Logg inn
photographer/social anthropologist


Are "free choice", "force" and "false consciousness" the only alternatives when analysing women's agencies?

In this paper I will address "free choice", "force" and "false consciousness" empirically based in my social anthropological research on women’s agency in western Tigray in North-Ethiopia (Mjaaland 2004), presented through the experiences of the ex-fighter-women Saba (45) and Lula (35), and the young female student Rahwa (18), and filtered through my own experiences in Tigray as a white western woman. My argument is theoretically based in Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) theory of practice where structure was extended from the coercive functioning of social institutions, to being embodied as well as reproduced within individual agents through practice. I do not intend however, to exclude the potential for individuals – in specific situations – to move beyond structural constraints, but at the core of my discussion is the analytical problem of clearly differentiating subjective choice and individual agency from structural dispositions, and thus, "free choice" from "false consciousness". Consequently, how can we be so sure that our western belief in "free choice" is not in itself instructed by "false consciousness"?

I will conclude by discussing how aspects of Tigrayan fighter-women's experience can be understood to have relevance for minority women’s situation in Norway, as well as suggest alternative categories for analysing women's agency. However, I will start off by focusing on Tigrayan women’s strategies in practice, in an embodied "situation" (de Beavoir [1949] 1988, Moi 1999) constituted by specific historically bounded socio-economic circumstances.


Many western feminists like myself, had embraced the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation struggles in the 1970s and 80s, seeing the significant number of women joining the armed struggle as fighters against the military regime, Derg (1975-1991)[1] as a decisive move to reach gender equality afterwards. Women’s participation had been a strong expression of agency beyond an ideal gender norm that in Tigray (as in Eritrea) celebrates motherhood, but otherwise tends to emphasise female passivity and submissiveness. Nevertheless, even though the Tigrayan revolution represented a possibility to escape traditional gender roles, the fighter-women seemed to comply with cultural norms and under-communicate their participation as soon as they were demobilised. Afterwards, from a western feminist perspective we saw mostly set-backs. Consequently, my question is: was women’s agency quenched as a result of the re-establishment of the traditional sexual division of labour, which seemed to occur on the return to normality after the TPLF[2] based coalition EPRDF[3] had overthrown the Derg? Further, the question is whether the fighter-women’s retreat represented mere resignation due to the structural force of traditionalism, or if there were other strategic considerations at play? Did we as western feminists miss something by representing the women's quest as ending in a backlash?

Before I answer these questions, and in order to define Tigrayan women's strategies, I will proceed by giving examples of practices which reinforce normative gender identity for women in Tigray; conducting the coffee ceremony and motherhood. However, even though the traditional sexual division of labour could be understood as defining the structural limits for Tigrayan women's (and men's) agency, women's life-stories[4] show that compliance with social convention is far from absolute. I will therefore explore how Tigrayan women reaffirm the gender norm as well as challenge it.

Gendered practices

It is women who conduct the coffee ceremony. Men who know how to do it and take the chance of serving other people are questioned about their gender identity. "Are you a man or a woman?" Men are therefore reluctant to make coffee if women are present. Women would say that the coffee was not good (even if it was), implicitly claiming that, because of their sex, men are not able to conduct the ceremony properly. Thus, conducting the coffee ceremony can be understood as one practice that reinforces a culturally sanctioned womanhood. When I ask Rahwa (18)[5], a student who is one of just a few women who plough, a male activity, what she would say if her future husband conducted the coffee ceremony, she answers: "he cannot do it. Men cannot do it". Referring to the general attitude, she continues: "the women would say, 'bahltina, it is our culture. The men have not learned to do it. How can you make coffee', they would tell him, 'kla!  move! I will do it myself'. The same would happen if a man wants to make injerra, [the sour pancake which is their staple food]." … "When I learned to plough," Rahwa continues, "many of the men encouraged me, as did some of the women; but most likely the women would insult me." Thus her example also implicates the importance for women to keep up the gender norm.

