From women’s rights activist to Supreme Court chief: meet Meaza Ashenafi

Ryan Lenora Brown

Two decades ago, when a young lawyer named Meaza Ashenafi began defending women who had been sexually harassed, she quickly stumbled into a problem.

Not only was sexual harassment not accepted as a crime in Ethiopia. Amharic, the country’s official language, didn’t even have a way to express it. 

“We had to improvise. We literally had to create the word,” says Ms. Ashenafi of herself and her colleagues at the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which she founded in the mid-1990s to provide defense to women who couldn’t afford it.

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Wesibawi tinkosa,” she began declaring, testing the new term’s heft. Sexual harassment.

It stuck. And since then, that has been Ms. Ashenafi’s M.O. If the Ethiopia she wanted to live in didn’t exist, she created it – or tried to. As a young lawyer, she wrote human rights protections into the country’s new constitution. As a legal activist, she fought for a slate of laws to protect Ethiopian women from men in their lives. As a civil society leader, she started a bank dedicated to getting women into the formal financial system.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of activism that made Ms. Ashenafi many friends in Ethiopia’s authoritarian one-party government, which has ruled the country since the early 1990s.

So when the country’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced last November that he was nominating Ms. Ashenafi to be the first female chief justice of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court, the reaction could best be described as a nationwide gasp.

“I screamed at the TV,” says Zeynab Abdille, a women’s rights activist in Jijiga, a city in Ethiopia’s Somali region. “This wasn’t just a woman he was appointing; it was an extremely outspoken woman. Who could expect that?”

Since Mr. Abiy came to power last April, indeed, he has scrambled many expectations. His government has freed up to 40,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International, and reopened the long-closed border with Eritrea. He unbanned opposition groups and promised them a free election in 2020.

Amid that raft of change, the appointments of Ms. Ashenafi and several other women to prominent government positions have been celebrated, seen as a kind of shorthand for the prime minister’s commitment to transform the society around him.

In many ways, the change is striking to behold. For the first time in Ethiopian history, half the national government ministries here are headed by women. There is a female president (a largely ceremonial post here) and a female head of the electoral commission, who also happens to be a prominent opposition figure who spent nearly a decade in exile. And then there is Ms. Ashenafi, a perpetual rabble-rouser who says she warned the prime minister’s office, “You might not be happy with the decisions that I make in this position.”

“I told them, if they want business as usual, I’m not the right person for this job,” she adds. 

But now, many wonder if all these appointments actually represent the start of a bigger transformation for Ethiopia’s women. Or is it a case, as many activists here worry, of a new government using female leadership to show the world how progressive and enlightened they are, while avoiding bigger problems that make their society so unequal to begin with? 

“These women can create space for other women. And even their presence itself ... it expands your imagination of what’s possible,” says Kamlaknesh Yasin, communications manager for Setaweet, a feminist organization based in Addis Ababa. But at the same time, she worries from the outside looking in, it will seem the battle is won. “People can say, ‘You got your representation. What more do you want?’”

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For women like Ms. Yasin and Ms. Ashenafi, that question isn’t rhetorical.

They want a lot more. They want to live in a society where half of women aren’t victims of domestic violence. They want a country where there aren’t 100 boys for every 77 girls in secondary school. A place where men don’t vastly out-earn women.

“The problem in our society is that we still don’t see women’s rights as urgent human rights,” says Hilina Berhanu Degefa, a feminist activist and co-founder of a university campus movement for women’s rights called the Yellow Movement. “We see them as a luxury item that we can get around to when there is time.”

In part, the feeling that women’s rights aren’t an urgent fight anymore is because of Meaza – as Ms. Ashenafi is affectionately known to many Ethiopians.

As a legal adviser to the committee that wrote Ethiopia’s Constitution in the early 1990s, and later as a lawyer fighting for female victims of domestic and sexual violence, inheritance disputes, and custody battles, Ms. Ashenafi helped enshrine in law many protections for the country’s women.

But the knock-on effect of that is to make their challenges seem a thing of the past.

“So now the Ethiopian government has put the rights of women into the law, but it is up to us to make sure they happen on the level of our own lives,” says Ms. Abdille, in Jijiga, who heads an organization she founded called the Mother and Child Development Organization. “We are not finished. No one gave us the rights we have. What we have is what we have taken for ourselves.”

Ms. Abdille, indeed, has spent much of the past 50 years taking things that were never meant to be hers: An education. A career.

“When I was younger, people used to say to my husband, ‘This woman of yours talks too much about women’s rights. She wants to get rid of our culture. You must keep her at home,’” she says – though he didn’t listen.

So when she heard about Ms. Ashenafi’s appointment to the court, she was thrilled. 

“This is a woman who feels our problems, because she has lived them,” she says.

But Jijiga, a conservative city near the Somali border, is a long way from the Supreme Court in Addis, geographically and metaphorically. All day, Ms. Abdille’s rose-colored iPhone buzzes with messages from people who still need her help, female Supreme Court president or not – a mother fighting her daughter’s circumsizer in court, or a woman whose husband abandoned the family when their crops failed.

“Listen, Abiy has only been here one year,” she says, referring to the new prime minister. “The problems of women, they have been here thousands of years. You can’t fix that in a year.”

Even in Addis, activists say, the appointment of Ms. Ashenafi and other prominent women has so far been more symbolically valuable than practically useful to their work. Many have wished she would speak up about prominent cases of gender-based violence in the city – most prominently a young woman named Meaza Kassa, who died after a male colleague attacked her. But Ms. Ashenafi’s position prevents her from commenting openly on particular investigations, she says.

Meanwhile, she also has, quite simply, a lot to do in her day job. The court system she inherited has been hobbled by decades of underresourcing and political interference.

“Trust in our justice system is hugely eroded,” says Selome Tadesse, a close friend of Ms. Ashenafi’s, a former government spokesperson, and the first woman to head the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency. 

When the job gets difficult, Ms. Ashenafi says, she thinks of the reason she is here. It seems the culmination of a life of rebellion – another way of changing the system, this time from the inside. “Yes, a judge will always be expected to interpret the law impartially, but at the end of the day, we should have our eye on justice. If we don’t deliver that, we fail,” she says.

Before she took the job, she asked friends and her husband, a scientist at Addis Ababa University, what they thought. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, after all, that a longtime activist, a thorn in the side of authority, would want a government post. But the answers that came back were resounding.

“I told her, ‘You’re taking this job at a point of deep uncertainty for this country, and actually that’s the best time because you can shape what comes next,’” says Ms. Tadesse. “The door is cracked open now. We have to pull it open the rest of the way.”

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