Jamal Bekri Ibrahim is crouched on the floor of his one-room home, expertly pouring batter onto an iron skillet. The flames rise above the skillet, which rests on large rocks with pieces of charcoal underneath. Jamal is making injera, a pancake-like bread and Ethiopian staple.
Minutes later, when the batter turns into injera, Jamal removes it from the fire and displays it on a serving plate. While this is an everyday activity for him, it’s an unusual sight in Ethiopia, where making injera is considered a woman’s responsibility.
Jamal explains that because his wife carries their one-year-old baby on her back, cooking over a fire can be dangerous.
Jamal, 38, and his wife Rumiya, 30, have shared household responsibilities throughout their marriage. “It comes out of love for her,” he says. In Ije Kacu, a village of 3,000 people located in Ethiopia’s East Hararghe Zone, the family has received criticism for Jamal’s participation in domestic work. Ije Kacu is a remote community with one main dirt road, located more than an hour’s drive from the nearest paved road. Simple homes made of stone with tin roofing stand alongside smaller mud huts with straw roofs.
According to community members, men typically farm about six hours and spend the rest of the day chewing khat, a bitter leaf legally used as a mild stimulant. Women spend around 14 hours per day on domestic duties such as collecting water, washing clothes, cooking, and caring for children. This unequal division of labor, which disproportionately affects women and girls, impacts aspects of life including their health, leadership, and educational opportunities.
But Jamal, aware of the burden on women, is determined to close that gap in his household. “In order to have a better life for our kids, we both have to work and share household activities,” he says. “In this area, caring for children is the role of women, but I also do that.”
Jamal often spends the morning collecting water. He is the only man to make the three-hour round-trip haul alongside women from the village. Jamal used to carry water on his head — a sight others marveled at. Now, the couple owns a donkey, so Jamal places two jerry cans in a sackcloth, loads them on the donkey, and fastens them in place with a long rope before heading to the nearest water source.
“When I collect water, they don’t call me Jamal. They call me Safia. It is a popular woman’s name in this village. Even when they call me Safia, I don’t get mad,” he says, bursting into laughter. “When they laugh at me, I laugh back at them and say, ‘In the end, you will see who will win and who will lead a successful life.’”
daily average women in Jamal’s community spend on domestic work
Rumiya gets her share of complaints, too. “They [community members] accuse me and blame for me letting my husband work at home. They tell me, ‘What kind of woman are you? You are breaking tradition.’ … I tell them: ‘I wish your husbands would be like mine,’” she says smiling. Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t take any convincing for Jamal to help out around the home. He learned how to make injera by watching Rumiya do it, and one day decided to try his hand at it.
The couple, who’ve been married for eight years, are used to the criticism. “We know that our community complains about what we do. They even insult us, but we know that one day they will open their eyes and understand that what we do is the right thing,” Rumiya says.
The couple makes a point to model their behavior. When Jamal is occupied with tasks like cooking or caring for the children, they often welcome other villagers into their home — a simple, one-room structure made of mud and sticks — so visitors can observe untraditional gender roles. “Community members will ask us: ‘Is it a good thing to do these activities?’ and we will answer, ‘It is a very good thing to develop in your household, too.’”
While change is slow, they’re noticing that other couples are catching on. Jamal says men complain to him that their wives have begun asking them to help around the house — and he can name at least one other man who has started making injera.
The couple says their marriage is stronger because they’re willing to forgo traditional gender roles. Rumiya adds that because Jamal is eager to help around the house, she enthusiastically helps him with tasks that are typical for men, such as taking fertilizer to the farm.
Jamal, who is illiterate and has never attended school, is hopeful that he can challenge norms in his village. “I’m motivated to do this and I’m not even educated. If I was educated, I would be able to change society’s perceptions and change tradition [even more] but I can still influence my community.”