During the revolution, women were encouraged to plough. Saba[6], a TPLF-cadre specialising on women's issues, told about one occasion in a rural village when the TPLF wanted to prove for the people that women were able to plough. To conduct the test the farmers gave a woman the most difficult oxen. "She ploughed, they saw it themselves, oh revolution!" Saba says with a laugh. The TPLF later withdrew their stand on this symbolically potent gender-issue; the reason given was that it would only add to women's already heavy workload (Hammond 1999). However, this official reasoning has been questioned. Instead it has been suggested that the TPLF feared it would cause offence by challenging core religious and social beliefs about women in rural Tigrayan society (Young 1997). Even though women have been secured equal rights in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1994[7], the revolution nevertheless failed to challenge core structures in the power-relation between men and women. Still, as a woman you are not supposed to do men's work, or vice versa. In such cases people would question your gender identity. "Maybe if the woman is ill the man is allowed to make coffee, if there are no other women present", Rahwa says and continues: "if my [future] husband made me coffee and people got to know about it, it would generate a lot of insult; that I dislike. However, if nobody got to know about it I would like it a lot. We could be equal," she says. However the TPLF was not consistent with its claim for equality between men and women if it meant challenging the peasants' support of the revolution itself; hence the traditional sexual division of labour with its implicit gender hierarchy prevails.

Motherhood and strategic positioning

Although I did consume an infinite amount of coffee during my fieldwork, I never learnt to conduct the coffee ceremony myself since my Tigrayan husband does it without objections. I know it was discussed in the local community that I wore trousers most of the time resembling a tegadalit, a fighter-woman. Likewise, that I did not spend my expected wealth to buy expensive dresses and gold, which, more than agency would signify a Tigrayan woman's successfulness. Both this and the fact that I have not given birth, and are reluctant to do so, made people question my sex by directly asking me: "Are you a man or a woman?" One woman put her hand under my shirt to establish if I had breasts and thus a female body.

Tigrayan women are achieving social worth from being mothers[8]. Motherhood, in the region I studied, could be understood as a requirement to becoming a "real" woman. An educated woman with her own earnings might decide to have fewer children, but my impression is that she would never consider not having children. The exception is if a young woman decides to become an Orthodox nun, and hence, has to suppress her femaleness to advance spiritually (Wright 2001). In Europe however, and according to the heritage of Simone de Beauvoir's ([1949] 1988) thinking and western feminism, the tendency has been to see children as an obstacle to women's freedom, or at least a question: "what do we do about being mothers?"

When a friend came to visit me from Norway she was immediately asked by the women if she had children. When they found out she had, one woman told me: "she is clever, you are foolish". My voiced reluctance towards becoming a mother turned out to be a major concern for both men and women who tried their best to make me change my mind. This choice of positioning, not always complying with culturally sanctioned gender norms, exploited the fact that I was never able to acquire "Sameness" anyway, basically due to the "Otherness" inherent in my skin colour. Thus, by actually crossing the gender-line, I was explicitly told where the boundary is situated.

Conducting the coffee ceremony is imperatively a women's domain of sexed practice, engendering gender, and few men dare challenge this delineation because of the questioning and insults it generates about their own sex. Following Bourdieu (1977) the "sexual division of labour" as well as "division of sexual labour" must be understood to embody normative practices for both men and women. By consorting to normative practices, a sanctioned gender identity is produced and reproduced, and hence, deviant practices must be understood to threaten this identity. However, to be able to move beyond the structural coercion implicit in Bourdieu's theory of practice, Henrietta Moore (1988) suggests that precisely subjective strategies are involved in the reproduction of these norms: "gender[ed] relations receive symbolic emphasis because they are the social arena in which individuals are enabled to make political claims and initiate personal strategies. It is through the competing claims that women and men make on one another, in the context of particular sets of social and economic relations, that the cultural conceptions of gender are constructed" (Moore 1988: 37).

