Rumours and fabrications foster the web, sometimes showing an interesting side, other times just embarrassing stupidity.
Just back from Eritrea, I read an incredible piece of news on the social networks – the alleged obligation for Eritrean men to marry more than one woman, that is mandatory polygamy.
I know this is not true, however this story interests me not for its content, but for the mechanisms that make news spread.
Documents are published online, which would allegedly force people to practise polygamy and articles, explain that, because there is a shortage of men vs. the abundance of women in the Country, a balance could be struck with more wives for each husband. Impossible to refuse, under threat of death penalty or life imprisonment.
While the news spread and went viral, I asked myself how many people actually took it seriously.
Certainly Eritrea does. Not for lack of sense of humour, but for resignation.
Being used to news story scoops and news written from outside the Country, unveiling diseases, coups, underground prisons, the bombing of mines and much more to the rest of the world, and in spite of its reputation of being a closed country, Eritrea responds to media attacks with announcements that, it must be said, are not always reported by the international press.
This time Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel, Minister for Information, denied this (false) news on Twitter writing: Media frenzy to parrot this ludicrous, fabricated & trite story of the Mufti’s presumed religious decree on mandatory polygamy is appalling.
Many are the tweets from outraged Eritreans, who mention the Country’s secularism, the respect for religions, which do not interfere with state’s activities, and the blogger Filmon Zerai posts an image with the actual text of the law forbidding polygamy.
This time the Italian press, sensing that something is fishy, has left the African media to sort out the question of polygamy by themselves.
In order to understand the falseness of this accusation it is necessary to take a step back.
When the Italians conquered Eritrea in 1890 there was a division of roles and women could not own land, one of the major assets for most families. However, the condition of women was not very bad. Officer Ruffillo Perini in his analysis of Eritrean society wrote that “men and women are, within the bond of marriage, in a status of absolute equality and equally free to dissolve such bond, should it become too oppressive on them, so that the trade of submitted women cannot exist in it”.
“Women” continued Perini “are treated in Eritrea with chivalric deference, which is expressed also in their influence in social life and in the fact that their advice is always sought and always heeded. This is a trait of the Gheez culture, which is characteristic not only of the plateau region, but also of the areas where the population is nomadic and Muslim”.
In the same years the orientalist Carlo Conti Rossini wrote that the condition of women in Eritrea was better than in some parts of Europe. He explained that in Eritrea there were two types of marriage, one formal and solemn type, another type for interest. The first one was based on a pact between two families, the second one was based on an agreement, under which a woman could live with a man for a certain period of time and for a certain amount of money. The solemn marriage could be religious, where as a de facto union was called demoz and was different also from concubinage, a union, in which a man did not have a duty to live regularly with a woman, and a woman was not obliged to do the household chores, as opposed to the demoz.
The situation changed radically after Eritrea conquered independence in 1991, when women, who had played a fundamental role in the thirty years’ fight, formed the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and asked a reform of ordinary marriages and claimed the right to work and own land.
As can be seen, Eritrean culture and traditions are far from polygamy, on the contrary, they guarantee women rights that are still not recognised in many parts of Africa. Apart from inheriting land, working and studying like men, Eritrean women, who have conquered important roles in the civil and institutional life of the Country, managed to legally ban the dangerous practice of female genital mutilation.
If the Western point of view was necessary to analyse Eritrean society, taking for instance the Millennium Goals, (MDG’s) once again the role of women would appear crucial. In fact, the three goals on health, fully achieved, have women at their core. In Eritrea women no longer die in childbirth, pregnancies are better monitored, neonatal and infantile mortality have fallen drastically and, finally, the head of the healthcare system is a woman, Minister Amina Nurhussien, who is proud to be able to say that in her Country all children are vaccinated and that even delicate heart operations can be performed on small children.
Even in this invention of compulsory polygamy there is, however, some good news – the removal of the culprit, as Kenya’s newspaper Business Today reported, and this is something that does not happen frequently.
The web will retain for a while the amusing (and false) images of men ready to disembark in Eritrea to marry more and more women, then all this will be forgotten.
It is more complicated to understand the lengthy reports against Eritrea based on a not so different system: anonymous sources, uncountable, who do not make declarations about polygamy, but about a prison-country.
In both cases, declarations from the sources are not verified in the Country, dodging the question of whether it is legitimate to write about what you have not seen. Surely, being in the country is not like having a magic wand of truth, opinions may continue to be different, but at least you will know what you are talking about.
Today, however, Eritreans at home and abroad have learned to use the media and the social networks to tell us about their Country, to say how they would like it to be and what their parents have fought for.
The press must accept it: it will be harder and harder to accuse them of polygamy …