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photographer/social anthropologist

Articles: Thesis

At the frontiers of change?

Women and girls' pursuit of education in north-western Tigray, Ethiopia

The main objective for this anthropological study has been to investigate gendered processes of social reproduction and change from the perspective of women in the historical and socio-cultural context of north-western Tigray, in northern Ethiopia. It is women’s participation in the Tigrayan revolutionary liberation struggle against the military regime, Derg, from the mid-1970s, and through the 1980s – where female fighters in Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had, together with civil women, also been involved in forging their own revolution within the revolution for women’s emancipation and equality – that forms the historical point of departure. Education, which was emphasised during the struggle as one important tool in the fight to overthrow an oppressive regime and to create social, economic and political reform, was also seen as an important means to build a new society after the war. Education has therefore continued to be important also after the TPLF-based EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) seized power in Ethiopia in May 1991 – in its pursuit of development and to become a middle-income country by the first half of the 2020s. It is from this perspective, and the fact that new educational opportunities have opened up, not least for girls and women, who historically have occupied a marginal position in Ethiopian education, that education is defined as a ‘site’ where gendered processes of social reproduction and change could be operationalised and studied.

In order to explore the complexity of contemporary processes, the ethnographic enquiry has made use of a dialogical combination of intersecting methods, participant observation and informal dialogue, twenty-five life-story-based interviews with women over three generations, the methodological use of photography as well as one exploratory education survey (with 200 female and male students who also wrote short essays about their future) and one exploratory household survey (with 170 urban and rural women who were also asked questions relating to education). Based on triangulation as an on-going process and analytical tool, the ethnographic enquiry has been based on open-ended research foci where women’s and girls’ agency, their decisions-making strategies and negotiations of power vis-à-vis different authorities, have been central. Meanings of education across different generations of women, and the aspirations these meanings generate for female and male youth, has further been explored in the context of international and national education policies and discourses and the causal links commonly made to development and gender equality.

The generational perspective applied, has also given access to contestations of authority and challenges to gender norms playing out in the present. In the case of rural girls’ pursuit of education, where this runs up against parents’ wish to marry their daughters when still underage, their negotiations with parents have been explored both from the perspective of parental power and authority, as well as from the perspective that access to education opens up a possibility for these rural girls to negotiate with their parents in a context where education has come to represents an escape from the harsh rural life that their mothers and fathers have experienced. In the case of underage marriage, underlying presumptions of female morality linking up with the ideal of virginity, have been explored to understand why marrying their daughters underage (now at around 15-16 years of age as opposed to between 8-12 for their grandmothers and mothers) continues to be important especially in the rural area of my study, in spite of the last revisions of the Family Law instituting 18 as legal marriage age for both girls and boys, and in spite of the involved parties (at least on paper) risking between three to seven years of imprisonment for this offence according to the present Criminal Code.

Women’s decision-making strategies and negotiations in relation to this-worldly authorities (church, government, parents, husbands) and other-worldly authorities (within the Orthodox Christian faith) have also been explored in a context where God’s will and the concept of әdïl is central, and encompassing both ‘fate’ and ‘chance’, the latter in terms of opportunities beyond the structural circumstances one is born into. It is also from this perspective that spaces for women’s agency in the case of reproductive choice – and relating to the link commonly made between education and fertility rates in both international and national policy documents – has been identified in between what is commonly perceived as the church resistance towards contraceptive use, and government polices set at securing free access also in rural areas.

Women’s agency has further been explored in the context of local understandings of gender where the importance of guarding the ‘distinction’ between femaleness and maleness, which is explained locally in terms of ‘nature’, and hence, is understood as God-given, impinges on both women’s and men’s actions and behaviours in practice. Based on the centrality of female modesty in the Tigrayan context, premises for women’s agency has been explored in relation to women’s forthrightness when entering the political arena during the struggle and the female fighters’ transgression of gender norms when taking up arms – the latter resulting in these women commonly being classified as ‘men’. Of special interest here has been the local re-configuration of the fighter women’s involvement in combat in terms of motherhood – as ‘breastfeeding tigers’ – who, if necessary, would kill to defend their offspring.