These gendered positions can be interpreted as an "investment", Moore (1994) further states with a reference to Wendy Holliday, and directed at "the very real, material social and economic benefits which are the reward" (Moore 1994: 65). This explains why keeping up certain gendered practices are important for both men and women, and that these gendered expert positions are used to negotiate personal interests. Complying with the gender norm as the fighter-women Saba in my example below does might be a way of actually securing a possibility for negotiations and hence access to scarce resources. The fact that women seem to be the fiercest defenders of the gender norm, as Rahwa above experienced, likewise suggests that for women, alternative options for negotiations might be extremely limited, or even absent.

Space for agency; Rahwa’s choice

That agency beyond normative gender practices challenges culturally sanctioned gender identity is a point also forwarded by Bilen Gisaw: "Forthrightness in women is viewed as unfeminine. The idea of women’s submissiveness is so embedded in the [Ethiopian] society that energy and creativity have become synonymous with masculinity, all in spite of the great contributions made by women" (Bilen 2002: 36).

Likewise, although male discourse on female sexuality in Tigray is concerned with women’s appetite for sex, women’s passivity and submissiveness seems to be the cultural norm. By not complying with normative gender practices, women would risk either their gender identity, by being classified as "men", or being stigmatised as shermut'a, prostitutes. There seems to be no alternative categories available than those questioning her gender or her morals to classify women's agency beyond the sanctioned gender norm. Below Rahwa expresses her frustration about the limitations implicit in these categorisations.

Rahwa's voice is intense, but low; hardly audible on the tape. She comes from a rural village in the lowlands. This is her second year as a student in the market-town. She has just started eight grade. Rahwa lives with a friend, a girl from her village in a small rented house. "The very fact that we go to school in the market-town is for many synonymous with being a prostitute. If the girl starts to put on weight, people will talk about her and say, 'how many men has she slept with?' If I'm seen in the streets talking to a boy, 'oh, that's her boy-friend', people would say. When I was putting on weight and my breasts got bigger, people said, 'she is not a virgin, she has slept with a man'. But people do not know!" Rahwa says agitated.

It is believed that when a girl starts to be sexually active her body will become more womanlike; that she will put on weight because sex is thought to be good for her. Thus sexual practice transforms her from a girl to a woman. There are no institutionalised rites dealing with the transition from childhood to adulthood other than marriage. Traditionally the girl will enter this union as a virgin; her husband acting as the catalyst for her womanhood. According to Kidane[9] (20), a male high-school student, a woman risks being stigmatised as shermut'a by the mere fact that she has been operating outside the control of her family. As well as attempting to obstruct promiscuous sexual behaviour, this classification is used to prevent as well as belittle women's agency.

Rahwa says she refrains from having sex. If her family knew about such a relation, they would start an insult-campaign and threaten to exclude her. If she cares about her reputation, she has to stay away from male acquaintances until she marries. However, to go to school and be educated is Rahwa’s own choice. Her parents wanted her to marry. When the first offer of marriage came, at the age of eleven, Rahwa returned the maeteb, the silver cross and ring which in the rural villages are given to the woman at the h'ets'e, engagement. The maeteb is to be worn on her lower chest in a black band around her neck to show she has given her promise to a man. Neither did she accept the new dress brought as an engagement gift. "I threw it all. I said I did not want it," Rahwa says. Her parents were angry: "why, why? What are you doing now that you have studied?" If they had forced her to marry she assures me she would have run away; disappeared.

Rahwa's resistance however, must be seen against her awareness of the challenges subsistence peasants face in rural Tigray; with increased pressure on land, escalating soil erosion and recurring droughts, and thus the lack of possibilities to stay on in the village. Her parents had been among the new settlers that inhabited the lowlands in north-western Tigray in 1959. They build their houses and ploughed new land. Her family was well off then. Her older sister describes their future prospects, coming from a family with fourteen children, as "h'emaqh’ eddel, bad fate". Their mother and father had shared the land between them when they divorced; it will not be enough to live off if it is divided again. Rahwa thinks her chance is through education, but is afraid of failing.

