Getting my regular PhD (Pull Her Down) Syndrome by Sehin Teferra
I was at a workshop yesterday with a couple of Setaweet colleagues. At lunch, I sat next to the founder and the head of a large, well-respected organization. While I was still in greeting mode, she proceeded to interrogate me on Setaweet. Over the chicken and shiro, she asked about each aspect of our work model with detailed explanations how each one would fail. She told me of the partners who wouldn’t work with us and didn’t seem happy when I told her they already do. She said interns can’t make a difference in the long-term and didn’t want to listen to the story of the Setaweet interns who have gone on to present at international academic conferences and of our Wonderful Kech who is returning to Setaweet in August having completed her Master’s at Syracuse University and with a generous Fellowship.
By the time I cleaned my plate, I was tired of the Setaweet-bashing and I switched the conversation to the woman’s own organization, praising the reputation, earned over two decades, of changing poor women’s lives. This powerful woman confirmed, ‘We have empowered nearly forty thousand Ethiopian women.’ As I was leaving the table, I thought to myself, ‘then why try to disempower ONE Ethiopian woman?’
I found it difficult to concentrate on the rest of the workshop as I was mulling over this classic stab of Pull Her Down (PhD) syndrome. I didn’t get why this woman, so obviously accomplished, would spend nearly an hour of her day trying to discourage me and young Setaweet. Our tiny movement can be no threat, financially or otherwise to her Mega Operation. She had said with unnecessary meanness, ‘Gin Bizu Sew Ayawkachihum’ whereas the organization she runs is a household name. So what gives? The only reason I could find had to do with ልማድ – that’s just how a lot of (yes, I dare say it) older, professionally-established Ethiopian women treat their younger counterparts.
A small part of the credit to my pursue of the other kind of PhD goes to one of the most influential women in Ethiopia. When I approached her with a project idea ten years ago, she was blunt in her dismissal, she said and I paraphrase – ‘you see me up here, to think that you can do this too is arrogance.’
I of course met her again as Dr Sehin a few years after that soul-crushing (for me) incident and I mildly enjoyed the confusion on her face as she tried to place where she knew me. I have worked with her since and I remain grateful for the lesson she taught me, for showing me the kind of powerful woman I never want to become.
Yes, professional gatekeeping is not limited to women and I acknowledge that older men can be patronizing to younger professional women. A young feminist activist who works with Ministers and other (mostly men) leaders shaping our country shared with us that she is referred in that circle as ‘ያቺ ቆንጆዋ ልጅ.’ We laughed about it but the implied condescending attitude was clear. Others praise too much ‘አትገምህም, ጎበዝ እኮ ናት!’ or others act in inappropriate manners. So I get that age is a common factor. In our ancient culture that rightfully reveres wisdom, the Old Guard seems to pull the goalpost along with them as they get older. But at the officially middle-age of just past 40, I look at the horizon of the ‘Taken Seriously’ that still seems out of reach sometimes and I wonder when it will be our turn.
As a feminist I truly wish I could end this tirade here but as someone who tries to live in authenticity, I have to also point out that there is a gender angle to Pull Her Down syndrome. It’s usually women-on-women.
Not many of us question men’s often smooth path to the corner office, to the highest position, but we compete for the leftover spaces. Men’s leadership is a given but God help the woman who attempts to hold her own and reach for the top. The ugliest phrase in the Amharic language, ‘እሷ ማናት እና ነው?’ rears its head here. Women who have never had women as bosses will be heard saying የሴት አለቃ አይመቸኝም’ and we will all sympathize for the unseen and perhaps non-existent husband who must now spend more time, against his very nature, caring for their unseen and for all we know, non-existent kids.
No man has ever called me fat, but plenty of women have. Cocooned as I am in my Setaweet family where Pull Her Down syndrome has never paid a visit, the ‘outside world’ sometimes shocks me. I feel as naive as my seven year old girl when I see women tear each other down on something as arbitrary as what they chose to wear that day.
However, my disappointment at the state of women’s relations doesn’t mean I don’t get why it happens. I see the fear in the eyes of the woman I cross at the supermarket or indeed, at the professional setting of a workshop, and who glares or tries to put me down for no reason and I recognize patriarchy at play.
Men don’t have to pull us down because we do it for ourselves. The biggest joke that patriarchy has played on the women race is to make sure that we are too busy sizing each other up to see just how far back we are on the steep path to equality. When our (still mostly male) leaders complain that there are no women stepping up to even compete for positions, we have to acknowledge that it is at least partly because many brilliant young women are being Pulled Down by their sisters. Yes, many men stand in the way of many women, but let’s face it, many women stand in the way of many women too.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to remain this way. When we know better, we do better. The Pull Her Down Syndrome can stop with me and you. We have the agency to not pass it forward. Because of the insistence with which the woman I met yesterday tried to Pull Me Down, I will make extra time to talk to our fabulous interns about their dreams and goals. I will encourage them in ways that I never was encouraged. I will tell them that there is no earthly limit to what they can achieve.
I will do everything in my limited power to Pull Them Up. Because the answer to ‘እሷ ማናት እና ነው?’ is ‘የፈለገችውን ናት.’