projects like The New Daughters of Africa, an anthology curated by Margaret Busby, which brings together the works of 200 women writers of African Descent. And we also need to collaborate more, so that it doesn’t feel like a monolithic task. And not only writers, partnerships with publishers are important in this equation.
Here in Kenya, most traditional publishers focus on academic text books and not creative writing, and that leaves creative writers to either self-publish or be published outside the country. And obviously because of that, the circulation of local creative books tends to be very limited and expensive. How are collaborations and partnerships in the Ethiopian literary scene?
Meaza: Yes, I do believe in collaborations. And I have noticed groups created here and there in Ethiopia, but they are not that strong yet. I believe we need to work hard on uplifting each other. Support new writers. The stronger we are, the bigger the change we can make for the literary world.
It is not that different here too. Publishers only consider you if you already have a big name. To them, what matters is not what you write, but how much your budget is. Though there are a few publishers who help emerging writers. And one of our ten-year plans at African Creative Minds is to own a publishing house, and open the door to potential writers.
Edith: I can relate to what you are saying; we have hundreds of writers in Kenya, and yet when we have local literary events, it’s always the same four or five traditionally published big names that are recycled over and over in the programs. But like Ethiopia, we now also have small presses that promote emerging authors.
I love your ten-year plan for a publishing house. Even more so because it’s not just writers you are concerned with; you also engage and work with illustrators for the comic books, plus you are involved in films too. Speaking of which, you are a filmmaker, right?
Meaza: The comic books series are under one of our projects called African Super Women, which aims to change the narrative around African women and how they are viewed across the world. My target readers were the youth, so the unique selling point was to have something that is fun but also informative and that would influence them. So, what is more interesting than comic books?
On the topic of filmmaking, I was/am a film script writer. Four years ago, the American Embassy here in Addis organized a workshop for twelve Ethiopian women. The embassy was celebrating “16 days of activism against gender-based violence”. And they invited Prof. Lucy G (Professor of Cinema). She trained us on filmmaking and cinematic script writing. At the end of the training, the embassy asked us to prepare a script based on gender-based violence. Out of these, they finally choose three scripts. Mine was one of the three selected. With funds from the Embassy, I produce my script into film. My short movie was showcased in Ethiopia, USA and Italy. You can find it on YouTube. It’s called Gender’s Gift.
Edith: Go girl! Meaza, you are a superwoman! I watched the film and wow, it’s only about 6 minutes, but a rollercoaster of emotions! I was holding my heart in my hands throughout. Talk of an adrenaline rush! The most shocking part is when the police officer tells Mr. Anberbr that it’s illegal to marry a girl under 18 years old, and he cockily replies that ‘at 18, she will be too hard to handle!’ Too hard to handle? As if women are objects that need handling! And the cherry on top is that it is acted out in Amharic with English subtitles, so that the reach is wider. Honestly, I would love to see more of your productions.
Throughout this conversation, your passion for women and girls is evident. And I admire how you take advantage of different art forms to champion for women’s rights. When did this start? This need to actively and deliberately fight for women’s rights?
Meaza: Thank you!
Growing up, my family had big hopes for me. When I was a child, there was a specific place on our wall that was reserved for my graduation photo. They were so sure that I was going to be the first woman to graduate from our family. And I was desperate to fulfill this dream. And I did it. I graduated in honor. The support and belief that I got from my family is what I intended to give for all African women. I grew up seeing my friends having hard times in being who they wanted to be, and in doing what they wanted to do. They were always surprised by the freedom and support I got and still get from my family.
By the way, I have a very big family. I grew up with my great-grandmother and my grandparents. And with my mother, we talk about everything. I also have one younger sister.
Edith: Aw! This is so sweet. I can’t imagine the celebration that you must have had on your graduation day! And when your graduation picture finally went up on that reserved spot, there must have been a lot of joyful tears, and now I want to cry too…
I hail your family! I am so glad you were born into that family. And this influence and closeness that you have with them is clearly seen in your stories and essays. You always write about family and culture.
Meaza: Thank you. My graduation was fun! My university was in a city called Bahir Dar, very far away from home. Through my three-year stay there, I met many amazing people, and two of the families I met there threw two different parties for me. It was great! The third party was organized by my family when I got back home. Lucky me, right?
My family is all the inspiration I need. Even when they don’t approve the methods by which I do things, they don’t push me to stop. They look from far away, so that they can help me when I need them. My family lives all over the world, but we are one call away every time somebody needs help. And when I say my family, it is not just me and my mom and sister. It’s everyone from my mother’s side, uncles and aunts too. I am so proud of them.
And I am also thankful for the family I have right now (my husband, daughter and in-laws). No matter where I am, or no matter how I behave, I know my family’s got my back.
Edith: Family support is priceless. Especially for us in the arts. Sometimes our families don’t understand why we do what we do. So, they will dismiss the literary pursuit and urge one to follow other ‘serious’ careers. I have friends who get comments like ‘how will this writing help you?’ or when they introduce themselves as artists are asked ‘so what is your real job?’ To have a family that supports you is really important. Especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. Things have been hard financially for almost everyone, not leaving out artists and performers.
