The stories of women are frequently ignored in the annals of history. One that languishes in particular obscurity is the fate of the women who fought for the Eritrean army during the war for independence against Ethiopia – an immensely long and drawn-out process that lasted from 1961 up until the formal secession of Eritrea in 1993.
The fact that there were so many females on the frontlines was a result of the prevailing philosophy of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which stressed gender equality alongside poverty reduction and social mobility for the rural poor as part of its manifesto. The result was that at the dawn of the 1990s, out of the army’s 100,000 personnel nearly 30% were women. After Israel, Eritrea remains the only other country to still require both men and women to take military service and have the majority of frontline positions open to both sexes.
The EPLF was only too aware of this, seeking to vigorously promote its progressive credentials by having images of female soldiers emblazoned across the country’s propaganda posters - an especially notable one being that of a khaki-clad woman standing with a baby under one arm and an AK-47 under the other. Yet despite its iconic posturing, the use of a baby in the image turned out to be grimly fateful for the country’s female veterans.
After Eritrea first gained independence the EPLF’s promises looked anything but empty. Women were granted the same property and divorce rights as men, greater custody over children and allocated nearly a third of seats in the Eritrean parliament. War veterans were also given monetary compensation to the tune of 10,000 Birr ($2,000), the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary in Eritrea.
Yet this initial surge of progressive politics wasn’t to last, particularly in the domestic realm. Many women were returning to their families after ten years or more away fighting, and although some were welcomed back proudly with open arms, many who had not given their daughters permission to join up were shocked at their embracing more traditionally masculine attitudes and dress codes. The consequence was that the afros, khaki tunics and sandals sported by demobbed female soldiers, once emblems of pride, became less common, even when the country sent both men and women to war again during a border dispute with Ethiopia in 1998.
This was coupled with the fact that in the first war many women had married their male comrades as a result of whirlwind romances in the trenches, living in communities under the umbrella of Marxism where the rhetoric of equality was enforced by law and daily existence carried out in the shadow of imminent death.
As such, many couples could not cope with the strain of returning to civilian life, with those not ending in divorce often reverting back to traditional roles and former domestic power structures. Many male veterans found it difficult to accept, away from the battle lines, that their wives wanted to shed domestic duties in favour of education and work. Many men refused to embrace childcare and housework tasks, still seeing them purely as women’s work.
The priorities of the ruling party were also becoming less inclined towards women’s equality, with little attempts by the state to improve their opportunities in the public or private spheres. Many female veterans thus ended up increasingly working in menial jobs - such as the group who became traffic wardens in Asmara - or giving it all up to stay at home.
There have been further emotional hurdles on top of this. Although a lot of Eritrean civilians are deferential towards female veterans of the war for independence, many male ex-soldiers see it as beneath their pride to marry a former female comrade. Although a lot of soldiers from the most recent conflict with Ethiopia are daughters of women that served in the first war, those suffering from trauma who haven’t come from military backgrounds often have no outlet for their pain with the people they once fought alongside.
The state and society of Eritrea suffer from many problems. The government, headed by Isaias Afewerki, allows no other candidates or parties to stand, despite a legal mandate for multi-party democracy existing in the 1997 Constitution. Religious minorities, journalists and critics of the state of any kind are frequently imprisoned, and movements in and out of the country are heavily restricted. No national elections have been held since independence was achieved.
But even more understated is the discouragement of written memoirs, which has ensured that many women are left without a voice. The government also does not release statistics on the numbers of war dead, although rough estimates suggest that of the 65,000 combatants to die between 1961 and 1993, nearly a third were women. The experiences of female soldiers in particular are therefore woefully absent from the official history of the country, and are rarely talked about save by a few inquisitive foreign journalists.
The story of Eritrean female veterans may seem an exceptional one, but the reality is that many are still fighting attitudes that go back generations. Despite its emancipatory pretensions, the Eritrean government’s use of both sexes side-by-side on the battlefield was for crudely pragmatic purposes in a time of war, disguised behind a thin veneer of progress. The result has been that many women were faced with, and are still facing, a compromise between work and home life in a battle to straddle two spheres. This is a situation experienced by women in many places. The poster in the government’s office serves as an ironic reminder of that.