Dear Eritrean woman
As usual, I minded my business until my sons reminded me yesterday was March Eight, International Women’s Day. They are good at remembering anniversaries and birthdays. So, we said “Happy March Eight” to the only female we have in the house. I don’t think she cared. Women are intuitive and more realistic than men. They know it right away if you mean what you say. Her rolling eyes made me contemplate about this date. I had to stop a project I was working on to write down my feelings about this date. Forgive me for this poorly edited piece, but I have to share it with you.
What Does The Date Mean To Me?
What does March Eight signify in Eritrean terms? Do we have to celebrate it? Why do we celebrate something, anyway? Is it because others do it, or we want to make that occasion a vehicle for impacting concrete changes in our society? Does talking about changes that other women of the world have registered supplant homegrown discourses? Do we have to carry the same slogans that the early twenty century women and leftists carried? Do their demands match ours? How do Eritrean women fare versus the aspirations they had fought for?
My poor brain had to sort out and prioritize many of the questions that had inundated it. I had to take a quip trip down the memory lane, back to the old days when March Eight enjoyed special treatment. I remember during the golden days when we paraded, sang and danced, commemorating March Eight. An era full of energy and promise, the valleys of Sahel would light up, the birds would join the party, singing ” Happy March Eight.”
There were beautifully decorated placards carrying captivating slogans. Also, there were speeches loaded with ideological themes. It seemed we reached the heights of civilization where oppression in all of its forms was about to be wiped out. That was the story of yesterday; it was a story of the then prevalent leftist internationalism that gave little space to contextualizing women’s right within each given country’s socio-political setting. We repeated what foreigners had written. But we were happy for the happy spirit the festive atmospheres brought in amid the war.
If we celebrated it yesterday, we had a reason. We were celebrating it primarily because we believed the struggle we were waging had an equally critical integral component to the task of liberating Eritrea from foreign occupation. We believed the struggle’s goals went far beyond liberating Eritrea. We believed that liberating Eritrea was the first step toward creating a domain where human rights would flourish and be respected. That’s why women were more determined than men in ensuring that the liberation efforts went well. They saw a well-placed investment in their blood and sweats that their daughters would enjoy equality in future Eritrea.
Eritreans waged the armed struggle primarily because Ethiopia violated their constitutionally guaranteed rights that the constitution of 1952 enshrined. Ethiopian systematic encroachment and the final measure of annexing Eritrea resulted in the breaching of rights including the right to govern, legislate, assemble, and the use of a flag and languages of choice.
Therefore, the armed struggle principally pivoted around civil and political rights. Although women were not granted to vote, the 1952 constitution of Eritrea embodied the requisite for change. As article 16 points out, it was ” based on the principles of democratic government,” signaling that citizens would have room for collective bargaining. Issues concerning women’s rights, including the right to vote and occupy elected position, are fundamental questions of social justice and they would quickly gather speed under that budding democratic climate.
That being the case, Ethiopia’s response to the peaceful petitioning was brutal, triggering the launching of the armed struggle and what followed of war and destruction, culminating in the establishment of independent Eritrea. Thus, our martyrs, men, and women had primarily died for human dignity, which includes women’s rights. So, have we retained the gains of yesterday, Or we squandered it all? Do we have our March Eight? Do we digest what it all means to be a woman in Eritrea? Let us see what the pioneers of March Eight mean when they celebrate it, I mean the American ones.
Recapping March Eight’s marching
The books foreigners wrote say it all began in 1909 when the women employed in the garment industry in New York got fed up with discriminatory practices and unsafe practices in workplaces. They agreed that women needed to organize for meaningful impact in the male-dominated workplace. Soon, leftist organizers picked it off and internationalized it.
Warning: No cultural filter has been applied. Some of you may not agree with the gains listed below that American women have registered. This topic deals with cultural as well as legal dimensions, and countries address it according to their constitutions. But there are universal human rights embodied in the gains that are applicable everywhere. I include victories that American women have registered because they concretize the discussion and entice us to think about what we could push for in Eritrean context. So, here we go.[source: https://goo.gl/nWfvZw]
- 1920: Women got their right to vote; it took them decades to participate fully.
1922: Women were allowed to marry foreigners and keep their citizenship; before that, they would be stripped of their citizenship if they married foreigners.
1960: They could buy birth control pill
1968; they got the right to have equal access to job listings. Before that, jobs were classified according to gender.
1970; Equal pay right
1973: The right to have legal abortion
1974: The right to have credit cards in their names, financial independence.
1978: No work discrimination based on pregnancy
1985: Can divorce their husbands without having to give “reason” simply by stating “because of irreconcilable differences.” Before that, the burden was on the wife to prove her husband was at fault.
1986: Women could seek damages for sexual harassment at the workplace. Today’s movements of “Me too” and “Time up,” should thank the pioneers of women’s rights.
1993: Rape became a criminal offense in all states. Wow, that late!!
1998; Women could access the morning after pill to avoid possible pregnancy.
2009: Could file claims of pay discrimination
2013: Allowed to fight on the front lines. Eritrean women fought on the front lines along male, compare that with the experience of Eritrea women!! But that is the story of yesterday.
