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Of Taming Carnal Desire by Serawit B. Debele

Press  |  21.04.20

Serawit B. Debele
Of Taming Carnal Desire
Imperial Roots of Legislating Sexual Practices
in Contemporary Ethiopia


ABSTRACT: Focusing on Ethiopia, an empire off-center, this article argues
against dominant narratives that link the regulation of sexual practices to
colonial (Western) imperial relations. Within this context, the paper investigates
struggles over the past by contrasting two versions of history, discussing
how different groups mobilize the past in contemporary Ethiopia. It begins
by exploring the imperial, Christian roots of the country’s penal codes,
interrogating how the state mobilizes such histories to criminalize same-sex
desires and practices. The article then focuses its attention on those deemed
“outlaws” by such legislation, exploring their search for histories silenced
by empire, and their assertion as longstanding, integral parts of
the country’s past.

KEYWORDS: carnal desire, Ethiopia, subjectivity, zega, penal code


Since 1991, Ethiopia has presented itself as a secular, multi-ethnic state that has broken ties with its imperial past. Yet, as this article argues, imperial Orthodox Christian pasts inform the legal management of carnal desire (fetwät)in the country. Through multiple valences, imperial legacies—based on legal and discursive employments of historicist arguments—remain integral to the making of Ethiopia. This article focuses on the contemporary purchase of imperial legal history in the regulation of sexual practices, exploring the deployment of historical discourse as a tool to tackle social anxieties around sex and sexuality. By diagnosing the lasting legacy of the past and how it is experienced in the present, the paper traces continuities in the legislation of carnal desire between the Ethiopian Empire and the contemporary state.

While imperial Christian legacies have been officially disavowed in Ethiopia since the 1974 revolution, which brought to power the Marxist-Leninist military junta known as the Derg, most laws in the country remain significantly influenced by a fifteenth-century document called the FetehaNegest (FN). This stems from the incorporation of legal provisions from the FN, including those regulating sex, in the Ethiopian penal codes of 1931, 1957, and 2005. Since 1991, the ruling party, Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has led the Ethiopian state by manifesting an anti-imperial ideology, for example, in its commitment to the respect of cultural and religious rights of previously marginalized ethnic groups. Yet, as this article argues, the EPRDF’s current management of sexual practices remains marked by Orthodox Christian and imperial legacies. This means that imperial legal provisions have salience even after the collapse of Haile Selassie’s government and the Solomonic dynasty in 1974.

Situated within the debates on empires as formations and processes with a lasting resonance in the present (Stoler and McGranahan 5–10), this article emerges within a specific, off-center imperial context. To be sure, the article draws and extends works on sexual practices in non-Western historical contexts (Massad; Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches; Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa?; Zabus). Focusing on the Arab world, Iran, and Africa respectively, these works attribute the anxiety about legislating the sexual life of subjects to colonial/Western contacts. However, this article introduces an alternative reading from a place that is off-center, arguing that regulating sexual practices have been empire’s obsession long before the advent of Western imperialism. Foregrounding Ethiopia as an empire off-center, the paper contributes to conversations on empire and sexuality as constituted within contexts that are both non-Western and noncolonial.

While Orthodox Christianity has been tied to the state since its introduction to the Axumite Kingdom in the fourth century, imperial consolidation reached its climax at the turn of the twentieth century under Emperor Menelik (1889–1913), giving birth to the Ethiopian Empire. Scholars such as Donald Levine and Fouad Makki note that imperial expansion to the southern parts of present Ethiopia took place during the Scramble for Africa, an impulse for Menelik to strengthen his stronghold against the threatening presence of European powers in the region. Makki highlights: “The new empire incorporated a population and territory more than twice that of historic Abyssinia. . . . In a series of treaties signed with France, Britain and Italy between 1897 and 1908, the boundaries of the empire were delineated and,having secured international recognition, imperial rulers set out to consolidate control over the newly incorporated regions” (272).

