Perceptions of Heroism: The bonds of blood payments


Key Differences

Several interrelated factors explain why more women were recruited to the EPLF, as well why these same women attained a higher level of gender equality than in ZANLA. One important (if not obvious factor) Sondra Hale notes is the “length and intensity of the [Eritrean] struggle” (Hale 353: 1996). As a country with a population of 5 million compared to Ethiopia’s 80 million, Eritrea needed to recruit as many fighters as possible to sustain the nearly 30-year war. Furthermore, the unusually long duration of the war reinforced the division between the warriors and the civilians through temporal and spatial isolation. By the end of the war, a combatant may have lived in a sphere utterly removed from domestic life anywhere from 1-30 years. One of my uncles, for example, joined the front when he was 15 and spent the next 15 years in battle.

It, therefore, cannot be overlooked that an entire generation in Eritrea grew up at the guerrilla front. 

The effects of the physical distance of the front from civil society were compounded by the ideological separation from traditional society. 

The EPLF’s radical socialist ideals fostered the creation of a completely autonomous sphere with distinct social norms. The guerrilla camps’ utter detachment from civil society transformed the base into a prolonged social experiment, which flourished under the extremity of war conditions.

Another important aspect that distinguishes the women fighters in Zimbabwe from those in Eritrea was status-related recognition. The acknowledgement of Eritrean women as armed combatants allowed them to be perceived as active warriors instead of limiting them to the sphere of domestic mothering. These female fighters were able to transcend gender divides through this acceptance. Women in ZANLA, however, remained restricted to the feminine and private sphere. Mary Ann Tetreault emphasizes the significance of direct combat in nationalist struggles in her assertion that “the legitimacy of group demands after a revolution” are determined at least in part by “what the group is perceived to have earned by the blood of its members” (Tetreault 1994: 19). Tanya Lyon glosses this concept as one of equality of citizenship though ‘blood payments’ — a term which I will borrow (Lyons 2000).

These blood payments represent the sacrifice combatants in a revolutionary struggle ‘paid’, which allows them to figuratively buy their way into the emergent power structures. Blood payments purposefully exclude civilians in their demand for an active participation in violence. 

They rank loss of flesh or other physical causalities at the war front higher than the trauma and atrocities committed against civilians. In this way, the blood payment serves as an initiation into citizenship—something all Eritrean guerrillas fighters (male and female shared) that distinguished them from civilians of both genders.

The active inclusion of Eritrean women as warriors allowed them to share in these bonds of blood payments that enabled them (at least the front) to maintain a similar status as male fighters. In Zimbabwe, the restriction of women to roles of messengers, cooks, and more ‘domestic’ support positions in official policy denied them the ability to make these same blood payments. From interviews with women in ZANLA and even public discussions with Teurai Ropa, it is clear that many women were involved in direct combat (Lyons 2004; Lyons 1996; O’ Gorman 2011). Though they were not recruited to fight against the enemy, women’s residence at guerrilla bases and their transportation of weapons made them as much a target as any man.

One former combatant tells of her own experience in direct combat, “Near the border, we were carrying the materials and the commander said, there is the enemy in our front, you can defend yourself…. I am the one who was shooting! I am the one, [although] I didn't say I am the one who made more killings” (Lyons 1996: 3). 

This female fighter’s statement encompasses the experience of many women who were compelled to take up arms in defense. 

In this way, ZANLA women fighters’ use of guns and involvement in the violence of war allowed them to temporarily access the sphere of fighter through their deeds. 

The language of defense, however, permanently restricted their actions as exceptional instances of acceptable retaliation. They were, therefore, denied social recognition as a group for their participation in the warrior sphere. Thus, it is not access to weapons or use of violence that distinguishes the warrior from auxiliary support, but an individual or a group’s perceived agency.

In Zimbabwe, the perception of women and the majority of their involvement would classify them as what D’Amico’s calls ‘servicewomen’. 

She asserts that these women who morally support male soldiers and refrain from combat roles “reinforce the ‘differentness of gender’” through “the specific training given to men and women, and the particular tasks they are assigned” (D’Amico 1991: 378).

By participating in the highly gendered structure of the military, ZANLA women legitimised the male fighter identity and the highly masculine structure of the military. Further, these women proved their female gender identity to be more rigid than that of the male. 

During war, Zimbabwean men were able to transcend their role as civilians and commit legitimised violence in the exceptional circumstance of war.  The Zimbabwean women, on the other hand, increased the inflexibility of gender roles through their inability to attain this same transcendence in spite of the exceptional circumstances.

