The Disquieting Silence of Our Sisters

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Profiles in Courage 2009: Power to the Women of Iran!

Even President Obama could not contain his admiration for Iranian women who marched shoulder to shoulder alongside Iranian men armed with rocks to protest the recent fraud-riddled elections. After seeing Iranian women deflect militiamen batons and dodge tear gas canisters, the President observed: “We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.” Many others who observed the extraordinary courage of Iranian women in the protests openly wondered if the world was witnessing “the first female led revolution in modern history.” Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s first woman and only Nobel laureate, explained that Iranian women were so intensely engaged in the protests “because [they] are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent.” Undaunted, Iran’s theocratic regime viciously clamped down on the defiant women protesters by jailing hundreds of them.

But could the ayatollahs permanently silence Iranian women?

Flashback 2005

Watching the grainy cell phone videos of the Iranian protests online, I had a flashback of the bloody massacres following the 2005 Ethiopian elections. Troops loyal to the current dictatorship shot and killed, by official Inquiry Commission account, 193 men, women and children in the streets, and wounded 763. Over 30,000 were documented to have been imprisoned because of election-related issues. (The real figures of the dead and wounded by non-official accounts exceeded sixfold the documented numbers.) Like young Neda Agha-Soltan whose murder by an Iranian militiaman was captured on a cellphone video, ShiBre Desalegn, a young woman barely in her twenties, was executed in broad daylight by a member of the dictators’ death squad to the horror of her friends. Like Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and a judge who was imprisoned for her human rights work, Birtukan Midekssa was literally scooped off the street by armed thugs to serve out a life sentence.

But did the dictators succeed in silencing Ethiopian women by locking up Birtukan in solitary confinement?

The Silence of Our Sister Birtukan

Birtukan Mideksa has been caged in solitary confinement at Kality prison for over six months now. The dictators have imprisoned her body, but not her voice. She is officially prohibited from having any human contact, except her aging mother and four year old daughter. It is part of the dictators’ crude method of torture by extreme isolation and oppressive silence. Though Birtukan’s captors think (and wish) that they have forever silenced her, they have not. Birtukan speaks louder today than she has ever spoken. Her illegal imprisonment speaks thunderously of the absence of the rule of law in Ethiopia and the arbitrary rule of a hardened human rights outlaw. Her solitary confinement speaks loudly of the forgotten hundreds of thousands of innocent people rotting in the dictators’ prisons and secret jails. Her courage to stand up to the most cunning, calculating, vicious and ruthless dictators in modern times speaks volumes of one woman’s steely determination to bring democracy to a land sweltering under corruption and abuse of power. Her rise from a modest background to national leadership speaks of the dawn of a new day in Ethiopia where women can stand up against dictatorship on their own in defense of democracy, freedom and human rights. Birtukan’s commitment to Ethiopian unity and the oneness of its people speaks of her unwaivering patriotism and love of all her people. Her calm temperament and thoughtful words speak of a leader who is centered and has peace of mind. Her tenacity never to stand down in a male-dominated society speaks of the infinite potential of Ethiopian women to change and lead Ethiopia into a new day. Her testimony (Q’ale) before her street abduction by official thugs transcends mere speech. It is the sublime poetry of innocence and truth.

Our sister Birtukan is not silent, even while she is caged in solitary confinement. The question is whether we have been rendered deaf-mute to her voice and message by our indifference, apathy and timidity.