Ethiopia’s imperial trajectories were characterized by ambivalence in the way the empire’s roles and positions are understood within the framework of European colonial expansions. As such, imperial Ethiopia was implicated in colonial processes akin to other empires, such as the Ottoman, which itself had colonial involvements in North and Northeast Africa (Minawi). This was particularly the case with the Shoan kingdom’s internal expansion to the southern parts of present day Ethiopia, in response to the fierce competition and pressure from France, Great Britain and Italy in the East African region (Makki 272). In their seminal work, Donald Donham and Wendy James dubbed this imperial expansion (with Orthodox Christianity as its cultural core) the “southern marches of imperial Ethiopia” (Donham and James). With its involvement as a partaker in the scramble, Ethiopia was an empire off-center that received little attention within the broader discussions on empire that take the West as the main—if not the only—protagonist (Stoler and McGranahan). Certainly, Ethiopia was an empire which constituted its modernity in relation to a colonial framework (Giorgis). Yet to focus on Ethiopia as an empire off-center means not only to take into account the complex relationship of colonial competition in which its imperial state emerged but also to take into account its internal dynamics. Imperial Ethiopia was—and as this article argues, remains—an empire-state imbued with complex histories, discourses and practices of marginalizing subjects such as those it characterized as sexual deviants. Using the notion of duress, Ann Stoler captures the strong prevalence of imperial histories in the present by arguing that “imperial dispositions have tenacious presence in less obvious ways” (Duress 4). Focusing on the duress of an off-center empire, this  article describes and analyzes how empire’s perpetuity is experienced in the present.

The article is based on archival and ethnographic research among people who refer to themselves as zega, conducted in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in 2017–18. Zega in its everyday Amharic usage means a citizen or a foreign national, but is also a constitutionally recognized legal category used to refer to Ethiopian nationals. Sometime in 2002, the word was adopted by the Addis same-sex sex-practicing community, when a circle of friends created a Yahoo Mail group to communicate in secret. As I gathered from some of my interlocutors, zega is used to assert one’s presence and belonging to a polity otherwise characterized by alienating discourses and practices. This appropriation of the term calls upon a larger history of the category zega as a claim to citizenship by those on the margins of power. Historically, zega has been used to define a status based on property ownership. In the eighteenth century, zega referred to landless people who worked on the farms of church leaders in central Ethiopia (Mengiste). In spite of claims of revolutionary novelty by the EPRDF regime, the notion of zega still remains tied to its historical meaning, which links the state to its imperial past. Throughout this text, I avoid the term homosexuality—a category whose history and the orization mainly draws on the West—and use zega instead. In doing so, I take cue from Afsaneh Najmabadi’s caution about imposing foreign categories such as gay, noting the danger such categories entail in local contexts ( Najmabadi, “Is Another” and Women with Mustaches). Moreover, my decision to stick to the term emanates from the fact that the people I spoke with identify themselves as zega.1

The article begins with a description of how carnal desire is conceptualized and legislated in the FN, so as to tease out specific legal articulations and their appropriation in the penal codes that followed. I follow this discussion with a description of the history of sodomy laws in twentieth-century Ethiopia to show the continued relevance of this historical document. I then proceed to reflect on the experiences of zegas today and their desire for history.In doing so, I argue that zegas revisit the past to process their current experience of state oppression, as well as legal and public discourses that depict them as foreign to the land. In the concluding section, I stress how studying sexuality in off-center empires challenges assumptions about the management of same-sex practices and their ties to colonial histories.

“Fetwät”: Carnal Desire in the Feteha Negest

Carnal desire (fetwät) was introduced as a juridical category in the fifteenth century when the FN was adopted by the Ethiopian Empire. There are various theories about the origin of the document, but the general consensus is that it was brought to Christian Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Zara Yacob (1434–68). According to Abba Paulos Tzadua, the FN was translated to the liturgical language Ge’ez in the sixteenth century from the Arabic document Maǧmū al-qawānīn, first written in 1238 by the Christian Egyptian jurist Abū l-Fadā’il Ibn al‘Assāl as-Safī. In the following centuries, the document served as the basis of Ethiopian supreme law, and spiritual guidance of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church (Tzadua; Jembere; Muluken).

