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Native Stranger


new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

Native stranger

Women fought side by side with men to liberate Eritrea. Now they are in a new struggle to make sure women's rights remain a vital part of the Eritrean revolution. Elsa Gebreyesus went to do her part.

The high-pitched ululation splits the quiet morning air at Asmara airport. As we cross the tarmac, the woman in front of me pauses to express her joy at returning home to Eritrea after who knows how many years of exile. For me, an Eritrean by heritage, it is the first time on my native soil. Tears trickle down my face and I join her ululations.

I was not born in Eritrea, but instead grew up moving from country to country, eventually settling in Canada. But my primary identity was always Eritrean, even if I only saw my homeland in pictures or on maps. Most of the people I know back in North America have no idea what it feels like to learn another culture, language and way of life while trying to keep one's own precious culture and customs alive. But now I have come to see with my own eyes the birth pangs of my people as together we take the first steps towards becoming an independent nation.

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is our largest city with some 350,000 people, but it has more the feel of a big neighbourhood. Those who live there behave like members of an extended family giving life a lightness and a warm sense of security. For me this contrasts sharply with the West where there is little empathy and strangers are ghosts or apparitions that happen to occupy the same time and space.

I had expected that years of famine and military rule would leave people obsessed by how much death and devastation had been visited upon this one small place. Or perhaps recent violence would not loosen its grip, leaving people volatile and likely to strike out at any time. To my surprise I saw nothing but patience in people's eyes, heard nothing but gentleness in their voices and hope in their words.

I had promised myself that when I returned I would work with the women of Eritrea. How do Eritrean women live in a strict patriarchal culture where traditions are lead weights on their minds, bodies and souls? Was there something in me that came from them - perhaps this was a source of the strength I had used in overcoming my own barriers.

I knew that the women of Eritrea had an equal claim with men to self-determination. They earned that status in the liberation struggle. So I contacted the foreign office of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and offered my services.

Freedom did not come easily to Eritrea. This I know when I see the hundreds of fighters wounded by the war, or the massive destruction of some of our cities. The price of our freedom is counted in lives lost - not least the lives of women. The level of women's participation in the Eritrean liberation war was unique. Women overcame deeply rooted patriarchal traditions to stand with men on the Nacfa front or join in the attack on Massawa.

Women's participation increased as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) replaced the more religious-based Eritrean Liberation Front in the forefront of the war. By 1979 women were 13 per cent of the fighters and 30 per cent of the EPLF as a whole. These women were no mere support group for men. They were trained to use different types of arms and worked as mechanics, drivers and doctors.

This took a lot of work on everyone's part. Both men and women had to leap a number of cultural and social barriers. Men simply did not believe that women had the emotional and physical strength to fight. Many women were themselves unsure.

I believe that the femininity of women fighters was strengthened by their ability to endure hardship. All soldiers lived with death staring them in the face and with few in the outside world knowing or caring about the horror of their war. But in one way the women were better off than men.

For men, to let out their emotions, admit their fears and cry was a sign of weakness. They had to hide these feelings. Women, on the other hand, did cry. Despite all their training as soldiers, they were never afraid to weep after overcoming difficult situations, and so were stronger to move on.

The first thing a woman did on arriving at the front was to cut off her hair - culturally a sign of beauty. This eliminated any outward sign of physical attractiveness and was not only a practical step but a symbolic action, severing ties to past social beliefs and strengthening present commitments.

A new form of gender-neutral greeting also evolved in the field. In Eritrean culture women kiss three times on the cheek and men shake hands - unless they know each other well, in which case they also kiss. But in the field the new form of greeting became the shoulder kiss whereby people rub and bump shoulders while shaking hands. This genderless greeting is beautiful to watch and has eliminated the social uncertainty of whom to kiss and whom not to.

