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Feature: Girls, women in Tigray long for justice and healing as Ashenda returns after three years

Ashenda celebrations in Tigray, 2023 (Photo:Tigray Television)

By Mihret G Kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis AbebaAshenda is a notable cultural event in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, celebrated primarily in late August, aligning with the Ethiopian month of Nehase. The festival, which is also colorfully marked in the neighboring Amhara region as Shadey, sees participation from young girls and women, who engage in communal songs and dances, fostering a sense of community.

According to Tikabo Gebresilasse (PhD), a cultural and literature researcher at Mekelle University, the festival has been celebrated for centuries, since its introduction in the 4th century during the rise of Christianity in the historic city of Aksum.

While some experts cite different myths about Ashenda’s origins relating to King Solomon, Dr Tikabo believes the folklore is tied to Christianity and the story of the Virgin Mary’s ascension into heaven, accompanied by a procession of singing and dancing girls, which is said to be the origin of girls performing song and dance in groups during Ashenda celebrations. The name “Ashenda” itself derives from the Tigrinya word for a tall green grass used by the girls to create decorative skirts worn around the waist, Tikabo stated.

While Ashenda has religious roots, over time it evolved into a broader cultural tradition with participation across faiths. Elements like the women’s attire and jewelry maintain religious symbolism.

Dr Tikabo states that Ashenda is among the most significant festivals in the region and warrants preservation through UNESCO recognition. Also known as “Girls’ Day,” it represents a time when women and girls can exercise their freedom. For three days, determined locally, girls and women celebrate with song and dance, moving door-to-door. Homeowners typically provide monetary gifts or other offerings, or risk facing criticism. Ashenda offers females freedom of expression often rare in daily life, Tikabo conveyed.

The girls dress in colorful cultural attire with unique hairstyles and ornamental jewelry. With their elaborate beauty preparations, a Tigrinya saying; “ቆልዓ ኣሸንዳ ሪኢኻ ኣይትተሓፀ” emerged, meaning “don’t propose to an Ashenda girl”, the point being that all women are resplendent during the festival. Through music, poetry, and rhythm, they employ their words as instruments of freedom.

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Yet, the backdrop to this celebration has been anything but festive in recent times. Tigray has been at the epicenter of a conflict involving the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The clash, which began in late 2020, has resulted in widespread killings, displacement and sexual violence, among others, with many residents seeking refuge in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. The ramifications of this conflict have permeated various aspects of daily life, including the observance of cultural traditions like Ashenda.

After a three-year absence due to war, Ashenda returned this year. For many Tigrayan women and girls though, there is little to truly celebrate this year amidst the grief and trauma that conflict has brought to their communities.

One young woman emblematic of this somber atmosphere is Hewan, a 15-year-old Tigrayan mother whose name has been changed for security reasons. Growing up, Hewan was like any other teenage girl in her community. She lived in the western zone of the region, where traditions ran deep and celebrations like Ashenda were the highlights of her year. These were the days when her biggest concern was choosing the right dress, the most radiant jewels, and getting her hair styled in the traditional Tigrayan fashion that made her feel unique and proud. 

“I used to dress in colorful outfits and dance with my peers limitlessly. It was a time of joy, unity, and innocent revelry” she recalls.

However, the war that broke out between the federal government and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF) transformed her life in ways she could never have imagined. The once vibrant streets of her hometown became the backdrop for scenes of horror and heartbreak. Armed groups rampaged through villages, leaving behind trails of destruction.

There wasn’t food or water, so I survived by eating raw sesame seeds from the store.”

One fateful day, during the first weeks of the war, as the echoes of weapons grew louder, Hewan’s life was irrevocably altered. Members of the non-state militia called Fano who were fighting alongside the Ethiopian government forces and are accused of rape and abduction of women and girls, as well as crimes against humanity, including the crimes of “deportation or forcible transfer and ethnic cleansing, especially through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray”, stormed her home, forcibly taking her away and leaving her mother, whom she fondly calls “Adey,” distraught and helpless. Hewan was imprisoned in a sesame store, a grim confinement where over 30 other girls, women, and youths were held against their will. 

In the chilling darkness of the store, basic necessities like food and water were scarce. Hewan recounts her desperate attempts at survival, “there wasn’t food or water, so I survived by eating raw sesame seeds from the store.” But physical hunger wasn’t the only torment they faced. The imprisoned women were subjected to unthinkable sexual violations, often in the presence of their own children. The trauma was so profound that some chose to end their lives rather than endure further humiliation.

Hewan’s voice trembles as she recounts, “many women were sexually violated in front of their own children. It was a sight that haunts me every day. Some of these mothers, unable to bear the shame and trauma, took their own lives because their children had to witness their violation. I was a mute spectator, fearing that I would be the next victim.”

In a phone interview with Addis Standard, Hewan recounted the grief and trauma she experienced as two of her brothers who had joined her in the prison later were shot dead in front of her  during the two months of her imprisonment by armed groups. After this anguishing loss, Hewan was gang raped by three militants, the distress causing her to lose consciousness during the assault. Upon regaining awareness, she found the prison isolated, as the armed group had moved locations.

In the aftermath, Hewan made her way to a displaced persons camp in Shire where she stayed for months and eventually went to Mekelle for a hospital for care. It was there she learned she was six months pregnant from being raped. Just 13 years old, she gave birth and now at 15, she is caring for her child. “I am doing alright now and have discontinued psychological treatment at Ayder Hospital,” she remarked.

Currently, Hewan runs a small shop selling dairy products in Mekelle. The business is supported by Hiwyet Charity Association, which assists girls and women in Tigray who have endured physical and psychological trauma. 

…this annual event … provides a valuable opportunity for communal healing.”

When asked if she will celebrate the annual Ashenda festival, Hewan acknowledged her preparations will be bittersweet. “While I will make efforts to observe this day that commemorates freedom, true celebration eludes me. My heart longs for justice for my murdered brothers and for all the young girls like me, whose innocence was shattered along with their dreams for the future.”

According to Atsbha Gebreegziabher (PhD), Head of the Tigray Culture and Tourism Bureau, this year’s Ashenda festival will mark the first celebration since the outbreak of war in November 2020. “The bureau is working to reconnect our people through this annual event, which provides a valuable opportunity for communal healing,” he stated.

Dr. Atsbha elaborated that the festival will be themed “Ashenda for Peace and Healing” this year. The conflict has inflicted immense psychological and physical trauma on Tigrayan girls and women through acts of sexual violence, murder, and physical brutality. “This is a time to empathize with their suffering and promote the healing process from psychological wounds and physical injuries,” he remarked.

The bureau has prepared various initiatives to fund-raise for survivors, providing financial assistance and employment opportunities as part of holistic healing. Dr. Atsbha stressed that supporting women in this way also uplifts and strengthens the country.

Regarding tourism, the bureau head commented that Ashenda will positively impact the sector in Tigray, inspiring its post-war revival. The festival represents a chance to reinvigorate tourism across the region. AS

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