The document is divided into two overlapping parts. The first deals with religious matters in relation to the afterlife, while the second discusses worldly matters, instructing how subjects should conduct themselves. Carnal desire is defined and detailed in the second part. According to Kidanewold Kifle, fetwät is a state and act of either loving, desiring, wanting, or wishing. Despite it being a form of attachment, for Kifle fetwät is the smoke of sin that untamed sexual desire bears (736). The FN regards fetwät as lust and unmitigated sexual temptation. It depicts fetwät as the mother of all sins: decadent, enfeebling, and polluting because it forces one to go out of his way for illicit sex. And so, one needs to self-restrain because, if not tamed, fetwät is like a wildfire that “eats” one alive. Sexual fantasies (of any kind) subject one to dual death: exclusion from a respectable immaculate life and later from heaven. It is therefore a battle one has to fight because it breeds humiliation and suffering—here and in the afterlife.

The warnings have an explicit religious undertone, articulating a need to fulfill the Christian obligation to multiply through procreative sex. The empire in its turn acts as the guardian of these principles, not only as part of its Christian commitment but also for its own purposes of sustainment through the constant supply of subjects via procreation. Enforcing such Christian dogmas as the only truth enables the empire to construct its own outlaws, based on whether one’s sexual act fits into those discourses. The document also contains a list of punishments on those who trespass depending on the degree of the crime. For example, incest and the ensuing punishment are discussed in detail in article 48 of FN together with a number of fetwät committed before, within, and after marriage. Bestiality subjects one to an amputation of his genitals. Both men who engage in sodomy have to be killed, but if one of them is twelve years old or younger, he is pardoned due to his age (Feteha Negest: Nibabuna). The administration of such punishments was based on the act committed, and not a category of identity. As the Feteha Negest legislated individual acts of sin, sexual practices were not used as a foundation for constituting a legal identity.

Similar manuscripts were available in other off-center imperial contexts. In her work on early Qajar, Najmabadi highlights the availability of “literature of warning against gazing practices that might prompt a believer to engage in sinful acts.Warnings, and punishments of infractions, were directed equally against sexual acts with a woman not a man’s own wife as against having sex, in particular anal intercourse, with young men” (Women with Mustaches 18). However, as she points out, it is hazardous to make generalizations about whether any of the above concepts have anything to do with the actual sex life of the society. The same can be said about historic Ethiopia for which, to use Najmabadi’s own phrase, “we do not have social history” (Women with Mustaches 18). Historians like Haile Muluken and Aberra Jembere remark that there was a limited circulation of FN, and thus doubt its strict enforcement in governing imperial subjects (Muluken; Jembere). The document was confined to the imperial court and mainly in the hands of only those who were church educated. As the majority of the Ethiopian population was illiterate, the FN remained accessible to only a few church men. Whether FN has been enforced at all times across the board calls for further investigation. However, the document’s contemporary influence clearly points to continuities in the fantasy of imperial power, whose consolidation is predicated on tamed sexual indulgence.

Taking a cue from Walter Benjamin, I approach the FN as a legal document from the past but as one that is of major relevance to the present. Historical documents are products and reflections of the dialectic relations with civilization and barbarism (Benjamin 256). As he stresses, every document of civilization is a document of barbarism at the same time, and the processes of transmission of such historical documents are violent in so far as they are carried along on the back of the oppressed. If FN embodies a history of civilization in which Ethiopians take pride, it is at the same time a document that justified the subordination of subjects whose lives do not tally with imperial expectations. Its transmission to generations of rulers also became necessary as a tool to perpetuate oppression. Thus, instead of praising the FN as an icon of Ethiopia’s “longstanding juristic tradition and an almost innate sense of law,” as does Abba Paulos Tzadua (xxxviii) and reifying it as an epitome of Ethiopia’s glorious past, this essay reads FN as a document in which violent imperial legacies are inscribed. It is also a document that continues to justify the subordination and marginalization of certain sections of the society. The FN established conditions on which sex is permitted by introducing the divide between what is licit and illicit sexual act. Following Foucault’s notion of power as law (Foucault 82–83), we find at work here juridical power that employs law to define and prohibit sex. As I discuss below, provisions from the FN have remained part of Ethiopian legislation on sex both during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930–74) and the revolutionary republics that followed.

