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Today: June 19, 2024

Ethiopian women played a crucial role in the Second Ethiopian-Italian War as freedom fighters, making significant contributions to the conflict.

May 29, 2024

Ras Al Turner

As we celebrate Liberation Day 2024, it is past time to remember and accentuate the heroism of the Ethiopian Women Freedom Fighters who played a significant role in the 1935–1941 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. They made immense contributions to both the conventional battles of 1935/36 and the subsequent patriotic resistance movements in the five years following Italy’s triumphant control of Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936. They shall always stand as role models of freedom not only for this generation but for many generations to come!

The mobilization order of Emperor Haile Selassie I issued on 28 September 1935 resorted to the traditional practice by calling to arms all those who were in the damb and those who had a rifle.

The Emperor himself later called for the unreserved contribution of women, in his appeal for money with which to purchase arms during his speech to the parliament on the eve of the war. In this speech, he stated: …our women must be taught to nurse the wounded and even to fight. We shall be glad if in Ethiopia, as in some other countries, the women learn the use of military arms and undergo military exercises (Makin 1935, 102-103).

George Steer, the British war correspondent, further added that the Emperor declared that “Women would play their part in the war going to the fronts to encourage and feed the soldiers and to tend the wounded”(1936, 45). This was actually the traditional role of women in military expeditions. At any rate the Emperor’s speeches amply demonstrated the government’s recognition of women’s contribution to war efforts not only along the traditional lines but also by promoting their status in war through modern training that would enable them to participate in combat as well (Greenfield 1965, 210; Seife Selassie 1953 E.C., 86).

Ethiopian women responded in large numbers to Emperor Haile Sellassie I’s call to defend their country. They contributed wholeheartedly in the mobilization of troops, organization and transportation of supplies and provisions, raising the morale of fighters, gathering intelligence information, nursing the wounded, and in the actual fighting. They served as doctors, soldiers, psychologists, and servants. Women also provided combat support, such as supplying food and water and nursing the wounded.

The primary role of women in warfare started even before the war began with encouraging their men to join military expeditions. This was done in person or through songs performed every night in villages following the mobilization order. On such occasions they sang songs praising the brave and belittling the coward. Thus women started their service by calling on men to take up arms. The women did this by tying a slogan to a stick put on a chariot and by pronouncing the message along the major roads of Addis Ababa. Their slogan reads:

Wake up men

Protect your country Let alone the men

We the women will fight (Paulos 1980 E.C., 9)

 

On the battlefield, they followed soldiers with the slogan “freedom or death”. They were known to run in the thick of the battle shouting and chanting panegyrics(poetic verses of praise) while calling out the fleeing cowards and encouraging the brave fighters. Women who did not go to the front had to carry the burden of their husbands work at home.

 

As a rule pregnant women were not allowed to join military expeditions.Yet some pregnant women were known to have joined military expeditions by hiding their pregnancy. Generally, they were not allowed to join the expeditions because of the obvious difficulties they would face during the long marches and to prevent them from being a burden. Moreover, it is important to note that pregnant women in Ethiopia are treated with special care. However, pregnancy could not be totally avoided, for women could conceive during the march and in camps. In the event of prolonged campaigns, women used to deliver in caves or camps or near villages. Inevitably, some women delivered even during the march. Such traditions were also reported to be common during the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1936-41.

Most women served as camp-followers. Women camp-followers started to perform their duties even before leaving their homes. Their work began with the preparation of  provisions and supplies following the announcement of the mobilization order. This work included spinning cotton for clothes, preparing food and ingredients of local drinks such as Tej, Tella, Araki, particularly for the royal and important chiefs. Simultaneously they prepared goods such as pots for cooking, jars for preparing and carrying drinks, baking pads, baskets, grinding stones and most importantly, traditional medicines.

 

During the march, the nature of women’s duties depended on their rank. Therefore, while wives, daughters or concubines of high-ranking officials took supervisory roles, the remaining women performed duties that were more laborious. Firstly, they were responsible for the transportation of every utensil of food and drinks that cannot be carried by animals.

