Reflections On Gender And Nationalism In Eritrea

Each year, on the 24th of May Eritreans celebrate independence day. The celebration symbolises the spirit of freedom, peace as well as respect and dignity of the citizens of the country.  For Most Eritreans this day that marks the end of what they had suffered in subjugation and the end of war that brought their suffering to a near end with euphoric rejoicing. Still, as Eritrean nationals we may not enjoy the identity and/or the ability to value our real aspirations and imaginations within it on the same trajectory. Class, religion, gender, whether “home-resident” or in the Diaspora, plus many other factors, may hinder or help us on the path to achieving our aspirations and imaginations, either as individuals or as sub-groups of the nation.   Not only our independence should serve as an occasion of solemn reflections about why and how we achieved that feat, but it should also serve why and how we need to get to another level. Most will readily subscribe to the notion that class and religion are indeed significant factors on how our nation is organised, on how it functions and on how will fall or rise. Fewer would subscribe to the idea that gender is as significant or even decisive in attaining our goals. Perhaps still, fewer would conduct themselves in their personal lives or in public, to attain the national dream of personal and national freedom, peace as well as respect and dignity; (all of them preconditions of development in the contemporary world) even at the expense of the rise of Eritrea. For this simple, but important reason, let us reflect on the role of gender in the development of Eritrea from a female perspective.


What does this independence mean to Eritrean women?  What has independence contributed to their well being? Even if  you know the answer to these questions, you could still be justified to ask what women have in turn done for Eritrea.,. The answer will be self-evident in the ensuing discussion.


After decades of fighting, the armed struggle ended in 1991. During the war thousands of fighters as well as civilians lost their lives, and many were physically maimed and traumatised. Among the survivors are women, including ex-combatants. If I take the case of the women fighters as an example here, their case graphically exposes the meaning of Eritrean independence for women, perhaps more than for any other sub-group of the nation. Bernal study (Bernal, 2000) shows that women’s perception of how they are treated by the Eritrean state, and as individuals in their relation with men as, a let down. “Women ex-fighters lack resources, skills, and jobs. They feel that they are being devalued in the new society of independent Eritrea”.  This concluding position is the outcome of their daily struggle in the independent nation to which they had risked their lives. In addition, they are now being “divorced for civilian women. In other words, the admirable qualities that made them heroes of the war are now milestones around their necks as wives or mothers. Bernal adds,  


“These heroes of the nationalist struggle are finding that the very qualities that made them good soldiers and comrades stigmatize them as wives and potential wives. Former women fighters are seen as having experienced independence, sexual freedom, and equality with men. They fought side by side with men and killed enemy men. Their morality is suspect, their femininity is doubtful, and their ability to behave as obedient wives is questionable. Although national liberation has been achieved, the emancipation of women is at best incomplete”  


Male veterans expect, demand and are rightly accorded honour and respect for their role in the attainment of independence, while female veterans are being punished for the same sacrifice they made. What do these varying reactions tell us about our nation? One thing is for certain, the plight of women ex-combatants is only the tip of the iceberg in what the nation does and expects of women, as it is of women’s burden in the nation. We need to briefly define some of our key concepts to be able to understand how Eritrean women bear the burden and yet not share the privileges of being Eritrean on the same conditions as men.


To begin with nationalism can exist without the presence of an established state or state system which can be referred to as a nation state. In other words, Eritrean nationalism might as well have predated the founding of the Eritrean state. In this case one can even argue that it is nationalism that has led to the war and the creation of the nation state rather than vice versa. Second, nationalism is a “political principle which maintains that similarity of culture is the basic social bond”  (Gellner, 1997)- i.e. cultural consciousness.  Culture in its narrow meaning is the existence of “shared style of expression in words, facial expression, body language, style of clothing, preparation and consumption of food” (Gellner, 1997) ; and in its wider meaning it can include specific ways of behaviour, social organisation, relation to food and music, in a community of people.  Eritrea is not unique or different from most nation states of our contemporary world in its composition. It is  a state made up of diverse cultures and yet justifiably asserting nationhood. However, the dichotomy created by the presence of cultural diversity and perceptual uniformity of the nation state challenges us to persistently seek progression to a higher plain. One of dichotomies exposed by the end of the war is the role of women in that war and the reality they face today – the dichotomy our cultures expose between the input women make and the recognition they get or the lack of it vis-à-vis men. What we have among the Eritrean communities, both in the homeland and abroad, is an attempt to perpetuate and sometimes transform and manipulate a “bank of acquire[d] traits”.  Gellner called culture to the advantage of men, even when the reality lived has dramatically changed.


