Ye Kake Werdwot: 1855, an Ethiopian woman’s fight for equality

During a time in which modern schooling was not available in the country; a time when human rights, let alone women’s rights, were consistently violated, a woman rose up to fight for equality of the sexes. Her name was Ye Kake Werdwot. She was born in Gurage Zone, in a place called Muher from Damo Kake and Ajet Amina. Being born to a wealthy family, she had a happy and comfortable childhood. In that time, the traditional customs required that children of famous and wealthy people take their father's name as a first name hence her name Ye Kake Werdwot. 

Werdwot's fight for women's rights started once she married Agaze Furche, the Cheha Warlord who stole her heart. As he was her first love, she married Agaze believing he is her first love too. After finding out that he had married two wives before her, Werdwot was very outraged. Throughout their marriage, Agaze failed to be faithful to his wife. Werdwot later divorced her husband which was a big shock to everyone because women were not allowed to divorce. In the Sebat Bet Gurage, women who disobey the culture and tradition were branded with “Anqit” or curse. Werdwot did what she felt was the right thing despite the culture and tradition. This led to the start of her fight for women’s rights. Werdwot wasn't only known for taking a strong stance against oppression but also for her beauty. She was one of the most beautiful women in that area. 

One day, Werdwot asked the elderly women in her society to come to a meeting at Jefore, a local place where the elderly men met to discuss legal and social problems. It was considered a sacred place to the people and only men attended meetings there. Her choice of the venue had surprised a lot of people. The women who attended the meeting were not more than 40. A lot more had received the invitation but the fear of criticism caused women who received invitation to decline. However all women in that region were all eager to hear the points that were going to be discussed during the meeting and what the outcome would be. The men who saw the assembly of women at the Jefore approached them and asked why they were assembled at a forbidden place for women. Werdwot replied, “Jefore belongs to everyone. You even let your cattle assemble here and try to resolve issues in their own language. Are women less than your horses and your cattle? Jefore is a place that no one individual can claim; it is a place that belongs to everyone and that can be used by everyone.” 

Despite discouragement among men, Werdwot continued her meeting with women, mostly the wives of wealthy men and presented all of her questions to them. Assembling these women was very unusual. Women did not have any place where they could assemble and talk about their problems. Men were the ones who came home with solutions that they thought would resolve their problems. 

After the strong prevention about the sexism relevant in the zone, Werdwot and women were adamant about presenting their plea to Joka Court. When the elder men heard that the women were about to present their plea to the Joka Court, they panicked and decided that the matter should be brought to an end before it grows bigger but nothing they did stopped the women from continuing to speak and gather to discuss women's issues. 

On the day of the hearing, Werdwot and her team of women headed to the Joka Court. Here are the list of ten questions they raised: 

1. Men should not be  allowed to marry more than one woman when women are not given the same chance. Either they should be forbidden to do so, or women should be allowed to marry more than one man.

2. If a man does not want his wife, he would kick her out with only kitchen utensils (that she could remake easily or is cheap in the market) but won’t give her anything else like cattle, land, or a house. Werdwot asked why that was the case even though they both worked hard to acquire the wealth that they have.

3. Women must be allowed to divorce if they do not want to stay married, especially if their husband is mistreating them

4. Women must be allowed to inherit wealth from their family. Parents’ should stop denying wealth to their daughters and must equally inherit wealth between the sexs. 

5. A Jofora Court made up of women must be formed to preside over matters concerning women

6. Children must be named after their fathers and mothers and not only fathers

7. Women should have the right to decline an arranged marriage

8. Women should not be forced into marriage but should instead have the right to pick their partners

9. If a woman is not happy with her marriage, she should be allowed to divorce 

10. Men should limit their consumption of khat once they are married and have children

The elders of the Joka (the highest court) were surprised by the question and opted for a rehearing and ended the meeting. Prior to the new hearing, the elders sent messengers to the women to make them stop this quest. Since the majority of women who supported Werdwot where wives to elite men in the society, they were convinced to stop their participation through persuasion, bribery, and force. Luckily, the women ignored opposition and kept their fight.

The day of the second hearing, Werdwot headed to court. But to her surprise, no one besides the elder men were at the court. However, she knew very well it was a sabotage. When the elders got up thinking that the hearing was not happening because she was standing alone in front of them, she stopped them and said angrily “I am standing in front of you today on the day of the hearing and you should at least listen to my plea”. The elders replied “the curse has been lifted for you, so you can do whatever you want”. Even though Werdwot was disappointed by the absence of the women, she was very happy she stood up for herself.

The story of YeKake Werdwot did not reach the mainstream media until the famous Ethiopian play Ye Kake Werdwot came out. The play author Chanyalew Bekelech W/Girogis studied and researched her story for 15 years in the Gurage Zone. To craft the play that effectvily imitated Werdwot's life and passion, over 100 people were involved. In addition, the writers and directors visited her home, husband' home and interviewed people who came from her village. The producer of the play was so touched by Werdwot’s life story that he later changed his name from Dagmawi Feysa to Dagmawi Amelework Feysa. He said Werdwot’s question about the tradition of naming resonated with him. 

Everyone does not talk about her with love and respect; some use her name to belittle others. Meri Geta Kebede, a writer and a student majoring in Cultural Study said “Every time my mother thought a woman was different in regards to the questions she asked, or if she saw that this person wanted to bring change, she would admire that woman saying she is like Ye Kake Werdwot”. He also said when his father went to his grandparents, he would hear them saying the same thing about a woman who does not abide by the rules and does not follow the norm that the society has set. 

Werdwot spent her whole life fighting for women’s rights. She was a woman that was ahead of her time. A woman whose life story will be told from generation to generation. 

Although her precedented actions might not receive any recognition, she is the epitome of passion regarding women’s rights. Despite a lack of support, Werdwot fought for women’s rights. Werdwot didn’t believe justice can be served through silence, so she spoke up and fought. Similar to Werdowt, we are obligated to do the same.  

Art: Betremariam Tebebe