After the emotional events of June, I was fortunate enough to escape on vacation with my husband. He has been waiting a long time to visit the beautiful rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the remains of the Axumite Empire in northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church rose out of this empire creating one of the first nation-states that accepted Christianity. Given that Ethiopia is geographically isolated from the European Christian churches that arose, it’s not a surprise that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a unique brand of Christianity, one that includes a call to prayer in the morning and a history describing themselves as descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Three times in only two days I was surprised to discover I was the only woman in a group of men. The first time I was immediately ushered out. Lalibela, Ethiopia was built as a replacement for Jerusalem by King Lalibela. His body is laid to rest in one of the amazing rock-hewn churches he commissioned. Women are not allowed in the room where his corpse is to protect him from temptations. Well, there was no sign or warning…I just walked in. The priest inside was not excited to see me and sent me out right away. I felt a little bewildered and awkward. I was a visitor to sacred sites from another religion. The last thing I wanted to do was infringe on their beliefs.
Shortly after this incident, we became friends with a group of Ethiopian college graduates who were celebrating with a trip to worship at the rock-hewn churches. They invited us back to their accommodations to eat rice and bread with them. They were on an organized trip sort of like a youth conference and they were staying in a church-owned building and fed by their church leaders. The women slept on one side of the building and the men on the other. Being less social than my husband, I stuck beside him and sat on the side with the men. When lunch was brought around, no one directed me to sit with the women. It wasn’t until after I had finished eating that one of men sitting with us commented about how it was very awkward for me to be there.
My third mistake came early the next morning. We went to see the amazing Church of St. George during the early morning worship services. There were people, men and women, everywhere. The church is dug down into the rock, so people worship on the surrounding rock face, listening to a projected sermon. People worship along every step of the descent into the courtyard around the Church. Once around the church, we could barely move for all the people. As we had done the day before, and even only ten minutes before with one of the other churches, we wanted to go inside. There was a priest at the door touching women with an elaborate cross and letting people by him to go inside. He did not look twice at me going in. I was certain he would stop me if I was not supposed to enter. So it took me by surprise to realize that only men were present and that the longer I stood there, the angrier some of the men looked. Truthfully, most of them did not seem to notice or care but just those few that did made all the difference. I left and listened to the rest of the service outside.
Two hours later we were on a little prop plane destined for Axum, the capital of the modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church and (surprise!) the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark itself is located in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It’s a small church that is solely devoted to maintaining this artifact. Only one person, a man, is allowed to see the Ark. Next to this little church is a large cathedral called the New Church of St. Mary.
The church grounds situated around these churches is overlaid within a neighborhood. A holy building acts as an alternative entrance to the courtyard directly around the old church. During our first approach to the grounds a woman stopped me and told me “no sisters.”
While I was waiting for my husband to go explore on his own, I took pictures from the outside. During the next five minutes two more people, both men, approached me and informed me (who was now nowhere near the entrance) that I was not allowed inside. I appreciated the warning this time around, but bristled a little.
Only one part of the church grounds is off limits to women, the courtyard around the little church with the Ark in it. In fact, the large church was built in the nineteen fifties so women (and men together) would have a beautiful place to worship. Just not too close to the Ark.
What I learned the hard way: gender roles are as firmly entrenched in this old version of Christianity as they are in Mormonism. But I was surprised that while the gender roles of both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Mormonism look similar, the gender roles in their everyday life as compared to Mormons could not look more different.
Axum is on its way to becoming a real tourist destination. All morning and late afternoon you see a sizable number of the populace sitting on the roads leading up to their ancient sites, a large field of beautiful obelisks, tinkering with rocks, shaping roads, and building a new archaeology museum. But women are there as well as men and older children. The babies and toddlers were watched by their only slightly older siblings while everyone who could was working.
In Mormonism, women are constantly being told they are the nurturers and that is why women don’t serve in the hierarchical structure or hold the priesthood. But in Ethiopia, gender roles are a religious privilege. Even when I ate with the men when I wasn’t supposed to, the man explained to me that they were accustomed to eating with women in any setting not related to church.
I want the general authorities to just admit that the male priesthood and dominantly male leadership responsibilities are not because of biology but because of tradition. Why the excuses? Why enforce social norms? Just say it “we do not allow women to be prominent in Mormonism because it goes against the tide of tradition.” At least that would be honest.
Nyla lives with her husband and toddler in California where she is working her way through a PhD program in biology.