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Joy as Gendered Resistance in Ashenda Celebrations during the Tigray War, 2020–Present, by Francesca Baldwin

Ashenda is a festival of womanhood, sisterhood, and female joy, celebrated every August in Tigray, Ethiopia. It brings together physical adornment, music, and dance to honour the feminine form, where female participants are gifted food, drinks, and money by the rest of the community. Although it has its origins in religion by commemorating the ascension of the Virgin Mary, it has long since been a space for gendered freedom and rejection of violence against women and girls. This year, Ashenda has taken on new meanings as an expression of resistance and resilience after a year of weaponised sexual violence in the ongoing Tigray War

Begun in November 2020, what Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed originally professed was an attack only on the regionally elected government (Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF), was in fact a war on Tigray, and its people. In the past eleven months, communication and electricity blackouts have submersed the region in darkness, preventing most information from getting in, or out. Aid has been blockaded and a famine has been declared. The true extent of the violence is yet to be known, but there is harrowing evidence of mass executions, looting, destruction of hospitals, and other essential services. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated some 26,000 women and girls have been subjected to rape and sexual violence, including sexual slavery, mutilation, and fertility violence. Given that this type of violence is chronically underreported, this is likely to be a conservative estimate.

Thus, Ashenda was celebrated quite differently this year. There was no thronging festival in regional capital Mek’ele, no flights home for diasporic women who would usually make the journey to enjoy the time with their families. To some, it seemed strange that Tigrayan women could participate in Ashenda this year at all. Yet, there was celebration, and there was joy.

Um Rakuba Refugee Camp 2021 (reproduced with permission).

Ashenda was reimagined and given new meanings to encompass the violent attacks on Tigrayan women. Around the world, diaspora held small festivals in homes, halls, and the streets. In Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan, women and girls danced, sang, and celebrated as a liminal community with love and vigour. Ashenda puts sisterhood and femininity front and centre, but this year it was imbued with expressions of unity, defiance, and communal freedom.

Um Rakuba Refugee Camp 2021 (reproduced with permission).

In this context, we can turn to history to reveal the broader role of ‘celebration’ within a militarised arena. We might ask why communities pursue joyful expression in the hardest of circumstances, or in other words, how choosing joy can be a method of resistance.

Under a repressive administration, joyful things are often banned, or carefully controlled. Music, cultural dances, and religious expression were suppressed by some colonial authorities, while regional languages are frequently targeted by occupying regimes for their connections with national pride. Yet, the pursuit of joy can be found in many forms in these violent spaces. In the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, inhabitants stole wood to carve an ornate menorah and celebrate Hanukkah. In the former Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, jokes about German manners and etiquette have been studied as one way in which the local population sought to undermine the occupying Nazis and keep the faith with one another.

Um Rakuba Refugee Camp 2021 (reproduced with permission).

Joy promotes connection, channels energy, and creates momentum. Its existence threatens any regime which has precarious control and relies on strict hierarchies of age, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity for its continued existence. The prohibition of joy is also undeniably gendered, affecting women most of all. We see this in the suppression of women’s sexual expression and body autonomy as a means of maintaining social order, and in the degradation of so-called ‘typically feminine’ joy in expressions of clothing, romance, and so on. Belittling such expressions works to reinforce patriarchal hierarchies which privilege masculinity and the associated values.

Supressing cultural joy more broadly is a method of dehumanisation, and in its most extreme constitutes cultural genocide. Ultimately, a population that feels unified – as though they belong to one another and do not exist as individuals on their own – are harder to dominate and harder to break apart. As such, continuing to seek out joy in the darkest times is a means of holding on to communal identity and reflects a refusal to be defined on the terms of the oppressor.

One of the biggest challenges of conducting activism in a protracted war is sustaining it, as campaigns and grassroots work can be thankless and wearing. Joy, on the other hand, is restorative and a reminder of what one is working to preserve. It performs overt resistance functions in its rejection of victim and victor dichotomies and undermines the danger of isolation under conditions of domination.

In the context of the Tigray War and the tsunami of gender-based violence, this year’s Ashenda sought to celebrate community, creativity, self-love, and female resilience. It was explicitly a recognition of the communal trauma facing Tigrayan women and a promise that this would not define their story. It refused the narrative of women as unfortunate victims of a man’s war and recognized the ways that they define identity for themselves through love, support, owning their freedom, and a refusal to be silenced. I was lucky to be invited to observe and participate in London and witnessed first-hand the juxtaposition of tears and laughter as the festivities brought together pain and joy to celebrate womanhood for all that it means, this year more than ever.

Ashenda in London (August 2021)

Francesca Baldwin is a PhD Student in History from the University of Reading, specialising in women’s experiences of conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia. Her research explores sexual and gender-based violence, displacement, intergenerational war trauma, militarism, and gendered roles in conflict zones. She is currently conducting oral history interviews with Tigrayan women to build a repository of affected voices in the ongoing Tigray War.

 

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