Women in Ethiopian Society

Women in the Beta Israel in Ethiopian society are mainly domestic and have strict purity laws.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

Men's Occupations; Women's Occupations

According to The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches.

By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha. The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The "Falasha pottery" which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka.

Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans.

The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs.

Daily Life of Beta Women

Beta Israel WomanWomen were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils.

Women spent time weaving these bright-colored baskets, in which they stored foodstuffs, or on which they served food, if the basket was flat-topped. The preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip.

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Shalva Weil

Shalva Weil is senior researcher at the NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in Indian Jews and other ethnic groups. She is the editor of Ethiopian Jews in the Limelight (1997) and two bibliographies on Ethiopian Jewry (2001; 2004). In 2004, she was appointed president of SOSTEJE (Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry).