Gender, Identity and War: Female Combatant Experiences in the Ethiopian civil war, 1974-1991

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. The fact that women formed up to one-third of active combatants during the war remains little known to those outside the study of this particular conflict, yet their involvement and experiences are critical evidence of the inextricable relationship between gender and war. 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 draws on feminist identity theories of performativity, differential consciousness and liminality to illustrate how female combatants represent an extraordinary process of identity construction in response to the deeply masculinised militarised power hierarchies in which they found themselves. Drawing on evidence from personal testimonies of veteran combatants, it explores the concept and process of masculinisation in female combatant experiences, the inherent instability of gender identities and the conditions under which they were constructed during the Ethiopian civil war.

Gender Identity as a Liminal Construction

The concept of gender as a social and cultural construct that varies across time and place has been widely accepted by feminist theorists, sociologists, and historians. Gender identification as neither biologically determined nor constant has been well established in scholarship and is increasingly a major theme in studies of inter-state wars and civil conflicts.

That gender provides an integral lens through which to understand conflict rests on the understanding that ideologies of ‘militarism’ are built on powerful, heavily manipulated ideas about masculinity and femininity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the performance demanded of a combatant soldier; the celebration of stoicism, endurance, physical strength and overt risk-taking reinforces ideologies of masculinity, while accusations of fear, gentleness and submission are used to degrade opponents through associations with femininity, or ‘effeminising’. The existence of female combatants who act as perpetrators of violence, leaders of strategy and participants in the daily physical tasks of soldiering pose significant challenges to this ideological narrative. First and foremost, entrenched beliefs about the subordination of the feminine to the masculine in militarism immediately implicates female combatants in negotiations of power and hierarchy. They disrupt the norm, they appear the outsiders, and they must integrate themselves into the existing military structures which privilege traits of masculinity. Consequently, the transition from State A, woman, to State B, soldier, requires a shift in behaviour and, ostensibly, a shift in identity.

Three theories of identity formation, related yet distinct, provide important frameworks for understanding this transition: performativity, differential consciousness and liminality. The first of these was infamously introduced by gender theorist Judith Butler, who sees gender as fundamentally unstable and a performative act. Butler claims one actively re-enacts expectations of gender norms through verbal and nonverbal behaviours in order to uphold intelligible identifications of sexed individuals, hence her infamous theory that gender always requires ‘a doing’. In the case of female combatants, this concept of performativity enabled combatant women to assume the behaviours, values and boundaries assigned to soldiering roles in a conscious reconstruction of set practices (soldier jargon, jokes, clothing, and so on).

The theory of differential consciousness, meanwhile, emphasises dynamic subjectivity developed under circumstances of oppression, which lead to numerous shifts in identity. Like performativity, differential consciousness proposes that gender identity is a negotiating act, as individuals learn to emphasise and de-emphasise certain traits so as to work effectively in a given environment. For example, in the context of a strategy meeting, a female combatant might highlight their leadership capacity and battle experience, while obscuring their identity drawn from being a mother or wife. In another context, they might present themselves as a spy, activist, educator or cook, and so on. Crucially, differential consciousness is formed in response to different configurations of power. This means it is the militarised hierarchy that privileges masculinity which enables the female combatant to undergo successive identity shifts in varying contexts during the conflict.

The theory of liminality takes this further. Liminality is the process of shifting identities; the betwixt and between, or the transitional state between positions assigned by convention and custom. Liminality theory posits that identities are situationally and spatially bound, changeable depending on where and with whom a person is interacting. Accepting liminality as a state in and of itself allows us to understand the following critical hypothesis; that female combatant gender identity is a process, often between recognisable states and categories, but constantly fluid and in construction (and reconstruction).

If we can accept female combatant gender identities as liminal, it is useful to unpack the performances in which they engage or the points between which they move. It should be noted that these distinctions should not be seen as linear, nor fixed categories, but rather as performances of intelligible roles that can be multiple, competing and enacted simultaneously.

