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photographer/social anthropologist

Articles: Thesis 

Ane suqh' ile. I keep quiet

Focusing on women's agency in western Tigray, North-Ethiopia

The Tigrayan revolution (1975-1991), where thirty percent of the fighters at some point were women (Hammond 1999, Young 1997), is a strong expression of women's political agency in the region. One research question was therefore if this was just an exception, a unique historical possibility to escape a traditionally subordinated position as women, or if this was an act partly made possible by this very socio-historical context? Hence, another major question to be asked in this thesis was how social and cultural practices generate individuation in the Tigrayan context, and further how gendered implications instruct individual agency. In the Tigrayan context, I found that individuation must be understood as structurally situated in the socio-historical practice of alliance-building, and the implicit fragility of relationships, and thus culturally inscribed in the mobility of the social structure itself. The apparent mistrust in social interaction creates a vulnerable individual who must manage the fluidity and fragility of social relations in her own life. Social mobility therefore makes it possible to interpret flexibility as an inherent and embodied part of cultural practice for both men and women.

Although the fighter-women might keep photographs of themselves in fighter-attire, as a proud memory of their time in the field, this particular self-image has not been collectively acknowledged in civilian society. Hence, female fighters' experiences during the revolution tend in my opinion to be treated as a mere anomaly situated in the "wilderness", and an exception that ended with the struggle itself; hence the knowledge gained by these women is privatised. However the way both men and women use the photographic situation, to be able to construct favourable self-representations, made me acknowledge their sense of self-identity and agency even when their aim was to comply with convention. My photographic practice therefore made me consider the strategic aspects of complying with convention as opposed to understanding the norm as something the individual is passively submerged in. Compliance might also be explained by women themselves, as a subjective choice; thus conforming to norm cannot be understood as merely equating coercion. Consequently, that the fighter-women tend to under-communicate their past to manage their present does not make their agency irrelevant. Agency can be confined to spaces of privacy, and likewise made "invisible" by under-communication or manipulation of information. Thus, by conforming to sanctioned gender norms and conventional appearance, negative attention from the local community is potentially averted; a strategy that would secure at least a limited space for individual agency. From this point of view I interpret the fighter women returning to a more traditional life-style, as playing a card for a certain gain within the community. Whether it is a "good" card is yet another question.

Modern influences in general and access to education in particular, do however represent an alternative strategy and consequent changes also for women. The fact that traditional gender roles seem to be reproduced, rather than challenged in the Tigrayan contemporary context, must however be understood against the lack of alternative possibilities for negotiations in extremely pressured economic circumstances. Hence the interrelatedness of norms and material interests is an instructive analytic perspective, and as such incorporates the ambivalence which the norm itself might be subject to. Even though norms would be challenged by pragmatism, the ideal norm might nevertheless prevail, as is the case with the marriage institution in Tigray.

Within social anthropological discourse, possession practices have usually been interpreted as a way of negotiating space for expression and empowerment for the powerless, involving women in particular. As discourse however, possession in the Tigrayan context reveals rather a tendency to control individual agency, as is also the case with witchcraft accusations and the fear of the sorcerer. Discourses on the debtera (sorcerer) and buda (witch) , sheyt'an (Devil) and buda-zar (spirit) are involved in specific understandings of causality with moral and relational implications, and influence a cultural understanding of agency that reinforces the Orthodox Christian individual's fundamental dependency on the will of God. Agency in the Tigrayan context is thus not only an individual matter. However the co-existence of different "traditions of knowledge" relating to different understandings of causality seems to create a certain ambiguity that secures spaces for agency, alongside a highly influential orthodoxy. Negotiating knowledge therefore, is yet another potential aspect of individual actors' flexible handling of their life-situation. The causal explanation implicit in the discourses on witchcraft and sorcery are understood by Tigrayans themselves, as relating to jealousy, and thus addresses the impact envy and jealousy have in their lives. I therefore interpret the moral code implicit in these discourses as foremost based in a zero-sum understanding of distribution of scarce resources, also when these resources are understood beyond materiality, as "symbolic capital" or emotional satisfaction. These discourses would further influence people's self-presentations in general; enhancing the need for impression management and hence flexibility in social interaction.

Life-stories, as one part of my empirical material, revealed both compliance and resistance in women's lives over time. My concern has been with narration as a cultural practice and its implications for social interaction and individual agency. The apparent absence of a narrative expression of painful emotions outside the institutionalised ritual of h'azen, mourning, suggests containment, rather than telling, as that which secures and re-establishes a shattered self. In spite of the limitations implicit in gender norms, God's will and possession discourses, women's life-stories nevertheless indicate that individual actors manage in-between social sanctions and a challenging life-situation, to establish individual careers. I would have missed this point if my research strategy was based solely on participant observation, precisely because women's strategies imply making their agency "invisible" if it exceeds the sanctioned gender norm. 

If I have internalised anything during my fieldwork however, it could be contained within the expression, "ane suqh' ile, I keep quiet". Knowing that everything I said and did would be distributed instantaneously, and possibly ridiculed, I learned to hold back the precious in my life; just as everyone else seemed to do to their utmost ability. This fact certainly does not prevent sociability and joyful tets'awet, play; but telling everyone everything about you would be seen as foolish, and make you vulnerable to acts of jealousy. People would be both conscious of, and selective about, which information was shared with whom, and for what purpose. Stories might likewise be portioned out in bits and pieces at different occasions. The choosing of a particular version or fragment in a particular situation, might not always be obvious. However, realising that there are divergent versions and pieces at play, and even lies, is important to catch a glimpse of how social interaction is instructed by a need to hold some means for negotiation. I have interpreted this way of creating spaces for agency by manipulating information, as culturally inscribed in the art of q'iné, double meanings of words and expressions. Hence it is possible to interpret the layering of information in social interaction as inherent in Tigrayan social practice and concerned with securing precisely individual mobility.

My findings are primarily based on two methodological strategies, a positioning of the researcher as an actor, and on photography. My photographic practice has been an important means to create social relations, especially when my language abilities were lacking. My analytic perspective concerning the photographs in this thesis is based in an interpretation of photographs as discourse, and thus how photographs constitute specific views of reality and the people within it. Tigrayans' active self-presentation before the camera, and their influence on the photographic situation and the photographic representation therefore made me interpret their use of photography as a discursive social practice; constituting one potential strategy in identity formation and identity management, as an alternative to narrated biographies. Literally speaking, photography is undoubtedly a silent medium, and thus avoids the social implications "telling" would have in the Tigrayan context. The seemingly conventional poses together with the selective and sparse use of information about oneself, is likewise a clear indication that social interaction is perceived as risky even if alliance-building is a social imperative, and sociability is culturally valued. The photographs thus confirm not only the tendency to contain personal experiences and emotional expressions, but suggest silence as an important socio-cultural practice.

©Thera Mjaaland, 2004

The thesis can be downloaded from BORA - Bergen Open Research Archive.

Read about the project at Kilden (Forskningsrådet/Norwegian Research Council).