Photos and article by Hosaena Tilahun
I am my mother’s daughter and my grandmother’s embodied dreams. We’re connected, beyond DNA, through our unconditional love for one another. Every August, we, among many Ethiopian mothers, daughters, and sisters, commemorate this love through Ashenda.
Originating in the highlands of Ethiopia, Ashenda is a weeklong celebration where girls and women of all ages bond over the beauty and burden of the female experience. The holiday (Aug. 16–21) marks the end of a two-week long fast called Filseta commemorating the ascension of the Virgin Mary, the biblical matriarch. Although Coptic Christianity inspired Ashenda, it has transformed into a holiday melding rituals of beauty, dance, and music in honor of the feminine form.
Young girls dress up in their best traditional attire: in long, white linen dresses decorated by tilf — a geometric pattern that lines the collar and length of the skirt. Women freshly braid their hair in traditional albaso style: raised cornrows with hair hanging loose in the back. Young girls form musical troupes with their friends and parade down city streets in celebration of sisterhood. Traditional dishes, presented with a spongy bread called injera, are prepared as girls and women travel door to door, singing for community members in exchange for gifts and birr notes.
Since November 2020, the first attack on the Tigray people has intensified into a civil war; and as a result, Ashenda has carried a heavier weight these past two years. In the words of historian Francesca Baldwin, “This year’s Ashenda sought to celebrate community, creativity, self-love, and female resilience. It was explicitly a recognition of the communal trauma facing Tigrayan women and a promise that this would not define their story.” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki have barred much of the Tigray region from humanitarian aid. As a result of the Tigray war, rape, abduction, and sexual violence have been weaponized against Ethiopian girls and women by multiple state and regional militias. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard reports,
“The severity and scale of the sexual crimes committed are particularly shocking, amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It makes a mockery of the central tenets of humanity. It must stop.”
In inspiration of Tigray women’s use of “Joy as Gendered Resistance,” I captured close-ups of my younger sister, Lula, to represent the political necessity of Ashenda. Who is her anger, frustration, and apathy directed towards? What are her eyes communicating? Francesca Baldwin offers an answer, “[This year’s Ashenda] refused the narrative of women as unfortunate victims of a man’s war and recognized the ways that they define an identity for themselves through love, support, owning their freedom, and a refusal to be silenced.”
Lula’s eyes directly confront the viewer. The blurred background brings Lula into focus, and we are forced to match, rather than avoid her glare. A netella, a thin piece of cloth traditionally worn to religious ceremonies, delicately frames her face.
Yearly, from the refugee camps of Um Rakuba Sudan to diaspora hubs around the world, Ethiopian girls and women participate in Ashenda as a form of protest and radical self and communal care. At home in Virginia, Ashenda carried a quieter celebratory tone. As a result of the vulnerable air, we practiced the holiday by brewing cups of love. From our kitchen table, my mother and I indulged in coffee house discussions — sharing stories of Ethiopian change-makers like Freweini Mebrahtu advocating for women's rights. Watching my mother roast, grind, and funnel coffee beans into the long neck of our jebena, a more ancient (and stylish) coffee pot, I shared my own stories of the sisterhood I discovered at Dartmouth. The essentials of Ashenda remain: devoting time to reflection and the habitual practice of love.
1 - “the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF), the Amhara Regional Police Special Force (ASF), and Fano, an Amhara militia group. (Amnesty International)”
2 - “Ethiopia: Troops and Militia Rape, Abduct Women and Girls in Tigray Conflict – New Report,” Amnesty International, August 10, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/ethiopia-troops-and-militia-rape-abduct-women-and-girls-in-tigray-conflict-new-report/.
3 - Lyndsey Jenkins, “Joy as Gendered Resistance in Ashenda Celebrations during the Tigray War,” Women's History Network, last modified October 15. 2021, https://womenshistorynetwork.org/joy-as-gendered-resistance-in-ashenda-celebrations-during-the-tigray-war-2020-present-by-francesca-baldwin/.