Women in Ethiopian Society

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

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Women looked after the children at an early age. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys would stay with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation.

Masculinity And Femininity

Among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, masculinity was an ultimate value. The Amharic language is full of expressions praising men and degrading women. Shillele war songs, also sung at weddings and other ceremonious occasions, are designed to arouse male bravery before battle. A well-known Amharic proverb says:" It is good to beat donkeys and women." Men's sexual organs are, by definition, the source of their masculinity. Female genital surgery, or female circumcision (otherwise known as genital mutilation), was normative among Beta Israel women.

In Beta Israel society, men had to gain sexual prowess. They were allowed to experiment during the stage of adolescence (goramsa), whereas females had to be virgins at marriage, which usually took place close after first menstruation. While males were expected to be sexually experienced, Beta Israel females could be excommunicated if they were not virgins at marriage.

Although marriage is officially monogamous, in practice Beta Israel men sometimes entered polygamous unions with a second wife, or relations with a common-law wife, a concubine, a slave (barya), or simply a divorced woman (galamotta) who was searching for "protection" in Ethiopian terms. A rich man could have several women, usually residing in different villages, so that there was little knowledge of the other women or contact between them. There are many cases of an older man marrying a younger bride, sometimes even a teenager or a virgin, thus proving his status and wealth to the society at large.

Whereas masculinity was symbolized by the staff which every Beta Israel male carries in Ethiopia, femininity was symbolized by blood.

The Purity Of Women

For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signifies womanhood, and the pulse of life as it revolves around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations.

In the Bible it states: "When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation?.The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification." (Leviticus 12:1,2-6).

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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).