Social sanctions and cultural coercion are implicit in the negative categorisation of women when they are perceived as transgressing the gender norm. However, there seems to be a coexisting pragmatic attitude at play towards a life that might, and often does take, another less preferable turn. It is therefore important to see compliance not only as resignation, but to understand cultural norms’ interrelatedness with access to resources making the norm itself subject for negotiations (Bourdieu 1977). Rahwa represents a new generation of young women who actively influence the course of their own lives by insisting on education, and thus a wider range of knowledges than previous generations, to escape poverty. Their strategies might be seen as less political than those of their mothers and older sisters, who joined the liberation front as fighters to liberate the Tigrayan people in general and women in particular. This new generation of women nevertheless challenges the cultural category "woman", as did the fighter-women during the liberation struggle.

Privatised experience; Saba’s story

The participation of women adds legitimacy and symbolic power to war efforts, but while equality between men and women is favoured during the war, civilian society encourages gender difference (E. Barth 2002). According to John Young: "[o]vercoming the age-old fetters on the role of women was a major concern of the TPLF from its earliest days (…), in part because attacking female oppression was consistent with its liberation philosophy" (Young 1997: 178).[10] He emphasises, that women's participation must be understood against the actual need TPLF had for all human resources in the struggle against the Derg.[11] In peacetime however, fighter-women's contribution to the struggle seems to be under-communicated, not least by themselves. This silencing implicitly disqualifies their experience and knowledge gained as fighters and women on return to a civilian life. However, women's life-stories show that their agency challenged normative gender practices also prior to the Tigrayan revolution.

I had known Saba for many years, but it never occurred to me she had been with the Tigrayan fighters during the revolution. She never told me she was, and I never considered asking her. As a head of household she was always busy with her daily work, going to the mill, making injerra or brewing sewa, the local millet beer; never sitting down during the whole coffee ceremony, but filling the time between the three obligatory brews with work. There are no obvious signs of Saba's time in the field, as a propagator for the revolution specialising on women's issues. She plaits her hair the way most women do, tight and released at the neck in a bushy fan, wears the same kind of customary dress with tight bodices and full skirts, and she would always take her nets'ela, the traditional white shawl when running outside.

Saba starts her story by telling how as a thirteen year old, she had run away from the marriage her parents had arranged for her. Running away, as Rahwa claimed she would if her parents had insisted on marriage, has been and continues to be a potential strategy for girls and young women in Tigray to escape the norms of their gender. However, Saba soon after married a man of her own choice. When her three children were still young, she decided to join the fighters. She came back from the field to her house every night to sleep there, keeping up her role as mother and wife, hiding her equipment as she entered the town. When her youngest son was weaned she broke up with her husband, left the children at home with her mother, and went to stay permanently in the field. Saba continued to work for the Women's Association of Tigray, (WAT)[12] after the struggle until she was told, "you do not have education", and had to quit. She suddenly found herself disqualified after so many years of dedication. Her lack of modern education, made it impossible for Saba to compete with both ex-fighter-women and -men when civil positions were distributed among comrades after the revolution. Thus, neither the women themselves, nor society at large seem to have been able to fully exploit the experiences and knowledges of the fighter-women in peacetime.

However, Saba talks proudly of the Tigrayan fighters' uniform attire and hairstyle that made it difficult to distinguish between men and women during the struggle; even though it made people question their gender: "are they girls or boys?" When I ask her why she quit wearing the trousers and conformed to the traditional women's style for hair and dress after the struggle, she answers with a question: "what about it? … The war was over!" I ask her whether people would have insulted her if she had continued the tegadelti[13]-style; afro-hair and trousers. She says, "ewe! yes! They would ask, 'does she sit when peeing?'" Saba has not forgotten how to handle a kalashen though. I watch her while she confidently detaches the bullet magazine, and puts away the semi-automatic weapon belonging to one of the guests in her sewabét, beer-house. She notices that I watch her, and smiles. Likewise, when I confront the ex-combat fighter Lula[14] with my observation that female ex-fighters do not emphasise their past role in the struggle, contrary to men, who still might carry their kalashen around, she says, "it is good. … Coming back from the struggle, women left the war behind. We [the fighter-women] are marked by the war inside our bodies; other signs serve no purpose."

