Oromo women protest male violence under banner of goddess Atete

I found this article while searching for information about the Oromo goddess Atete on a scholarly database. Here the southern Ethiopian goddess hardly appears in her own right, most of the Oromo having (incompletely) converted to Islam or Christianity. Yet she has survived in women’s domain, especially in a ceremonial period around birth, known as Qanafa, which remains sacrosanct. The women fiercely defend this time sacred to Atete and, although they are abused at other times, militantly confront men who commit abuse during the Qanafa seclusion. Much of the information available about Atete revolves around these ritualized female protests rather than the actual rites of the goddess.

Jeylan W. Hussein. “A Cultural Representation of Women in the Oromo Society.” African Study Monographs 25 (3), October 2004, pp 103-147 Online:

Oromo scholar Jeylan Hussein outlines the decline in women’s status in recent history, losses that have accelerated since conversions to Christianity (pushed by the dominant Amhara group) and Islam (embraced by many as a means of resisting these traditional enemies of the Oromo). He cites testimony of elders and historical records that indicate that women’s status was better in earlier times and that gender inequality hardened in the colonial era. [108-9]

It’s not that the old laws weren’t patriarchal. Oromo society was already patrilineal, with a harsh sexual double standard that stigmatized females and practiced boy-preference. Men who could afford it married several women, and senior wives ranked far above additional wives and concubines. Hussein analyzes numerous proverbs, showing how they describe women as inferior beings, as weak, fickle, irrational. They overwhelmingly depict women as men’s chattel. Several proverbs advocate beating wives, and compare them to donkeys and horses who could be tamed and beaten at will. As Hussein summarizes, Oromo sayings prescribe male mastery and female subordination. [121-28]

Men “actively excluded” women from the Gada generational system. However, when men held their assemblies, women used their work songs to make their position known with “pointed commentary… or a direct criticism of some unjust or unwise decision the men are contemplating.” [Legesse, 1973: 20-21, in Hussein,109]

Oral tradition also says that Oromo women received certain regalia and powers from the Gada system. An official called the Abba Gada brought to his wife two insignia of female honor and authority, a sinqe (ritual stick) and a qanafa (sacred piece of wood). She used the sinqe in anointments and other important ceremonies. The qanafa was to be tied around her forehead while giving birth, and for several months afterward. This wearing of the qanafa represented the high dignity of mothers, and served as the focal point of female protest and resistence.

Among the Shoa Oromo, most people are nominally Orthodox Christians, but the old religion is still in the mix: “One example of this is the periodic observance of muuda (anointment) by both men and women, and Atete (female divinity) by women.” [105] In Oromo religion, Hussein contrasts “the patriarchal view of Waaq, and the matriarchal view of women’s divinities such as Atete and Marame.” [110] Women’s Atete rituals belong to a cultural belief that women are intermediaries between the spiritual and physical, and “that Waaq listens to women’s desire and instantly responds to it.” [111]

Hussein disputes early British accounts of Atete as a fertility goddess with annual ceremonies. He says that there is no fixed date for her festival: “Whenever natural disasters fall, women gather and perform the ritual.” So when crops failed, the rains stopped, epidemics spread, or in times of war, it was the women who prayed to relieve the hardships. The men formally asked them to “gather around a sacred Qiltu (sycamore tree), distinguished ford or high ground, or any renowned ujubaa (tree shrine). The women gathered and prayed to revert the affliction.” [111]

Hussein offers one example of “rainmaking Atete hymns of the Arsi Oromo women” intended to win favor from Waaq. Once again, Atete is not named, only “the Lord,” indicating that revisions have erased the goddess from “Atete hymns.” Tradition held that after women’s prayer, Waaq “would immediately provide the community members with a much rain as they wanted.” He notes this as a female “leadership role” that also “indicates the subtle interconnection between ayyaan (spirituality), uumaa (nature) and saffuu (ethical and moral code). [111-112]

Women use the Atete ceremony, among other things, for rituals of conception. An Arsi couple would ask the saddeetoo senior mothers sodality to set up an Atete ritual for them. The village women would gather and celebrate a sing with call and response prayers.  Among the Borana, a childless woman would come  to a mother of dabballe (young men of rank) for blessing. Her forehead and belly were rubbed with butter and libations of milk and honey wine poured. [112; 137, note 11]

By all accounts, however, Oromo women have lost ground. The most traditional groups retained a base for female solidarity that reached across divisions of kin and marriage ties. The Arsi Oromo called this female organization saddeetoo or saddeettan hanfalaa. This group of married and older women “provides the women with the impetus to participate in village councils and the cultural vehicle to mobilize en masse against mistreatment by men.” [103-07]

