Eritrean Women Who Fought in Trenches Now Battle TraditionBy Jennifer Parmelee
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 25, 1993; Page A30
ASSAB, ERITREA -- Hawa Mohammed listened closely as three dozen women told her about their discoveries: how much voting meant to them, how important it is to educate daughters, how they feel equal to any man.
The high-spirited women clustered in the dirt-floored shack didn't need any prodding from Hawa, a former guerrilla fighter who returned to her roots to educate women after Eritrea won de facto independence from Ethiopia in May 1991.
The women, from desert-hardened, nomadic Afar stock who consider direct communication a virtue, looked a visitor in the eye to tell their stories, easy laughter and loud exclamations filling the shack.
"I don't want my daughters to pass the time as I did," said Sherifa Mohammed, a striking, middle-aged woman of strong profile and emphatic gestures, to murmurs of approval. "They must be educated. They must leave the house and learn about the world."
But then the million-dollar question was put to these women, all arrayed in the radiantly colored full-length robes and scarves customary among pastoralists in the Horn of Africa: What if their daughters came home dressed like Hawa -- in Western-style pants and an open-collar blouse?
Hawa smiled as she translated the question for the visitor, clearly curious about the response. An older woman, Medina Noor, raised her hand.
"Hawa was dressing like us before. When she went to the field, she put on trousers and cut her hair," Medina observed. "Now," she added, to the applause of the other women, "we hope she will come back and dress like us."
Thousands of women and girls went to the field to join the guerrillas of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front during the war, breaking down gender barriers in many areas: They fought, they led battalions into battle and performed surgery on combatants. Hawa was wounded three times working heavy artillery on the front lines during most of the major engagements from 1978 onward.
Ultimately, women made up one-third of the guerrilla force of 70,000 to 90,000, a proportion without precedent in guerrilla warfare. Many male colleagues say the women provided the "moral backbone" of a rebel force that defeated the Ethiopian army, black Africa's largest, best-equipped force.
Now that the war is over, however, the women who served as guerrillas find themselves confronting a perhaps even more intractable enemy: tradition.
"To change this society of ours, we have to work hard -- even more than we struggled at the front," said Sadia Ibrahim, a 28-year-old journalist and former guerrilla, who like Hawa belongs to the Afar tribe. "We must make sure we maintain our equality."
The problem these women face is symptomatic of other tensions emerging in Eritrea as society struggles to adjust to the first real peace in three decades. Although the long war cemented a genuine "national spirit" rare in tribally and ethnically divided Africa, other more subtle divisions have appeared -- between members of the military and civilians, between exiles returning from the Eritrean diaspora and those who endured the war at home, between the women who went to fight and the housewives who stayed home.
Even the closely knit former guerrilla force is showing strains as its members come down to earth from their postwar elation.
There are policy differences -- over the timetable for a transition to full-fledged democracy, for example. And in May, Liberation Front members who have worked without compensation since the end of the fighting staged a public protest against a government decision to continue their unpaid status, briefly occupying banks and the airport in Asmera. Veterans who were disabled in the fighting have had a painful awakening as well, realizing that they live a life apart from those who survived whole. During the struggle, such distinctions were muted because everyone had a role to play.
"In the field we were all equal, unnaturally equal," said Assefaw Tekeste, a senior government health official who has long worried about the social consequences of peace. "We were a utopian society with a goal that created a common psychology. . . . Now, the differences among us have begun to surface."
Women, too, were treated as equal partners. They fought in the trenches beside the men, and they managed to marry and bear children between battles. They killed and were killed. They organized in liberated zones to create better standards for women in a society that discriminates materially, in such areas as inheritance, and physically, in terms of genital mutilation. They also nurtured, helping to create the "family spirit" of the guerrilla force that is so striking to visitors.
"They were stronger than us, no doubt about it," said Afeworki Abraha, deputy of Eritrea's mission to Ethiopia, remembering the many women fighters who took their own lives rather than face capture by Ethiopian troops -- and the risk of rape. "In every way, they had to pay a higher price."
Many former guerrilla women feel they are still paying a higher price than men as they confront the transformation to civilian life.
In a scathing editorial in the government-run newspaper earlier this year, Askalu Mankerios, head of the women's union, accused the Liberation Front's male fighters of succumbing to family pressures to conform to traditions, often at the expense of their female comrades. She cited cases in which men divorced the wives they had married in the field for younger women who cooked, wore their hair long and more often than not were the virgins that Eritrean society prefers as brides.
And while many women married and bore children during the war, many more did not, spending their marriageable age on the battle lines. Others lost their husbands in the war. Unlike the single male fighters who now are sought-after husbands, the single women returning to civilian society find their chances of marrying or remarrying almost nil. In Eritrea, most women are married by age 20.
As an organization, the Liberation Front, the country's government, is attentive to women's rights and issues, although the men still far outstrip the women in leadership positions.
Women hold seven seats on the Liberation Front's 75-member Central Committee and approximately one-fourth of those in the transitional parliament. Four of 24 cabinet-level department heads are women, including Justice Secretary Fawzia Mohammed. One of her priorities is reforming property laws to give women an equal share, a notion the Liberation Front practiced in the field, but which is widely disregarded across Eritrea today. "When you give women economic rights, many other inequities will change," Fawzia said.
Traditions are indeed changing, if slowly. For one, women who joined the guerrillas meet unequivocal respect. When they returned to their families after the war, many of their younger sisters and friends cropped their hair and donned pants in their honor. The change in street fashion was noticeable.
Sadia Ibrahim joined the guerrillas at age 14, angered by the massacre of civilians in her home village. As the eldest daughter in a conservative Muslim family, she left her parents in stunned outrage. Her father tracked her down before she entered training camp.
"When I refused to go home, he began to shout, 'If you're going to be a prostitute, give me back all your gold,' " she remembered him saying. "I gave him my necklace, my rings and bracelets. I told him they would send him my gold tooth when I died."
Sadia married a commander of a tank unit and they had a daughter. Her husband died in one of the last battles of the war.
Sadia, however, has gained a new father.
"Before I left, he never believed we would defeat this big, Soviet-backed army. He thought we were foolish," she said. "After freedom, I went back and my father was overwhelmed. He left his bed for me and slept on the ground. He thinks I can settle everything for the family. He told me, 'Now, I understand.' "
© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company