 

At military camps, women had the responsibility of preparing food and drinks for royal feasts and for the consumption of their respective masters and husbands. Thus as soon as a site was selected women took off their loads and began to search for water and fire wood, for baking enjeras and cooking wats. The majority of women camp-followers joined the battle fields to raise the fighting morale of the soldiers with their war songs, ululations, and prayers.  Ethiopian women of those days, like their predecessors, rose up to join their men in battles. They cleaned the rifles and shields and sharpened the swords of their men. They packed provisions and supplies on an individual basis as in the old days. Indeed the bulk of the Ethiopian army was still traditional despite the government’s attempts at modernization and therefore was still in need of the service of women camp- followers.

 

Quite a large number of women used to pick up the dead and the wounded. While they facilitated the burials of the dead, the great contribution of women was in nursing the wounded. They cured wounds using traditional medicine prepared from the leaves, barks and roots of plants and fleshes of animals. They use pieces of shemas (cloths made of cotton) as bandages to dress the wounds. In the absence of better means of transportation they had to carry the wounded to camps on their back. Women did also serve the combatants by supplying water, food and munitions.

 

Likewise, they used to assist members of the Red Cross in carrying the wounded as well as giving first aid or full nursing service using their traditional medicines. A British transport officer, Captain Brophil wrote of their service, “They are fairly good at nursing and are often very successful with their native herbs. After the doctors have dressed the injured the women will take them away to relatives” (Quoted in New Times and Ethiopia News, 8 May 1936).

 

The above-mentioned duties of non- combatant women do not mean that they had no role in the main theaters of war. They are reported to have played a significant role in the course of the war in various ways. Some women guarded the camp with some soldiers so that it would not fall into the hands of the enemy. Others, served their combatant men by gathering information on the whereabouts of their enemy’s lines of combat, its numerical strength, etc. Indeed, women could play pivotal roles in the intelligence services as they were less suspected by the enemy. Others collected booty from captives, the dead, and the wounded. Still others were instrumental in organizing and mobilizing reserve forces and effectively served as communicators between their dispersed or broken army units. A band of women assisted their men in misleading enemy soldiers by displaying themselves from the hill top and shouting but disappearing suddenly from the site so that the site would be falsely targeted by the enemy (Tekle Tsadiq 1983 E.C. E.C., 227-29).

Ethiopian patriots during these wars weren’t just men, but women as well who served in the highest roles in the army. Ethiopian women looked fear and death in the face and smiled knowing they were engaging in their national duty of protecting the motherland. Woizero Abebech was one of the most famous female commanders of not only Ethiopia but Africa as well. Already the wife of a senior commander, she took it upon herself to uphold Ethiopia’s sovereignty by bearing arms. She was responsible for the inception of the ‘Ethiopian Women’s Military Movement.’ She urged and helped motivate workmen who weren’t on the front to supply the troops, learn combat medicinal techniques, and care for the refugees inside and outside of Ethiopia’s territorial control who were affected by the brutal East African Campaign. Newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom covered her valor. Woizero was quoted on her leadership of the Women’s Movement: “Sisters, we need to study military science, learn how to fight with a rifle, a machine gun, a knife, so we can help our loved ones fight against a cruel enemy.”

 

Woizero Felekech – a 60-year-old veteran who reportedly killed about 50 Italians at Adwa. The European press of that era had reported that she formally asked Emperor Haile Selassie I for arms so that she will fight the Italians again in the Ogaden in 1935. In this photo, she is seen while practicing shooting. (Public Domain photo)

 

