Compared with many African countries, Ethiopia is pretty easygoing for women travellers. The risk of rape or other serious offences is likely lower than in many Western countries. The best advice is to simply be aware of the signals your clothing or behaviour may be giving off and remember these unspoken codes of etiquette.
- Drinking alcohol, smoking, and wearing excessive make-up and revealing clothes are indications to the male population of ‘availability’, as this is also the way local prostitutes behave. Apart from the young of the wealthier classes in Addis Ababa, no ‘proper’ woman would be seen in a bar.
- Many cheap hotels in Ethiopia double as brothels. Ethiopian men may naturally wonder about your motives for staying here, particularly if you’re alone. While there’s no cause for alarm, it’s best to keep a low profile and behave very conservatively – keep out of the hotel bar, for example, and try to meet up with other travellers if you want to go out.
- Accepting an invitation to an unmarried man’s house, under any pretext, is considered a latent acceptance of things to come. Dinner invitations often amount to ‘foreplay’ before you’re expected to head off to some seedy hotel. Even a seemingly innocent invitation to the cinema can turn out to be little more than an invitation to a good snog in the back row.
- Be aware that ‘respectable’ Ethiopian women (even when they’re willing) are expected to put up a show of coyness and modesty. Traditionally, this formed part of the wedding-night ritual of every Amhara bride: a fierce struggle with the groom was expected of them. Consequently, some Ethiopian men may mistake your rebuttals for encouragement. The concept even has a name in Amharic: maqderder (and applies equally to feigned reluctance for other things such as food). If you mean no, make it very clear from the start.
- If there aren’t any other travellers around, here’s a quick trick: pick a male Ethiopian companion, bemoan the problems you’ve been having with his compatriots and appeal to his sense of pride, patriotism and gallantry. Usually any ulterior plans he might have been harbouring himself are soon converted into sympathy or shame and a personal crusade to protect you!
- Adultery is quite common among many of Ethiopia’s urban population, for both men and women. For this reason, a wedding ring on a woman traveller (bogus or not) has absolutely no deterrent value. In fact, quite the reverse.
- The one advantage of Ethiopia being a relatively permissive society is that Western women (in particular, white women) aren’t necessarily seen as easier than local women, something that’s common in many developing countries due to Hollywood cinematic ‘glamour’.
In some of the monasteries and holy sites of Ethiopia, an ancient prohibition forbids women from setting foot in the holy confines. But the holy fathers go strictly by the book: the prohibition extends not just to women but to all female creatures, even she donkeys, hens and nanny goats.