Saba agrees that she exposes no signs of her past history with the fighters of the Tigrayan revolution. "In this place though, people know. Others do not know. There are no signs", she says. The tattoos marking her throat with horizontal lines and ending in a big elaborate cross on her chest are visible traditional signs imprinted in her body enhancing female beauty, as well as her identity as an Orthodox Christian. The traditional nets'ela she wears is a gift from a beloved sister. She wears it because she really likes it, she assures me. She puts it in a demonstrative heap around her head as she runs off to the mill.

Saba's story is "plotted" (Borneman 1992) with war and famine, as part of a collective story of suffering, and a personal one, struggling as head of household to make ends meet for herself, her old mother and daughter with three smaller children, while providing education for her youngest son. It is a story of washing gold in the rivers in berekha, the "wilderness", to pay for one year's back-lag on the house-rent; of walking on foot with twelve donkeys to May Tsebri, two days walk away, buying cereals to sell in the market-town. She decided not to follow the others to Sudan during the big famine (1984-85) however, of fear she might be forced into prostitution. However, according to her daily life she might be seen as someone who is back where she started. In spite of her efforts during the struggle to improve the lives of women, she still has to struggle to secure only a minimum livelihood. With no education, she is stuck with traditional women's works; selling injerra and sewa. Saba had worked for a revolution that emphasised education also for women. She happened to be disqualified by the very fact that she lacked it. Her experience and knowledge from the field did not qualify her to continue working for the women's organisation which had originated in berekha during the revolution. Nevertheless, the subduing of her fighter-identity must be seen against her life-story as a whole showing her ability to act. 

Saba might be seen as disadvantaged, but she does not strike me as a powerless woman as she has proven capable of resorting to different strategies in differing situations across time. In this perspective the subduing of her fighter-identity must be interpreted, not merely as resignation, but as a strategy.

New knowledge; old symbols

The history of Tigray region, comprising of wars, recurring famines and persistent poverty, has made mobility, flexibility and resilience relevant socio-economic strategies. I think this point is important to understand how women, like Saba and Lula, were able to join the fighters in the first place, and thus avoid interpreting their agency as a choice only made possible by the coming of modernity[15].

Nevertheless, the vision of modernity emphasising a free and independent individual tends to challenge traditional gender roles. Modern education represents one such challenge to female gender norms not only because of access to a particular knowledge, but due to its influence on timing as well as spatial circumstances in women's lives. That schooling for their daughters represents a challenge is obvious in one peasant’s remark, talking about the fact that they have to send the girls to the nearest town after fourth grade. "If she goes to school in the market-town on Monday she will be sleeping with a man on Tuesday", he said pointing to the general fear that daughters would lose their virginity before they are married, and hence their value as a socio-economic asset for their families. His statement also bears connotations of a wild female sexuality that has to be controlled, basically by others. Thus, marriage at an early age[16] is of utmost importance for parents, realising they would not be able to control their daughters' sexuality forever. Access to education however, tends to postpone marriage for girls and implicitly childbirth, and opens up for changes in gendered practices, and consequently self-identity. Rahwa does perceive education as a possible way forward, as was the revolution for women like Saba and Lula, who joined the armed struggle.

When I ask the ex-fighter Lula, who was made to marry at the age of thirteen or fourteen – and subsequently ran away when her daughter was two years old – what the revolution gave her, she emphasises the knowledge she gained. Women participating in the struggle on equal terms with men escaped the cultural legacy of women's passivity and submissiveness. Lula says: "if I had not been a tegadalit, fighter, I wouldn't have learned anything. I would have continued to be subordinate men. Now I know the h'eggi, [Ethiopian] law. Now I am experienced. … My age mates from the village", Lula continues, "we were married at the same time; they have given birth. To me they seem more like my mother. How many children do they have, seven or eight? They only know about giving birth, they do not know how to manage their upbringing. If I had stayed in the village I would have borne seven or eight children by now. The government has not treated us differently, but we [the fighters] have gained knowledge. … I went to fight, I thought I might die, but I did not. I fought day and night, day and night; we stayed in different places, through all this I gained my knowledge. With this experience my father could never have made me marry someone I didn't know, I wouldn't have gone there. Now, if I want a man I will choose myself!" However, that the fighter-women tend to under-communicate their knowledges from the struggle prevents the community as a whole, and other women in particular, to gain knowledge from their experiences.

