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Sunday, March 09, 2014

On the Front Lines: Changing Minds Proves More Challenging than Changing Borders & Administrations

As I read through Geraldine Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, I am continuously surprised by the riveting, intimate stories of women whom I imagine are just like me in many ways. And women whom I imagine could be good friends of mine. Women who are strong and beautiful, driven and courageous.  And yet, while some of my greatest struggles are in proving the worthiness of my ideas and concepts, turning these into a profitable business that will provide for my living, these young women are often struggling to prove that they themselves are worthy of simply living as individuals with a brain and will.

This post is in honor of International Women's Day.

Jenny Matthews/Panos

As I continue to seek out transitional environments -- traveling to observe first-hand when I can; reading and interviewing about them when I can't -- I continue to find evidence that laws and constitutions and job titles and borders are not the biggest challenge facing those who seek progress.

Deeply ingrained cultural ideas and traditions are much, much more difficult to challenge.

The following excerpts from Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire reflect her experiences during six years in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.  In this story out of northern Africa, we watch women fight and prove their physical equality and strength of character, then return home only to fight again -- this time against oppressive cultural traditions.  Like so many of the transitional regions I've lived in, the story of Eritrea reveals that cultural and ideological walls are much more difficult to break down than walls of brick and mortar.

In the 1960s in Eritrean villages, women's position was so lowly that a wife presumed to speak to her husband only if it was absolutely necessary. From the Koran's pronouncement that menstruation is "an illness," during which women must refrain from sex and prayer, Eritrean villagers had developed a tradition of forcing menstruating women to leave their homes for a week each month and seclude themselves, day and night, in a pit reserved for the "unclean."

When war broke out with Ethiopia, a few women insisted on fighting. (...) Eritrean women joined the guerrillas because they felt they had to. (...) "At the beginning, they were needed, so there wasn't the luxury of refusing them," said Chuchu Tesfamariam, who became a fighter herself at the age of seventeen.  The valor of the fighters won new respect for women in general and broke down many taboos.  The Eritreans, desperately poor, had few factories. But, as a gesture to the comfort of the women fighters, they had invested some of their scarce resources in a plant to produce sanitary napkins.  

Living conditions at the front line were desperately harsh. (...) Supplies had to be hauled by hand up the near-vertical rock face, work that the women shared equally with the men. Everyone slept on the ground.

The guerrillas came from a variety of backgrounds.  Some, like the university-educated idealists who returned from exile to enlist, found it natural that women and men should fight together. Others, simple villagers, had difficulty adjusting to the idea.

Ismail Idriss, a twenty-three-year-old goatherd and a devout Muslim, had never spoken to a woman from outside his family when he suddenly found himself taking orders from one. "Women fighters I knew about from the beginning; even when I was wandering with my goats I'd seen them," Ismail explained, sunning himself on a rocky ledge during a rare break in the fighting. "But I never believed a woman could give orders to a man." Ismail's company commander was a stocky, taciturn woman of his own age named Hewit Moges, a thirteen-year veteran of front-line fighting who came from a Christian background.  "Now I have seen it in practice I have had to start to accept it," he said, in a voice that still sounded hesitant about the idea.  "When it's a hard climb she runs up the mountain, when it's a battle she's in front of the troops, and when someone is wounded she's the one who carries him from the field."  He spread his palms and raised his shoulders in a wide shrug. "What can I say against it when I have seen such things?"

A few nights later the war took a rare break for a wedding. Fighters always married in large groups; a single couple couldn't afford the traditional feast of goat meat. A young dancer dressed in a costume made of grain sacks marked "Gift of the Federal Republic of Germany" leaped and twirled across the sand, followed by 120 brides and grooms, all clad alike in the same shabby khakis they'd worn into battle shortly before. The couples paired up and held hands, waiting for their division commander to read out their names and declare them husband and wife. Each couple received a wedding certificate, produced in the fighters' underground printshop, carrying a quote from the 1977 Marriage Law stating that the union was "the free will of the two partners based on love."

I sat on the sand listening to the long list of names. (...) Muslims and Christians were marrying each other by the dozen. "It's possible that these people came from parents who were taught that you starve before you share food from the plate of someone of a different faith," said Chuchu, sitting on sand beside me. But in the trenches of this long war these young men and women had shared much more: fear, and victories, and belief in a cause.  In the dark I could just make out Chuchu's profile. A sad half-smile played across her face. "Not everything that comes from war is bad," she whispered.

"Not everything that comes from war is bad," she whispered.


For once, a guerrilla movement had come to power and had not been instantly corrupted by it. The movement's leaders still wore the cheap plastic sandals they'd fought in, and none of them, including the president, drew a salary. Like the other fighters, they donated their labor to the rebuilding effort.

But, for the women fighters, peace had brought some unexpected disappointments.  The new government offered women political participation and new legal rights, such as the right to own and inherit land.  It also banned genital mutilation in hospitals, and sponsored a radio series in which both the Muslim mufti and the Christian bishop stated clearly that such practices weren't religious obligations.  Still, the traditions of the wider society outweighed the culture that had developed at the front.  Suddenly, fighters had come back home to families who had spent the war under occupation by Ethiopian forces. Often, the guerrillas' progressive mores were at odds with the deeply conservative values of their parents.  "Most of them respect us--they understand we lived a different way," said Rosa Kiflemariam, a thirty-three-year-old who spent eight years at the front.  "But others say to us, 'That was then--this is now, and now you have to live our way.' "


In the villages, particularly, families found it difficult to accept the tough young women who were used to absolute equality, or even positions of command in military units.  In those cases, families urged divorce, offering their sons young, tractable village girls as alternative wives prepared to wait on them hand and foot.

To Rosa and many other women, a new struggle had just begun.  "We have to fight now to make them understand that everyone has the right to live freely.  It's another war, I think."

"We have to fight now to make them understand... It's another war, I think."

Eritrean women fighters. Martin Plaut

Greg Marinovich

A woman Eritrean fighter with heavy machine gun. March 17 1998. ertra

Eritrean journalist Daniel Semere writes this week on the non-stop struggle for emancipation of Eritrean heroines, 

"Although this task [of empowering and cultivating gender leadership qualities at all levels] is huge and much has been done, the greatest challenge still remains to be the difficulty of convincing people of the benefits of stopping such deeprooted practices."


  1. great article, Eritrean women are indeed powerful!


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