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Eritrean Women and Arts

Simon Woldemichael

Nobody questions that women and men are biologically different. The problem is the biological difference is used by many to justify gender roles. But we know that gender roles, which are often taken for granted, are not biologically determined. They are socially constructed and are reinforced through the portrayal of men and women in those typical roles in films, music, drama, and novels. That is why it is important for artists, in general, and women artists, in particular, to be aware of the role of art in perpetuating, oftentimes inadvertently, the status-quo and the need to present alternative narratives that allow particularly women opportunities to tell their own stories.

During the colonial period, Eritrean women artists along with their men counterparts were courageous enough to use art as an instrument for enhancing Eritrean culture and identity and for guarding against colonial cultural domination. Amleset Abbai, Tsehaitu Beraki, Teberh Tesfahuney, Alganesh Kiflu, Letebrehan Dagnew and Tegbaru Teklay were some of the artists with inspiring artistic performance and style. In the 1950s and 1960s, the performance of Eritrean women artists crossed over national borders and became popular in neighboring countries and overseas. They were named by their contemporaries after well-known international artists. For example, Sofia Ali, a former suwa house entertainer was named Sophia Loren after the Italian Sophia Loren, an internationally renowned film actress, and Teberh Tesfahuney, the most popular singer in the 1960s, was called Doris Day.

The attitude of the Eritrean society, in general, and the artists, in particular, toward the participation of women in art during that time was best illustrated by Tekabo Woldemariam, a famous singer of Asmara Theatre Association, who said, “Women were kept as gold and their artistic skills were precious. If a play has no woman, it is non-existent. If there is no woman, there is no light. Therefore, in music, a woman is of importance; she has to be kept properly. There was no way we could oppress them.” This testimony forfeited the notion that there existed a widespread negative opinion towards women artists. In fact, art provided an alternative safe space for women. to fight in the frontline of the cultural battle to defend Eritrean culture from foreign cultural invasion. In addition to their participation in performance art such as singing and dancing, Eritrean women were also able to make it in literature. In the 1960s some women wrote and published books.

Following the tradition of the 1950s and early 1960s, revolutionary art played a central role in the preservation and development of Eritrean culture, especially the promulgation of revolutionary ideas to the wider population. During the struggle for independence, Eritrean women played a decisive role in cultural activities, cultural preservation, and revitalization of Eritrean cultural values through arts. Women participated in the EPLF’s cultural troupes. Revolutionary women artists produced inspirational songs that boosted the morale of the fighters and the people and ruined the psychological makeup of the enemy. The revolutionary art depicts the female as an individual who insists on her right to have freedom on her own. The songs of the women artists continue to be a symbol of artistic beauty and national cultural treasury.

Just like the revolutionary women artists that played a role in the armed struggle for independence, many young Eritrean women artists are now playing a significant role in nation-building by telling the Eritrean narrative: it’s past, present, and future. They include Ariam Zemichael, Elham Mohamed, Eden Kesete, Miriam Shawsh, Tirhas Gual Keren, Nehemiah Zerai, Feven Tsegay, Fiori Kesete, Saba Ademariam, Sham Geshu, the Yohannes daughters, Weini Solomon and Yohanna Abera, among others.

Many argue that popular art over the past two decades has not developed in Eritrea as expected and blocked progress toward gender equality and helped resuscitate male domination. They say video clips and films have allowed women to be seen as weak, vulnerable, and powerless which contradicts the heroic achievement and positive portrayal of Eritrean women. Indeed, there are certain productions, especially music video clips, that portray women as objects of sex who can realize their dreams only through their femininity and sexuality rather than intelligence.

The best way to deal with the challenge is to encourage and persuade producers of video clips and other forms of art to stop portraying women in traditional and inferior roles and produce instead works of art that reflect the positive values of the Eritrean society. Eritrean artists, in general, and women artists, in particular, should be aware of their products and make efforts to present women as dignified human beings that they are. And there are many young Eritrean female artists with reputations in music, poetry, film, and drama who can do the job perfectly well.

The social prejudice against women has been waning over the years in Eritrea although no one can claim that it has been eliminated completely. After all, deeply entrenched biases cannot be redressed in a short time. But it is encouraging to see that with every passing year the number of women dedicated to art is increasing, and this is an indication that slowly but surely the landscape will no longer be male-dominated and will give women more platforms to tell their stories from their own perspective and make a tremendous contribution toward women empowerment and nation-building.

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