Between Clothes and the Body: National and Gender Identity among Eritrean Women Refugees

Between Clothes and the Body: National and Gender Identity among Eritrean Women Refugees Abstract This article focuses on issues of agency, material culture, and national and gender identity in the life experiences of Eritrean women refugees in Tel Aviv, Israel. This anthropological research examined two main styles of dress: everyday dress that reflects Western lifestyle and traditional patterns of dress. I demonstrate how clothes serve as a political site within which perceptions of gender and nationalism are reshaped, thus creating the women’s refugee identity. I conclude by suggesting that the refugee experience can be seen to reinforce expressions of liberation and empowerment. I further argue that the dressed body can be seen as an active agent that shapes the new reality of the women refugees in their host country. Introduction On becoming a refugee, the individual is separated from all familiar material aspects. When forced to leave their countries, refugees lose their material environment, and usually all that remain are the clothes on their bodies. On reaching a new country, they are required to adopt new meanings and a new identity—layers that are added to their cultural and historical worlds. They are often forced to live in the margins of society where they suffer from stressful life conditions and lack access to economic and cultural resources. Within these marginal groups, women become the most vulnerable minority group; in addition to their inferior national status, they further suffer from gender inferiority. The emergence of African refugees is still a new phenomenon in Israeli society. From 2005, a growing wave of African refugees began arriving in the country. Most entered via Israel’s southern border with Egypt at the end of a long and difficult journey on foot.1 This study focuses on refugees from Eritrea, the largest group in the refugee community, who made their complex and complicated way from the Horn of Africa to Israel. Eritrea is infamous for its repressive regime that systematically violates human rights, demands compulsory military service for an unlimited length of time and prevents political and religious freedom.2 The status of the Eritrean refugees in Israel is especially complicated due to the diplomatic and security relations between the two countries. Israel has a manifest policy of not acknowledging the status of the refugees as being persecuted for political reasons and systematically ignores their requests for asylum.3 Women are such a small minority in Israel’s refugee population that the Population Administration of the Ministry of Interior does not even relate to them as a distinct category (Wargeft 2015). Lacking official data, the number of women is estimated to be no more than 7,000—that is, less than 20 per cent of the overall refugee community in Israel. This small number and the fact that the women were more exposed than the men to harm and abuse in their homeland make them a particularly vulnerable population and an easy target for abuse. On arriving in their host country, women refugees find themselves in a foreign state where they often need to function as the head of household and support their children on their own. They are thus destined to a life of poverty and are vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of men who look to exploit their social weakness such as landlords, employers and other authority figures (Kaufman 2014). According to Sabar and Posner (2013), the literature dealing with African immigration to Israel has emphasized three main aspects: government policy (or lack of policy), the legal status of the immigrants and the socio-demographic characteristics of the community. In spite of the fact that the African refugees arrived in Israel over a decade ago, there is still very little academic interest in the topic. Most of the research knowledge concerning refugees in Israel has focused on: public policy (Ben Dor and Adut 2003; Yaron Mesgana 2015); the legal system (Afeef 2009; Kritzman Amir 2009; Livnat 2015); refugees and group identity (Anteby Yemini 2008; Yaron 2009; Sabar 2015); and the body and soul (Willen 2007, 2010; Nakash et al. 2014). These studies have not, on the whole, examined the experiences from the viewpoint of the refugee. As Monzel wrote: In recent years, the number of articles that deal with the topics of being a refugee has greatly increased. Indeed, surprisingly, few of them touch the question of what it feels like to be a refugee (Monzel 1993: 106). This study investigates the experiences of women refugees from Eritrea in Israeli society through the story of clothes. Within the existing relational systems between people and objects, the role of clothes can be seen as an intersection in which different social categories, such as gender, ethnicity and religion, are unravelled and rewoven into the creation of refugee identity. Miller (2005) offered a good way of understanding ourselves via a reflection on material. In his notion of a dialectical game between the human and the non-human, Miller asserted that there is a circular process, according to which social reality is constructed and reflected in the mirror of the material. The object has an operating force; it is created by us, and it creates us. Thus, exposure to the relations that are constructed between people and objects in a given context requires us to see the clothes that the individual wears as something that creates the individual themself. As a result, the need to understand an