The Italo-Ethiopian war of those days did also witnessed the engagement of valiant women combatants in the major fronts such as at the battles of Shire, Tembien, Ambaradam, Maichew, etc., and the subsequent patriotic resistance movements. Such women include aristocratic fief – holders of a military type who had to lead their own contingent because of the duties attached to the landholding as well as those who replaced their deceased husbands as  military commanders (Salome 1958, 68; Mockler 1984, 178). In any case there are references to valiant women of all classes who fought as bravely as the men in different battles. Makin refers to an Ethiopian Amazon under the command of Woizero Abebech Cherqos who was a daughter of wealthy landowner. Though there is no other source substantiating his account, Del Boca wrote of the number of her army to have been about 3000. She is said to have fought in Gondar (Makin 1935, 200; Del Boca 1969, 40). A detailed account of women war leaders is, however, available mainly for the period of patriotic guerrilla wars. Below is the exploits of some notable women war leaders who equally shared the burden of patriotic wars of liberation fought throughout the period of 1936 – 41.

 

The first of these brave war leaders was Woizero Lekyelesh Beyan, who fought under the command of Emperor Haile Selassie at the battle of Maichew on 31 March 1936  (Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 50). Tsehay Berhane Selassie claims to have interviewed this woman in 1972 and describes that Lekyelesh took up her father’s gun and carried her four-month old daughter on her back and joined the Kembata army under the command of Dejazmach Meshesha Wolde. Woizero Lekyelesh had to perform the duty attached to an army land which she inherited in Kembata province, but she could not have a proxy, for her husband too had a piece of land to stand for. As a result both husband and wife joined the campaign at the head of their contingents (Tsehay 1980, 79).

 

Woizero Lekyelesh and her husband returned to the capital following the defeat of the Ethiopian army in the northern front. However, she did not give up the struggle. Instead she became a guerrilla fighter in Shoa. In the summer of 1936, she joined the abortive attempt of prominent war lords to liberate the capital through a simultaneous attack from different directions. The plan failed due to lack of efficient coordination, but Lekyelesh demonstrated her undaunted commitment to die for her country. Next, she went to Jiru where she continued her patriotic career with her husband who unfortunately lost his life at one of the fierce engagements with the Italians on 10 August 1937 (Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 50-51). Interviewed on the fall of her husband she is quoted to have

remembered:

 

“I could see him firing behind… tall grass. Suddenly he waved to me and fell. I went over to his side leaving my position. He was dead. Enemy soldiers were close by on the other side of the river. Before I started to pull [him] away, I fired across the river and killed three men. I then took his body and his gun and withdrew. The rest of my men were safe. I buried him at the church of Dima Gabriel.” (Quoted in Tsehay 1980, 79).

 

This story was supported by a book compiled by the Ministry of Information and published on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee Anniversary celebration of the Liberation.

 

According to oral informants, many women did join the guerrilla fighters of Shoa and performed bravely. It is said that they did this within a few months following the fall of the capital to the enemy. Of course, many women of the capital joined the guerrilla band leaving their homes open so that “people will not suspect that they have gone away for good” (Tsehay 1980, 78).

By and large the number of women in the actual combat showed a significant increase in patriotic guerrilla wars fought mainly after 1937. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the triumphant entry of the enemy into the capital at the expense of an immense loss in human and material wealth aroused great nationalist feeling and the need for revenge. Secondly, women were also highly offended by the inhuman treatment at the hands of the Italians engaged in the search for rifles and other war materials. The latter used to flog and jail women that refused to submit rifles or locate the whereabouts of their warrior husbands or brothers. Disarming one’s self is intolerable in Ethiopian custom and indeed women prefer dying to surrendering the war materials of their husbands. Informants say that many women used to hide the weapons in latrines, underground stores, water wells, dense forests, etc., if they were unable to flee and join the guerrilla bands nearby. Thirdly, many women left their homes to avoid dishonor at the hands of the fascist rapists. Fourthly, quite a significant number of women joined guerrilla fighters as a result of Italian air bombardment that burnt their homes to ashes and devastated their crops and cattle. Last but no least, most of the patriotic wars were fought in local districts where the chiefs and soldiers had to operate with the whole family (Ibid, 74)

 

Among all the other events and historic reasons, however, a nationwide anti-fascist patriotic feeling provoked by the general Fascist massacre of February 1937,

following the unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Italian viceroy, Marshal Rodolfo Grazziani (Bahru 1991, 167; Greenfield 1965, 224-25). Following the abortive assassination attempt made on February 19, a reign of terror was unleashed in Addis Ababa. On the order of the Italian officials, the Black Shirts were busy murdering any Ethiopian found in the palace (where the assassination was attempted) and on the streets of Addis Ababa for three days. Thousands of Ethiopians were killed with pistol shots, bayonets and daggers. Pregnant women were disemboweled, heads of dead bodies were chopped off, and houses were burnt to ashes with families inside.

