Speaking with Nebila Abdulmelik, a fierce feminist activist from Ethiopia, is always a delight. Nebila seems to bring her full self to even the most mundane of discussions, leaving you enthralled with her thoughtful words and her calm, melodic voice.
I am thrilled to share with you excerpts from a rich, inspiring conversation we had about the roots of her activism (part 1), her take on the links between Islam and feminism (part 2), and the power of creative arts as an instrument for social change (part 3). I hope you will be as inspired as I am by this interview.
Hi Nebila! Thank you for making the time to speak with me. Can you introduce yourself?
I am a pan-Africanist and a feminist. I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, and I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to travel the world, for my studies, for work and for leisure.
I’m a curious person. I was that annoying student in class who was always raising her hand and asking lots of questions! I think it was just my way of understanding things and digging a bit deeper. I never wanted to live at that surface level.
What else? I love books. I’ve come to appreciate the ability that reading has to transport into another place, another world. In the past few years I’ve been deliberately making time for reading. I’ve read more in the past two or three years than I have my whole life.
What exactly does it mean to you when you call yourself a feminist?
Saying that I’m a feminist means that I recognise that the world we live in is unfair, unjust, and unequal in many ways, and that I think gender inequalities are the most glaring. Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, wherever you’re from, being a woman will always play a role in how you’re perceived, how far you can get in life.
"Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, wherever you’re from, being a woman will always play a role in how you’re perceived, how far you can get in life."
Saying I’m a feminist means that I understand that in this unequal world, girls and women face the steepest challenges. From birth, girls and women are condemned to acting, to dressing or to behaving a certain way. The expectations that are placed on girls and women diminish who they can be, the potential that they have to live their full life.
"The expectations that are placed on girls and women diminish who they can be, the potential that they have to live their full life."
So to me, being a feminist means that I want to work towards a world that doesn’t discriminate in that manner – towards a world that that doesn’t discriminate at all, full stop.
Let’s talk about your journey as a feminist. Was there a turning point, a moment when you decided or realized you were a feminist?
You know, I can’t remember when I understood what the word “feminist” meant or when I started identifying with it. I’d say it was recently, maybe in the past ten years. I can without a doubt say that my parents played a huge role in shaping how I saw the world, and how, as a girl, I saw myself in that world.
I am the youngest of three girls. I don’t remember my dad ever saying anything like “you’re a girl so you can’t do that”, “you’re a girl so you have to do this”, or even, “I wish I had boys”. It was amazing to have a father like that, who was content with having three girls.
"I don’t remember my dad ever saying anything like 'you’re a girl so you can’t do that', 'you’re a girl so you have to do this', or even, 'I wish I had boys'. It was amazing having a father like that."
My mum was one of the few women in her generation who was working outside of the house. She was also one of the few in her generation to drive. She was even going to night school at some point after she had had all three of us.
All of this played a really big role in shaping how I saw myself and what I thought about my capabilities and my limitations. I grew up thinking that women are capable, women can go to school, they can work, they can drive.
But then came a point when I realized that it is not the case for every woman or every girl, and it hit me that I had been in a place of opportunity and perhaps of privilege. Realizing my own privilege in terms of how I viewed women was a defining moment in my journey as a feminist.
"Realizing my own privilege in terms of how I viewed women was a defining moment in my journey as a feminist."
I’ve always been in awe of how peaceful and gracious you always seem to be, when I so often feel frustrated with the status quo. Does anger play any role in your activism?
Sometimes, as activists, we’re so upset. And we should be: there’s something really infuriating about inequality, and I believe anger can lead to action and change. But I also think that there is a danger that we can add negative energy to the situation we hate so much. That doesn’t make things become any better – sometimes we’re just adding more fuel to the fire.
To be honest, my feminism is not rooted in anger. It is rooted in hope and faith, and in my belief that nobody is inherently evil.
"I think there is an innate goodness in us and we have to find that goodness and cultivate it."
Maybe it’s just the idealist in me, but I want to believe that love will triumph hate, and that beauty will triumph ugly.