“Perceptions of Heroism: No short-cut to social reform


Eritrea After the War

Within the EPLF base camp and liberated areas, the EPLF’s brand of socialism extended a multitude of freedoms and rights to women that they were traditionally denied ‑ choice of marriage partner, ability to own land, de-stigmatisation of sex before marriage, abolition of genital cutting, etc. The acceptance of these policies was due in no small part to the active women’s organisation, NUEW and the revolutionary leaders’ dedication to engendering a true cultural revolution as part of their national independence. The reality even directly after the war, however, did not reflect revolutionary change in regards to gender. In Sondra Hale’s analysis, five women out of a 74 member assembly were elected in the Gash-Barka region of Eritrea, 19 out of a 67 person assembly were elected in Anseba, 23 women out of 73 in Debub, and in the general election only 4 women ran for assembly out of 318 people (Hale 2001: 359). Besides political underrepresentation, women were confined to their traditional roles in society and submission to patriarchal authority within the family and the nation.

A possible explanation for why women’s expansion of their gender role within the military did not extend to the sphere of the nation can be understood by looking at the structure of the military. The military generally is an institution that has a strongly patriarchal hierarchy, as well as promotes brutality, violence, severity, strength ‑ qualities all associated with an excess of archetypal masculinity (Weber 2011). 

While all those enlisted underwent a physical and psychological transformation to conform to the identity of the fighter, this image was much more easily transposable to civilian life for men. For women in Eritrea, the strong contrast made it difficult to sustain in a traditional society.

 A female Eritrean war veteran eloquently phrases this inconsistency, “Upon re-entering [civil] society, we find that we are liberated but not free. In the field [the military struggle] we were not liberated, but [we were] free” (Hale 2001: 349).  Her use of liberated refers only to the national struggle for independence or liberation from Ethiopia, while freedom refers to the expansion of gender roles and rights gained during the war. 

Her language, however, posits the cause of women’s equality in opposition to the national liberation cause. 

This subtle wording captures the relationship of the women’s liberation movement and the Eritrean people’s liberation movement. Women’s equality was an intermediate objective to advance the larger political agenda ‑ independence and therefore its continuation depended on an indefinite period of battle. 

Once the war was over, the freedom of women was abandoned for the higher goal of liberation for all people.

In my interview with Abeba, she echoes this sentiment. “The goal was to have Eritrea independent, and this one goal has to work out for the both [men and women]. This objective was very important to both women and men.” In her statement, Abeba underlines the hierarchy of objectives within the EPLF’s multifaceted approach to revolution. Liberation from Ethiopia was clearly the highest and most important aim of the EPLF. Zerai, another woman fighter, frames the issue with the social program of the EPLF in this way, “according to the EPLF, to end women's oppression the creation of socialist Eritrea was a precondition” (Zerai 1994:6). EPLF’s hierarchy of objectives ‑ independence before political socialism before social equality ‑ meant that the achievement of equal rights for women ranked low in the order of priority.

While Zerai frames the EPLF’s goals generously, Victoria Bernal questions the authenticity of the EPLF’s dedication to changing the status of women. She understands the NEUW and the liberation of women fighters as a means to an end for the “male-led, male-dominated EPLF which took up certain issues concerning the status of women and mobilized women to achieve its predetermined goal of national independence” (Bernal 2000: 66). Bernal accuses the EPLF of emphasising causes important to women to further its own agenda. By offering the opportunity to achieve a higher social status to their fighters, the EPLF could attract a large number of soldiers. 

This tactic may sound disingenuous, but it directly parallels the guarantee of free education granted by the US government to World War II veterans. It is not surprising, only disappointing that equality for women would be used in this way, too.

In addition to the EPLF’s utilisation of women’s issues, the isolation of the military sphere decreased the longevity of women’s transformed status.

 During the war, the guerrilla front’s social and physical distance from civil society created the perfect conditions for radical social reform. Within this socialist and egalitarian sphere, women were given access to power and agency in new ways. This military bubble, however, was largely an exceptional space. I noticed that even in my aunt Abeba’s unconscious language, she refers to the guerrilla base camps and front as a “society by [themselves],” or a “confined society,” while the civilians constituted “the other society.” Abeba’s words affirm exactly what D’Amico and Tetreault imply ‑ the most significant boundary in military environments are not the common divisions of quotidian life, such as class or gender; it is the binary of the civilian and the soldier. This separation, which during the war reinforced the alternate norms of the military sphere, at the same time prevented these norms from translating into rights within civil society.

Women in Post-war Zimbabwe

In Eritrea, the involvement of women in the struggle and their political organisation was more pronounced (at least during the war). In the case of Zimbabwe, however, at no point in time was the full extent of women’s participation in the liberation struggle recognised, nor were gender norms ever significantly altered. 

The post-war experience of women in Zimbabwe also differed from that of Eritrean women. Eritrean news reports emphasise women’s contributions in war and women’s rights were written into the new constitution (Bernal 2000: 75). 

Similarly, organisations like NEUW worked to incorporate (with arguably limited success) women into the emerging power structures. Abeba, along with other female Eritrean fighters continue to be widely acknowledged as national heroes. 