object in a given cultural context serves as a central starting assumption, especially concerning the research of clothes, due to their place in relation to the body. Clothing is an object that signifies the periphery of the body (Woodward 2005) and defines its borders, separates and protects the personal from the public, and imbues tradition and social norms with material attributes. I therefore look at the styles of clothing worn by Eritrean women refugees not only as a product of actors in the economic marketplace, but also as an expression of a fluid cultural process that constructs their identity as foreigners in a new country. I pay special attention to two kinds of complementary clothes: the everyday style of the pattern of Western dress, which attempts to create a transparent and taken-for-granted universal identity within the urban space; and traditional Eritrean-style dress, which attempts to unify Eritrean women into one homogeneous group that demonstrates on its body the national and religious identity of the community. In order to understand the existing relations between the attributes of the material and its symbolic significance, I examine the dress code, which emphasizes the aesthetic space in which it appears, by exploring the components of the material: the source, quality, shape, patterns and symmetry of the clothes. Patterns of dress have always been an expression of the tension between the social and the personal, between coercion and choice, between what needs to be and what is possible (Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1992; Twigg 2009). I locate my description and analysis of the dressed and dressing body of my research participants along this tension. I probe their agency and power of action in shaping the reality of their new lives in the host country. My basic argument is that, in the experiences of Eritrean women refugees, clothes serve as a visual text that establishes political action. This action dissolves the traditional gendered cultural arrangement and reshapes it as an accepting Western identity. I see the wearing of the fabric as a unique space in which the women refugees, as active subjects, draw attention in order to gain a presence and thus manoeuvre their way between the structures of power in the host country. In the narrow gap between the body and the garment, I identify and describe the experience of being a refugee as one which comprises both the possibility to express feelings of liberation and empowerment and the opportunity of the dressed body becoming an active agent in shaping her reality in Israel. Methods A reading of clothes invites a discussion about the relations that are created between the object and the subject and between the garment and the body that wears it. The hegemonic discourse often positions the Western normative experience as a universal, neutral and desired attributional point (Dekel 2013), learned mainly from the textual world, namely from what is said, written and read. The desire to hold on to the material world can be useful for unravelling this one-dimensionality in an attempt to decipher the experience of gender, ethnic and class identity as it is formed among women refugees from Eritrea. The fact that Eritreans form the largest group of refugees in Israel facilitated my search for women interviewees and my decision to present their experiences using their points of view in a wide and deep manner. Moreover, the uniqueness of the Eritrean system of objects in general and clothing in particular demanded analytical and empirical work that would reflect the cultural and national context of the community. In the first stage, I examined the attributes of the actual fabric. I identified the style pattern, differentiated between textures, read the fibres of the embroidery thread and located the repetition of the rhythm, shapes and colours of the different types of dress. Nevertheless, and because I was a stranger, I knew that I would be unable to phrase in the voices of the women of the community the place of clothes within the refugee experience. While Israeli society labels the African refugees as ‘others’, in the relational system between me and the refugees, it was me, the white local woman, who was positioned as the outsider, the one who did not belong. This research is therefore based on the triangulation of data from additional sources, namely anthropological work in Eritrean clothing stores located in south Tel Aviv. Hundreds of hours of observations gave me a glimpse into the world of the traditional dress of Eritrean refugee women, the different preferences concerning the dress code, the way in which the garment is matched to the body and the women’s expectations from clothes. The fieldwork made it possible for me to engage in informal conversations with the store owners, as they bent over their old sewing machines or measured their clients’ bodies. It also gave me the opportunity to have frequent meetings with local salespeople when they arrived with their abundance of new dresses. The heart of the research is based on 15 semi-structured in-depth interviews conducted between 2015 and 2016 with Eritrean women from the Tigrinya group, the largest ethnic group in Eritrea, who are orthodox Christians. They are young and married, with the majority having lived in south Tel Aviv since arriving in Israel. Most of the interviews were carried out in Hebrew/English, and in some I was helped by a women from the Eritrean community who served as translators between Hebrew and Tigrinya. Since the interviews were conducted in the women’s homes, I