 

The second woman worthy of mention for her immense military achievements was Woizero Kebedech Seyoum. She belonged to the royal house of Tigre. She was a daughter of Ras Seyum Mengesha and a great granddaughter of Emperor Yohannis IV (1872 – 89). She was the wife of Dejazmach Abera Kassa, who was killed by the Italians for having unsuccessfully attempted to liberate the capital with the help of his own brother Dejazmach Wondwosen and the renowned patriots of Shoa in July 1936. Woizero Kebedech started her patriotic activity already before the fall of the capital to the Italians. Thus when her husband was fighting in the northern fronts she maintained peace and order in the province of Selale representing the governorship of her husband. In this region, Kebedech also did a propaganda work of inspiring her men to die for their country and not to allow Italian disarmament and subversive activities (New Times and Ethiopian News, 10 July 1937; Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 49; Tintawit Ethiopia Jegnoch Mahber, her archive, 1-2).

 

After the return of her husband from the northern front, she was engaged in taking care of the wounded and reinforcing his army with provisions and supplies. She accompanied her husband in the campaign of July 1936 to liberate the capital. The attempt earned her husband frequent harassment and a call for him to surrender to the Italians. Before he discussed the issue with his brother and surrendered himself, Dejazmach Abera sent his wife to Adisge, where she shortly afterwards received his letter and arms. The letter contained his justification for surrendering. He wrote his wife that he did not want to save his life at the expense of his innocent men whom, he feared, the Italians would massacre on failure to get his hands (Tintawit Ethiopia Jegnoch Mahber, Kebedech’s Archive, 5-6). This must have had a lasting impact on the later career of Woizero Kebedech. She received the news of the execution of her husband and his brother as soon as they surrendered to the Italians. The news caused much grief to Kebedech, who since then decided to avenge the death of her husband despite repeated Italian warnings and unsuccessful attempts to capture her. As a member of a royal family, she was able to mobilize a large number of fighters within a short time. The army of her deceased husband, her two sons and servants made up the core of her retainers (New Times and Ethiopian News, 1 September 1937). Woizero Kebedech fought many battles in the districts of Menz, Tegulet, Ifat, Selale and Merhabete. She made frequent contacts and often led joint attacks with prominent Shoan patriotic leaders such as Ras Abebe Aregay, Djazmach Zewde Asfaw and Shaleqa Mesfin Sileshi (Salome 1958, 70; Tintawit Ityopia Jegnoch Mahbar 1983 E.C., 39).

 

Throughout the battles, she wore men’s uniform and fought gallantly and commanded ably, at times finding herself in the midst of battles (Salome 1958, 70). Surprisingly enough, she was already pregnant when she took over the command of her husband’s army. She delivered in a desert a baby-son whom she named Tariku (to mean historic). She could not stay in bed to be fed well for delivery, and left Shoa for Wellega very soon along with her soldiers. The army had to fight all the way until she led it to southern Gojam, from where she went in exile to Sudan in 1939. Eventually she went via Cairo to Jerusalem. She said in an interview that the presence of her elder son strengthened her determination to avenge the death of his father. She reported that her contingent used to respect her as equally as any male war leader, and their alliance with other liberation fighters always enabled them to score many victories and collect booties and captives (Tintawit Itypia 1983 E.C., 40). She stayed in the Holy Land until the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941 when she returned to her country and led a lonely career caring for orphan children and churches (Ibid).

