On Agency, Gender Roles, & Bird’s Eye View of Eritrea’s Revolution

Some articles compel one to write about the article because the subject matter one sense tend to be of monumental import and some other times comments in the Awate Forum beg one to do the same. So, what’s one to do but contemplate or make an attempt to write one that could conceivably combine the two. Both are the aim in this piece: The first is Dr. Sadia Hassenen’s “Reflecting on Eritrean International Women’s Day”*. I realize this is not easy to do for the mere fact that the subject matter that she wrote about she also embodies for she is a woman and yours truly is a man trying to get a grasp of it all. The second has to do with Mahmoud Saleh’s** intriguing commentaries emanating from his personal experience as EPLF combatant. This is primary source that some historians one can easily see salivating for; it is part of the major reason I wanted to include quotes so that it can easily be accessible and researchable in the future if and when one wants to write about that part of our history. Mahmoud divulges information about the revolution and its various moving parts that had to work in a synchronous manner for the revolution to achieve its goals. The other major reason is of personal nature: To flesh out my ideas, which is exactly how I gain clarity. Whatever may remain unclear the sharp minds at Awate Forum will come handy in clarifying it for me. Before delving into the subject matter at hand providing some snippets on notions of communication might prove helpful.

Cultural communications studies expert, Stuart Hall* (1973) developed encoding/decoding model that offers theoretical frameworks by which viewers/listeners (for our purposes, readers) decode their optical experiences. Granted, Hall’s framework was developed for television viewers. However, applicability to the written word these frameworks can be ascertained. For example, he states that “the dominant-hegemonic position” is when audiences decode the message, in its entirety as one to which they not only accept but embrace it; Hall refers to these audiences as “operating inside the dominant code”. There are those who take “negotiated code or position”, which Hall informs us are audiences who are capable of weeding out what’s not important. To the third one Hall refers as “oppositional code” in which viewers interpret most of the messages that are transmitted through mass media as one that must be seen through the frame lens of “class” leading to the most politically active entities who refuse to be bottled and indoctrinated. Granted, Hall (1980/1981) was giving his framework based on optics, but it is easily relatable to when we read some articles, for example, at Keep this in mind as you read on to see where your reactions fall. It was noticeable in Dr. Sadia’s article where people fell in the categories provided above.

On Dr. Sadia’s Article

So, the two ideas that preoccupied me as I was actively participating in the said article are the notion of agency between the reader and the author and the role of cultural productions vis-à-vis gender roles. The definition of an agency that I have in mind is not in its philosophical sense; rather of its use in literature, where the writer can claim a certain level of agency in that the craft is intentional with certain goals in mind that the piece of literature is written. But, of course, equally, if not, more importantly, the reader also has an agency in how he/she interprets the piece being read. It is in this dialectical encounter where new ideas germinate. And it is why when readers have a forum to discuss their understanding of an article is, sometimes, vastly different; such differentials in interpretations catch us almost unawares to a point of leaving us baffled at it all. It, of course, comes down to the lived experience. Our lived experiences, at times, dictate how we interpret what we read and how willing we are to interrogate it or simply flat out ignore the writer’s intent (i.e., see Hall’s three frameworks above). Going on a tangent instead of addressing what’s written becomes – conscious or not – a strategy of resistance. Of course, there could be myriad of other reasons as to why one chooses to do that, but overall, the contention here is that it falls in one of Hall’s categories, broadly speaking. It could as well be we show a certain level of resistance to some ideas due to cultural productions that play intricate roles if, for example, the subject matter is about feminism where inter-subjectivity plays a critical role.

Inter-subjectivity pushed Dr. Sadia to bring the issue from its physical space, where our Eritrean women had exclusive gathering which they rightly deemed pertained to them alone and needed no men intervening in their affairs. By all measures, the gathering was a successful one. Dr. Sadia, however, saw certain issues she felt merited discussing out in the open, because, in my estimate, she understood deep down Eritrean feminism would be better served if the issues are brought to this virtual space. Once the physical space was used where women did their program, then the venue needed to move to the virtual spaces like awate.

What’s more befitting than to come to a virtual space where highly enlightened men reside. As we challenge each other, let us also challenge our men to show them where they might be falling short just as we challenge ourselves in finding our shortcomings appeared to me to have been the intent of the article in question. The liberation of Eritrean woman is, after all, a struggle against cultural domination, where men dictate it all: It is in our language. It is in our attitude. It is in the way we men have learned from an early age that they are our inferiors, we, their superiors. The evidence is in a nuanced way – more times than not, blunt ways –  in which we use the language of exclusion, using terms like “they” (as opposed to our Eritrean women) as if they were aliens from us men. Look how niggling they seem to be the unsullied and/or the implied message.

Ostensibly, if we want to change matters the last thing that needs to happen is for each to stay in their corner. The less we interact with each other, the more the gaps in the thinking stays entrenched. If we are going to change our way of thinking we have to have women engaging us, challenging us, and have a conversation with us. The impregnable message appeared to me to be this: Men are also victims of rigid cultural norms that were instilled in them in how to think, how to view women, how to treat or mistreat women according to the cultural dictates. This is not men bashing, but women affirmation, an affirmation that’s long overdue. Do you ever wonder why Awate has not attracted a woman columnist in its 17 years of virtual existence? Am just wondering aloud here.

