Equality Through Equal Participation: Eritrean Women

The participation of women in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was not only significant but central to the movement’s success. Women made up one-third of the armed struggle and played vital roles, from combat to nursing and mechanics, teaching, driving, and radio and clandestine operations. The EPLF was highly progressive in organizing women at the grassroots level and encouraging them to join the national liberation movement.
Despite facing cultural, religious, and patriarchal obstacles, Eritrean women fought for their rights and shattered oppressive barriers through equal participation. Their contributions to the struggle challenged traditional gender roles and redefined the capabilities of women in labor. They demonstrated to their comrades and society that there was nothing they could not do.

One of the many remarkable and heroic acts of Eritrean women during the armed struggle occurred in Taba Arhe during the 6th offensive in April 1989. This story comes from this year’s (2023), Women’s Day event celebrated in Eritrea under the theme “Eritrean women – Unwavering and Undertaking Sweats to Cultivate”, written by Solomon Berhane and narrated by Basieba Alemseghed.

Taba Arhe is a hill in Eritrea, and is smooth as a mango’s skin, making it difficult to climb. The topography of Taba Arhe does not make it favorable for an offensive, but the enemy’s control of the high mountains nearby gave them a significant advantage. Enduring the challenges, including difficult terrain and limited supplies, Wedi Daniel, the former commander of Battalion 42, and his 500 comrades fought for months against the enemy.  From dawn until dusk, bombs rained down on them, helicopters flew so low they could recognize the faces of the pilots and by the end of the battle, only 24 women and 2 men had remained.

Wedi Daniel upon the end of these battles, assessing the conditions of the freedom fighters and the hectic nature of the situation, realized there was no time to bury martyrs. Due to the challenges they faced carrying injured comrades down the hill, Daniel was hesitant to launch a final attack on the enemy. However, all the women spoke up almost simultaneously, pushing for the final battle, showing their readiness and advanced understanding of military philosophy. Subsiding his initial hesitation, Daniel relented, and the women led the charge into battle.  Some of the women, like Gual Teklu, even recalled that upon convincing Daniel to lead them into battle they were overjoyed with so much happiness you would think they were going to a wedding and not a war.

For months, the women in Taba Arhe endured many challenges and these challenges are not nuances to the struggle for liberation. Because of the harsh conditions of Taba Arhe, for months on in, the comrades shared one flask of water to the point that their throats dried up and got tonsillitis accumulating puss. The women dealt with their periods, with no time to wash up and no spare cloth. They would  reuse the same cloth the following month. Yet, these Eritrean women, determined to fight and to win, reorganized themselves for battle. 

Right before the final battle the enemy knew they were women and to circumvent that, the women had to deepen their voice to ensure that the enemy did not get any sense of hope knowing very well the enemy would think less of them. Camouflaging their true voices these fierce women charged ahead. The battle lasted for two hours, the women took on various roles, from Bren shooters to grenade throwers. They worked together, fighting diligently with determination and courage, and were successful in defeating the enemy that was 150-200 strong. No one was martyred, and the months of bloody wars fought on Taba Arhe finally came to an end. 

As Wedi Daniel emphasized, “Eritrean women are sharper than a sword. They are more trustworthy than faith itself. Eritrean women are the spears of the nation and the food basket of Eritrea.” Their bravery and tenacity are a testament to the strength and resilience of women in the face of adversity and the power of collective action to achieve social change. With the motto of Against all Odds Eritrean women truly make the impossible possible. 

Eternal Glory to Our Martyrs!

Awet N’Hafash!