Some forty years ago, if a child left his friends outside for an afternoon snack at home, took more time than his friends expected, and failed to go back to them, they started taunting him in a sing-song way: “Gheten, Gheten, Abey alo Gheten?
Ab Gezuu nediu yegaeten” Gheten is a meaningless word, neither in Tigrigna nor in any other Eritrean language. Children at that time coined it as a word to refer to their friend, one that rhymes with yighaeten. The children’s rhyme can be translated as: “Where is Gheten, Gheten? He is at home helping his mother make porridge”. They sing it so loudly that the child in question is forced to rejoin them as soon as possible despite the fact that he may not be done eating his snack.
It was not only boys in urban areas but also girls in rural areas that used such songs to exert peer pressure and secure conformity of ‘deviant’ members of the society. Girls in rural areas used it so effectively that in Tigrigna there is a type of poetry, named edere, that serves this function. In his Massen Melqesn Qedamot (p.45), a study of Tigrigna oral poetry and volume that has brought a sample of oral poetry in Tigrigna, Solomon Tsehaye defines edere:
“Edere is a critical or disapproving kind of song that is sung to curb people (who have secretly violated a social norm) and who think that nobody has come to know of their secret act from committing a similar unacceptable act a second time, and as a lesson for others by exposing or bringing the unacceptable act to light.”
Though such kind of songs exposed the acts of both males and females, they focused on the misdeeds of women. Even in such acts that involved both males and females, it was the females that bore the brunt of the criticism. Even when the male took responsibility of his misdeed, the woman was the target of such critical songs. Often, these songs made fun of the women’s gullibility, lack of prudence and their attempts out of their predicament, which is often depicted as foolish and implausible. In some cases, they were ridiculed as if men were not involved in the sexual escapade that brought shame on her. In short, in its attempt to respect sexual norms the society put pressure on women, and it tried to achieve conformity through such songs.
Such kinds of songs, though they looked innocent boys’ games, games they played on one another, they encouraged boys to think of themselves as very different from girls and bolstered their resistance against getting involved with female work at home. They encouraged them to perceive themselves as members of the family who should be served and not lift a finger as the females did the backbreaking work at home. In other words, they perpetuated the belief that it was the women’s lot to toil at home, washing clothes and the dishes, cooking food, mopping the floor, and carrying out other ‘female’ chores. From early age, they introduced them to the ways and attitudes of men in society, what men were expected to do, and even more importantly, what they were not expected to do, if they were to gain acceptance among the society. In short, such songs taught young boys to follow in the footsteps of their fathers.
Such acculturation is so subtle and deep-seated that most Eritrean women did not see it as a culture that oppressed them. For them, it was the natural way things were arranged in society, a way that should not be tampered with. Often it was perceived as God-designed arrangement, and changing it was interpreted as changing the natural order of things. For this reason, the unconscious resisted change related to gender-based division of labour.
In rural Eritrea, in the highlands, the culture organizes labour in such a way that it is a taboo for a man to enter an inner room of their house, named wishaTe, considered the woman’s domain, where she bakes bread, or brews suwa and cooks stew. As a rule, the man almost never sets foot in it. In the lowlands, it is very similar, men doing their work outside the house, and women with their interminable chores at home. As in the highlands, in the lowlands men do not go to the kitchen and do not cook even for their families. If men cooked, both in the highlands and the lowlands, it is for other people, as cooks in restaurants or cafeterias, serving others. The majority of men leave household chores to their wives, not even caring to learn how to carry them out.
The young generation is different from the old in that they are taught to see things in n e w ways. A number of factors, technology – the internet, TV, which brings the thoughts and experiences of other cultures and other peoples, have tremendous impact on their thinking. Through such exposure, they are brought face to face with the things they have grown up with, their attitudes about women, and what they believed they were capable of and their beliefs of what they could not do.
But, the Curriculum, in an attempt to create a more equitable society, is shaping the attitudes of young Eritreans, that part of their life that could be a source of oppression of women. In a quiet revolution, the Curriculum portrays boys engaging in traditionally female chores and females doing male tasks, or brings attitudes that limit students’ freedom of action and decision. Probably due to such change, little girls defy little boys’ assertions such as “Girls can’t ride bicycles” and “Girls can’t drive cars” or “Girls can’t fly planes.”
In the Curriculum, boy-girl, man-woman relationships are recast in a more fair way. Students are taught to temporarily use the spectacles their parents and grandparents see the outdated relationships between the sexes, and see them as anachronistic, and are taught to drop them and wear new ones. Teenagers are made to think about sexuality, love between sexes, peer pressure, and other issues, including the consequences of engaging in unsafe sexual activity (for example, HIV/Aids), before they are ready. Moreover, they are taught to take responsibility for their lives, and that they should not blame others if things went wrong (in their relationships). Always at the heels of schools, and following them wherever schools go, the Curriculum is leaving its mark on the thoughts and attitudes of young people, changing them completely.
In short, on women’s issues the young are not walking in the footsteps of their parents and their grandparents. Now, no child sings a song that puts down girls, and boys no longer sing songs that blame women for no fault of theirs. The school has replaced the old songs and is teaching young people fairness towards women, teaching them a new culture that accepts females as important members of the society, and deserving equality with men.