Representations of Women Fighters

Since the most pronounced difference in the levels of gender equality attained by women in the EPLF and ZANLA resulted not from sheer number of participants, but from perception of women as fighters, it is important to consider how women were portrayed in the media, as well as in the guerilla camps. In both ZANU and EPLF propaganda, women were prominently featured in or mimicking combat. In one particular EPLF poster, a muscular woman with a short afro and military attire is drawn holding a grenade (Connell 1991). Her taut body is poised in an active contrapposto about to launch the grenade; her face is strained in angry grimace, as if yelling. 

This piece of propaganda challenges the viewers’ expectations by portraying a visceral violence in her face and body that is normally associated with men. Another EPLF image is a photograph of two uniform-clad women raising their guns in a victorious salute (Connell 1991), while yet another depicts a young woman in traditional dress carrying a gun slung across her shoulder in a pose reminiscent of carrying a baby (Khaleeli 2010). These first two images play with the expected gender of their subjects by inserting a woman into the typically masculine role of fighter. 

The image of the traditionally dressed woman is aimed at shocking the viewer even more by its disruption of the cultural binary of mother and warrior. In a more explicit manner than the other media, this photo exploits our assumptions that femininity is associated with passivity, the domestic, the protected by its emphasis on woman’s sexuality and roles as mothers. It stands in contrast to many of the other photos of EPLF female combatants in which EPLF fighters of both genders, the women are almost indistinguishable from men in their haircut, uniform, and weaponry.

There also seemed to be a high volume of women photographed compared to men.  This discrepancy underlines a cultural and global understanding of a certain discomfort and disturbance from our everyday reality. 

Just as seeing men in drag performing an exaggerated femininity unsettle us, these images of ‘masculinised’ women purposefully challenge our conception of gender. 

By adopting symbols associated with masculinity — guns and uniforms — and posing in typically masculine displays of power (such as raising a gun), the photographs paradoxically prevail in calling a greater attention to women’s sexuality than they succeed in dismissing it. 

They further represent the incorporation of women into a patriarchal sphere in which women ‘perform’ male gender in order to gain acceptance into the fraternity of the military and to a greater extent, the nation. This problematic rendering of women suggests a possible explanation for why equality at the battlefront was not matched by equality in civilian life—militarized women assumed male identities as individuals, instead of gaining acceptance as a community of women.

In ZANU media, propaganda and photography, the message they seek to communicate and their portrayal of women is similar to the EPLF. In one article of the ZANU publication, Zimbabwe News, Teurai Ropa is photographed in military attire with her legs splayed open in a masculine display of confidence and a gun casually falling across her torso (ZANU 1987: 23). In another Zimbabwe News article, a young girl is shown holding a gun almost the size of her body over her head (ZANU 1987: 23). Similar to the EPLF photos, these photos, on the surface, both glorify women’s involvement, as well as encourage women to join the struggle. 

On a deeper level, the photo of Teurai Ropa further emphasizes female sexuality through its contrast with the blatant, overstated masculinity of the subject. The image of the young girl, similar to the traditional Eritrean women, challenges the victimhood and submissiveness associated with children (especially girls) through her demonstration of violence and power.

On the whole, the similar portrayal of women in ZANU, which included significantly less women than EPLF, as well as gave less recognition to these women, seems to be contradictory to their official rhetoric. 

During the war, Teurai Ropa is quoted in a speech saying “on the military side, women were going into combat at the front in large numbers” (Lyons 2004: 167). She later retracted her statement explaining “it was expedient to promote the idea [of female involvement] to Western solidarity groups” (Lyons 2004: 167). Nhongo confirms this interpretation: “as ZANU gradually achieved recognition as an authentic liberation movement, its members started receiving invitations from sympathetic countries…ZANU exploited such occasions to spread the story of its success with gender reform” (Nhongo 2000: 2). 

She further elaborates that women in the camps were not aware of their portrayal since “in the camps…distribution of Zimbabwe News was limited” (Nhongo 2000: 4).

 Therefore, the presentation of women and the high level of integration depicted in the media are not indicative of women’s actual experience in ZANU or the EPLF.

Media produced by these two organizations instead reflects more significantly how they wanted to be regarded and by what audience than to their actual practices. 

As Lyons notes the ZANU propaganda featured “women in combat poses rather than actually in combat” (Lyons 2004: 162). 

In the same way, propaganda and photographs reveal the desired appearance of ZANU and the EPLF rather than the reality of the how these two organizations functioned. It was furthermore a tactic to attract women to join the liberation front. 

The propaganda also exploited the sensationalism and image of progress inclusion of women fighters presented to garner international support. 

Media portrayals of Zimbabwean and Eritrean women, therefore, were entirely contained to a separate realm of social perception that had little impact on women’s experiences within the guerrilla movements. 

They instead demonstrated both guerrilla fronts’ willingness to advocate for progressive ideals that would earn them sympathy and support from the global community without having to put them into practice. 

Promotion of gender equality could therefore be construed as a strategy to legitimize the causes of the EPLF and ZANU. – Asmarino Independent</b>

April 2014
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