2015: Women can marry other women. Don’t ask me how; I have already warned you to expect this one.
Back To Eritrean March Eight
There is no doubt that Eritrean women sensed oppression long before many of their male counterparts did, “Because,” says a female friend, ” they were born in it.” That’s why they joined the trailblazers of our revolution in the sixties. Their numbers and contributions grew through the years of the liberation struggle.
We boast that they constituted a third of the liberation army, and contributed half of the liberation efforts. But we never ask ourselves if they are given half of the pie- if there is any. We keep boasting, though. Still, we celebrate March Eight.
Eritrean Struggle Was For Social Justice.
Your struggle was for social justice. Your sacrifice was for restoring human dignity, which included the right of women to have equal access to education and health facilities. You fought for the right to have fair representation in decision-making bodies. You paid dearly to ensure that women would be considered independent citizens. The liberation of Eritrea was meant to be a vehicle for a dignified life. And until there is oppression of all citizens, it is ludicrous trying to split women’s emancipation from national emancipation. There could not be justice for women in an unjust society.
The Women I Knew: an emotional flashback, a tribute to Eritrean female fighter.
You made Derg’s Generals freak out; pee and poop in their pants; seeing you clutching your Kalashnikov rifle and beads of sweat running down your naturally beautiful faces, they begged for mercy. You pulled them out of the foxhole and reassured them to calm down. Indeed, you made them realize you were different than the women they were harassing and abusing back in the barracks and city bars. Your tremendous courage, your sharp and focused demeanor made them say good things about you. “We never anticipated a woman would capture us,” they confided to their friends.
How can I forget the day you humiliated the Soviet officers at Afabet, after running Nadew Command? You made the commanding General wear women’s clothes and ride a camel to evade capture.
The story of your gallantry is very long for me to summarize it here. The images though keep coming back, giving me the energy to scribble whatever I could. It is getting late; I feel sleepy, but your memory keeps me alert enough to keep writing….
I have seen models overusing cosmetic products. You never cared about wearing makeup, and I don’t think it was available. Even if it were, you did not have time for cosmetic touches. You were in a war, deep in muddy trench-pockets; you were busy carrying out raids and surprise counterpunches. You were seized with a noble cause of liberating a nation, an object that was more significant to you than personal care. You made male chauvinists swallow their pride, lose their nerves, and at the end surrender to reality: you commanded many of them. I remember you leading columns of brave men and women, with that walkie-talkie crackling off noises of commanders coordinating battles; I remember your high-pitched call sending shivers down the spines of your enemies. You were the commander, giving and executing orders… You Overcame elements of nature, the heat and cold; hunger and thirst. The fear of pitch-dark nights was defeated; you got used to the thuds of shells and the lightning flashes of explosions. You conquered towering mountains and beat the sense of insecurity. I always wonder how you overcame the uncomfortable life in close quarters with your male-combatant comrades. You were their commander.
Your strong muscles bent metals. I remember the female mechanic who got us across Anseba river. She brought in a utility truck from Zera and fixed our vehicle within minutes. We were so grateful and at the same time pleasantly humbled. We would have been an easy target for the fighter jets. They knew that killing zone, trucks got stuck in that ravine bed. The fighter jets made many kills there.
I also remember the female doctor who saved my life. At times, she was rumored to have not slept for days as battle casualties kept arriving, under heavy bombardment and screeching jet fighters, her hands stayed steady, her mind focused, she kept slicing up human flesh to get to that shrapnel lodged somewhere in the poor patient’s ribcage. She tried to save the ones hanging on life by a thin thread, and there were many of them. Who would she save first? A tough challenge.
Anyway, She had to save lives. She never lost the focus. She was said to have saved thousands of lives. Then you had the curious technician who repaired and assembled electronics; the sound engineer, the editor, the teacher, the journalist, the administrator, and the community worker. Also, there were noncombatant women who contributed significantly, namely, clandestine agents, mothers who fed and cared for the liberation fighters and those from the Diaspora who devoted their time and money to the cause. The night is progressing, and I feel my mind and fingers fatiguing. I can’t give you a full description; I hope you don’t blame me for trying…
Lastly, I remember you, going through cycles of cheerfulness and depression, moments of hope and despair….but I never read on your face signs of surrender….I reminisce all of the above without forgetting the heroines who gave their lives, and those of you who have suffered the worst of debilitating wounds.
Your smiles outshone the sweetness of a full moon; I dreamed how you would fare in free Eritrea….Yes, I remember many of you, and I ask myself: where are they now? I would like to see your story written by you, in your own words. Where are you, now?
We saw what American women have gained through their struggle. I bet you made more sacrifices than others. You got used to lipservice discourses. Would you then jot down your concrete gains, and compare it with your aspirations? Are we going to have an Eritrean March Eight next year, based on Eritrean women’s experience? I expect your appraisal of women’s position and achievement will be different from the ones we hear from NUEW. That’s for sure, But you have to write your own story.
Happy March 8!
Also was published on Meskerem.net and Assenna around the same date