Women in Ethiopian Society

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

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Menstruation HutThe Beta Israel of Ethiopia observed this tenet in strict fashion, precisely following the Torah commandment, isolating the woman in a hut of childbirth (yara gojos ye-margam gogo), pictured, for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. According to contemporary researchers, the strict observance of purity laws after birth is also one of the boundary-markers between Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Christians.

In the same book of Leviticus, it is further written: "When a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean." (Leviticus 15:19-20). In Ethiopia, every woman belonging to the Beta Israel spent approximately a week--the length of her menstruation--in a special menstruating hut (ye-margam gogo/ye-dam gogo/ye-dam bet), where she was prohibited from coming into contact with people who were in a pure state.

As a person who was impure by virtue of her blood, she was isolated for the length of time of her menstrual period and could share the hut only with other menstruating women. Since her impurity was contaminating, she was not allowed to dine or spend time with pure people, least of all her husband, who could resume sexual relations with her only after she had purified herself in the river.

A series of stones surrounded the menstruating hut, separating the impure women from other members of the village. In many villages, the hut was situated almost outside the village, on the peripheries of conquered, civilized space--the village--and the unknown, the wilds, the unconquerable space--the outside. In the village of Wolleka near Gondar that I visited in Ethiopia (in 1971 and 1988 respectively), which was known as a Falasha tourist village where "Falasha pottery" was sold, the menstruating hut was situated on the hill in the center of the village, albeit far away from the view of passing tourists, but nevertheless in center-stage as far as the villagers were concerned.

It was marked off by stones surrounding the hut in circular fashion, and little children would push food on ceramic plates inside the circle, which would then be taken by the menstruating women. Although Dr. Faitlovitch and other Westerners, as well as Ethiopian pupils who had studied in the West, tried to persuade the Beta Israel women not to observe the purity laws according to the Biblical precepts and tried to encourage them to come in line with Jews elsewhere, Beta Israel women in Ethiopia kept these rules strictly until their immigration to Israel, and often thereafter.

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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).