Historicizing “Sodomy” Law in Ethiopia (1930–2005)

With the introduction and expansion of modern bureaucracy in Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Sellasie introduced and enforced a new penal code. Articles from the FN that regulate sexual practices were incorporated in the first penal code of 1930 and in the revised code of 1957. Both penal codes of 1930 and 1957 had a stringent stance toward legislating sex as a necessary condition to protect the empire from degeneracy. In the former case, the article in question calls upon the document directly in the section “Concerning Crime Which Is Committed by Illicit Sexual Intercourse,” stating that “those who are forbidden by the Fetha Negest [and those who] have illicit sexual intercourse with their natural and spiritual relations, they should be imprisoned” (Penal Code 63). In the revised penal code of 1957, the same principle of historical law is retained in articles 600, “Unnatural Carnal Offences,” and 601, “Other Unnatural Acts,” which are specified in the section “Sexual Deviation.” The code defined non normative sexual practices as immoral and punishable by law (Revised Penal Code 182–3). The emperor explicitly mentioned in the preface of both codes that the criminal codes mainly draw on FN, although there has been room to accommodate foreign sources and experiences in the codification process. For instance, in the revised penal code of 1957, he wrote, “We have ensured that their concepts adopted as point of departure the venerable and well established legal traditions of Our Empire as revealed in the Fetha Negest and other subsequent legislation and practice” (Revised Penal Code vii).

The preeminent position of FN as a source of legal and moral order in imperial Ethiopia continued to be emphasized throughout Haile Selassie’s reign. In 1968 the document was translated into English for the first time, under the auspices of the Faculty of Law at Haile Selassie (today’s Addis Ababa) University. The emperor praised the longstanding place of FN in Ethiopia’s legal history in the preface to the first edition, adding:

Our people were at fist ruled by Mosaic law, but after the advent of Christianity to Ethiopia, they came later to be governed by the Fetha Nagast. . . . The Fetha Nagast has been venerated, supported, and applied by both the government of Our empire and by the Church. . . . By the Providence of the Almighty, this bulwark of the law was preserved for Our people.Venerated for many centuries, it provided for Our people an invaluable source of legal principles. (Tzadua v)

Commending the translation, the emperor also acknowledged the role of the faculty in disseminating knowledge about the FN. The translation was important for the emperor’s international image as it introduced the legal roots of his empire and strengthened Ethiopia’s position as an icon of civilization on the continent.

Under the rule of the EPRDF, the Penal Code was revised in 2005, and was renamed the Criminal Code. The stated rationale for the revision is a need to keep up with new local and global changes in the areas of human rights, women’s emancipation, and the recognition of previously marginalized ethnic and religious groups. The rigorous process of revision is described in the preface as follows: “Legal and medical professionals, psychiatrists, different institutions of higher education and professional associations have made significant contributions through the opinions they gave to the enactment of the law. Representatives of the people selected from different sectors and associations have forwarded important views in discussion forums on the draft laws conducted in Addis Ababa and the regions” (Criminal Code n.p.).

In spite of its calls on expert groups and use of modernizing language (or perhaps as an outcome of the consultations), the new legal code criminalized zegas in remarkably similar language to the FN. The document remained the major legal source on what is still termed “sexual deviation,” posited in the section that contained articles on “homosexuality and indecent sexual acts.” In the 2005 revision of the Penal Code, any attempt to excite indecent sexual desire, including sodomy and bestiality, remained a criminal act punishable by law.2

