Ashtime refers to a third gender role recognised among the Maale, an ethnic group in southwestern Ethiopia. They are also called wobo meaning “crooked.” Though several ashtime were reported prior to the 19th century, they since became a small minority, increasingly considered abnormal.
Separate from male, atinke, and female, laali, ashtime has been translated as transgender or transvestite. Maale social hierarchy ranked atinke (male) highest. Laali (female) occupied a lower position. Ashtime ranked lowest or even outside this system entirely, as a separate third gender role. As with other studies of male-male sexuality, academic interpretations of ashtime vary. Whilst historian Marc Epprecht describes the ashtime as male-born, anthropologist Donald Donham quotes an ashtime who describes this gender as something acquired at birth: “The Divinity created me wobo, crooked. If I had been a man, I could have taken a wife and begotten children. If I had been a woman, I could have married and borne children. But I am wobo; I can do neither.”
Maale beliefs forbade the king and men of his court from contact with women before important religious ceremonies because female energy was believed to weaken male virility. As he represented the entire society, it was important that the king be protected from contamination by exposure both directly, i.e., through interactions with women, as well as indirectly, i.e., through interactions with men who had touched women. Ashtime dressed as women, performing domestic, sexual and ritual female tasks in the king’s court and other spaces off-bounds to women. Physical contact with ashtime was not viewed as similarly polluting nor as unmanly. As a third gender role, ashtime thereby allowed for virile masculinity to be upheld.
Another variation of analyses concerns whether ashtime can be understood as homosexuality or not. Early scholars including Donham used a functionalist approach insisting that these practices were in no way homosexual but merely to maintain a hetereosexual social structure. However, others, have since dismissed such approaches as heterosexist (i.e., discrimination or prejudice against homosexuals on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation) and have called for the incorporation of desire in studying these histories.
By Nnenna Onuoha