I remember when our president allocated 100 million Kenyan shillings for artists in his COVID-19 economy stimulus budget, to cushion them during the pandemic as their economic activities had been disrupted. Let me tell you, the majority of the citizens really complained. Social media was awash with comments on how the money should have been used for ‘better’ things and not be ‘wasted’ on artists.
This largely reflected society’s perception of the arts. And the African literary scene is still mostly funded and sponsored by money from white hands. Even in this conversation, you mentioned that your filmmaking was supported by the American Embassy, and the Creative Enterprise Program you attended in Uganda by the British Council. Why is it that our own local initiatives and even governments hardly see importance in the arts?
Meaza: I know, right. Here on the continent, we consider art as a tool just for entertainment. Funding them is considered a luxury. We need to work hard to show and teach our society that literature is life. Literature changes life.
Even for us right now, I don’t even know where to start. It is very hard. We had to cancel our programs due to COVID-19, and postponed almost all our projects. It is very hard to find funds at this time. Most artists are also facing financial difficulties, and are currently not able to volunteer with us. We are just surviving at this time.
Edith: This is heartbreaking! And more reason why we need to come together and form artistic communities that will help us support each other’s welfare. It was said that artists are people who work alone, but that should change, and it is changing. Now we need to collaborate and be in unity.
Meaza: Yes, unity is what we all need if we want to be heard.
Edith: We are coming to a close, Meaza, but I need to ask you this. You hold many professional titles; creative director, author, editor, filmmaker, and I am sure I may have left out a few. But you also used to work in the newsroom as a broadcast journalist. Do you think you are making more impact now than in the newsroom? I ask this because I’m thinking that back then, you had the nation’s attention with the stories you featured regarding inequality and you were able to quickly influence change.
Meaza: When I was a newsroom reporter, I was so busy. I didn’t even have time for my daughter, and family, or even time to nurture my dream. What hit me hard was, my superior telling me that I can’t be feminist if I am a journalist. That’s when I left the media house. I decided that I had to pursue my dreams. Sometimes I miss it. It helps to meet a lot of important people in Ethiopia.
One thing I have understood through my journey is how a family support system is important. My husband is equally responsible for our daughter and our house. That gives me the time and the freedom to pursue my dream. And I am thankful for my mother and my in-laws as they are always there when I need help with my daughter.
Edith: Why are people so against feminism? Is it because they don’t understand it? Most people think feminism is about hating men.
I’m happy that you left the media house. The pursuit of your dreams gave you the opportunity to attend the Creative Enterprise Program in Kampala and create your own advocacy platform.
Meaza: Oh my God! People don’t understand feminism for two reasons; lack of knowledge, and fear of losing masculinity. Feminism is about advocacy for women’s rights.
Yes, I got the chance to represent my country in the Creative Enterprise Program in Uganda, organized by the British Council. In this workshop, we were all asked to pitch our projects. When they heard about mine, everybody was clapping and asking if and how they could help. That was when I realized that most people want to help, but they just don’t know why they should or how they can. This workshop birthed the African Creative Minds, an NGO that is open for everyone who wants to teach, promote and empower African women using creative art. Today we have over 25 members from six African countries.
Edith: I admire you, Meaza! I’m clapping for you right now. This is such a motivation, and it can only grow bigger and better!
Final question, what are you currently working on right now? Any area of focus?
Meaza: I am the journal manager of the Ethiopian Medical Journal. That is how I support myself financially, so it helps me. At African Creative Minds, we are currently working on the two projects that we have previously talked about. And we are also looking for potential partners and donors. We are also working on our YouTube channel telling the stories of women in different professions.
Additionally, we are currently engaging ourselves with a new project called “At Her House”. Due to COVID-19, children and women are staying at home. And the prevalence of violence is getting higher. But because of lack of information on what GBV is or not, knowledge about where to go to report this abuse is lacking. I designed this project where we prepare flyers with information on GBV, and includes addresses and locations of law enforcement and hospitals. We are trying to support this project with funds raised from people we know.
Edith: You are doing such a great job, Meaza. And I wish you more strength, courage and partnerships and you continue with these artistic initiatives that uplift women. And from today, I will be careful not to misrepresent women—whether consciously or unconsciously—and I will charge all my artist friends to do the same.
It’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. I am looking forward to more conversations in the future.
Meaza: Thank you too. I have never talked about myself as much as I did in this conversation. 🙂
Edith Knight Magak is a writer and editor living in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Critical Read, Urban Ivy, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jalada, Six Hens, among other places. Edith writes about writing, depression, trauma, family, history and sometimes murder. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.
When she isn’t writing or working, she fills her time taking long walks, scribbling poetry, or reading short stories. Edith is a member of the African Writers Development Trust.
Edith believes that the future of African literature is creative nonfiction.