Ane suqhʼ ile. I keep quiet. Focusing on womenʻs agency in western Tigray, North-Ethiopia
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"Ane suqh' ile. I keep quiet," women in Tigray, in North-Ethiopia often say, and implicitly under-communicate what they actually do. However, even if women seem to be culturally confined within the limits of a normative gender identity, compliance and under-communication are precisely strategies that make agency possible without arousing too much social sanction. This thesis explores how Tigrayan women are able to negotiate space for agency beyond the norm within the confines of a culturally sanctioned gender identity. My curiosity about women’s agency was initially aroused by the apparent fact that a significant number of Tigrayan women participated as fighters in the revolutionary struggle against the military regime Derg in Ethiopia (1975-1991). Tigrayan women’s participation in TPLF – Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the struggle against the military regime in Ethiopia coincides with their Eritrean sisters’ fight for a liberated Eritrea (1961-1991), and the two armies comprised at some point, of as much as 30 % women. Their participation was a pronounced break with traditional gender norms. Women in Tigray joined the liberation army in order to liberate the Tigrayan people, and equally important, due to the revolutionary promise of gender equality. 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. Women’s initial participation had been a strong expression of agency beyond an ideal gender norm that has emphasised female passivity and submissiveness. Thus 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 based coalition EPRDF had overthrown the Derg? I have therefore explored whether the fighter women’s retreat represents mere resignation in the face of traditionalism, or if there are other strategic considerations in play. Through their life-stories I also trace civilian women's strategies over time in a socio-historical context that comprises of wars, famine, and poverty. Tigrayan women's agency is in my opinion, not adequately addressed within a 'tradition versus modernity' framework, but must instead be understood up against the general need for flexibility and mobility in extremely pressured circumstances. My discussion on agency is likewise concerned with how autonomy is perceived, and how individuality is structurally inscribed in the Tigrayan context. The fieldwork was conducted in western Tigray from December 2001 to November 2002. However, I have known the area as a photographer since 1993. The photographs in this thesis are important to contextualise my research visually, and as a narrative strategy to represent empirical reality differently than text. This potential is in my opinion, far from fully exploited in contemporary social anthropological research, not least due to the apparent lack of analysis within the anthropological discipline itself, of visual representations. Photographic practice likewise tends to blur the considered necessary divide between the researcher and the researched, because what is observed is triggered by this very relationship. However, this interfering position established me as an actor in my own right, and consequently made me question the hegemony of participatory observation as the ideal method for reaching anthropological knowledge.