IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Respected in battle, overlooked at home

Lounging in his easy chair as coffee roasted over a charcoal heater and knots of underwear soaked in a bucket, Yemane Abreah watched his wife pour him a glass of homemade alcoholic juice, serve him some spongy injera bread and ready their son for school.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Lounging in his easy chair as coffee roasted over a charcoal heater and knots of underwear soaked in a bucket, Yemane Abreah watched his wife pour him a glass of homemade alcoholic juice, serve him some spongy injera bread and ready their son for school.

Mileta Abreah, 45, rollers in her puff of mocha-colored hair, is a housewife now. But she used to be a spy for the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, infiltrating Ethiopian lines during the 30-year war for Eritrean independence. She was a fighter for about 15 years. Her favorite weapon was her Kalashnikov. Her favorite memory is securing the town of Afabet, where she and her comrades wiped out Ethiopia's largest ammunition depot in 48 hours.

"Past life," she shrugged.

With sleek Afro hairstyles and tight-fitting camouflage uniforms, Eritrean women were once icons of female power, featured in posters like the one in government offices picturing a woman with a baby on her back and an AK-47 slung over her arm, under the words "Mother Eritrea: Fighter." By the early 1990s, women made up 30 percent of the rebel army's estimated 100,000 soldiers.

But today, Eritrean women are facing what they are calling the second struggle -- to change attitudes toward their role in a peaceful society.

After independence from Ethiopia in 1993, women were rewarded with legal rights unheard of across most of sub-Saharan Africa, including rights of property ownership, divorce and custody of children. Thirty percent of the seats in parliament were reserved for women. International Women's Day was made an official holiday. Eritrea became a showcase, and women's studies classes in Europe and the United States added its example to their curriculum.

But female veterans soon found that, in practice, they were respected more on the battle field than they were in civilian life.

"You can't legislate attitudes," said Luul Gebreab, a former platoon leader and now president of the National Union of Eritrean Women. The stakes are high, she said. Women "have to fight attitudes that, for example, don't see rape as a crime or don't find it necessary for women to pick who they marry. For anything to move forward, men need to be a centerpiece of this fight."

'Our previous life'
Women have been ushered into the least desired jobs -- sweeping the streets, working as meter maids or in fish markets. Few obtained the higher-paying government posts or lucrative taxi driver or construction jobs that male veterans did.

When the war ended and Abreah asked Mileta, a former classmate to marry, she argued with him for months over the conditions. She should be allowed to work, he would take an HIV test, and she would not endure circumcision, or the removal of her clitoris, a procedure that 89 percent of women here still undergo, according to the National Union of Eritrean Women.

"When you ask a woman to marry you in Africa -- even a female fighter -- they cannot say no like European or American women," said Abreah, a taxi driver who is described by Mileta as a gentle and caring husband. "I always thought they had to agree. 'Submit,' we say here."

"Men have forgotten everything," said Ghirmay Hadgu, 44, a male ex-fighter. "Our previous life was to work together. Now women carry the burden. It's shameful but true. There is so much existing cultural pressure on men. The pressure just engulfs you."

Hadgu, who works for the government buying equipment, says there is a joke among Eritrean men that they are digging their own graves by allowing women to go to school and learn things that they might use to overthrow husbands. He has attended workshops focusing on the role of Eritrean women run by ex-fighters, including his sister, Terhas Iyassu, 40, a respected commander and artist during the liberation struggle.

After the workshops, he said, he "noticed many things." Fighters like his sister who had suffered, sometimes even more than men, giving birth to children in the fields during the war, were now being forced into circumcision and into marriages they didn't want.

A woman's bravery during war was one thing. But Hadgu said that men returning from the war thought it was their right to get better pay, better jobs and more power. Many women headed households alone -- sometimes they were widows of men who died during the war -- and thought they also had a right to earn good salaries.

He also noticed smaller things.

"I saw that my wife, well, she worked all day and then when I came home I was able to relax and she wasn't," he said. "I also noticed that men during the war were taught how to cook for themselves, and my son today is not taught this. His mother serves him."

A double aim
When women first went off to fight Ethiopia, there was a double aim: freedom for Eritrea and liberation for African women, said Fawzia Hashim, an ex-fighter who as a government minister is one of the most powerful women in the country. For years during the war, men had to be convinced that women could fight.

"Women proved their worth, running up and down mountains, fighting in trenches for months. The male egos broke," she said. "We were the backbone of the liberation movement. The rights we earned weren't a gift. Now, we always have to say, 'Don't forget the sweat and the blood we gave.' That's why focusing on male attitudes is essential. Attitudes do and can change."

On a Sunday morning thick with heat, Mileta Abreah prepared coffee for her husband. She burned triangles of incense over charcoal. Then she roasted coffee beans over her small metal stove. The aroma drifted through their small home. Abreah commented that it was the time of year when women in the villages dotting Eritrea's rocky mountainsides underwent circumcision in ceremonies marked by dancing and celebration.

When Mileta was fighting, she refused to submit to the procedure, which often causes infections and makes sexual relations painful. A boyfriend wanted to marry her, but wanted the procedure done so she wouldn't be "out of control and want to have a lot of sex," she said. She refused. He said he would leave her. She said no, again. The relationship ended.

When the war was over and Yemane came calling, he also asked her to undergo the procedure. Again, she refused.

He relented. "I said okay, don't do it," he recalled. "And everything has been fine. I love my wife. She has been good to me."

For the first few years of her marriage she did not work. "I didn't want it," said Yemane, a compact man with mustache. "It wasn't safe for her."

But after dozens of arguments, he changed his mind. She now works as a secretary at the defense ministry. "I wanted her to be happy, " he said.

Today she is starting to resemble the women she sees on American television. She has too much to do.

"My wife is a real modern woman, she does everything," Yemane smiled, as Mileta poured his coffee. "Just like a man. But sometimes even more and even better."