Girls who are what is considered too active and forthright can also be classified as ‘boys’. In the case of rural girls’ moving to town outside their family’s control, to be able to continue secondary education, premises for their agency has also been explored from the perspective that women’s and girls’ independence and mobility in this context is also linked to ‘immorality’. Girl’ socialisation into female modesty, and the self-censoring implied in ‘keeping quiet’ or ‘holding back’ – expressions women and girls themselves often use – while constituting a space for agency that can be utilised to circumvent social sanctions connected to female gender, has also been explored from the perspective that girls tend, on an average, to perform poorer than boys in school, in spite of having outnumbered Tigrayan boys in primary education for a number of years – and now including grade 9 and 10 in secondary school. Central in this exploration is also what is often explained by teachers’ and female students themselves as girls’ shyness and embarrassment in the educational arena at an age when they are considered sexually mature and ‘hot’ (from 15-16 years of age) and when rural parents might consider it best to marry them off to prevent them from being ‘damaged’ as a result of loosing their virginity, and this way securing their daughters’ respectability. The rural girls’ negotiations of gender identity when posing before my camera as students holding their schoolbooks have therefore been explored from the perspective of sanctioned femaleness.

Feminist thought, ideas about revolution and education have also been discussed from the perspective of how change is understood. The Tigrayan revolution, with its base in a Marxist-Leninist ideology and the focus on creating political consciousness converge with neo-Marxist and critical theory on education, like Paulo Freire’s perspective, based on education as a political act where understanding one’s oppressed situation through education initiates a struggle for change. Change through the production of critical discourse is also at the base of feminist standpoint theory with its Marxist foundation as it was first formulated by western feminists, and later embraced by non-western feminists. Based on the feminist strategy of making ‘the personal political’, an epistemic privilege could be claimed by way of the discursive struggle of formulating the experience of being placed in a specific location with specific relations of power at play. However, in the Tigrayan/Ethiopian context, where it is not only the general opposition to feminism that is at stake, but also the imperative on not disclosing personal information, and hence, to contain oneself in social and political contexts to avoid making oneself vulnerable, change cannot necessarily rely on a critical discourse to emerge. Silence and ambiguity has, therefore, been explored from the perspective of agency, in terms of the impact of practice itself on processes of change.

From the perspective of the prevailing premise in international and national education policies and discourses that education is the road to development and gender equality in society, local perceptions of the gain from acquiring knowledge through education have, furthermore, been placed in a context where upward social mobility, and being able to acquire a position over, or being entitled to lead others – now can be accomplished for both girls and boys by way of education. This perspective has been used to explore the extent to which education poses a challenge to the predominantly vertical social structure in the Tigrayan context of highland Ethiopia, or rather reaffirms it, and to what extent gender relations are restructured in school. Based on the role education has played in Ethiopian uprisings and revolutions over the past half-century or so, understandings of learning as it is represented in accounts from the Tigrayan struggle, and teaching-learning practices based on memorisation and rote learning discussed in relation to the schism between church education and modern education in Ethiopia, has, together with observations in classrooms, been explored from the potential of education to forward the change that is stipulated in Ethiopian policies and programmes, and where those who are educated is expected to contribute creatively in processes of change. Relating to this reliance on education is also the slogan that is frequently found as part of the colourful murals in Tigrayan primary schools in my study area, stating that: ‘Education is the foundation for development’. Prevailing perceptions among female and male students of knowledge as an object containing ‘right’ answers that the teacher would ‘fill’ them with, has, therefore, been discussed from the perspective of critical thinking as a means for change. Gender relations has also been explored in the context of what is restructured in school, as in the case of girls and boys being spatially situated side by side in classrooms, as opposed to occupying more separate spaces (as in religious contexts), based on the fact that female and male students are visualised as equals in the primary school murals in my area of study, and, when asked about it, perceive themselves as equals in school.

