issue 197 - July 1989
Kitchens and Kalashnikovs
In Eritrea children break off their lessons to run for cover
from the bombers. But for the country's women war has
opened up new horizons, as Robin Hall reports.
'There is no liberation without sacrifice: we handle our grief by knowing what we are doing,' said Hiwat. At 38 years old she might, under normal circumstances, have been enjoying her grandchildren by now. Instead, in war-ravaged Eritrea, she is a freedom fighter. Women make up one-third of Eritrea's Liberation Army - and one-third of its casualties. Like many other Eritrean women, Hiwat prefers active combat in the front line. Ordinary life somehow seems less productive and purposeful after serving in the trenches.
So it was that Hiwat refused to be photographed in front of the kitchen hearth, artfully constructed from 40mm shell cases, in the guest-house she is currently running in the bombed-out city of Nacfa. Instead she dressed in black shirt, black trousers, ammunition belt and posed proudly with her Kalashnikov. Her story and that of her family could stand for thousands of other Eritreans, fighting their 26-year-old liberation war against Ethiopia's military dictatorship.
Hiwat was married at 15 and went to live with her husband in Asmara, Eritrea's capital. It was already then occupied by the forces of the Ethiopian Government, the Dergue, which soon after began its campaign of terror against sympathizers of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).
Hiwat and her husband joined the EPLF and moved with their children to the refugee camp in the liberated zone where they still live, and which now accommodates 7,000 people. Everyday life there has to be adjusted to the ever-present threat of air attacks. It is only at night that the camouflaged bakery and pasta-making unit - Eritrea was once an Italian colony - move into production to provide the camp's staple diet.
'After the children started school in 1980 I took my military training in 1980 and joined the infantry,' said Hiwat. Her daughter Negisty is now 17 and in her last year at Zero school, close by the refugee camp. It is an extraordinary place. Of necessity this is a boarding school, for its pupils are orphans or the children of nomads and fighters. But there are 4,000 pupils here, living, studying and working outdoors under thorn trees and in bunkers, under constant threat of air attack.
Negisty wants to be a teacher of English. Her classmates also have clear ideas about their future role in Eritrea's transformed society. 'I want to be a doctor.' 'I want to be a mechanic.' 'I want to be a scientist.' These are revolutionary aspirations for girls whose traditional life and culture was a feudal patriarchy, with female illiteracy at 95 per cent and female status near zero. 'A stupid man is preferable to a smart woman,' went a traditional saying. Baby boys were showered with gifts whilst the birth of a girl was ignored.
Marriages were arranged, often between older men and child brides, and female genital mutilation was commonplace. In nomadic families women were not even allowed to sit with or look at their husbands. They prepared food inside a tent and passed it under a flap to their menfolk outside.
But now a war of national liberation has given women more freedom along the way. Hiwat and Negisty now belong to a subculture which has evolved its own code and ethic out of the clear common objective of liberation from Ethiopian oppression. These people eat, drink, sleep, do everything together. 'After a skirmish,' says Hiwat, 'even one involving the death of our friends, we celebrate despite our grief.' They live in a cashless society, sharing whatever rations are available and spending virtually every waking hour in some sort of work. These people have dedicated their lives to the cause: they include mechanics, doctors, priests and teachers, many of whom have abandoned comfortable lives in the West to return home to fight.
So Eritrean women's equality with men has been established under fire. One Swedish visitor claimed that 'the Eritrean women's movement is ahead of Western feminism'. And there's no doubt that women are doing what was previously men's work. Women are military commanders up to platoon level. And, amongst fighters at least, men are doing their share of childrearing and kitchen work. But women in the West know only too well how gender roles reverted to type after the two World Wars. We will only know if the changes for women in Eritrea have put down roots when Hiwat, Negisty and their sister fighters have won independence.
Robin Hall is a lecturer at Mitchell College in New South Wales, Australia, who visited Eritrea on a four-week study tour.