Masculinisation: Then a Woman, Now a Soldier

Masculinisation, or a rejection of femininity as it can otherwise be known, is a process, in which individuals assimilate masculine identities and distance themselves from previous behaviours of femininity. Combatant women who joined the conflict in the earlier stages of the war, when there were relatively few other women in combat roles, appear to identify with this process as a deliberate performance for a professional and social reward. Butler’s description of ‘a stylized repetition of acts’ is applicable, as the first wave of female combatants report their efforts to obscure female identity markers and integrate with the wider masculinised unit.

‘If we met [other combat women in the early days] the first thing we gave each other was words of encouragement: ‘Never show you’re tired. Don’t let them make you carry less’… There was no way we’d stay behind in war. Even if men had to stay behind for some reason, we were in every battle. In addition to our own guns, female fighters always helped with the heavy gun’. - Former female combatant, Lemlem, on her early days as a fighter (Hammond, 1989).

Male and female combatants trained, fought, ate, and slept together, shared jokes and formed the camaraderie traditionally expected of close-knit soldier units. Yet, in order to achieve this effective working relationship, many women described how they sought to make gender (or rather their gender) irrelevant. This required change only on behalf of the female members of the unit who mimicked the behavioural practices of their male colleagues by lowering their voice, adapting their language, clothing and even their walk until unrecognisable to civilians as women:

The peasant women said okay if you are a woman, show me your chest, and they would show them their breasts’. – Female veteran, Netsannet Asfar.

Another veteran, Saba, is recorded speaking proudly of the fact that she was able to make herself indistinguishable as female though her clothing and hairstyle. To this day, women in rural Tigray who frequently wear trousers are referred to as resembling a tegadalit, a fighter woman.

Combatant women were expected to abstain from fighting during their periods and withdraw for two years if they fell pregnant. Four TPLF women out of twenty interviewed for a post-war study admitted to having abortions during the war to be able to stay within their unit. Others recalled their reluctance to admit to their periods so as not to be removed from their duties:

The TPLF had a clear policy that if a woman was menstruating then she didn’t have to fight. This meant we never told him [the physician] until later because we didn’t want to be excluded…. Personally I don’t want to have children because I believe that it hinders my activity’. – Lemlem and fellow fighter Limy (Hammond, 1989).

The identity construction process presented in these accounts involved obscuring, or even in some cases rejecting femininity and feminine identity markers to effectively assimilate into the military order. These testimonies reveal two critical features of combatant women’s gender identities; firstly, their inherent fluidity and instability and, secondly, the strategic positioning of their identity constructions. Formed under conditions of masculinised military hierarchies, the women in these accounts appear able to carefully design their gender performances to position themselves most advantageously, professionally and socially. Masculinisation awarded these combatant women social capital as integrated soldiers and provided opportunities for increased participation in combat. Indeed, female combatants are frequently held up as symbols of the empowerment and gender quality allegedly achieved during the war, and as the instigators of a pivotal time for ‘consciousness raising’. Recognising the liminal gender construction processes involved in their participation challenges this narrative, as female combatant assimilation or capacity to take up military leadership positions appears to have relied on an adaptation of behaviours which reinforced perceptions of discord between the categories of woman and solider.


This article claims combatant women actively constructed and re-constructed their identities throughout the war in response to masculinised military structures and ideologies of militarism. It has explored the complex process of masculinisation in female combatant testimonies in the early stages of the war and the strategic positioning of their identity constructs. This analysis will be continued in the next edition of EPOCH, where the experiences of female combatants at the peak of the conflict will be used to explore concepts of androgyny and demilitarisation policies as a form of structural violence against women. ----------------------

Further Reading

Gender identity theories

  • Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)

  • Sandoval, Chela, ‘U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World’, Genders, 10 (1991): 1-24

  • Turner, Victoria, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (London: Kegan & Paul, 1969)

  • Van Gannep, Arnold, The Rites of Passage (London: Kegan & Paul, 1960)

  • Negewo-Oda, Beza and White, Aaronette M., ‘Identity Transformation and Reintegration Among Ethiopian Women War Veterans: A Feminist Analysis’, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 23, 3 (2011): 163-187

  • Stainslaus, Adele, ‘The Female Combatant: Performing and Challenging Gender Paradigms’, (Doctoral Thesis, submitted to University of Surrey, 2013)

Female Combatant Oral Histories:

  • 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.

Twitter Handle: @ChessieBaldwin