An Ethiopian Jewish man carries his mother on his back as they enter Israel as part of Operation Solomon, 1991. (Zion Ozeri/Jewish Lens)

Women in Ethiopian Society

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

Men’s Occupations; Women’s Occupations

According to The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches.

By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha. The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The “Falasha pottery” which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka.

Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans.

The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs.

Daily Life of Beta Women

Women were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils.

Women spent time weaving these bright-colored baskets, in which they stored foodstuffs, or on which they served food, if the basket was flat-topped. The preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip.

Women looked after the children at an early age. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys would stay with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation.

Masculinity And Femininity

Among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, masculinity was an ultimate value. The Amharic language is full of expressions praising men and degrading women. Shillele war songs, also sung at weddings and other ceremonious occasions, are designed to arouse male bravery before battle. A well-known Amharic proverb says:” It is good to beat donkeys and women.” Men’s sexual organs are, by definition, the source of their masculinity. Female genital surgery, or female circumcision (otherwise known as genital mutilation), was normative among Beta Israel women.

In Beta Israel society, men had to gain sexual prowess. They were allowed to experiment during the stage of adolescence (goramsa), whereas females had to be virgins at marriage, which usually took place close after first menstruation. While males were expected to be sexually experienced, Beta Israel females could be excommunicated if they were not virgins at marriage.

Although marriage is officially monogamous, in practice Beta Israel men sometimes entered polygamous unions with a second wife, or relations with a common-law wife, a concubine, a slave (barya), or simply a divorced woman (galamotta) who was searching for “protection” in Ethiopian terms. A rich man could have several women, usually residing in different villages, so that there was little knowledge of the other women or contact between them. There are many cases of an older man marrying a younger bride, sometimes even a teenager or a virgin, thus proving his status and wealth to the society at large.

Whereas masculinity was symbolized by the staff which every Beta Israel male carries in Ethiopia, femininity was symbolized by blood.

The Purity Of Women

For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signifies womanhood, and the pulse of life as it revolves around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations.

In the Bible it states: “When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation?.The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification.” (Leviticus 12:1,2-6).

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.

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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