Let us take a step back into the past, to visualise the tensions between the needs of a viable Eritrean state and the culture of male dominance. Eritrean women have played important roles in the liberation struggle as members of the Eritrean armed forces and in the underground arena of the armed struggle. Many women suffered imprisonment, torture and even brutal assassination by the Ethiopian regime. They were part of the political and armed struggle on the frontline with their male counterparts during the decades years of war. That experience has naturally changed  their view of life and culture, as it has changed their male counterparts.  However, the Eritrean society has barely changed its view of women as the result of the heroic role they played. In some instances the changes have been negative rather appreciative of their sacrifices.  As studies show, post independence Eritrean society expected all women, including those ex-combatants to return to the domestic sphere. On the other hand, many of the men who fought in the war have become officials of the state apparatus while e women are largely excluded from the official sphere.  While this situation certainly gives advantage to men, it is hardly a recipe for peace and/or development. When the state perpetuates inequality of the sexes in its own conduct, usually by a subtle subscription to a stultified vision of culture, it also perpetuates the discrimination of females in general. In a society where the majority of the people do not recognise women’s rights as equals to men, despite their contribution to the political and armed struggle, it is difficult to consider women’s emancipation.


Nira Yuval-Davis (1997) has examined how nationalism, gender and sexuality intersect. She  identify five ways in which women are implicated in nationalist narratives: as biological reproducers of the nation, as boundaries of national groups, as transmitters and producers of national culture, as symbols of national difference, and as participants in nationalist struggle. The nation imagined as a female body gives rise to strong familial connotations, and it is the task of patriarchal nationalism and male power, often represented by the government and military, to rescue and defend, sacrifice and in the end die for her. In their resistance to a patronising colonial power, anti-colonialist forces in general and postcolonial nation-builders in particular seem to be especially susceptible to invoking this gendered manner of nationalism and the image of the Nation as woman.  


“A figure of a woman, often a mother, symbolizes in many cultures the spirit of the collectivist, whether it is Mother Russia, Mother Ireland or Mother India. In the French revolution its symbol was ‘La Patrie’, a figure of a woman giving birth to a baby, and in Cyprus, a crying woman refugee on roadside posters was the embodiment of the pain and anger of the Greek Cypriote collectivist after the Turkish invasion. In peasant societies, the dependence of the people on the fertility of ‘Mother Earth’, has no doubt contributed to this close association between collective territory, collective identity and womanhood.”


Similarly, the Eritrean freedom movement envisaged the country in feminine terms during the struggle.  As we see in many discussions among Eritrean groups, the nation is envisaged in feminine terms, a perception not unique to Eritreans.  As in other national liberation struggles the world over, seldom has the conception of liberation encompassed the liberation of women of the nation. In the Eritrean nationalist rhetoric the homeland is constructed as a woman/mother, making the female as an embodiment of the resilient nation. At the same time the process of nation-building is embodied as a male enterprise.  This construction either ignores or stultifies cultural construction and freezes gender roles into unchanging forms. While culture can enhance progress by adoption and adaptation, rigidity in a culture can be an obstacle to progress.  In this contemporary world, factors such as limited access to education, information, and services allow those that may be most harmful to persist.


Within the Eritrean context nationalism is treated as political rather than a cultural phenomenon.  Due to this, the issue of nation-building is viewed as a male enterprise. Issues of gender and domestic relations have not been recognized as central to the construction of nations and nationalism. This is due to defining of nation as only political construction by ignoring the cultural construction which in its turn ignores gender analysis. However, culture is not static.  It can be reformed and redefined through a process in which some parts of society encourage change, while others resist it. That means societies are not homogeneous and no assumptions can be made about a compromise on cultural values. Cultural values are continually being reinterpreted in response to new needs and conditions. Some values have been affected or challenged by migration. However, when it comes to women and their sexuality such changes are slightly challenged because they are perceived as biological but not cultural. Such symbols are potentially harmful to the notion of nationalism and belonging. The Eritrean government has formally announced that it will fight against laws that discriminate against women.  We wait to see the effects of this effort in the lives of women. In the meantime because of the gap between the law and women’s real lives, the reality on the ground is tipped off against their daily lives and livelihoods. Legal reforms are an important step in addressing the gender disparity, but unless and until they are enforced rigorously the dreams of freedom and development elude us.  Mindful we must be that Eritrea cannot build a viable nation state without the inclusion of women. Thus the full participation   of women on equal terms with men is not a special favour to them but a need for nation-building. To achieve this gender parity we need to pay attention to: a) the exclusion of  cultural bases of womanhood b) nationalism as politics  and masculine right  because women’s abilities is best served when they are perceived of as full and independent members of society (Bernal, 2000).


Clearly we need to re-direct our vision from the violence-driven aspects of struggle to the constructive aspects – the mundane taken-for-granted dimensions – such as production of material goods, rising the coming generations with a good sense of self and respect for others, equal value of each person, and so on. For, when the guns finally go silent, it is these acts and values that will sustain the nation. Thus appreciating and rewarding these aspects of culture is what will ensure a secure and free nation.











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