Innovations were also made in religious practices to eliminate divisions but still keep ceremonies sacred. Everyone who joined the EPLF, whether Christian or Muslim, had to distinguish their loyalty to liberation from personal loyalties. So it was decided that at all sacred ceremonies which involved fighters the space formerly occupied by prayer would be occupied by silence. This respected everyone's point of view, while creating a binding ritual for those who believed in liberation.

In many Third World countries where women participated in the liberation struggle but found their rights placed on the back burner once independence had been achieved. It is only natural to ask what precautions Eritrean women are taking to avoid this fate.

They are up against a deeply rooted patriarchal culture which traditionally gives them little chance to be independent. From early childhood young girls are taught their 'inherent' roles as respectable daughters, wives, mothers and home-makers. Their families are expected to come first. And often an individual woman is identified as her father's daughter, which erases her individuality. These paternal strings affect a woman's future marriage or inheritance and her respectability, and women are forever on their guard not to do or say anything that might be considered unfitting. So they evolve a double personality - one that knows what to say when dealing with the outside world, and one with opinions and dreams hidden deep inside.

Organizations like the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) are well aware of the issues women will have to face. At present they are establishing themselves as an independent grassroots organization able to lead the fight. The Union is not wealthy but is supported by a loyal and growing membership.

I have faith in a positive future for women in Eritrea. The tradition of women's resistance has forged a new identity for them that can never be erased. Now they have begun the long journey towards self-empowerment and liberation, my hope is that they will never be stopped.

Elsa Gebreyesus works as a project officer with the National Union of Eritrean Women in Asmara.



POPULATION: 4 million.

HISTORY: Eritrea was the object of imperial competition between Egypt, Ethiopia, Italy and the UK in the nineteenth century. It became an Italian colony in 1889 and stayed that way until 1941. It was not granted independence but federated to neighbouring Ethiopia by the UN. In 1982 Ethiopia abrogated this loose federation and forcibly annexed the territory. Armed resistance, led initially by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), has continued for 30 years. In the early 1970s leftist radicals split oft from the more Muslim-dominated ELF to form the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) which quickly became the main force in the Eritrean struggle for independence. The war - which has cost the lives of 100,000 Ethiopian and 50,000 Eritrean troops - ended with Eritrean victory in 1991.

ECONOMY: Subsistence-based, dependent on pastoralism and rain-fed agriculture. A history of basic industrial production dates back to Italian colonial days and the country has a skilled, motivated workforce. Eritrea possesses gold, uranium and copper deposits and there is great potential for the development of the Red Sea fishery, which would help the chronic food deficit. When Eritrea becomes independent in 1993 it may be one of the only countries in the world without a national debt.

POLITICS: The EPLF is the only party but is committed to a muiti-party democracy after the referendum on independence scheduled for April 1993. The EPLF is worried though by the potential for ethnic or religious-based parties, given the inter-communal strife in the rest of the region. Such parties are likely to be prohibited. Given the popularity of the EPLF and interim president Isaias Afwerki it is unlikely that strong opposition parties will emerge in the short term. Entrean democracy will have to rely on grassroots organizations and a free and critical press - to keep those in power accountable.

BASIC NEEDS: Eritrea has a serious food deficit problem - with some 80 per cent of its population dependent on food aid. In 1992 two million people faced severe food shortages. Recurrent drought has meant the loss of up to 80 per cent of livestock in some areas. Clean water supply is a serious problem throughout the country. Recovery from war damage remains a major undertaking. Thousands of deadly land mines remain to be defused.

HUMAN RIGHTS: By and large the EPLF has a good human-rights record and does not rely on arbitrary arrest and police methods to solve its problems. There have been excesses in the treatment of those close to the Ethiopian occupation forces. After liberation the children of Eritrean women married to Ethiopian soldiers were expelled from Eritrea - causing great hardship for both mothers and children. The trick for the EPLF (or whatever political party emerges from it) will be to prevent autocratic habits of rule developing in a situation where there will be no opposition party to keep them honest.

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