Selamawit Mecca: The bound bodies of Ethiopian women saints


Thursday, March 5th 2015, Selamawit Mecca has successfully defended her PhD thesis in literature, entitled Bound bodies: Representation of Ethiopian Women Saints in Ge’ez Hagiographies, at Addis Ababa University (advisors: Shiferaw Bekele and Marie-Laure Derat). Selamawit Mecca is a pionneer of the history of religious women in Ethiopia. Her thesis explores the way the hagiographic literature deals with the corporeal experience of the nuns who became saints. Supported in her research by CFEE since several years, she is a member of the CFEE research program « Women and gender in the Horn of Africa: social constructions and dynamics ».

(English version only)

From a literary point of view as well as considering our historical knowledge, how would you situate feminine hagiographies in the known corpus of the Ethiopian hagiographic literature?

Today most of them languish in manuscript vaults and in faulty, rare, centuries-old editions without being studied. For me these texts present detailed representations of women and provide information on how femininity is constructed; how women function within a social environment affects the materializing of their bodies. These hagiographies have generally not been treated as significant literary subjects where in fact their discourses relating to sainthood can provide rich material for an examination of the politics of the body, particularly in relation to gender. These sacred texts provide details on many aspects of life for the authors and audience and can show us many of their beliefs, practices, and ideals of holiness. I think what the hagiographies actually do is take such attributes as virtue, sanctity, purity, simplicity, virginity etc as society lives and raise them to power of transcendence. This is one side. There is another side: hagiographies, as with other forms of cultural or social discourse, not only tend to, but also take it as their primary function to totalize or homogenize society to wield power and control over it. In order to succeed in this venture, actual, historical persons are spoken of in terms of one or another of the said virtues, present them as if they preexisted the inscription of the hagiographies and begin with the famous formula of, “we shall now begin to write the story of so and so, with the help of God, or some angel, etc., to make believe, and they must do, so what they are writing (or have written) is the “whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God!” That is as it should be. The question is, for what purpose or to what end? Hagiographies, like any other social discourse, are cultural through and through, including their so called religious aspects or dimensions. The saint in whose name the hagiographies are composed starts to live with the coming of life the very texts in which he or she does whatever he/she is said to have done. Whatever the motive, whatever the purpose, whatever the end, there must have arisen a social, cultural or political need for the writing of hagiographies as institutions in their own right.

In your thesis, you support a poststructuralist feminist methodology. Could you explain this approach?

Poststructuralist feminism provides a strong theoretical framework for understanding the femininity in the hagiographical scholarship. The theory suggests ways in which the female body interacts with and reacts against the politics of cultural manipulation and control. Bodily fluids, for instance, become cultural issues rather than essentializing biological determinations. Therefore, for post structuralist feminists, the female body is no longer understood as historical, biologically given, a cultural object. They are concerned with the lived body, the body insofar as it is represented and used in specific ways in particular cultures. For them, the body is neither brute nor passive but is interwoven with the constitutive of systems of meaning, signification, and representation. On one hand it is a signifying and signified body; on the other, it is an object of systems of social coercion, legal inscription, and sexual and economic exchange.

Who are the authors of the women saint’s lives?

Basically we do not know who wrote these hagiographies. But we know that they are written by men.

How is the corporal and psychological experience of women saints differentiated from the experience of their men counterparts?

There are differences in terms of corporeal and psychological experiences. For example, a woman’s body is understood first as a site of sexuality, and only secondarily as a vehicle for spiritual expression because all of them are mothers. Women saints are feminine by virtue of marriage. Virgins were universally lauded and respected as the value of men. This can be taken as a symbol of the degree to which these women reject their assigned social roles and family obligations, and the depth of their conversions. The masculine construction of women is also one of the corporeal experiences. The narrator chooses to see the saint as a grotesque not-quite-coherent construct – and as such brings to its most acute expression the problematic quality of early Christian attempts to construct a representation of female holiness. In order for these women to approach sanctity it is necessary to isolate themselves from their own gendered identities through the reinforcement of ascetic practices which distance the individual from their biological gender. Their prayers not to have menstruation can be an example for the need to erase their sexual nature. Significantly rape attempts involve specifically female saints. There are no male saints who find themselves subject of rape. As a general rule, attempted rape is enacted specifically upon female bodies.

Most of them have no agency or subjectivity. They are defined only in terms of their relationship to men. They are mothers, and wives. They were never female subjects defined by their own presence; rather, they defined by how they are acted upon by phallic power. Indeed, they have no voice of their own but instead must appropriate the language and voice of patriarchy if they are to communicate within patriarchal culture.

Because the narrators viewed women as inherently “unclean”, a woman who eliminates her femininity was a credit to her sex. Traits considered to be feminine are passion, impulsiveness, and irrational decision-making, features inherited from Eve. Hagiographies often praise women more than men for their ascetic achievements because they overcame not only the sinful nature of their humanity but also the impediment of their sex. Virtuous traits deemed masculine are attributed to female ascetics. This adoration is seen universally in the narratives, such as the honorable recognition of female martyrs who demonstrate masculine qualities of courage in their trials leading up to martyrdom. In hagiography, women’s bodies are destroyed physically along with their gender through asceticism.

Photo: Wall painting, « The wise virgins », Maryam Pappasayti Church (Geralta, tegray) (© Anaïs Wion)

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