By Tseday Alehegn
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012
New York (TADIAS) – We conclude this year’s Women’s History Month series with a Q & A with political leader, human rights activist, and former judge Birtukan Midekssa who joined the Ethiopian Diaspora community in the United States last year. She is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington, D.C., which is supported by The National Endowment for Democracy. The program offers a select group of global leaders with a scholarly environment to reflect on their experiences, conduct research, write, consider best practices and lessons learned, and develop worldwide professional networks.
Prior to her arrival in the United States, Birtukan, who is a mother of a young daughter, had been twice imprisoned as leader of an opposition party in Ethiopia that won more than one-third of the seats during the 2005 elections. On January 6th, 2012 Birtukan spoke at the memorial tribute for Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic who was also a playwright and poet, and recalled her imprisonment experience. Of the first 21 months behind bars following the 2005 elections Birtukan stated: “though going to prison despite not committing a criminal offense is a painful experience of every political prisoner, the pain didn’t make us weaker.” However, she described her second imprisonment for 19 months in solitary confinement as being “alone in every sense of the term.” Birtukan was released in October 2010. She noted: “coincidentally Aung San Syu Ki and I were released just days apart from each other. However, unlike her I found my party weakened when I went out. After all the pain that was inflicted on me and my dear ones, I had to ask myself if the struggle was worth it.”
At Vaclav Havel’s memorial tribute Birtukan referred to a book authored by Havel and acknowledged, “the truth illustrated in The Power of the Powerless has always preserved my fervent dedication for the cause of free and dignified human life.” She added: “So we should be vigilant and remind ourselves that the power of the powerless is directly correlated with features like friendship, compassion, forgiveness, and humility which might seem weak and meek rather than vanity, hate, and anger. Only the politics of the heart, which bases itself with capacities of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance are worthy of hardship.”
Birtukan Midekssa is the most prominent Ethiopian female political leader of our generation. Below is our Q & A with her:
TADIAS: As a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy you have spoken about pathways to peace in the Horn of Africa. Can you share more about your current work? What do you enjoy most about it?
Birtukan Midekssa: As a Regan Fascel Democracy fellow, I am primarily engaged in an academic exploration focusing on the basic challenges of democratization in our country Ethiopia. The program gave me an opportunity to reflect on the issues and analyze the root causes underpinning the core political problems of the country.
The National Endowment for Democracy is a venue where political activists from across the globe come together to exchange views and experiences. What is so fascinating in my stay here has been observing the similarity in the challenges that citizens across borders have to overcome to realize their aspirations for free and dignified life. Yet, this comparative examination also helps one to realize that this noble cause eventually triumphs. That in turn is inspiring. Besides, as a fellow based in Washington, DC, I have lots of opportunities to shed light on the plight inflicted on my fellow Ethiopians by an authoritarian and unaccountable regime ruling the country.
TADIAS: Who are your female role models?
BM: One might say she was from the world of legend and myth. But, the heartfelt desire of the Queen of Sheba to acquire the wisdom and art of governance is celebrated by both major religions in our country. I am fascinated by her story, a story that is perhaps one of the most ancient ones showing a woman who did not consider her femininity as an inhibition for achieving something great and worthwhile.
Of course, there are lots of contemporary women, both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian whose life is inspiring. I have, however, to single out Aung San Suu Kyi as one whose life has immensely influenced mine. Her courage, her moral integrity and her rigorous adherence and commitment to non-violence are unique in the stage of world politics. This woman who looks weak and frail, who has nothing to do with anger or malice, and who is often low-key and modest has exerted such a huge influence on world leaders, policy makers and more importantly millions of fellow humans including her countrymen and countrywomen. She showed fearlessness without foregoing her humility. She defied the rulers in the Military Junta of Burma without becoming hateful towards them. She is my icon who always affirms to me that it is possible to advance politics guided by moral principles based on respect and love for humanity.
TADIAS: What are some ways you have personally chosen to overcome the hurdles that you have faced both as a woman and as a leader in law & politics?
BM: What helps me most to survive the hurdles I faced is the depth and intensity of the ideal and vision I have with regard to the worth and dignity of the individual citizen and the way our society should be organized based on this universal ideal of human rights and the rule of law. My belief and conviction that we can and should change the status quo, though it appears to be daunting, has kept me going. And my trust in the power of the individual to bring about change enables me to consider the price I paid as a sacrifice made for a worthy causes and purpose.
TADIAS: What are some practical tips you can give for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
BM: I would like to remind young women that public service or political engagement is not a domain exclusively reserved for men. In fact, I don’t think we can truly succeed in transforming the political system into a system which incorporates equality and fairness at its epicenter, unless Ethiopian young women are determined to contribute something significant to the process.
So I would like to encourage our young women to dream a future for our nation with a dignified and flourishing life for all citizens. And it’s important to believe in the ability of everyone of us to champion change. It is obvious the public discourse and the political process of our country is complex and traversing through it is an uphill journey. But if we stay committed and if we focus on the things we can offer and the societal issues we can be engaged in, all of us can play a role to lead our country towards freedom and democracy eventually.
TADIAS: Please tell us more about yourself (where you were born, grew up, school and how you developed your passion for your work?)
BM: I was born and brought up in the Ferensay Legacion neighborhood of Addis Ababa. I went to a public mid school called Miazia 23 and Yekatit 12 (Menen) for my elementary and high school education respectively. And I graduated from Addis Ababa University with a degree in law. I believe my passion for politics has a strong correlation with the fact that I was brought up in a community whose members are strongly committed to maintaining healthy social relations and to looking after the well-being of individual members. My training as a lawyer later on gave me some coherent narrative and vision for this aspiration of mine.
TADIAS: What would like to share on Women’s History Month with Tadias readers that we have not asked you about?
BM: I think we need to celebrate our unsung Ethiopian heroines who really made it in every realm of life. From the queens and wives and mothers of kings who take part in leadership to promote peace and security, to women advocates of change in Ethiopian popular revolution who paid dearly as equal with their male partners deserve our respect and commemoration for what they did and attempted to achieve in securing better societal destiny for our nation.
Most importantly, we should cherish and recognize the Ethiopian mothers and wives who bear tremendous burden and tirelessly struggle amidst challenges of impoverishment to feed their family, and to send their kids to school to get an education that perhaps they never had an opportunity to access themselves.
TADIAS: Thank you and happy Women’s History Month from all of us at Tadias.
Click here to watch Birtukan Midekssa’s tribute to Vaclav Havel.