Following decades of civil war (1974–91), Ethiopian state formation processes came to be defined through the critique of the old imperial regime, characterized by exploitation, subordination, and cultural assimilation of diverse groups under the banner of Orthodox Christian Ethiopianness. Yet, as I have argued, the inclusion of provisions from the FN in the country’s current penal codes demonstrates continuities with the colonial past. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that Ethiopia has not been implicated in discourses and practices that emanate from the Western imperial and (post)colonial contexts. For instance, one striking extension of imperial legal discourses on sex is the introduction of the category of “homosexuality” in the revised law.What was known as an “unnatural carnal offence” in both the 1930 and 1957 Penal Codes has been referred to as “homosexuality” in the Criminal Code of 2005. The further inclusion of “lesbianism” as a legal identity offers another interesting point of intersection between the indigenous, imperial source of law and the so-called Western influence (yäEthiopia Fedäralawi Dimocrasiawi n.p.). The inclusion of homosexuality as a category in 2005 represented a significant shift beyond legislating acts to instituting a legal identity. Through defining a group of people as “homosexuals” certain sections of the population were inscribed as legal problems the state has to deal with. Given the increasing and vibrant discourses on sex and sexuality globally, it is not surprising that the current Ethiopian law is at the same time emerging as a site of hybridized legal discourses and practices.

While the current regime celebrates the rights and freedoms of individuals and claims to be determined to fight any form of discrimination, zega is reified as an oppressed group on the margins of the law. To be sure, the state hails secularist values and also claims to have removed Christianity from its historical role in the political life of societies in imperial Ethiopia. But in practice Ethiopia offers an example of “Christian secularism,” where Christian morality frames major legal discourses based on which sexual lives are regulated (Jakobsen and Pellegrini). As part of the longstanding complementary of church and state in Ethiopia, managing sexual life of ordinary citizens emerges as one site of alliance between the two institutions (Tamrat). The anxiety to manage the intimate and personal spheres of life is one of the multiple manifestations of the marriage between empire and its secular state successor. Law interacts with the church and its adherents to produce the life of zegas as one lived in constant fear and self-surveillance.

Religion, sexuality, and secularism constitute each other, as witnessed in the legal provisions based on Christian religious logic that cut across both imperial and contemporary periods of Ethiopian history. Lucinda Ramberg’s argument well captures these dynamics: “Forms of secularity and religiosity invest themselves in bodies and pleasure; they shape the possibilities we are given, or give ourselves. All rites and religions deploy sexuality: they mobilize and organize sexual economies, distributions of fertility, the limits and possibilities of public pleasures, and the shapes of our desires” (177). Moreover, what Joan Scott suggests regarding the relationship between the secular and religious illuminates the contemporary Ethiopian context in which the state claims to be secular while drawing on imperial, Christian pasts. As she argues, instead of conceptualizing the secular as an antithesis of the religious, it is more productive to see the two as mutually constitutive, or the secular as an extension of the religious in the way it manages sexual differences (Scott 24–25). As Scott further posits, the maintenance of state sovereignty presupposes Christian practices, and thus, contrary to claims of separation, “the discourse of secularism always already included Christianity”.  Relatedly, Michael Warner remarks, sexuality produces the population, which is managed by legislation that draws on the religious. States that claim to be divorced from religion nevertheless draw upon religious documents to regulate the intimate life of their subjects. Population management through regulating fertility, procreation, and public morality remains critical for the state’s maintenance of sovereignty, and Christianity is central to this process. Hence, as an imperial production, FN represents not only the basis of law in the current state as an “ideal form,” but it does so precisely because of its status as an imperial Christian document.

This persistence of Ethiopian state power that manages sexuality across imperial and contemporary periods echoes Ann Stoler’s argument that matters of intimacy are matters of the state/empire. They are not subsidiary elements, but strategic sites of governance in their own right and hence one of the state’s major preoccupations (Stoler, “Matters”). As far as the state is concerned, “sexual corruption” compromises the subject’s commitment and loyalty to the state. Accordingly, what the state perceives as legitimate sex is reified as a standard vantage point from which what is regarded as illegitimate is undermined by law. Akin to Michel Foucault’s proposition, the purpose of prohibition in this context is to produce subjects who orient themselves against it, rather than eliminate the prohibited behavior (Foucault). Employing law to (re)inscribe some sections of the society as a “social problem,” the state recognizes their existence as anomalous and in need of management.

