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Marriage as symbolic resistance: a story of Ethiopian Muslim activism

While the Kality inmates were supposed to be broken through incarceration and character assassination, they have manifested their hope through their colourful marriages.

Alemu Tafesse
14 May 2013

Anti-authoritarian struggles creep into the symbolic world both in content and form. Acts of defiance send across sparks of moments that carry multiple meanings to multiple audiences. In many instances, with more repression, more sophisticated symbolization of protest comes to the fore, defying both state control and the pessimist expectations of some people.

The Ethiopian Muslims civil right movement, a struggle that began with a very strong cry for freedom has gone through many phases. Its fluidity hasn’t followed the classical contours of protest that many authoritarian governments have become adept at keeping under control.

One example was the emergence of a new hand gesture among protesters. Their crisscrossing of vertically stretched hands symbolizes both unity and unlawful incarceration. Such a move goes diametrically against the perceived intentions of the government (i.e., shattering the unity of Muslims). It also absolves - from the protesters’ perspective - the incarcerated from any guilt (as the incarceration is shown to be illegal), while illustrating the level of state oppression prevalent in Ethiopia. This protest was initiated a little after the government issued stern warning on its media that the protest - which it declared has gone “meren” (“shamelessly wild”) in Amharic - should stop or otherwise face adverse consequences.

The waving of white and yellow cards simultaneously symbolizes peace and a warning message. Both show formidable persistence. The waved white cards challenge the terrorism discourse, and re-affirm the peace-lovingness of the Muslim community. But the peace is not meant to be a passive one, one that accepts and lives with structural oppression. Waving white papers signifies the unflinching determination to fight – peacefully - for a just peace. It is not content with the absence of war but calls for freedom, equality and justice. The yellow card now being waved by the same people indicates that these protesters require an immediate response from the government and that they believe in their power to bring about change.

On May 6, 2013, something different happened. Two of the prisoners in Kality (one of Ethiopia’s notorious dungeons) tied the knot of marriage with their loved ones around them and with much fanfare and visible joy. Mubarak and Khalid are two Muslim activists recently jailed and now amongst the many facing terrorism charges. The best men of the bridegrooms were none other than four of the incarcerated Muslim members of the committee that was organized towards the end of 2011, who led the Muslim rights movement since its beginning and up till the mass arrests began. The wedding ceremony was held in the houses of the brides, in local mosques, and most interestingly, in Kality prison itself. The ceremony was reportedly very colourful and joyful.

Ultimately, dictators can’t have a monopoly over the kind of hope we have as citizens of a country in the same way as they usually have the monopoly over violence. But authoritarians never feel secure if and when they lose this power of theirs.

The marriage that took place in Kality is a showcase of defiant hope. The government has required that the Ethiopian people obediently follow it through all the “bright way towards democracy and development”.  This is the official version of the government’s vision that has stalled the people at large. It has given the hope of enrichment and political promotion for those loyal to it. However, both official and the unofficial versions of hope have proved unable to satisfy a growing section of the population. The most vocal section recently has turned out to be that of Ethiopian Muslims, in their quest for collective freedom and autonomy. They have dared to envision a tomorrow outside and against the practical realm of the government’s discourse.

The government has always had a significant power to obstruct such an envisioning, however, and this time around is no exception. Most importantly, it has incarcerated the Muslim leaders and filed a most serious charge against them under the law of the country, that of terrorism. This process of incarceration and filing of terrorism charge is designed  to crush the will of the incarcerated. Incarceration, torture and accusation usually come together to create docile bodies and mind devoid of any long-lasting hope about life outside the prison and the court, fixated on the day they might leave jail.

The new Muslim couples however, have refused to be confined to such a form of “looking forward”. They decided to ceremoniously marry while still defending their case against the most severe accusations under the law of the country. Marriage, and the procreation normally associated with it, symbolizes self-esteem and self-confidence as well as continuity and persistence. While the Kality inmates were supposed to be broken through incarceration and character assassination, they have manifested their hope through their colourful marriages. Through them, they sent out the message that they are strong enough to desire something better and long-lasting. They look forward to making this future come true and enjoying its fruits. Although the body is caged, the will is not only free but also untainted and unaffected by its brutal surroundings.

As made clear in the multiple interviews they gave, the brides strongly supported the causes of their bridegrooms, and by all means wanted them to continue the struggle. The mother of one of the bridegrooms even overcame her motherly tenderness and came out praising her son for being imprisoned for such a cause. When one of the brides was asked to comment on the marriage, she retorted, “if we meet here in this world, well and good. If not, the rendezvous will be in the afterlife”. When the expectation of family union leans neither on government mercy nor even on anti-government victory, it means that its existence is not conditioned by any state action, positive or negative. These hopes gush forth from a truly liberated soul.  

When not only the whole family praises their son for being in jail, but also a new person who is supposed to live with that son all her life joins the family knowing that she may not see him beside her any time soon - or never at all - the whole purpose of punishment by family dismemberment loses much of its meaning. The delight of resistance can even overcome the pain of separation.

A final word about the wedding ceremony itself: the ceremony was very loud, indicating the defeat of fear, dejection and hopelessness. It included songs/nasheeds of defiance, expressing resistance. And these striking aspects were extended to the prison’s compound. The glamorous ceremony held in Kality meant that this otherwise notorious prison was altered - albeit for a few minutes - into a house party, a place of happiness, agency and resistance, and hope. It has never seen such a transformation before. The same is true of the wedding ceremony. No longer confined to the subjective and the personal, this was a public wedding like no other.

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