OneWorld Magazine presents

From Old Virgins to Soldiers

by Dr.Ruth Westheimer and
Dr.Steven Kaplan

Ethiopian Falasha "It is in the lives of girls and young women that the rift between traditional Ethiopian values regarding age and gender and Israeli norms can be most clearly seen. Ethiopian custom demanded that both as women and as children they live according to a restrictive code and defer to most of those around them. In Israel they are offered unparalleled freedom and opportunities. Only through a delicate balancing act can they both enjoy these benefits and maintain good relations with those more attached to customary norms."
In Ethiopia, girls were often engaged and even married by the time they reached puberty. If the girl was particularly young (some were as young as nine when they married), sexual relations were deferred until she was ready to bear children. Whatever her age, a girl was expected to be a virgin when she married. If it was discovered that she was not, the marriage would be annulled and she would be returned to her family. After she was married, the bride went to live in her husband's village with his family. She also became the responsibility of her husband, who was expected to support and protect her.

Marriages were arranged between families, not decided upon by the couple, who may never have met before their engagement had been announced. A match was agreed upon only after extended inquiries and negotiations conducted with the assistance of qessotch and shmagilotch. Traditionally, Beta Israel were forbidden to marry anyone from their zamad, as reckoned for seven generations. While this degree of separation between partners remained an ideal, in recent years as few as four generations has been accepted. In the course of reviewing genealogies for this purpose, the history of each family, its purity, and its standing were also investigated.

By the early 1970s some Beta Israel girls in Ethiopia had begun to delay their marriages well past the age of puberty. Although relatively few in number, these "old virgins," as Michelle Schoenberger calls them ("old maid," although perhaps accurate, conjures up a totally wrong image for an unmarried 17-year- old!), challenged traditional categories concerning the age of marriage. They were, moreover, trendsetters for what was to follow in Israel.

The minimum legal age for marriage in Israel is sixteen. Although some ceremonies involving young girls were performed by Ethiopian qessotch in the mid-1980s, these were not sanctioned and had no legal standing. On the whole, Ethiopian girls in Israel do not marry before the completion of their high school studies at around the age of eighteen, and many wait considerably longer. They are not, however, necessarily "old virgins." Many, in fact, have been strongly influenced by the norms of their Israeli peers with regard to premarital relations.

At first, there was much confusion, and for some teenage girls, most of whom resided in boarding schools, the results were nothing short of a disaster. As Youth Aliyah anthropologist Anita Nudelman points out, such girls, who would have been wives and mothers in Ethiopia, had no real models for their behavior as singles and girlfriends and even less practical knowledge of birth control. Seeing their Israeli peers holding hands, hugging, and kissing in public (highly licentious behavior by Ethiopian standards), young immigrants understood this as evidence of the promiscuous norms of their new neighbors. They still retained, however, a fair degree of the Ethiopian woman's traditional deference to males. Pregnancies outside of marriage and in some cases abortions (both rare and strongly disapproved of in Ethiopia) followed.

In time, experience, education, and growing self-confidence paved the way for the development of a new pattern of premarital and marital relations. Couples date and even live together. Decisions to wed are made by individuals, but families are consulted and at least four generations of separation is usually observed. Couples who "discover" that they are more closely related usually agree to separate, although the decision is not an easy one. The expectation that the bride be a virgin is considered to be outmoded by many of the younger generation.

For many young women, the difficulty lies in balancing their desire to be part of the larger, more open society, and their continued respect for their parents. In a revealing interview with the Jerusalem Post, Tsega Melkav, a 24-year-old immigrant who divides her time between part-time studies at Bar Plan University and work at Israel radio, spoke of sharing an apartment with her Ethiopian boyfriend:

    "My father is my father, we don't talk about it.... He knows we live together, but we don't talk about it.... If my father objects to my situation, there would be an argument, but it wouldn't change anything." Later, however, she adds almost wistfully, "There is a great deal of respect for the father in Ethiopia.... Now that my father is here [in Israel] I try to treat him like I did there. I don't want to hurt him; I want to try and preserve his honor."

Given the enthusiasm with which many Ethiopian women have embraced the freedoms and opportunities offered by Israeli society, it is perhaps a little surprising that so few have chosen to assume the major responsibility that that same society imposes upon its young people: compulsory military service. Unlike almost a thousand of their male counterparts, who have entered the Israeli armed forces and served, often with distinction, only about two dozen Ethiopian women have joined the Israeli Defense Forces. How can we explain this disparity?

On the most basic level, the answer is quite simple. Ethiopian women, in contrast to Ethiopian men, are not required to do military service, so most don't. This broad exemption appears to have its roots in both Ethiopian tradition and, perhaps more importantly, Israeli understanding of Ethiopian tradition.

In Israel, any woman can be excused from compulsory military service simply by claiming that she is religiously observant and that it would be difficult for her to maintain her "modesty" in the armed forces. Thousands of women are excused on this basis every year. Some volunteer to do alternative work in Sherut Le'umi (National Service) as teachers, hospital aides, etc. Others marry, study, and otherwise continue with their normal civilian lives.

Since Ethiopians are considered a traditionally religious community, their women are automatically exempted from military service. As we have already seen on several occasions, the reality of Ethiopian life in Israel is far more complex than the simple label "traditional" indicates. Many of the changes we have discussed in this book, and particularly those that have taken place among young women, make a blanket characterization of Ethiopian women as "traditional" little short of absurd. Would the defense forces, for example, allow non Ethiopian women who go to discotheques on Friday night to claim an exemption on religious grounds? One suspects not.

And yet, there seems to be little question that most Ethiopian parents do not want their daughters to go into the army, and that traditional beliefs play a part in this. Legends of warrior queens and the recent inclusion of women in the forces of various liberation movements notwithstanding, the army in Ethiopia (as in most countries) was perceived as a male realm par excellence. Women found in and around the army were almost exclusively in the lowly role of camp followers: prostitutes, washerwomen, beggars, etc. Ethiopian women came to Israel, therefore, with no tradition of martial values comparable to that of the men. In Israel, moreover, Ethiopians have, in the words of Shalva Weil, "a sense that women are loose in the army . . . so it takes time for the idea of women serving in the Israeli army to enter the consciousness of Ethiopian Jews."

More troubling, she notes, is the relatively low number, about two dozen, of Ethiopian women volunteering for Sherut Le'umi. Here, objections based on morality and tradition carry little weight. Rather, it appears that Ethiopian Jews are only slowly beginning to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

Return to Ethiopia Index | 1. Surviving Salvation | 2. Inventing Tradition?
3. Old Virgins to Soldiers | 4. Translating Culture | 5. Book & PBS Doco


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