The legacy of imperial Ethiopia is further visible in the unacknowledged alliance between anti-homosexual activists, nostalgic for the country’s imperial past, and the state’s determination to manage the carnality of its ordinary citizens through laws drawn from an imperial document. “Homosexuality” has remained a vice for both the state and religious institutions, as highly embedded in everyday life. Both criminalization and eternal damnation, as consequences of the vice, are thus complementary positions. The criminalization of same-sex intimacies gives license to religious institutions and their followers to act against zegas, from whom the state has withdrawn protection. Sexual desires beyond the heteronormative frame are defined as deviant, immoral, and unconventional, to be corrected through the collaboration of the state and religious institutions.

Certainly, church orientated anti-zega activism in tandem with state law suffuses the everyday life of zegas with its normative demands to which they have to adjust. This in turn subjects zegas to a life lived in a constant process of adjustment. Subjects have to actively orient their bodies in response to such normative demands by adjusting to the disciplining discourses, institutions, and apparatuses. In order to demonstrate how imperial history, law, and anti-zega activism manifest in the everyday life of zegas, I offer an ethnographic account that illustrates key processes of subjectivization and counter processes of reclaiming negated subjectivities. I do so by describing two extreme positions embodied by activists: those who advocate for the rights of zegas and those who oppose them.

To live as Zega in Ethiopia

Beki Aby is one of the most vocal activists fighting for legal protection for zega living in the country. He told me how alarming the legal situation has become in Ethiopia in recent times. In only one day in 2015, twelve young men were imprisoned due to allegations of violating article 629 of the criminal code, which states that homosexuality is punishable by law. The same year, Beki witnessed few individuals being fired from their jobs for their “homosexual tendencies,” which were regarded as a disciplinary problem. Escaping intimidation and threat, Beki moved to the United Kingdom in 2016, where he gave the following interview to Cheryl Overs:

Homosexuality is totally illegal in Ethiopia and it carries jail penalties. . . . Even outside of the arrests the law is a justification for anyone to abuse LGBT people as they want. . . . Of course, there is always the risk of being arrested and it is important to understand that this means entering a criminal justice system that is secretive and without the checks and balances of a democratic system. But in a way the more pervasive threat is being outed to family, employers, church, neighbours, etc. (“Interview with Beki Abi”)

Ethiopian scholars who advocate for the decriminalization of “homosexuality” and the respect of basic human rights for sexual minorities share Beki’s concern. Selamawit Tsegaye, whose research challenges Ethiopia’s legal heteronormative regime, has remarked that “the dire situation in the country, which reinforced by the criminalization of the act, subsequently leads individuals who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, and bisexual to live in fear, shame, and isolation with no protection of the law” (Tsegaye, “Impact”). Similarly, Betelhem Ephrem and AaronetteWhite stress the constant fear in which “lesbians” live due to, among other reasons, the lack of legal protection owing to state-sanctioned homophobia. This is shared by Daniel Iddo Balcha, who emphasizes the role of religion in shaping legal regimes to ostracize homosexual groups in Ethiopia.What these authors and activists share is an understanding of how legal provisions, originating in the imperial document of FN, work beyond prohibition and punishment to produce zega subjectivity as lived in fear. At the center of their position is an appeal to law and universal human rights discourses.

The interaction between the law and other sociocultural and religious sentiments mobilized against zegas is clear if we pay attention to anti-zega activism.When asked his views on Ethiopian law concerning homosexuality, Dereje Negash, founder and leader of an Orthodox Christian association, stated that the law has to be stricter. He went on to explain that there is a significant difference between 2005, when the criminal code was revised, and the time of the interview in 2014. For Dereje, “sodomy” spreads through new mobile technologies and social media, which requires a new revision of the law and a scaling up of the punishment (Gidey). Dereje’s appeal is rooted in the commitment to carry what Walter Benjamin calls “cultural treasures” (256), artifacts of oppression that have their roots in Christian ideals of normality originating within the Ethiopian Empire.

Such relationships between legal prohibition and anti zega activism are by no means peculiar to Ethiopia. Based on his research indifferent countries in Africa, Cary Alan Johnson reports that statutes deployed to “criminalize consensual same-sex conduct uphold a system of discrimination in which an individual’s sexual behavior is considered so criminally immoral that he or she is deemed unworthy of human rights protections. Even in countries where such laws are infrequently enforced, they criminally marginalize LGBTQ people so that the perpetrators of violence, discrimination, and abuse are free to operate with impunity” (Johnson 20).