Their heroism is recognised and is continually acknowledged years after the war. This is evidenced, for example, by erecting “memorial paintings in various corners of the country so as to popularise the role of Eritrean women in various domains” (Shabait 2013). Memorial paintings are little recompense for Eritrean women’s omission from the government and positions of power. They are, however, a striking contrast to the Zimbabwean government’s denial that women were involved in direct combat.

In Zimbabwe, women were largely denied the status of war veteran and hero because of their exclusion from the fighter realm. One woman interviewee recognises the hypocrisy in the distinction between combatants and chimbwidos, asking “How could I be called a 'terrorist' then and today I can't be called a hero with my fellow comrades?” (Lyons 1996: 22).

This woman notes that women were exempt from attacks, wounding, or death at the camps, even if they were not ‘recruited for combat’. They were neither exempt from vilification by the Rhodesians nor privileged to kinder treatment by them. Through their direct involvement, women were therefore able to transcend gender divides in their characterisation as the enemy. This same participation, however, did not gain them recognition of their agency by their own country. Another woman expresses her frustration at being denied hero status and benefits in similar terms. She asks, “since I was chimbwido, I did do a lot of important things during the war and I thought I would receive more than what I am seeing today” (Staunton 1990: 59). In ‘Mothers of the Revolution’, the sentiment of women being forgotten is echoed many times throughout. One woman Tanya Lyons interviewed asserts, “Yes, I am a hero…when I die [the government] will pay for my funeral” to which Lyons adds “but that’s all, there will be no public acknowledgement of her efforts” (Lyons 1996: 23).

The complexities of female heroism in Zimbabwe that are largely ignored at a national level are instead explored thoroughly in the fictional. In the creative sphere, women express their disillusionment after the war, as well as reflect on lesser talked about realities. The film, ‘Flame’, for example, tells the story of a strong-willed female fighter, Flame. In the base camp, she champions women’s causes to the male authorities, as well as bombs a Rhodesian jeep on her own initiative. Though Flame’s actions declare her to be a defiant woman warrior, her motivations throughout the film are archetypically ‘female’. 

She states that one of her main reasons for joining the rebel force was to rejoin her love interest, male fighter. 

Flame is also extremely sexualised through male recognition of her beauty and the pride she takes in her feminine appearance. 

Flame further comes to love and form a relationship with an official who used higher military status to rape her. The contradiction in the character of Flame represents a larger contradiction of the gender identity of women in ZANU.

 The film ends with Flame watching a national hero celebration with a former fighter friend of hers, bitter at their exclusion from the ceremony but privately acknowledging their own heroism among friends. Similar to some of the women interviewed, Flame feels pride at her achievement in spite of her marginalisation.

In the fictional account of “Justice and Mercy”, Sarah Maitland explores these two concepts justice and mercy symbolically through the naming of her two main characters – Justice and Mercy. Justice is the blind child of a war of liberation veteran, Neme. Neme expresses her discontent at being a “[Hero] of the Nation,” a “redundant hero” in a post-war society in which “there are no jobs…for a woman trained in the handling of high explosives, who has commanded others to kill, who has killed her herself, who has a disease and a blind child” (Maitland 1993: 145). Neme emphasises the experience of being forgotten and left out of a new social order, which she helped to create. 

Her child, Justice, symbolises the fairness in treatment of women after the war – “a child of sorrows…frail, tough, enduring, a child destined for the rise and fall of many in that land and beyond its borders” (Maitland 1993: 145). In this fictional context, Maitland explores the discontent of many and the incomplete victories won for women like Neme.

Both the nationalist liberation movements of Eritrea and Zimbabwe allowed women to participate in the traditionally masculine sphere of the military. Their involvement gave them access to power through the traditional symbols and behaviours of fighters – the use of weapons, display of uniforms, and use of violence. For female fighters in the EPLF, these exertions of power allowed them to penetrate the highly masculinised fighter identity within the social conscious. It allowed them to transcend the gender confines of traditional society in a way that ZANLA fighters were never given recognition for. In the end, however, women’s expansion of gender roles and opportunity for empowerment fostered by the extremity of war were diminished upon demobilisation in the traditional societies of both Eritrea and Zimbabwe.

The end of the war, however, does not constitute the end of the movement for women’s equality. While the government may have marginalised the contributions of women in Zimbabwe and Eritrea, women themselves reclaim their heroism. Abeba, though cognisant of shortcomings of Eritrean traditional society ended her discussion with me, saying “Overall, a lot of things have improved. For a country to move forward, education is the most important thing. 

Since 1991, number of girls education, has risen. I think a lot of work has still to be done though.”  The same feeling is held by a number of women interviewed from Zimbabwe. One states “I do not think the war would have been won without the women. It was a very big role that they played…now women have to liberate themselves” (Staunton 1990: 66). 

The spirit of women’s empowerment is further celebrated in the closing scenes in ‘Flame’ in which women acknowledge their own victories. Through speech, education, and the world of fiction and media, these women continue to explore and negotiate their place in post-war society. 

Therefore, the denial of equal representation of women within the Eritrean government and the exclusion of Zimbabwean women from hero status do not represent a failure for or on the part of women. Instead, these two case studies reveal that there is no short-cut to social reform. 

The historical and cultural roles of women are not reshaped through one exceptional demonstration of ability, but have to be won and worked through at the level of the local, as well as the military and political. – Asmarino Independent

May 2014
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