a1 Dickinson College
In 1960, women in southern Ethiopia's rural Konso district faced a violent campaign by local men to eradicate leather clothing following a ban imposed by the local governor, Tesfaye Hailu. Tesfaye, a man of the northern Amhara ethnic group, banned leather clothes along with bead necklaces and arm bracelets as part of imperial Ethiopia's “modernization,” which was influenced by disparate sources, including the United States. Tesfaye saw women's attire as “backward” and “unhygienic” and as obstructing modernization; its elimination was a means to improve Konso culture and help the empire join the community of modern nations. The “culture” of “the Other” has often been cast as impeding “modernity” and requiring elimination or change, particularly the practices of women, from genital cutting in eastern Africa to veiling among Muslim women in the Middle East and Europe (Hodgson 2009; Masquelier 2005; Merry 2009a). So it was with the widespread, politicized transition to cotton clothing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century eastern Africa. The target was clothing worn by all women in Konso and made by women in the low-status category of “Xauta,” sometimes referred to as a “caste.” Leather skirts signaled important stages in women's lives, and became extensions of individual women's tastes, experiences, and identities. Women today recall the violence and punishments of the campaign, including being chased, beaten, imprisoned, and fined, and even having their skirts forcibly removed at home and in public. They offer contradictory explanations of who initiated the ban and the reasons for it, but they remember clearly the local men involved in eradication efforts.
(Online publication January 05 2012)
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Steven Brandt and Kathryn Weedman Arthur for inviting me to join their project in Ethiopia. I am profoundly thankful to people in Konso, and to Abebaw Ejigu, Getachew Senishaw, Gelgelo Korbaydo, Derese Kochena, Kusse Kelto, and Dinote Kussia. The National Science Foundation funded the fieldwork discussed in this article, which the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in Addis Ababa enabled. California State University, Long Beach funded some analysis, and a Dana Research Assistantship at Dickinson College supported the work of Kaitlin Irvine, whose assistance was crucial. I presented earlier versions of this article at meetings of the African Studies Association (2009), the Society for Cultural Anthropology (2008), and the American Ethnological Society (2008), where audience members, fellow panelists, and discussants made valuable comments, particularly Jane Collins and J. Michael Williams. This article has benefited greatly from critical readings by my colleagues Shawn Bender, Ann Maxwell Hill, Susan Rose, and Karen Weinstein; by three anonymous CSSH reviewers; and by David Akin and Andrew Shryock, all of whom I thank sincerely.