It was these female groups that invoked Atete “to counter male atrocities and to enforce religious sanctions against related misbehaviors.” Women’s primary impetus to action was a violation of the qanafa post-birth sanctity during which family members are supposed “to please the mother and avoid annoying her.” The husband has to respect taboos surrounding birth, which include not abusing his wife. If he beats or verbally abuses her “while she is observing this ritual, the wife throws off any responsibility at hand and heads straight to communicate the matter to the saddeettan hanfalaa (council of senior mothers).” Even when the woman tries to kept such abuse secret, other women tell the female elders’ council. “Then, the senior mothers mobilize en masse against the atrocity committed by the husband. As a result of this, all of the women in the village abandon their individual houses, and protest against the offense.”

“The village women consider the offense committed against a single woman as violation committed against them as a group. Hence, no woman in the village is excused from the protest unless and otherwise she has an absolute inconvenience she has no control over.” They will not tolerate any woman who breaks this female solidarity. … After abandoning their houses, the women gather in the compound of the misbehaving husband and sing songs of resentment.” They may also decide to lay a curse on him. [113]

“Once they are in Atete ceremony, the women are observing a ritual and many taboos come into full force.” [113] No one can speak to them or cross their path as they go in procession. Bystanders have to stop and wait respectfully until they have passed, or risk a most serious curse resulting in incurable illness, ruin, or madness. To avoid these magical disasters, the male elders approach the senior women to find out what the problem is. If the male elders do not intervene immediately, the women leave and take refuge with another clan. Custom requires that they be received with honor, and their heads anointed with butter. The elders of that clan would then get in touch with male elders of the boycotted clan. These elders would have to ritually make amends and agree to deal with the abusive husband.

The ritual of reconciliation begins with the male elders taking a sheaf of green grass to the women (a sign  of reverence) and reciting a formal apology for invading their space. The male elders say all together, Dhiltee dhinna (save us from your eyes). The women elders accept the grass, responding, Hoffola Hobbaya (Be saved!) or Ijarraa hafaa! (Survive our eyes!). [In the footnotes, Hussein explains that “Save us from your eyes” is a standard disclaimer when facing a big gathering, that looking at the group, in this case at the women, is not to be considered shameless or bold.] After this opening, the men ask the women why they are protesting. One of the female elders recounts the crimes committed against the female community, against motherhood (protected by Atete, thus this protest is named for the goddess). “If need be, she reminds the male elders the lallaba of the good old days, when they were granted honour.” [114]

The outcome is that the wrongdoer makes amends by “compensating the group and appeasing their divinity.” He usually does this by sacrificing a cow or calf for the women to feast on. “If the offender does not confess his mistake in person or in absentia, the women impose a more serious curse called abaarsa sinqee (the curse of sinqe). This is the stage when all of the women rest their sinqe (ritual sticks) on the ground and pray to Waaq for the offender to be ruined.” So the Atete society has two sanctions: this one against a single person, and the bidhaa against the council of male elders. [114]

Hussein writes that the Atete ceremony has two functions: one is regulating women’s morality (but she says nothing about this). The other is to enable women to challenge male domination as a group. She observes that this ceremony is seriously endangered, like so much other Oromo culture. He discusses the pressures from Islam, particularly the “fanatical” Wahabi sect active in her country: “In the region, the preachers of this movement indignify those who cling to indigenous creeds by calling them Awaama or Jahila (ignorant). They condemn the traditional religious practices in its entirety as shirk (heretical)…” Hussein observes that Muslim Oromo women are abandoning the Atete rituals, and thus losing a significant mechanism of solidarity and resistance. [115]

“The gradual expansion of the two universalistic religions, Islam and Christianity, has directly or indirectly contributed towards the decline of the value of the Oromo women’s Atete ritual over the last century. With the recent resurgence of the competitive religions, their religious influence on the communal practices of the people has gained maximum momentum.”

© 2010 Max Dashu

The women’s ritual stick is especially interesting, since this appears in the Saharan murals as well as in modern South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and other parts of Africa, as well as on other continents.

I originally posted this commentry on the Suppressed Histories Facebook page after a reader who challenged my suggestion that a woman’s bruised eye could have anything to do with male batterer pattern. It gives ample evidence of endemic and sanctioned wife-beatings in that cultural context, but the feminist Oromo scholar’s article is interesting for another reason. He shows how Goddess veneration provided a basis for female solidarity and resistance, even though it had shrunk to apply only to periods of pregnancy and birth, and even as the goddess Atete herself was being done away with by christianization and islamicization.