Never Simply A Woman: Introduced by Christa McKirland and Written by Sofanit Abebe

 

This series provides the perfect occasion to introduce our first “Logia Global Partner” and to invite other institutions to consider partnering with us as well. Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) is leading the way in educating women in postgraduate theological and biblical studies. Through a women’s faculty training track, they have sponsored three women to pursue their doctorates in theology and biblical studies in the United Kingdom. We had the honor of hearing from Fanos Tsegaye in our most recent post and this month we will hear from another scholar, Sofanit Abebe. After they complete their doctorates, they will return to faculty posts at EGST to teach and equip the next generation of scholars.

Preparing the way for these women is Dr. Seblewengel Daniel, an administrator and lecturer at EGST. Exemplifying that “you can be what you can see,” Dr. Daniel was the first woman to receive a doctorate in theology/religious studies in all of Ethiopia, paving the way for those coming after her. She has agreed to serve on Logia’s Advisory Board to offer wisdom and direction as Logia expands globally. Our hope is to have cross-pollination of scholarship and an exchange of ideas and resources for equipping women to pursue postgraduate divinity education. If your institution is interested in partnering with us, please visit our new Logia Global Partner page on our website.

Now we will hear from Sofanit Abebe, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Like our other contributors, she will speak a bit about her research interests, what challenges she has faced as she has pursued her academic passions, and suggestions she has for how to bring positive change regarding those challenges.

Never Simply a Woman

In my head, I’m simply Sofanit (or “silly me” depending on the occasion) with a fascination for all things historical, political, religious and Ethiopic. At all times, I am Sofanit the woman and the Christian. On particularly sunny days when I wear my pink tinted shades, I am to me, a photographer collating a lifetime of memories for my daughters, a brilliant curator of my kids’ art and craft, an aspiring artist of hair braid patterns and handmade Christmas cards. To my family and friends, I am Sofanit the daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. To my colleagues and people in the guild, I often have other adjectives attached to my identity as a woman, such as “majority world scholar,” or a PhD student from Africa (fingers crossed, next year by this time I will be a freshly minted PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins from the University of Edinburgh).

When the world sees me, I am a woman with several prefixes attached to my womanhood. Depending on where I am or who I am talking to, I am rarely simply a woman. In the Western world, I am a black woman or a black African woman. In Africa, I’m an Ethiopian. In Ethiopia, back in the good old days of political correctness and social harmony, I had a simple adjective I consciously and joyfully appropriated for myself: the equivalent of the English “evangelical” – Sofanit “pentewa”. Recently, I have been christened with a new prefix: in Ethiopia I am now an Amhara evangelical – the ethnic identifier being simultaneously employed as an ethnic slur or self-aggrandization depending on who’s doing the labelling. Regardless of its connotation, this is still legally and constitutionally correct as evidenced by my government issued ID that also identifies me as an Amhara (yes, we really have meticulously labelled every citizens’ residency cards and official birth records based on paternal ethnic socialization for every single one of our 110 million population – the only country in the world to have done so after the Balkan Wars and the Rwandan Genocide).

So simply put I am everywhere not just a Christian woman currently writing a PhD thesis on how Early Jewish apocalyptic thought shaped 1 Enoch and 1 Peter. No, it’s slightly more complex than that. A woman is never just a woman. For some in Ethiopia, I am a privileged Amhara pursuing a PhD in the UK at the cost of the cultural subjugation of the majority ethnic group and several other people groups extending a few millennia. For some I am the token woman selected by EGST’s female faculty training track and accepted to a PhD programme in a place as prestigious as the University of Edinburgh’s New College simply because I am a woman. For still others, I am “the diversity quota” pursuing a PhD at a major UK university all expenses paid.

As complex as identity marking adjectives are, they tell a powerful story that can have a multifaceted impact on how a woman occupies the male-dominated space of academia, or any space for that matter. When I walk into a room and see myself as one of the handful of women present at biblical studies seminars and conferences and one of the few women of colour (and oftentimes the only black woman), walking out can be a serious temptation. Like countless other women in biblical studies and theology, I have found the strength to make my way to the podium and find a seat at the table by sorting out the adjectives I choose to attach to my identity. At times this meant I have had to simply override internalized descriptors that hold me back from taking advantage of every opportunity, like the fear of being perceived as a mere “token woman” or some sort of “diversity quota” and the anxiety associated with living as a minority in a country with a history of racism and social inequality. It also meant I had to chuck out unnuanced labels like “majority world scholar” or “woman scholar” with its implicit restriction of such a scholar’s contribution to the discipline within confined realms.

With all its complexities and the potential to open vistas of gender, racial, and ethnic othering and attempts to silence, diminish, and shame, I have learned to accept, cherish and celebrate my multi-layered identity as an evangelical black African woman from Ethiopia, who is an Addis Ababan Amhara and a female member of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community in the UK. Through my own journey of self-acceptance, I have come to firmly believe that it is only in embracing the various strands of our identity and finding the courage to grapple with the various confusing intricacies that a woman truly becomes all that she is and is created to be. This becoming requires not only owning one’s complex layers of identity and a tender acceptance of all one is and has come to be. It also requires rejecting cynicism and celebrating how far academia has come in welcoming women, while at the same time, accepting that more growth remains possible.

 

Sofanit T. Abebe is a PhD candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Her PhD topic is “The Apocalyptic Imaginary in 1 Peter and 1 Enoch.” Her research interests focus on New Testament epistles and how they have been influenced by Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman milieu.

Photo by Stephen Hocking on Unsplash