"A Movement Is Not a Fashion Show": Gender, Clothing, and Activism in the Ethiopian Student Movement

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:10 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Beatrice Wayne, University of Sydney
The 1968 closure of Haile Selassie I University was a defining moment in the history of the Ethiopian Student Movement, a movement that would ultimately depose an Emperor and usher in a Marxist-Leninist styled military junta. The impetus behind the closure of the university? A fashion show organized by female students which developed into a demonstration against the perceived Western allegiances of the women on campus. Rotten eggs and tomatoes were thrown, some girls were spat at and slapped, the police were called and proceeded to use tear gas against students indiscriminately, arresting thirty eight students and driving all the students out of their dormitories, leaving them without food or lodging. In reaction, the University closed and withdrew recognition from all the student union groups, abolishing their right to mobilize on campus.

The paper will unpack the specific circumstances of the fashion show demonstration, analyzing the critiques lobbed against Ethiopian women for “washing their hair with Western soap” and their “shameful” participation in a fashion show that was “nothing but…neo-colonialism.” It will compare this with the lived experience of female student activists, their central but underexplored role in the progress of the radical student movement, and their struggle to be taken seriously as both scholars and radical activists.

Based on oral histories, memoires, student publications and Ethiopian newspapers, this work explores the complicated relationship that Ethiopian women occupied within the Ethiopian Student Movement – as radical student activists, as the perceived incubators and protectors of Ethiopian cultural heritage, and as the vanguard of a new generation of university educated women.