The female fighters' contribution during the revolution could be interpreted as an innovative leap, as acquiring new knowledges as women exceeding the limits of the traditional gender role. Thus widening the scope for women's agency and suggesting new premises for being a woman. But by doing so, the fighter-women challenged the culturally sanctioned category "woman" emphasising their role as mothers and submissive wives. However, Saba and Lula (and other fighter-women with them), have not managed to render the value of their experience understandable through the female categories culturally available, and thus their experiences are excluded from sanctioned womanhood. This incorporation into a pre-existing cultural symbol-system is what Gananath Obeyesekere (1981) sees as a necessary step in order to move an individual experience from the private sphere to acceptance in the wider community. This would be hard-tried in the Tigrayan context, where deviance from normative gender practices makes women either "men" or "prostitutes".

Thus women's agency in Tigray is not merely a matter of a free choice often related to modernity versus the structural force of traditionalism, but concerns the ability individual actors always have, at least to a certain extent to influence their lives (Giddens 1991). It is a fact that girls and young women have been opposing cultural constraints by running away both before and after the revolution. But while they traditionally have run away to become nuns, or risked prostitution in the towns, the revolution gave them an alternative site to run to.

Defining women’s agency in Tigray

From a western feminist point of view the Tigrayan women had been betrayed by the very revolution they supported. Their compliance with norm and under-communication of their participation in the struggle had subsequently brought them back where they started as their experiences and knowledges were disqualified. However, that the fighter-women tend to under-communicate their past to manage their present does not make their agency irrelevant.

Saba had agreed that she exposes no signs of her past history with the fighters of the Tigrayan revolution. When Saba assures me that she wears the traditional white shawl because she likes it, she implicitly emphasises that complying with this convention is not perceived as coercion, but as a choice. I am not denying the fact that structural constraints can be different in differing cultural contexts, and that coercion can be overwhelming. However, Saba's reasoning is similar to Norwegian women continuing to take their husbands name in marriage saying it is a personal choice, as opposed to patriarchal/structural subordination (Törnblad 2003). This suggests that complying with norm cannot be understood as equating coercion as sanctioned gender identity embodied through practice, in subtle ways is intertwined with self-identity. However, focusing on "free choice" prevailing structural constraints tends to be blurred, likewise the fact that practice, independent of if it is "free" or not, would reaffirm the norm (Bourdieu 1977).

Tigrayan women's strategies in practice have proven to be different in different situations across time. Even though women might not risk confronting structural limitations directly, they would as most women submerged in hardships, try to take advantage of "only a sliver of space for agency" (Enloe 2000: 248) to strategise. And likewise, women are not necessarily risking everything at the same time. Rahwa has gone against her parents in choosing an education, but she is not at the same time risking her parents' exclusion by dating boys at school. Saba left to fight for the revolution; coming back she complies with a traditional lifestyle. The gain from continuing to play out her fighter identity is calculated to gain little in comparison with the stigma it creates. The main point for this discussion is that I think it is important to see how women negotiate the structural circumstances of their life-world up against subjective choices, and that we therefore have to acknowledge both compliance and resistance as agency. In Tigray women's agency is first of all made possible, not by a claim to "free choice", but by their ability for mobility, flexibility and resilience.

"Ane suqh' ile. I keep quiet", was an expression often used by women in Tigray. Agency beyond the norm would most often be confined to spaces of privacy, or made "invisible" by under-communication, as was the case with the fighter-women. In a situation where power is not equally shared, as would also be the case for minority women in Norway, confrontation as a strategy might likewise be understood as counterproductive. To make the private political is thus not seen as a relevant strategy; rather, women's under-communication of their agencies might be precisely what potentially secures a minimum of agency. However, that women's experiences and knowledges are privatised also prevents women from having a decisive influence on social and political structural processes that influence their lives.


