Androgyny in Female Fighters: The Case of Tigray, Ethiopia
Francesca Baldwin | University of Reading
Between 1974 and 1991, a small insurgent group known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) united a coalition of regional liberation groups and led the way to victory over the repressive military regime ruling Ethiopia. They went on to dominate the transethnic federal government for nearly thirty years and have been instrumental, and certainly controversial, in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state. Up to one-third of active combatants in the TPLF were women (up to 88,000 of them, in fact). Women’s contributions were much more than a descriptive footnote of the conflict; as educators, activists, health practitioners and soldiers, they decisively shaped the course of the war. This article considers how women performed and interacted within a military environment, and how they chose to present themselves as both women and soldiers. As the war ended and women returned to their pre-war homes after nearly two decades of conflict, it will also reflect on the changes brought to veteran women’s lives as they experienced the transition from soldier to civilian woman once more.
Androgynous Identities: Both a Woman and a Soldier
In Part One, we discussed how female combatants in the early stages of the war obscured and rejected feminine identity markers to effectively assimilate the masculinised military behaviours expected of combatant soldiers. When low in numbers and the clear minority, deliberate distancing from femininity appears commonplace. As the war progressed and the number of women on the frontline increased to up to a third, however, an identity shift appears in women’s testimonies. Their intersectional identities as women and soldiers are mentioned more frequently, more positively and even as a point of pride for many combatants who saw their involvement as a watershed time for gender equality in Ethiopian politics. While the category of soldier remains the most prized identity marker, some female combatants at this time display distinct indicators of androgynous identities.
Androgyny is the interaction between masculinity and femininity. Androgyny theory posits that it is logically possible to be simultaneously masculine and feminine, undermining fixed cultural categories of male and female and defining work in terms of capacity and devaluing gendered differentiations of labour. This is mentioned most commonly in women’s testimonies in relation to leadership, both in military and political arenas:
People have learned to see leadership not as a gender issue, but as a capacity issue that men and women can have… All of us have the same cause, the same motivations, everyone has qualities, man or woman, therefore it did not come as a surprise if a woman had such motivation, or would make such strong fighters and very good commanders
- Netsannet Asfar.
Androgyny does not necessitate gender irrelevancy or gender neutralisation. Instead, it is the recognition of assimilating what is considered feminine and masculine to create meaningful soldier identities. For example, women described their status as a combatant as including traits traditionally associated with masculinity, such as assertiveness, ambition and economic independence, while continuing to emphasise their womanhood through forming female-only discussion groups, political associations and educating girls about their potential as a part of the TPLF. It is important to understand than an androgynous gender identity was not a fixed nor constant category for female combatants but liminal; a process of shifting betwixt and between intelligible gender performances. Female combatant identities were a process, often between recognisable states and categories such as mother, wife, soldier, or commander, but still constantly fluid and in construction (and re-construction).
Importantly, androgynous identity shifts served a political end beyond individual identification, providing women with the skills and arena in which to pursue discussions of gender equality beyond the military:
Women! Get up off your knees; We knelt beneath the feudal’s rule; We were only speaking tools. Now we as well as men have guns And one day we’ll be free.
– ‘Marta’s Song’, sung by female fighters.
The construction of such identities, then, was a deliberate process in which a political aim could be realised. Formed under conditions of masculinised military hierarchies, combatant women appear able to carefully design their gender performances in order to position themselves most advantageously, first professionally and socially, and then politically. Androgyny awarded female combatants the opportunity to participate in masculinised political arenas as women and pursue policies informed by their corresponding experiences.
Demilitarisation Policies: A Form of Structural Violence Against Women?
Why does understanding the fluid and situational identity constructions of combatant women matter in a tangible political context, beyond abstract theorising? How did wartime androgynous behaviours affect combatant women in the long-term?
The answer lies in the policies and practices put in place in the demilitarisation phase of the war, in which the existence of women as soldiers posed a particular threat to efforts to establish national order. Post-conflict attempts to reconstruct a ‘disordered society’, in the Ethiopian context as in many other wars, relied on the return of familiar hierarchies of gender, age and social status to help create a recognisable, manageable social state in which expectations of peace could be achieved.
