Radio Erena: 25 September 2020
It’s somewhat hard to believe that PFDJ’s childhood form, the EPLF, was once a free-thinking and relatively ‘youth-cultured’ organization, a unique flower in a field of reactionary and conservative practices. The EPLF’s comparatively open nature is best understood by the ways in which it treated women, and how it lifted the veil on certain sexual and marital practices.
Women served in the EPLF alongside men in all capacities except the highest ranks of leadership. They fought side by side with men in mixed military units and succeeded in liberating their country with their male counterparts. By the end of the war, it was estimated that women made up 30% of the EPLF’s membership. It is even said that the female fighters symbolized the grassroots spirit of the organization, which consequently rallied Eritrean women, and men, from a variety of backgrounds. Most of all, the female fighters embodied a spirit of progress, a divorce from the past, and emancipation from oppressive societal practices. Eritrea’s liberation and the emancipation of women were one and the same.
In the beginning, the EPLF was a male-only organization, but in 1973, three women: Dehab Tesfatsion, Aberash Melke, and Werku Zerai, chose to leave their studies at Haile Selassie University and join their brothers on the frontline. The EPLF allowed them to stay and gave them military training. Soon after this, the organization began to recruit women as fighters. The acceptance of female members into the EPLF led to several changes in the social dynamics of the movement and encouraged the organization to put gender equality into practice. The EPLF believed a positive shift towards gender equality would happen as a result of women participating in political activities and labor, summed up in the slogan “Equality through equal participation”. In practice, the EPLF held reasonably well to this ideal, aiming to dismantle the idea that women can only do certain types of work by training female members to work as mechanics, carpenters, drivers, and in other stereotypically male jobs. Oppositely, male members were encouraged to help with food preparation and other jobs typically reserved for women in Eritrean society, though sometimes these tasks were also given as punishments. Female members also received military training and lived communally with male members of the organization.
Equality for women in the organization, however, was in part achieved by the negation of femininity. Women did not just become ‘equal’ to men in work and war but became ‘male equivalents’ in what was not so much an evolution in gender relations, but repression. Lack of femininity and the maintenance of homogeneity is best reflected in photographs of liberation fighters published by EPLF during the war – where women and men were both seen wearing khaki uniforms and rubber sandals, with their hair styled into an afro. Despite the repression of femininity on a social level within the organization, biologically speaking, men and women living together in close proximity will eventually bend to natural urges.
Initially, the EPLF’s stance on sexual relations was one of suppression. In fact, in the early days, the organization required its members to be celibate and did not allow them to have sexual relations with non-members. After the organization opened its doors to female fighters, sex between members of the EPLF was banned too. Eventually accepting the inevitable, the EPLF introduced its own marriage law in 1977 which held to the view that men and women were free individuals who could suitably exercise their own choice to marry. The EPLF described this as ‘democratic marriage’. This was an extreme break with traditional Ethiopian marriage practices, which included forced marriage, arranged marriage, child marriage, and the ostracization of non-virgin brides. The EPLF even supplied its members with contraceptives, another luxury not afforded by traditional Ethiopian society.
Premarital sex was encouraged among members of the EPLF and most couples duly obliged. Though marital partnerships and new families were officially recognized within the organization, they were not afforded any private status or rights. The EPLF was a collective community, its members all ate and slept together, regardless of marital or family status. Allegiance to the EPLF was the primary mission, and it could not be compromised by any form of social dynamic, whether family or friendship. Partners were usually allocated jobs that kept them separated and typically were only permitted to spend one month of the year together. Family units were also split up, with mothers and children being separated after six months, and thereafter the children were raised communally, within the unit of their parents. Child-rearing was seen as a collective responsibility and was carried out by unit members on a rotational basis, alongside other jobs. The EPLF didn’t hold much value for the domestic sphere, and instead placed all emphasis on public life and work as a collective.
It can be said then that the EPLF only revolutionized women’s social standing in the sense that it let them take on the various roles already carried out by men, rather than improving perceptions of typically female roles within society. The family as a social dynamic was abolished under the organization. Gender relations and social hierarchies were not so much transformed, as they were suppressed by the EPLF. The women were treated like men; thus, no meaningful changes had to be made to ensure the inclusivity of women – and this translated into daily life after the war was won.
The great reintegration of Eritrean society proved difficult for the female fighters, many of whom lacked resources, skills, and jobs. Once the war was over, many fighters wanted to re-establish family bonds that had faded over thirty years of fighting, either because of the physical scattering of family members or the emotional impacts of long-term separation. Ex fighters were soon reunited with their extended families and the natural order of society could continue, which meant the older generations could once again wield influence over the life choices of sons and daughters who had fought in the war. Once three decade’s worth of dust began to settle in Eritrea, ex-fighters, especially women, found themselves trapped between the revolutionary ambitions they absorbed through the EPLF and the more traditional gender expectations asserted within the civilian world. With the focus moved towards domestication and family life, female ex-soldiers found that all the attributes that made them formidable warriors were now the reason they were being scrutinized as wives and potential partners.
The marital statuses of female ex-fighters became a significant topic of conversation in Eritrea during 1995-96. In these years, it would seem that many women fighters were being divorced by their comrade husbands in favor of civilian women. One reason for this could be the new pressure being exerted by extended families, of which mothers and sisters supposedly had the most influence. Allegedly, female members of extended families would question their fighter son’s/brother’s decision to be with a fighter woman, especially if that woman did not bear him a child. Religion also becomes a factor for the separation of many ex-fighters couples.
This new focus on fighter women’s credentials as wives and mothers undermined the fact that these women were heroes and independent citizens in their own right, and not just vessels defined by their relationship to men. Also, the mass perception that female fighters were unsuitable as partners came at a time when marital status was re-emerging as a significant indicator of women’s social and economic standing. Unfortunately, as in many other countries, female-led households in Eritrea are typically among the poorest.
Another major focus after the war was that of childbearing among ex-fighters. Some women had spent their most fertile years fighting in the war and had decided to defer having children until the war was over. This meant that after the war, these women suffered infertility problems due to old age and health issues attributed to the fighting. In Eritrea at that time, infertility was usually considered the fault of the woman and stood as reasonable and justified grounds for divorce. Infertility in female ex-fighters has never been conclusively studied and it could be the case that it was a rumor propagated by the perception of female fighters as ‘manly and unfeminine’. As with the focus on marital status, discussions of infertility also served to define women’s worth in society, this time in relation to their ability to begin and raise a family. Another problem-plagued female ex-fighters who were raising children as new civilians. The collective responsibility of raising children, as happened during the war years, was no longer in practice, and so women struggled to balance work and family life.
In some sense, the EPLF had fought a cultural revolution as well as a political one. The EPLF had constructed its own society, where men and women enjoyed less-restrictive sexual and marital practices and a break from the generally oppressive traditions held by wider society. However, once the bubble had been burst, a shake back to normality meant that the older generations could once again exert their influences over the ex-fighters, and a quick fall back to the traditional ‘domestic’ was inevitable. For male ex-fighters, the view was agreeable, they could return to positions of authority within their families and enjoy the privilege of exemption from domestic jobs. For female ex-fighters, the outlook of civilian life was bleak. It meant domestic work and child-rearing responsibilities, which offered a very different life than the one they had experienced in, and were promised by, the EPLF.
By Matthew Norman.
Matthew Norman: Freelance Journalist with a background in international development, now fighting for the extension of universal human rights.