Imagine a place where men and women are treated completely equally.
They share duties as co-heads of a household. Work duties and interests are not determined by gender, but by ability. The community works together, generating enough income to fulfill its needs and splitting the profits equally among all members. Contraception is available to women who want it.
And it gets even better: Children go to school from the age of 3. Both boys and girls. They get the chance to be kids. Once they’re 18, they’re free to decide what they want to do with their lives. The minimum age for marriage is 19 for women and 20 for men. Women feel no shame proposing to men because there’s no invisible power structure to adhere to. The social standard is equality.
It might sound too good to be true — but it isn’t.
For over 40 years, Awra Amba has functioned as a small, egalitarian community in Ethiopia. There are around 500 community members who wake up each day with a simple mission: to work hard and treat each other fairly and as equals.
It all started with one man: Zumra Nuru. Nuru grew up in a small village in Ethiopia. He saw that inequality was baked into a lot of the traditions. Like the accepted norm in many Western countries, women in the village he lived in were expected to be both providers and caretakers. They worked during the day and tended to the house and the children at night. The same wasn’t expected of men.
It didn’t feel right. So he started to ask questions.
In an interview with filmmakers Paulina Tervo and Serdar Ferit, Nuru recalls asking, "Why is there a difference between them? Women are like servants; men are like masters. When I questioned this, my family would say, 'You want to be different from others.'" It wasn’t a compliment, but he felt confident that men and women could and should live as equals.
Nuru founded a community called Awra Amba where equality is the norm.
Initially, he was met with resistance. Like Nuru’s family, many of Awra Amba’s neighbors were skeptical of the community. They misunderstood Awra Amba’s way of life. But when faced with violent opposition, the Awra Ambans have reacted by extending their hands in peace.
They’ve built schoolhouses and encourage the kids from surrounding villages to attend because they believe that education is power. They engage in dialogue with their neighbors to teach them about the Awra Amban way of life to reduce fear and encourage understanding.
And the women who move to Awra Amba appreciate the chance to take the reigns in their own lives. Zeinab, a woman who lives in the village, told the filmmakers, "Before I came to Awra Amba, I was uneducated and oppressed. I didn't know about my rights. In our time, there was nothing called 'men's and women's rights.' Men oppressed women. They were superior to us." For many years, she ran the teahouse in the village, and with her support, her adult daughter joined the Awra Amba community. They are in control of their own fate.
The Awra Ambans have also worked hard to become self-sustaining and have been successful at it — they do not accept food aid from organizations. They do accept financial support for projects, like a mill, which helps them and their neighbors to be increasingly self-sufficient. No one has more than any other person. They all work hard, and they all reap the rewards. As their way of life has proven successful, they’ve become a model for neighboring villages.
Tervo, the filmmaker, first traveled to Awra Amba in 2004. It was an experience she couldn’t forget.
She returned home and told fellow filmmaker Ferit, her boyfriend at the time, that they had to return and make a documentary about the people. Little did they know that helping Awra Amba to tell its story would becoming such a big part of their lives.
Over the years, they’ve seen the community evolve rapidly, and they say that the egalitarian principles on which it’s founded have only strengthened with each generation. And most importantly, they’ve helped the Awra Amban people to use own their voice and tell their story.
They plan to launch "The Awra Amba Experience" soon; it's an interactive documentary that allows viewers to get a look inside the village and hear from community members themselves. Tervo explains that this project "basically started from the desire of the community to speak to the outside world ... they wanted to tell their story."
Here’s a sneak peek:
Awra Amba is an incredible example of what can happen when we all champion each other.
As we in the Western world continue to work to ensure that women aren’t limited by assumptions about gender, are paid as much as men, and allowed to take control of their own bodies, it’s neat to be reminded that this massive goal is possible.
The glass ceiling can be shattered. And there’s a village in Ethiopia that can help show us the way.