The northern state of Tigray in Ethiopia is at the centre of the current civil crisis embroiled in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered all civilians remaining in the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, to surrender to government forces in the next two days or face a full-scale artillery attack, while the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leading the region have vowed to continue fighting. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians, displaced tens of thousands and threatens a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Communication in and out of Tigray is nearly impossible so the total human impact of this conflict has yet to be fully revealed.
In many ways, this war is a continuation of problems raised during the Civil War of the previous century (1974-1991), where the TPLF led a coalition of liberation movements to victory over the repressive Derg regime governing Ethiopia at the time.
What has gender got to do with it?
A whole lot. Gender is the stage and language of militarism in Ethiopia and is deeply entangled with the representation of Civil War memory throughout the country.
Much of the current rhetoric in the country is characterised by fierce debate over historical narratives and contested memory surrounding regional groups’ contributions to nation-building, with, unsurprisingly, explicit gendered dimensions.
Gail Hershatter writes, ‘Memory appears to be created anew whenever it is called upon… [memories are] a product of the confluence of past events and present circumstances’.[i] Memory, and memory culture, is a process, inextricably informed by social constructions and distinctions of gender. Questions of who remembers, and whose memories are publicly legitimised, also address parallel questions of who is represented, authenticated and heard. Debates over historical narratives are less about the ‘truth’ of past events and much more concerned with ‘who’ is authorised to speak for the past in the present.[ii] Gender is an inevitable dimension to differential power relations, and memory is created and deployed during discussions of contested claims to power.[iii] Thus, what is collectively remembered (and forgotten) is closely bound to dynamics of power and hegemony and, therefore, gender.[iv]
The Tigray Communications Media Bureau recently posted on its social media a declaration littered with references to a uniquely Tigrayan experience and memory:
‘The illegal, unitarist and, personalistic dictatorship currently in charge of political power at the federal level, in a move that reaffirms the adage that history repeats itself, finds itself repeating the injustices committed by the previous imperial and military regimes, conspiring with external actors with the sole purpose of bringing the people of Tigray to their knees.
It is well known that you, the people of Tigray, have continually tolerated the numerous acts of injustice perpetrated against them thus far and have paid tremendous sacrifices for the sake of saving the country from destruction…we call upon you to make extensive preparations to, as always, counter your enemies and make a glorious history in the process.
Eternal Glory to our Martyrs!’
The Martyr’s Memorial Monument, Mekelle
The TPLF famously included a high proportion of women in its military during the liberation war, offering a taste of gender equality to combatants that was not tangibly translated into post-war society. Nonetheless, the TPLF continues to draw upon memories of its female soldiers to mobilise residents in support of its political legitimacy, espousing a specific Tigrayan history that was built from its foundations to victory by women.
In times of social and political upheaval (and perhaps beyond), ‘memory work’ can become ‘memory politics’; no longer situated in the field of history but firmly in the public domain. Collective memory represents history as meaning or, in other words, the ways in which a shared narrative is crafted to make sense of historical occurrences and translate them into something tangible and accessible. Understood in this way, memory works as its own kind of archive that reveals as much about the present as it does the past.
Book Cover, Sweeter Than Honey: Testimonies of Tigrayan Women, ed. by Nell Druce and Jenny Hammond (London: Links, 1989)
In the case of the Ethiopian crisis, collective memory of the creation of the transethnic federation at the end of the war in 1991 illuminates a distinctly and deliberately gendered social structure. In public discourse, hypermasculine operational and theoretical frameworks are glorified. The war is romanticised, military values of discipline and order are reminisced, and organised violence in response to political division is legitimised. In what Jacklyn Cock terms an ideology of militarism, collective memory allows us to see the gendered order put in place in the post-war state to embolden the specific political and social hierarchies designed by the federation.[v]
Scholars of feminist theory have investigated the dynamics of states as gendered, redefining the interaction between women and the political sphere to encompass the mutually constitutive relationship of women and the state.[vi] The concept of gendered states inspired the theory that key binaries associated with war and peace, order and disorder, security and insecurity are themselves gendered and rely on particular forms of gendered order. We see this in Ethiopia now more than ever in repeated references to the responsibility of ‘Mothers of the Nation’ to call for peace, and reports that stress the devastation caused by the fighting to women and girls.
The discourse masculinizing violence and feminizing victimhood and peace – while neither conceptually valid nor particularly useful – is not new and does depict the ways in which gender is constantly constructed and renegotiated in the interaction between the realms of state, war and memory.
There is undoubtedly a gendered dimension to the humanitarian crisis emerging as the number of refugees in Sudan reach 40,000, aid is restricted and reports of shortages of water and fuel circulate. But, the relationship between gender and humanitarianism deserves a blog (or several books!) all of its own….
Francesca Baldwin is PhD research student at the University of Reading. Her doctoral project researches the complex narratives of female combatants in the TPLF during the Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.
[i] Gail Hershatter, The gender of memory: rural women and China’s collective past (California: University of California Press, 2011), p. 22.
[ii] Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. By Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 1.
[iii] Marianne Hirsch and Valarie Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction’, Signs, Vol. 28, No. 1: 1-19 (2002), p. 6.
[iv] Hirsch and Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory’, p. 6.
[v] War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa, ed. By Jacklyn Cock and Laurie Nathan (Cape Town: David Philip, 1989).
[vi] Alicia C. Decker, ‘African Women and the Postcolonial State’, in The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History, ed. by M. Shanguhiya and T. Falola (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 1,139.
Conjugal Order: Megan H. MacKenzie,, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development (NYU Press Scholarship Online, 2016)
Militarism: Alicia C. Decker, In Idi Amin’s Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014)