Furthermore, the public meeting, which constituted an important arena for the creation of a political consciousness during the struggle, and which continues to be an important arena where women and men are informed/trained in the country’s pursuit of development, has also been discussed from the perspective that the concept of political ‘consciousness’ has been replaced with what seems a less politically and critically potent notion of ‘awareness’ also in the national policies I have reviewed on women and education. It is also a tendency in the present context that women do not come to the meetings, and if they come, tend to keep quiet.

With a literal reference to the revolutionary liberation struggle and Tigrayan women’s participation as fighters, I have also brought along the concept ‘frontiers’ from the empowerment literature. Anju Malhorta and colleagues’ suggest that: ‘Any given context, at any given point in time can be seen as having behavioural and normative ‘frontiers’ that need to be crossed for women to be empowered along a specific dimension, within a specific arena’ (Malhorta et al. 2002: 18). The use of ‘frontiers’ as an analytical concept is based on the presumption that conflicting perceptions and interests surface in the conjuncture between processes of social reproduction and change as well as between intersecting and possibly contradictory fields – that there are struggles and negotiations at stake that might, or might not be confrontational – but that nevertheless goes beyond unquestioned submission to the practical sense that habitus generates in Bourdieu’s theory of practice.

While the ethical principles that are taught in school and represented in the murals in Tigrayan schools, as well as in public offices, are gender neutral, the burden of morality continues to be put on the girls. In spite of the politically active Tigrayan women I have discussed the issue of feminism with, who emphasise that gender issues have to be understood holistically, gender continues to mean women. When underage marriage is taken at issue with female students in Tigrayan schools in my study area, the boys, who might want a girl-friend in school but still want to marry a virgin, are not present. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that legal rights for women are secured in Ethiopia today (at least on paper), what is perceived as the God-given naturalness of gender relations might, nevertheless, enable a continued reproduction of male-female supra-subordination, as morally inevitable. In fact, the agentive strategy of ‘keeping quiet’ and ‘holding back’ has a double edge as it might reinforce a lack of women’s and girls’ confidence in public arenas where men and boys are present, compelling women and girls to continue to keep quiet also when outspoken forthrightness to express their concerns, or to assert themselves in class, is, at times, required. When the virginity ideal continues to pass unquestioned, sustaining the cultural institution of underage marriage to prevent the girls from being ‘damaged’, the rural Tigrayan girls who have participated in this research project still depend on being able to assert themselves in order to negotiate with parents’ on the issue of underage marriage to continue their education, since these judicial/legal provisions, in my area of study, are seldom legally enforced. It is also from this perspective that girls’ commitment for education becomes imperative for their success, situating Tigrayan girls’ at the ‘frontiers’ of change without denying that, when making their forthrightness invisible to retain female modesty and to avoid that their assertiveness goes ‘male’, social reproduction of gendered power relations also follows in these girls’ pursuit.

No doubt changes are taking place in the Tigrayan context today both on a structural level and in individual people’s lives. The aim of this thesis has not, however, been to arrive at one conclusion, but to unfold complex gendered processes of social reproduction and change by providing a kaleidoscope of different perspectives, which are based on diverging focal distances, challenging in the process common development presumptions in the global educational field. The complexity of contemporary processes playing out in the Tigrayan context, reminds us that change, in spite of the forward-moving thrust of prevailing development discourse, is rarely a linear process in practice, and further, that scrutinising power in gender relations continue to be important for equitable change to take place.

©Thera Mjaaland, 2013

See information about the defence/disputas and press release (Norwegian) and an interview about the research project on UoB Global (English).

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

See presentation of the researcher on the Norwegian Embassy's website in Ethiopia here.