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Women in Eritrea  

Milena Belloni

The understanding of womanhood in Eritrea reflects the country’s complex ethnic mosaic, social divides, and stratified history. Given the paucity of sources, understanding of women in traditional precolonial society is mediated by the accounts of colonial ethnographers. These accounts tend to produce an overall image of a patriarchal society in which women had little or no power. However, studies in the early 21st century have highlighted how women also assumed important responsibilities in traditional societies, and in some cases in negotiations with colonial rulers. Indigenous women played an important symbolic role during the Italian colonial period as objects of conquest, domination, and violence. However, the economic and social transformations triggered by the colonial administration indirectly allowed Indigenous women to enlarge the spectrum of gender expectations characterizing traditional societies. Women became laborers, business owners, heads of households, and concubines playing important political and cultural roles and mediating between Indigenous and colonial societies. With the end of Italian rule and emergence of the nationalist movement, some Indigenous women became active in the arts, theater, and then the political struggle for Eritrean independence. Many women actively participated in the thirty-year struggle against Ethiopia, and this led to a revolution in the way of thinking about gender equality, womanhood, and the female body. However, this cultural shift had limited effects on wider society. Notwithstanding the important legal recognition of women’s rights after independence in 1993, society remains overwhelmingly patriarchal. While some women engaged in the struggle for independence, others became refugees in Sudan or were pioneers of international migration, supporting their families and the nation in times of crisis; Eritrean women made up the bulk of those who moved to Italy and the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1990s, womanhood in Eritrea is characterized by the coexistence of contradictory models of femininity, which range from a patriarchal understanding of women as mothers and wives to a conception of women as fighters, breadwinners, and migrants.