 

The third woman with great patriotic achievement was Woizero Shewareged Gedle, whose heroic deeds earned her the epithets “the lion-hearted woman” and “the Ethiopian Joan of Arc” (Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 49). She was daughter of a commander. She is said to have learned “to fight with a sword and often practiced mock duels with trained and tough soldiers (Ibid).

 

When the Italo-Ethiopian war broke out, Shewareged was very busy raising funds, collecting first aid medication and mobilizing a league of women patriots who, according to some sources, took an oath to fight the enemy till death (The Ethiopian Herald 3 November 1967; Greenfield 1965, 247). She took the command of these women herself and is said to have fought in Shoa. As a dedicated guerrilla fighter, she sold the land she inherited from her father and used the money to buy clothes, medicine, bullets and rifles for her soldiers and other patriots operating near Addis Ababa. She also gave financial support to the Red Cross. To her credit, she is also reported to have assisted poor villagers deprived of their living by the Italians (Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 50).

Her extensive patriotic activities brought Woizero Shewareged to frequent court trials by Italian officials. However, she was dauntless and used to declare her unreserved commitment to die for her country’s independence. At one time she was brought to the Italian court for having wept on seeing the Italian flag hoisted and was asked why she did that. Her response was surprising even to the fascist officials: Women of your country who were envious of others’ country have given their rings to the bandits (soldiers) who came to invade Ethiopia. Is my weeping alone a crime when I see my country invaded by alien people, my state collapsed, my county’s flag replaced by another? [Weeping is not enough] (Ibid).

She was released, but she kept up her struggle. Different sources agree that Woizero Shewareged also rendered multi- dimensional service in underground patriotic activities in the capital from where she used to instil patriotic zeal, organize and send foods, medicines, arms and clothes to the guerrilla fighters. Using her relation with an Ethiopian in the service of the Fascist political office, she gathered valuable information on contemporary political and military affairs. Her intelligence report was systematically sent to renowned war leaders such as Ras Abebe Aregay (Tadesse 1960 E.C., 506).

 

Following the attempt on the life of Grazziani, she was suspected of treason and captured to be deported with many Ethiopians to the Italian prison near the island of Sardinia where she stayed for two years. She was tortured and flogged in prison to force her to disclose secrets many times. At one instance, she lost her patience and struck an Italian officer in the face and shouted “You are entitled to imprison me, but not to insult me”(Quoted in Tsehay 1980, 81). Having promised not to engage in subversive activities, she was allowed to return home. However, Shewareged did not fulfil her promise and kept up her patriotic struggle. She joined an underground organization known as Wust Arbegnoch (inner patriots). The main duty of this organization was to gather intelligence information, raise funds, collect ammunition, food, clothes and medication to be sent to the guerrilla fighters. She gave extensive service in this regard (The Ethiopian Herald, 3 November 1967).

 

In the summer of 1940 Woizero Shewareged was engaged in a grand plan to attack an Italian ammunition depot in Addis Alem, where she had a house. She investigated the condition of the depot and of the Ethiopian prisoners in the same compound. Meanwhile, she corresponded with prominent Showan patriots such as Jagema Kello (later General), Colonel Zewde Tilahun, Captain Tengesse Kello and other officers, asking them to coordinate their efforts to attack the Italian prison and loot the depot at Addis Alem. She also won to her side the Ethiopians responsible for running the prison. In November 1940, an organized attack by her group overrun the prison, set free the prisoners and looted the depot. In his account of the underground patriotic activities Kegnazmach Tadesse Zewelde wrote of the fact that about 70 enemy soldiers were killed during the attack and that the Ethiopians collected about 2700 rifles and many grenades (1960 E.C., 71; Tabor 1987 E.C., 72-73).

 

Woizero Shewareged fled to Becho in Shoa, where she met guerrilla fighters and continued her propaganda work at different camps by informing fighters about international developments and the emperor’s expected return in the near future. To some notable war leaders, she is reported to have written letters informing them of foreign aid accompanying the emperor, and fortunately for her, the letters of the emperor began to reach the patriots shortly afterwards (Tsehay 1980, 81). She continued her activity until she was captured by the Italians at Kussay in the Gurage region in December 1940. She went there to coordinate her efforts with a famous war leader in Gurage known as Dejazmach

 

Gerresu Duki (Tabor 1987 E.C., 73; The Ethiopian Herald, 3 November 1967).