In the 1990s, South African gays and lesbians were confronted with what Ryan Goodman calls the “social experience of sodomy laws” (671). The very existence of laws, whether enforced or not, was a site of fear and insecurity and resulted in self-disciplining (Goodman). In Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, the situation remains fraught for same-sex attracted people due to the criminalization of certain sexual practices (Macharia; Epprecht, Sexuality and Social Justice). From the perspective of scholars like Neville Hoad, the Ethiopian context is thus a reflection of how law is mobilized against or in favor of same-sex attracted people elsewhere on the continent (Hoad).

Yet what makes Ethiopia unique is its historical position as an “empire off center,” that is, the historical specificity that is tied to its indigenous Christian tradition and its noncolonial imperial past, regarded as a pillar of pride for the public. Within such historicist conceptualizations of Ethiopian identity, zegas trigger an underlying anxiety that must be  tackled by any means possible, lest it cause national shame, undermine established norms, and unsettle received hierarchies. This is embedded in the view that zegas threaten Ethiopia’s sacred imperial-Christian past and morally clean present, and endanger its hope for the future. Anti-zega advocates’ insistence on strict measures by the state thus work to make empire and its historical legacies respectable through sexual sanctions (Stoler, “Making”).

However, that imperial laws remain unchallenged in shaping contemporary subjectivities and disciplining sexual practices is not the whole story. The complex and contradictory ways in which legal regimes and history work in the present are laid bare the moment the same marginalized community looks back to history to find affirmation. In what follows, I discuss how zega position themselves vis-à-vis imperial legacies through the notion of the desire for history, a phrase I adopted from Allen Bérubé’s “Intellectual Desire.”

A Desire for History

The desire for history, according to Bérubé, is an escape route or strategy “to survive a difficult present by reminiscing about the past and dreaming about the future” (170). Just as much as fear and insecurity are prominent, contemporary discourses among the zega evidence this overwhelming desire for history: an act of looking for validation, affirmation, and liberatory options from the past. The desire for history is a form of struggle by which zegas excavate relatable histories in which they find their traces. In so doing, they not only challenge their representation by anti-zega activists but also write themselves into existence as a part of history erased by empire. In the struggle for liberating the oppressed past, such acts complicate the continuity of oppressive heteronormative narratives.

In my first meeting with zega Addis Ababans, I came to learn more about same-sex intimacies in historic Ethiopia. Two stories in particular are in high circulation by zegas to confront the anomaly Ethiopia’s perpetual discourse of hetero-normalcy strives to make them. The first story was published in 1988, as part of Sergew Hable Sellasie’s Amharic Church Dictionary. In it,Hable Sellasie discusses two women (whom he calls whores) living together as a couple in eighteenth-century Ethiopia, as part of a brief biography of the judge involved in their case. In his effort to praise the wit of the local judge, Hable Sellasie recounts how the two women, who lived as husband and wife, had some disagreement related to childbirth. This conflict was resolved with the judge’s wise intervention. What is interesting in this story for the zega community is that the women were not frowned upon for having lived as husband (who is described as masculine) and wife, that the wife has never been with anyone else except her husband, and that they were able to live as a couple. This story is prominent in Addis Ababa as a site of wonder, pride, rootedness, but also frustration with the selective nature of Ethiopia’s public history (Hable Sellasie).

The second story revolves around the life of a seventeenth-century Ethiopian saint whose biography was translated from Ge’ez into English in 2015 by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner. Wäläta Petros was a noblewoman who abandoned her husband and moved to a monastery to live the rest of her life as a nun. There she met her lifetime companion, a woman named Eheta Kristos, and the two lived together till death parted them. Wendy Belcher wrote a follow-up article in which she reads sexual intimacies not only between the two women but also other nuns within the monastery who were seen lusting after each other (Belcher and Kleiner; Belcher). Both the translated biography and the article had mixed reception because of the controversial expositions. However, in zega circles the book and the article are highly celebrated pieces. I have been told by many that Wäläta Petros is a new patron saint, who guards Addis Ababans against all forms of violence due to her assumed understanding of the challenges zegas face.