also had the chance to look in their wardrobes and see the different styles of clothes, understand their organization according to patterns and sense, smell and feel the various materials. From Dresses to Trousers and Shirts: A Change in the Dress Code The dialogue between the body and different cultural perceptions includes, among other things, patterns of dress. Clothes have unique characteristics in the world of objects due to their position and relation to the body. This is the ‘cultural skin’, to use Turner’s (1980) term, which separates the self from the other, the personal from the public and the feminine from the masculine. An appreciation of the uniqueness of clothes in the lives of Eritrean women refugees requires an understanding of the common dress codes and styles in their homeland. My fieldwork allowed a glimpse into the changes that have occurred in the field of Eritrean women’s fashion in Israel. The most conspicuous change is the choice of Western style as the central pattern of dress. Life in Eritrea obligated obedience to a traditional style whose roots are based on a gender differentiation that locates the Eritrean woman as inferior in everything including fashion preferences. This was reflected in Sarah’s words: In Eritrea, I wore trousers and a shirt when I was young, but after I got married, I only wore a regular [chiffon] dress. A woman in Eritrea needs to be modest … we believe in God … I can’t wear whatever clothes I want. From Sarah’s testimony, it appears that Western dress styles are uncommon in Eritrea and most married women prefer to wear traditional clothes. This is due not only to the high cost of Western clothes in Eritrea, but also to negative attributes associated with the clothes. A similar attitude was expressed by Yehudit: Wearing trousers is considered sexy. Young women wear them, mostly those who live in the city, but after they get married, it’s forbidden. You need to wear a dress in Eritrea. Eritrean society is characterized by a patriarchal worldview and a gender inequality that is rooted in its traditional cultural structure (Kibreab 2008). When a woman’s status changes due to marriage, she must take on a style of dress that is appropriate to the gender expectations by adopting the traditional clothing code of her mother and grandmother. While Western clothing is identified with sexiness and temptation, traditional dress expresses a model of respectable femininity. Similarly to other interviewees, Janet succeeded in describing the complexity of the relations between the traditional Eritrean style of dress and women’s designated cultural and national role: There are those who wear trousers in Eritrea, but it is preferable not to. My mother always brought me up to wear either a dress or a skirt. Otherwise, people will look poorly at me. If you are a woman who believes in God and you want a good husband, don’t wear trousers. The connection between religious belief and strict gender perceptions obligates Eritrean women to wear traditional dress. Even though all of the women I interviewed silently and consensually obeyed the model of modesty demanded by traditional dress, their new life course has led them to adopt a different dress code that carries with it the opportunity for liberation from the cultural restrictions of their old world. The forced transition to the new country has entailed a change in everyday dress, namely a separation from their traditional dresses and the adoption of secular Western clothing. While it seems that most of the older refugees have chosen to remain loyal to their traditional dresses or, alternatively, wear skirts and blouses, younger Eritrean women in Israel have adopted a new dress code at work, at home or in different social frameworks in Israel. As a society based on immigrants, Israel is characterized by many different clothing styles, each belonging to a different cultural world. However, El Or and Regev (2017) pointed to the emergence of a prominent stylistic space that draws on Western cultural innovation. It is a monochrome, urban style with a tendency for dark colours and characterized by being flexible and anti-bourgeois. This popular clothing style can be seen among young Eritrean women in Israel. Leggings are a conspicuous fashion item in this Western system of clothing and are usually long enough to safeguard the body’s modesty. They tend to be dark, particularly black, brown or grey. Jeans have also become a common choice among the young women refugees, often adopted for the first time in Israel. They seem to prefer classic blue jeans without additional designs such as double seams, rips or worn material. If the jeans have any addition, it is usually delicate enough to safeguard their clean and simple look. In Fiske’s (1989) discussion on jeans, he stated that, as with all visual texts that contain polysemic meanings, the conservative look of the trousers provides freedom for the unique self while simultaneously safeguarding faith in the desirable social structure. This is a generic formula that moves away from the semiotic significance of the designer jeans with their sophisticated look and naturalistic characteristics that blur class and gender categories and connect the dressed bodies in one mass. In the case of the Eritrean refugee women, a cotton shirt is added to the trousers. The shirts have various colours but are not too bright. They are tight-fitting but do not overemphasize the women’s physical attributes. In the hot summer months of Tel Aviv, the women sometimes choose to wear sleeveless tops, but these are usually quite loose in basic