A brief reflection on culture (by Daniel Hailu)

This is a reflection from one of the #ArifWond (Cool Man) initiative members following a discussion with the renowned Alemayehu Gelagay on “Representations of Femininity and Masculinities in Ethiopian Literature”


Writer Alemayehu Gelagay

The other day we had a continuing debate on the power and limits of culture on gender relations in Ethiopian society at #ArifWond (literary means ‘cool guy’) – a bimonthly discussion forum where men and women gather to explore conceptions of masculinities and their implications for gender relations in the Ethiopian society. The debate was provoked by an informative presentation by a prominent Ethiopian writer and literary critic, Alemayehu Gelagay, on the historical representation of men and women in Ethiopian literature. The presentation and the heated debate that ensued made me recall two of the lessons about culture I took from my anthropology classes back in graduate school.

One concerns our tendency to think of culture as static and homogeneous phenomena. It is true that some conceptions related to gender, and the practices that arise out of them, may be dominant in a society at a particular time. This does not, however, mean that there are no conceptions and practices in that society that deviate, in various degrees, from the dominant. In fact, deviant conceptions and behaviors eventually catalyze change in the established order if they prove to have survival value in a society’s effort in coping with the broader social, political, economic and technological change. They themselves may even engender change in the broader environment.

The other anthropological lesson I recalled in the course of the debate relate to our tendency to overrate or underrate the role of culture in determining established gender conceptions and practices: on one hand, we should avoid a deterministic view of culture which makes us subservient to and paralyzes our will to act against the established gender conception and practices. On the other hand, we should appreciate the domesticating power of culture which makes many of us feel that established conceptions and practices as parts of nature. Recognizing and trying to avoid these two extremes can, in my view, be empowering in two ways:

  • It can enable us deploy our agency (willpower) to critically examine established conceptions and resist unjust practices on a daily basis; and
  • It can also help us be empathic with others who consciously or unconsciously hold onto those conceptions and practices
    as normal and lovingly help them overcome them.

After all, culture needs to be at the service of humanity; at the individual level it should meet our innate need for identity and, at societal level, it should provide a framework for orderly relationships. However, humanity (both men and women) should not be crucified for its preservation as the following excerpt from Bahá’í Writings implies:

If long-cherished ideals and time-honoured institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must overtake every human institution? For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine. 


Daniel Hailu is from Addis Ababa and a member of the #ArifWond circle.

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