 

She was tied to a tree and mercilessly beaten, and later detained at the prison of Akaki near the capital. She was sentenced to death, but fortunately her life was saved by the triumphant entry of the joint Anglo- Ethiopian army into the capital (Tsehay 1980, 80). Another valiant woman fighter who deserves mention was the anonymous wife of Dejazmach Habte Mikael, who was in charge of the Ethiopian army at Dollo. His army was waiting for the Italians from its fortified position. Meanwhile, his wife climbed to a hilltop and saw the coming of the Italian troops. Having failed to persuade her husband to take the offensive, she went ahead herself wearing his uniform, mounting on a mule and taking with 150 soldiers. She engaged the Italians in a fierce fight that lasted for a short duration. Her army killed many Italians and returned with captured rifles and munitions. This was indeed one of the few instances in which a wife replaced her hesitant husband under crucial circumstances (Ibid).

 

Further investigation of the achievements of women guerrilla fighters brings us to Woizero Shewanesh Abreha of Lasta. She belonged to an important local family and took leadership position by representing an underage son following the death of her husband during a fight with the Italians in 1937. She married her daughter to Lij Yohannis Iyassu (the great grand son of Emperor Menelik II). This had enabled her to rally a large number of soldiers (Ibid). Likewise, Woizero Qeleme Worq Tiruneh derived her leading position from her husband but her patriotic activity in Bale and Arsi, commanding a guerrilla band that she eventually took to exile in Kenya, was performed due to the defection of her husband to the Italians. Informants cited examples of many similar experiences of splits within a family as a result of Italian

 

pressure (Tadesse 1960 E.C., 39; Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 50).

 

Apart from the above-mentioned patriots, there are also other women who have distinguished themselves with their contributions in the anti-Fascist occupation force. Some of these women include Woizero Belaynesh of Bulga, Woizero Kebedech Dessie of Begemidir, Birhane Gezahgn and Yidenequ Tessema of Bechena in Gojam, Manalebish Debalqe and Ayelech Yosef of Northern Shoa, and Woizero Belaynesh of Goba.

 

An official document produced by the Ministry of Defence contains the names of about 277 women incorporated in the list of the patriots that earned medals from Emperor Haile Selassie I on 20 January 1945. Obviously the list does not mean that only these women played a pivotal role. An innumerable number of women did not receive medals and of course they could not have done so for various reasons (1937 E.C., 4-6). This list only gives the type of medals they were awarded and their service as fighters, inner patriots and in exile. That their contribution to the war effort was recognized and that they were awarded medals was, however, a development of paramount importance not only in promoting the status of women in war but also in their subsequent social and political emancipation

 

Of course, the war of 1935/36 did not see the company of royal women and the empress. An exception to this was Princess Romanworq Haile Selassie, wife of the governor of Bale, named Dejazmach Beyene Marid, who accompanied her husband in his fighting at the southern fronts until his death in February 1937. Following his death she followed Ras Desta Damtew until her capture by local people of Adami Tulu where she stayed until the Italians deported her to Italy (Seife Selassie 1953 E.C., 182-83). One can also add Woizero Lakech Demisew, a great granddaughter of King Sahle Selassie of Shoa and wife of Dejazmach Mengesha Aboye, for she accompanied her husband to the northern front holding a rifle and in men’s uniform (Tintawit Ityopia Jegnoch Mahber n.d, 9-10).

 

In August 1935, the Association of Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Work was founded by Princess Tsehay, daughter of the emperor, under the patronage of Her Majesty Empress Menen. Princess Tsehay was assisted by Lady Barton, wife of the British ambassador, in organizing women of the capital to prepare clothes, mattresses, gas masks, bandages, and to pack rations for the troops. Lady Barton is also reported to have mobilized more than 1000 women in the preparation of Red Cross supplies (Steer 1936, 286; Makin 1935, 199; Ministry of Information 1958 E.C., 50; Waugh 1936, 82). Under her management the women made about 1800 gun masks which was piled and sent to the northern front in April 1935 (Steer 1936, 286).