Choice is not irrelevant for Tigrayan women. However, the ex-fighter-woman Lula emphasised knowledge as the core gain from participating in the Tigrayan liberation struggle. Nevertheless, the Tigrayan fighter-women tend to under-communicate precisely their knowledges and experiences, which therefore remain private and not adequately incorporated into collective consciousness. Saba had found herself disqualified after years of dedication because civilian society has not been able to fully exploit the fighter-women's experiences and knowledges.

It is this point which I think has relevance for minority women in Norway. Have they managed to render their experiences and knowledges understandable through the cultural categories available in Norway? And, instead of seeing their different background as a resource, do we not as the majority, tend precisely to disqualify their qualifications.

With the theoretical base for my discussion in Bourdieu's (1977) theory of practice, I interpret the individual's embodied "situation" (de Beavoir [1949] 1988, Moi 1999) of both structural dispositions and potential subjective choices as constituting the basis for individual agency. I am therefore questioning the usefulness of the concepts "free choice" versus "false consciousness" because of the analytical difficulty in clearly differentiating the two, and because of the embodied implications both subjectivity and norm have for self-identity. Analysing women's agencies, focusing on precisely "experiences" and "knowledges" might, to a larger extent, account for women’s resources in practice; shaped by different cultural, social, economic and political circumstances and negotiated continuously, everywhere.


©Thera Mjaaland. Paper for the conference Crossroads  May 30-June 1, 2005.



[1] Tigrayan women's participation in TPLF – Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, and the struggle against the military regime in Ethiopia coincides with their Eritrean sisters' fight for a liberated Eritrea (1961-1991). The armies of both TPLF and EPLF – Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, comprised at some point of as much as 30 % women (Young 1997, Hammond 1999, Hale 2001).

[2] Tigray Peoples Liberation Front.

[3] Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front

[4] By "life-story" I do not mean a linear representation of a life, but the different aspects of their lives the women themselves chose to high-light, when asked about their life-experiences.

[5] Recorded interview, 9th October 2002. Her name is altered.

[6] Recorded interview, 15th October 2002. Her name is altered.

[7] See Fasil Nahum (1997), Constitution for a Nation of Nations. The Ethiopian Prospect.

[8] According to The 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia the fertility rate in Tigray is 6,95 against an average of 6,74 for Ethiopia in general.

[9] Recorded interview 23rd September 2002. His name is altered.

[10] In the mid-1980's TPLF decided to restrict the number of women being recruited, in spite of resentment from the women themselves. Young (1997) suggests this decision was a response to unease in the rural villages about women recruitment. TPLF was dependent on a massive support from the peasants in its revolutionary project. The peasant values subsequently placed limits on, and gave shape to, the course of TPLF’s military campaign as well as its program to transform agrarian society.

[11] Young’s point is supported by the fact that with the TPLF based coalition EPRDF in power, Ethiopian women were not enrolled for combat in the Eritrean-Ethiopian war (1998-2000), as were Eritrean women. The latter made up between 15 and 20 % (Hale 2001) of their country’s national forces during the two-year war. On the Ethiopian side, literally speaking, there was no lack of manpower this time around.

[12] WAT was established as a committee during the struggle within TPLF, but have since 1996 been an independent NGO. It organises approximately 400.000 women in Tigray.

[13] Fighter: tegadelti (plural), tegadalay (male, singular), tegadalit (female, singular)

[14] Recorded interview 16th October, 2002. Her name is altered.

[15] Modernity is often ideologically understood in an evolutionary sense where "modernity remains the terminus towards which non-Western peoples constantly edge" (Comaroff & Comaroff 1993: xii). But as Henrietta Moore and Todd Sanders state: "Modernity comes with no single built-in telos, no single rationalizing raison d'être: modernity, if it ever was a single entity, has gone in innumerable and often unanticipated directions" (Moore & Sanders 2001: 12).

[16] Girls in the rural areas are often married off between thirteen to fifteen years of age even though the legal age in Tigray is eighteen.


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