By Hanna Bergman, hanna.m.m.e.bergman@gmail.com

Let me tell you about my first experience of a Setaweet circle. I came here from Sweden with next to no Amharic speaking abilities. Luckily enough a kind woman was able to translate for me during the whole Setaweet session, otherwise, I would have never been able to write this, so thank you! The overall theme was sisterhood and Zahara Legesse Kauffman, A psychologist who works with police and judges, was going to lead the discussion. I went by myself to this gathering of feminists in Addis and ironically, I encountered a minor harassment on the way there… at least it reminded me that where I am going clearly has a purpose.

I was there a bit early and by the time Zahara started talking I counted us to be 26 listeners in the room. However by the time the circle ended, there were around 50 of us!

The topic that Zahara was presenting was “unconscious bias”. This is basically our presumptions about different groups of people, which she described as a survival mechanism, and she told us they emerge from what we THINK we know. We all do it, many times without even knowing it. To prove this she gave us an exercise.

-Think of the nicest guy you know and come up with the perfect wife for him, she said.
It started off with some mumbling but turned into a real discussion between, us the listeners, and Zahara.
-Beautiful! A virgin! faithful! someone that understands HIM! good at house work! someone motherly! forgiving! etc.

What I had to assure though, was if the Feminists in this room actually thinks this way. I asked a couple of women who sat next to me and thankfully, the answer was “no”. They were all just thinking of the general perception of the “perfect” wife.

So, society thinks that the above is the perfect wife, huh? Someone whose qualities exists mainly for her husband’s comfort? If there are women out there that have these unconscious biases about each other, it makes you ask the question: how on earth are men going to help us towards equality, if we don’t even help ourselves? At least that is the question Zahara brought up and she calls it, reverse sexism on the women’s side.

Even the most powerful women think like this. Which brought her to her next point. How come we tend to experience female bosses as too strict and sometimes even rude. Or as some would say in a negative tone, “too bossy”. Zahara’s answer to that, which I totally agree with, was because of how few opportunities there are for us women to even reach such a high position in the first place. Companies just don’t “have enough space” for us and competing with the men, is “out of the question”. The result is that all the competent women have to compete with each other for these few positions. So when a new woman enters a company, the current female boss automatically thinks she is a threat to her position. Structural isn’t it?

In the next task, Zahara split us up in smaller groups to spill out what unconscious biases we thought others had towards us. It did get a bit personal and what I realized was that many had similar experiences, i.e. looking too aggressive for a woman. What everyone in my group had in common was that by just being aware of the unconscious biases towards us really affects the way you behave in public. So, if you are too aggressive looking and have been told so many times, maybe it makes you start acting overly nice so that people won’t feel threatened. Someone also explained how perhaps by being aware of these biases, it could help us reflect on our behavior. But in my opinion, this kind of thinking could become self-harming. What others assume about you shouldn’t limit you. And as someone responded: “the bias becomes the norm, and the norm influences the bias”. Let us not confuse unconscious bias with constructive criticism.

One thing in particular though that I disagreed with at the session was a conversation about our mothers. She encouraged us to ask our mothers why they are so hard on us. I had a hard time to understand what I would get out of it. In some cases, If I think back to whenever I thought my mom was too hard on me, mostly it had to do with cultural or generational differences. A common conversation me and my mom had for instance was:

• why can’t I dress this way?
Because you need to have some self-respect.

• why can’t I do this, but my brother can?
Because you are a girl.

Accepting these answers would feel like moving back in time.

The one great thing I came to understand following the Setaweet session however, by listening to the other women next to me, is that feminism is heavily influenced by culture which made these three hours particularly interesting for me. Our struggles comes in so many shapes and forms but the bigger picture is still the same – we just have different ways of reaching that goal. It is so easy to think you already know everything about feminism when you live in Sweden, but obviously I was wrong. I wish everyone back home would leave their comfort zone in order to get to the same realization.