colours (green, blue and black) and with delicate graphics. This is a style of clothing that is characterized by its simplicity. The play of colours between the top and the trousers is subtle and equates the monochromatic look with the female body, as if the women are looking to conceal themselves within the urban space. These are not the worn-out clothes of poverty, but rather a meticulous and reserved dress code. Despite being chosen from economic constraints, they do not signify class weakness. This style of dress also distances the women from the elegant and decorative bourgeois urban look. While this more tailored look is available at low prices in the areas where they live, the Eritrean young women choose to buy soft trousers and cotton shirts with a casual and easy-going look. The attributes of the material express ease and are soft to the touch. The cut of the clothes suits itself to the body and the design, if there is one, is added subtly to the edges of the garment. This prism adopts El Or’s (2014) perception of the object as carrying limited material attributes. The garment is therefore positioned as the simplest divider between the body and the urban space. The clothes are lightweight, as if allowing the wearer freedom of movement, unlike the conventional stiffness of traditional dress. This is an incidental code of style that allows women to distance themselves from their monolithic identity—as black African refugees—and to adopt a wider range of identities. Western dress expresses a process of assimilation in the global culture of consumerism. The more people are aware of the global consumerist culture, the more likely they are to adopt a Western style of dress, which is distinct from their ethnic group (Cleveland et al. 2012). The Western style of dress adopted by Eritrean refugee women in their lives in Israel expresses and recreates their position in the gendered social system of the host country. The change to trousers and a shirt liberates inflexible gender perceptions and makes it possible to unravel the existing gender arrangement and the demands to sanctify the body, according to the social codex (El Or 2014). This is a choice of transparent dress that is taken for granted as a sign of Israeliness or Western identity and that embraces the world. The Traditional Dress in the Mirror of the Collective African fashion is as varied as the continent (Gott and Loughran 2010); so too is the current academic discourse on the topic. Different studies have dealt with the place of clothing in post-colonial Africa, the connection between identity and dress, and the way in which processes of modernization leave their mark on traditional dress. It is worth mentioning inter alia the following studies: the hybrid patterns of clothes among women in Ghana as a combined expression of national pride and the adoption of Western fashion (Gott 2010); the central role of tailors in the creation of elite fashion in Senegal (Grabski 2009); clothing as a political actor among Nigerian women after World War II (Byfield 2004); the inculcation of gender and sexuality in different styles of dress in Zambia (Hansen 2004); loyalty to traditional dress in Senegal’s era of consumerism (Diop and Merunka 2013); and the changing place of the African fashion industry in the era of mass production (Rabine 2010). A partial overview, such as that presented here, testifies to the richness of research concerning different aspects of clothes; however, it also highlights the mainstream way of examining this phenomenon in, primarily, the Western region of Africa. This leaves a rather large theoretical and empirical vacuum concerning cultures in eastern Africa, Eritrea among them. However, the role of clothes in the construction of identity does not belong only to the African continent. While rich literature focusing on the African diaspora began appearing in recent years (Boateng 2004; Gondola 2010; Loughran 2010; Akou 2011; Tulloch 2016), these studies deal only with immigrant communities. We know very little, if anything, about the power of clothes in designing and changing the reality of refugees. This neglect possibly derives from the tendency to perceive refugees first and foremost as helpless victims in need of support services (Sabar 2015). Since refugees are people who were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave their communities due to political reasons, natural disasters, government policies or poverty, there is a consensus that they have undergone forced migration (Stein 1981; Misago and Landau 2005). This distinction raises moral and methodological difficulties with regard to refugees by treating them as incapable of working to change their own realities. I, on the other hand, perceive traditional clothes and the dressed body as active agents in the creation of a national gendered identity in the host country. Among Eritrean women in Israel, traditional dress is saved for special occasions such as going to church, holidays or weddings. The flexible clothing style allows the young women to choose what they want to wear and to have a wardrobe of clothes to suit each kind of event. Such a choice encourages the Western dress style and safeguards the ethnic-cultural identity of the community in shared social frameworks. At the weekend, when a large number of the Christian Eritreans attend church, many of the young women choose to wear the chiffon dresses that served as a central daily item of clothing in their homeland. As previously mentioned, most of the older women wear such dresses in their daily lives in Israel, too. These