This took the form of emphasising the nurturing position of women as mothers of a nation, sacrificing their children for The Struggle, and praise of masculine leadership and bravery. Combatant women did not occupy a position easily reconciled with this narrative; most were demobilised from the army, overlooked in the formation of veteran organisations and denied access to land and rehabilitation training. The few women who were recognised for their involvement and went on to hold political positions were regarded as exceptional and set apart from their female comrades.
This leads us to question how women who had spent their formative decades negotiating daily life as a soldier in a heavily masculinised conflict zone transitioned in peacetime to civilian women, with rigid expectations of traditional female behaviour.
If women’s transitioning gender identities were not recognised, demilitarisation policies could not have met the specific needs of female combatants; in fact, they reinforced unequal gender relations and expectations, which could, in turn, be understood as a form of structural violence against women.
The few women who were recognised for their involvement and went on to hold political positions were regarded as exceptional and set apart from their female comrades.
For female combatants in Ethiopia, this was experienced through the demilitarisation policies which removed the opportunities and progressions awarded during the war. One policy that became iconic during the conflict was the right for women to plough land, yet this was significantly restricted after the war, while some studies have suggested the social rejection of women who failed to conform to traditional gendered behaviours resulted in cornering women into low-wage work or prostitution. For those who returned to pre-war communities, a lack of consideration of female veterans’ needs has led to reports that women have not only been overlooked in services offering psychological support but that policies confining them to nurturing positions means they are frequently responsible for male veteran family members’ trauma support and care in addition to, or instead of, their own.
Moreover, despite claims that the war was a pivotal moment for ‘consciousness raising’ and gender parity, the distinctly Ethiopian ethno-nationalism so integral to the post-war state has been accused of actually leading to the revival of traditional discriminatory gendered practices, such as bride abduction, forced marriage and female genital mutilation as ethnic boundary markers. This is not to say that there have not been movements for greater female inclusion at a political level, as the number of girls in education and membership of female mass associations rose steadily in the post-war years. Failure to recognise the functions and needs of veteran gender identities, however, allowed demilitarisation policies that restricted female opportunities and services to become the status-quo. Considering this to be structural violence against women is paramount to understanding the relationship between identity practices and safe, meaningful reconstruction.
More research is needed to examine the long-term impact of the conflict on female veterans, now thirty years after their reintegration into civilian life.
In November 2020, a new war was launched on Tigray by the federal government of Ethiopia, rooted in the legacies of this civil war. The TPLF has once again become an underground guerrilla movement, drawing heavily on its liberation history. There are widespread reports of extreme and systematic abuse of women and girls in Tigray by state soldiers, including weaponised rape and sexual violence. The particular and remarkable place of women in Tigray's history is certainly one reason why women are being deliberately targeted in this attack. As aid and communication lines to the region remain unstable and members of the TPLF are being sought out and arrested, veteran women's testimonies are in danger of being lost in this new wave of violence against Tigray and those who played a part in its history.
Lubinski, David, ‘The Relationship Between Androgyny and Subjective Indicators of Emotional Well-Being’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 4 (1981): 722-730
MacKenzie, Megan H., Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development (NYU Press Scholarship Online, 2016)
Chaudhry, Lubna Nazir, ‘Reconstituting Selves in the Karachi Conflict: Mohajir Women Survivors and Structural Violence’, Cultural Dynamics, 16, 2, (2004): 259-290
Galtung, John, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, 6, 3 (1969): 167-191
For discussion of the relationship between post-war behaviours and social acceptance, see: Farr, Vanessa, ‘Gendering Demilitarisation as a Peacebuilding Tool’, BICC, 20 (2002)
For Ethiopia specific case-study, see: Vaughan, Sarah and Tronvoll, Kjetil, ‘The Culture of Power in Contemporary Ethiopian Political Life’ (Sida Studies, 2003)
Hammond, Jenny and Druce, Nell, eds., Sweeter Than Honey: Testimonies of Tigrayan Women (London: Links, 1989)
‘The story of Tigray People's Liberation Front women fighters’, Nzwamba, YouTube (2012), available at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gnRKbPp-Ac>
Francesca Baldwin is a PhD research student at the University of Reading, focusing on the untold history of female combatant participant in the Ethiopian Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.