 

There was also a meeting in the capital of aristocratic ladies at which a discussion was made on the formation of a local Red Cross unit and on fund raising for the war effort. It is reported that a voluntary subscription by about 500 women including members of the royal family enabled raising a total sum of 33,000 M.T. Thallers. Another report shows that a similar contribution was made by country ladies and women landowners of western Shoa who sent a sum of 120,000 M.T. Thalers to the Welfare Association (Waugh 1936, 82; Makin 1935, 200).

 

The traditional role of the empress in war was kept up to this day. Though Menen had never led a contingent of her own to any battle like Empress Taitu and Empress Menen (Ras Ali’s mother), nor even had she accompanied her husband to any war, Empress Menen was very busy in the capital organizing funds for the various activities of the welfare association and warning people to protect themselves from bombs (Ministry of Information 1954 E.C., 35). On 13 September 1935, she made a radio appeal to women and men of the world in which she stated: …There is still time for those who desire justice to take action to end the most unjust of wars… I, therefore, appeal to France the emblem of equality, fraternity and liberty; to Great Britain, defender of justice; for all races and to the whole world to abandon all further delay in saving my country (Quoted in New Times and Ethiopian News, 9 May 1936).

 

Her appeal was part of the diplomatic campaign to be pursued by the emperor following the Wal Wal Incident of December 1934 by which Italy started her fascist aggression. The Empress further stated, “Women of the world unite. Demand with one voice that we may be spared the honour of useless bloodshed”(Ibid). Likewise, her daughter, Princess Tsehay was very active in the diplomatic campaign. In its issue of 22 March 1936, the New Times and Ethiopian News came out with her protest addressed to Women’s Advisory Council of the League of Nations, against the use of mustard gas by Italy. It reads:

 

For seven days without break the enemy have been bombing the armies and peoples of my country including women and children with terrible gasses… Against this cruel gas we have no protection… This suffering and torture is beyond description…

 

Having a fluent command of English and French, Princess Tsehay accompanied her father when he left Ethiopia to lay the case of his country before the League of Nations in Geneva, during which she served him as a secretary and a translator. Throughout the period of Italian Occupation (1936 – 41) Princess Tsehay stayed in London attending a medical school and at the same time organizing the activities of the Women’s Welfare Association abroad whose main duty was caring for numerous Ethiopian refugees in various countries (Ibid).

 

Maaza Mengiste’s,meticulosly researched historical novel,”The Shadow King” explores the role of women during the Second Ethio- Italian War, through the life of Hirut, a young Ethiopian woman who joins the fight against Mussolini’s occupation. The novel also explores class and gender, history and memory in past, present and future Ethiopia. I highly recommend this riveting award winning novel for an in-depth look at an epoch period of African history from the matriarchal perspective of a fearless, talented author who dared to challenge and change the perceived narrative!

 

 

1 Comment

  1. I told you! I told you a million times before! Without our women in the affairs of the old country in one form or another, we would have been nothing but some dumb bell men walking around clueless. Who will forget that fire spitting patriot, that Barentu Taytu’s role during the glorious Battle at Adwa? When her husband Emperor Menelik contemplated tactical withdrawal, she was said to have berated him with ‘To hell you will’ and went out rallying up the withdrawing troops. She should have told them that she did not bring enough women’s skirts for them to wear when they go back to their villages. I bet you what their response was to that. They go like ‘Don’t talk to me like, woman’ and went back to the battlefield like an EF5 tornado. Without the full participation our women on that fateful day, our last names could have been like those in Calabria, Abruzzo and Palermo by now. If you start me about Taytu and our women feats, I’m gonna keep talking about them until you drop unconscious. All glory to our women!!!

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