The Deafening Silence of Birtukan’s Sisters

I must, with the greatest reluctance, point a finger at many our sisters who are living in the West for maintaining what appears to be a vow of silence concerning Birtukan’s imprisonment in solitary confinement. I don’t mean this as an accusation because I do not doubt for a second that the overwhelming majority of women in Ethiopia and outside sympathize deeply with Birtukan’s plight. I believe they feel and share her pain more deeply because, unlike most men, they have a keen understanding and appreciation of her sacrifices. They understand the agony and heartbreak of a single mother languishing in prison for her beliefs while leaving her four year-old daughter with an aging mother to raise. They understand how a woman who has achieved great professional distinction could be driven to sacrifice everything so that her four year old daughter could have a better future in Ethiopia. I believe Ethiopian women have a deeper understanding of the frustrations of living in a male-dominated society that affords little opportunity for leadership to women, a subject that has been critically examined by various scholars.[1]

There are also many things that I find difficult to understand: Why is it that in the last one hundred years Ethiopia has not had a female leader of national significance? What is it about the Ethiopian political culture that discourages and holds back women from active and equal participation in politics? “Why is it that educated Ethiopian women cannot break the chains of ancient subordination and exclusion?” Frankly, I am puzzled by the disquieting silence of Ethiopian women. I keep asking the same questions over and over. Whey aren’t Ethiopian women championing the virtuous cause of Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner? Why aren’t the young women mobilizing to free one of their own from the dungeons of Kality prison? Why is it that Ethiopian women seem unable to forge alliances with women throughout the world to work in the cause of Birtukan and political prisoners?

The Untapped Power of Ethiopian Women

Birtukan’s debut following the 2005 elections is historic in its magnitude. Following two years of imprisonment, Birtukan emerged as the symbol of the new Ethiopian woman who is willing, able and ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ethiopian men and suffer the withering blows of dictatorship (including a life sentence) to defend democracy and the rule of law. By doing so, Birtukan transcended the politics of her time and brought forth the audacity of the new Ethiopian woman. She is really about the future of Ethiopian society where women in large numbers will work in full equality with men to build a new society based on the rule of law and free of ethnic hatred. The greatest threat the dictators see in Birtukan is not that she can lead a political party to victory. They know that will never happen because she can never win their rigged elections. What they fear and dread them most is that Birtukan’s success as a national leader, even symbolically, means the end of the dictator’s ethnic politics, ethnic division and ethnic federalism. Birtukan symbolizes the oneness of the Ethiopian people, their unity and collective destiny of greatness. She has the capacity, tenacity and proven ability to rise above ethnicity and bring all of the people in the bond of common unity.

As I saw cell phone video footage of Iranian women clashing with police, being tear gassed and beaten, and witnessed the horrific murder of Neda, I could visualize the untapped power of Ethiopian women not only to help free Birtukan and all political prisoners in Ethiopia, but also to become unstoppable agents of social change. I was inspired by the fact that leading Iranian women launched A Campaign for One Million Signatures to change the discriminatory legal codes of Iran. I was energized by the fact that the theocratic rulers of Iran were unable to silence Iranian women by beating and jailing them, shutting down newspapers and websites that publicized their activism, protests and small acts of rebellion. The Iranian women could not be silenced. I felt that if Iranian women by the hundreds of thousands could stand up for their rights and openly demand reform, Ethiopian women could, at a minimum, organize and demand the release of Birtukan and all other political prisoners in Ethiopia.

This is the Time!

This is the time for all good Ethiopian women (and men) to come to the aid of Birtukan and all political prisoners in Ethiopia. This is the time to speak up on behalf of Birtukan and against her ruthless captors. This is the time to launch a Million Signature Campaign throughout the world to free Birtukan and all political prisoners in Ethiopia, and to deploy the worldwide power of women to the cause of freedom, democracy, human rights: Women legislators, governors, judges, lawyers and law students, college and high school students, human rights advocates, corporate and civic society leaders, teachers and university professors, religious leaders, journalists, physicians, scientists, engineers, service workers and others.

This is the time for Ethiopian women to lead and for the men to follow. This is the time to say, “Behind every great Ethiopian woman is a good man.” It took one woman, Birtukan, to strike fear in the hearts of the ruthless dictators who sought to silence her by solitary confinement. One can only imagine what millions of Ethiopian women could do to shatter the corrupt and barbarous dictatorship. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” What say YOU, my sisters?

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at


  1. By Surafel

  2. By Reader

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