These stories generate hope among zega Addis Ababans, who enthusiastically look into the past to ground themselves against powerful discourses that alienate them. Such acts of recovering “lost” histories are at the same time acts of defying widely held assumptions about the imperial past as predominantly imbricated with Christian morality. By circulating such stories, zegas entertain a level of longing for their erased past that tackles their present dislocations by imperial law and history. As Allen Bérubé argues, such desire for history restores a sense of wholeness andmitigates the anxiety that living in a violent present induces (Bérubé). Law and history, the very tools of zegas’ subjugation, are mobilized through the desire for history to counter various forms of alienation. Beyond imperial prescriptions of legitimate sexual practices, zegas’ desire for history calls for a juxtaposition of various historical sources to read existing ones “against the grain.” Such engagements with the past not only offer fresh perspectives on sexuality but also operate to upset the meta-narratives of empire.

Concluding Remarks

Even after the 1974 and 1991 revolutions, each of which purported to do away with the Ethiopian Empire, imperial modes of subjection are in no way settled in the past. As the above discussions demonstrate, neither law nor history operates outside of broader sociopolitical and religious structures. Law is a site of knowledge, power and practice entangled with imperial histories and imaginations, articulated as the management of intimacies and heteronormative socio-cultural, religious, and political values (Constable and Schafer).

The struggle for history thus remains a prominent element of the debates on sexual practices and experiences in contemporary Ethiopia. Here, I contrast two conceptions of history: its deployment to attack zegas in the country and its mobilization by zegas as an emancipatory option that imagines a redemptive moment, contingent on recovering a past obscured by empire. On the one hand, ardent opponents of zega use history to construct zegas as outlaws who disturb the hegemonic narratives of imperial past. For them, received logics of the Ethiopian state appear to be in what Benjamin calls “a moment of danger” because Ethiopia’s longstanding Christian morality is under threat (255). On the other, zegas themselves desire for alternative histories that restore their dignity and to liberate an oppressed past in which their experiences are inscribed. From the perspective of zega, what is at stake is their very survival.

To forget or deliberately ignore the imperial roots of regulating the sexual life of citizens in today’s Ethiopia posits same-sex sexual practices as a Western import, pitted against the country’s cultural sovereignty. Interrogating such received historical narratives invites a rethinking of the convenient scapegoat, that is the “Western” roots of homosexuality in Ethiopia, and Africa at large. It also complicates assumptions by scholars like Marc Epprecht, who argues that it is not homosexuality that was a Western import but rather homophobia (Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa? and Sexuality and Social Justice). As this history of the FN and Ethiopia as an “empire offcenter” demonstrates, neither was imported with colonialism. Beyond the rhetoric of colonial imports, we need to remember that same-sex practices abound, as did the urge to control them. Interrogating off-center empires like Ethiopia, whose relationship to colonialism differs from that of its neighboring states, challenges processes of knowledge production that posit nonnormative sexualities within (post)colonial frameworks.

HISTORY of the PRESENT ■ A Journal of Critical History ■ 10:1 ■ April 2020
10.1215/21599785-8221434 © 2020 Duke University Press

Serawit B. Debele is a research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic
Diversity. She is the author of Locating Politics in Ethiopia’s Irreecha Ritual (2019).
She is also a coeditor of the journal Secularism and Nonreligion.



1 This is not to imply that there is a uniform acceptance of the word by all. For example, almost all the women I spoke to showed reservation due to its masculine overtones.

2 Paradoxically, such inclusion recognizes for the first time the existence of women with diverse sexual preferences. Nonetheless, while gender equality remains a stated goal of the EPRDF regime, the inclusion represents the limits of such discourses by reifying women’s subjectivities as criminals who disrupt heteronormative

3 “Cultural treasures” are, according to Walter Benjamin, “spoils” carried along by the triumphant on the back of those lying prostrate.



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