Much as any kind of discriminatory behavior cannot be addressed without its various elements, feminism in Eritrean context cannot reach its objective without including some of its major elements. In this case, it’s us men who are its major element. The culture, the tradition, art, education, literature, language, politics, economics, all are the domain of men. These domains need to be tackled if the process of liberation is to succeed. The venue needs to change. Change won’t’ be affected if we don’t include the main elements in this: i.e., Eritrean Men. Now, the part of our history used as an exemplar when it comes to gender roles and gender equity is how women were treated equally during the revolution era where and when they fought side by side with the men on equal footing. That narrative has not been told to the extent that it should. All indications are that Eritrean women fighter did it all event in combat. By all accounts, history of that era informs our understanding in our women have done it all, which is a perfect way to make that segue into the era of the struggle not quite to address issues of gender, but the overall picture that our former tegadalay Mahmoud Saleh who paints this highly dynamic, and complex picture of the struggle ea that I want to bring your attention towards.

On Eritrean Revolution and its Complexity

For someone like me who never participated in the struggle reading Mahmoud Saleh’s account in such a picturesque way was an eye-opener. Perhaps, it is my own shortcoming that I didn’t do adequate readings on the subject matter as I should. But, what I found fascinating in the description he provided that the entire setting was a nation within a nation existing in parallel where the occupier and the revolutionaries seldom rubbed elbows; in such a juxtaposition where their only contacts seemed to be when attack and counterattacks were waged. According to Mahmoud, how they communicated and whatever they did had one clear aim: To liberate Eritrea the land from the occupying force. In his own words, here is its essence:

The medium was revolutionary language, theories, culture and anything that goes with that setting. The message was revolutionary aimed at liberating Eritrea. The mediating mechanism was democratic centralism which was even more rigid than in other peaceful situations due to the need for organizational discipline and coherence to win a war in which the EPLF was disadvantaged in all of its dimensions: manpower, firepower, material resources; diplomatic isolation…(Mahmoud Saleh, 19 March 2018, Awate Forum).

They did not stop there. They had thinkers, tinkerers, and ideologues whose job it seemed was toward intellectual proclivity, one that would occupy them as they dwelled over strategies, ideologies, theories, and concepts and even libraries to check books out. Mahmoud states thus:

Revolutions have their theorists and ethos. Their intellectual rigor and contributions should be seen within those parameters … bouts of intellectual challenges like the movement of 73, 76, medical department, manufacturing department (Rahba), mechanized units; war wounded camp (1979-80), and many in between, should be seen within this framework…There was a central research department headed by Hailemenkerious, wherein the traditional meaning of “intellectuals” may be understood. People like former Eritrea’s AG, Ta’ame worked there and where folks like the renowned writer, Alemseged Tesfai, occasionally joined. It prepared studied manuals not only for political agitation but tools for research. Among the tools and studies made I remember include exploring, mapping, preserving Eritrea’s antiquities, studies in Eritrea cultures, languages, socioeconomic status, the genealogical tree of the people of Eritrea, where people from the department of public administration, commonly known, Jamahir, attended for about 6 months; translated massive works of famous theorists and made it readable in relation to Eritrean experience, etc. Alos there were central and departmental libraries. You were not asked what books to read, what radio stations to listen to, etc. There was one of the central libraries in AdobHa, for instance, where I would drop by every three months on my way to halHal. I would take books, and on my return, I would exchange the old for new ones (Mahmoud Saleh, 19 March 2018, Awate Forum**).

What this shows is that EPLF was highly structured organizations with a great deal of functionaries, seemingly forward-looking system. What was absolutely stunning to this writer, a forthright response that Mahmoud gave when I asked, if “there was a department that thought of the day after the fall of Ethiopia, what Eritrea would look like?” Without mincing his words, he said the following:

…while it was ready functionally (administratively, the software part, if you will, or the political infrastructure, such as legally (constitutionally and institutionally bound functional branches of the organization that would ensure checks and balances were not in place. There were no debates on inclusion of others, or preparing for the splintered Eritrean organizations and how you accommodate them; practicing the art of free speech and debates…preparing citizens to check for the boundaries separating them from the government; expecting four Eritrea: EPLF-Eritrea; ELF-Eritrea (with its splinter groups); diaspora Eritrea (with its diversity); Occupied-Eritrea, etc.

…no there was no preparation; and I don’t think there was opportunities to chime on those matters. People were exhausted, particularly, in the last year, and every ounce of energy was dedicated to making the eventual victory as quick and as irreversible. This is where leaders are wanted, to see things that the average could not see. We were not lucky at that”(Mahmoud Saleh, 19 March 2018, Awate Forum).

This about sums it up. Is it conceivable that not a single person or a group from the leadership of revolutionary era did not pay attention to this glaring void? How is it possible an organization that had such highly complex structure to not think of the day after in how it would make smooth transitioning from revolutionary entity to the governance of a nation? These are questions, obviously, that require further research, where interviews would have to be conducted of those who were in charge of the EPLF, many of whom are not only still alive and well, but are in exile living diasporic life.

*Sadia Hassenen (2018).

**Mahmoud Saleh (2018). Retrieved from commentary section:

***Hall, S. (1980/1981) ‘Encoding/decoding’. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies. London: Hutchinson,


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