dresses are made from synthetic fibres—a mixture of nylon and polyester—which give the dresses a shimmering appearance and make them stiff to the touch. The choice of this style is usually based on the low cost of these dresses in the local stores in Tel Aviv that sell traditional clothes. These chiffon dresses come in many styles; some have a wide cut to conceal the contours of the body, while others are snug with thick bands at the waist to emphasize the woman’s shape. The length of the sleeves is suited to the seasons of the year and ranges from the elbow to the wrist. The dresses are usually in one solid colour, but with a wide variety of colours such as turquoise, purple or orange. They have a fixed repetitive pattern—usually flowers in different styles and colours—that compliments the main colour of the dress, thus allowing a delicate play between colours. The Eritrean nationality is reflected in the traditional Tilfi dresses: the most valuable and important dresses that are saved for special occasions such as holidays, weddings and birthdays (see Figure 1). The Tilfi dress is made from double layers of material and has an outer layer of white cotton, hand-sewn by men, which has a compressed weave, lending the dress a thick appearance and making it feel stiff. The lining, which seals and conceals the woman’s body, is made from synthetic satin. It has long cut ends at the ankles, long sleeves that cover the arms and a delicate neck opening, which is either straight, rounded or V-shaped but always has a narrow opening for the head. The top of the dress is separated from the bottom by tucks at the waist that emphasize the curve of the woman’s body. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean Woman in Tilfi dress Figure 1 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean Woman in Tilfi dress The Tilfi’s embroidered decorations are usually simple geometric shapes with straight lines and sharp angles. They give the garment a colourful appearance and draw attention to the shiny white of the cotton. The embroidery is thick with a noticeable texture and begins with two stripes at the neck. These stripes connect and divide the front of the dress in the middle, continuing all the way down to the bottom. The matching embroidered decorations also create a border at the bottom of the dress and decorate the material that slopes downward and the shoulders of the sleeves. This is mass-produced embroidery made of rayon fibres that is sewn onto the cotton material as one uniform piece and covers a large part of the dress. The uniqueness of the Tilfi dress is in the additional hand embroidery that is sewn onto the back at the bottom of the dress, thus connecting the top and the bottom of the mass-produced embroidery into one continuous line. The hand embroidery is sewn in the shape of a fancy cross, each arm thus consisting of miniature crosses. The colours of the hand embroidery match the mass-produced embroidery and tend to combine two or three colours with a preference for shades of blue, green and gold. It is the embroidery of the cross that gives the dress its prestigious status in the Eritrean Christian community, and the price is set according to this embroidery. For example, the price in Israel of a Tilfi dress with delicate hand embroidery and smaller crosses is approximately 200 US dollars, while the cost of a dress with embroidered decorations along the entire length of the dress and the addition of longer and wider crosses is approximately 400 US dollars. Zuria is another kind of traditional dress, very common among Muslim women. It is similar to the Tilfi but without the hand-embroidered cross. It is therefore perceived by the Eritrean Christian community as less valuable and is therefore purchased for economic considerations, as it is less expensive. A long white cotton scarf called a Netela is added to both types of traditional dress and is designed to cover the woman’s head and shoulders. In the case of Tilfi dresses, women tend to choose a Netela with matching embroidery in order to create an impressive uniform appearance. The Netela is not fastened tightly around the woman’s head, but rather positioned loosely in a way that reveals her elaborate hairstyle that comprises different types of braids and gold decorations. There is a well-known Tigrinya saying: ‘May you fill your stomach with vegetables, but do not put bad clothes on yourself’ (Tesfagiorgis 2010: 229). This saying is imbued with new significance in the refugee community. The traditional dress with its abundance of colours and shapes serves as a bright and ostentatious display against the background of dull city hues. Their dresses unite the women refugees, the young and the old, the newcomers and old timers, in one homogeneous cultural tapestry and blurs their unique personal identities (see Figure 2). Figure 2 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean wedding in Tel-Aviv (photo by Miri Davidovitz) Figure 2 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean wedding in Tel-Aviv (photo by Miri Davidovitz) In this delicate interplay between shape and style, the female Eritrean body is placed in a ready-made cultural form that makes the woman the centre of attention. The women are proud of the national and religious identity of their community. The white of the dress emphasizes the dark skin and its foreignness, their foreignness, in Israeli society. This is the binary image that turns the black women into a monolithic category that contrasts with the colour white and functions as a kind of meta-colour that envelops their bodies (Dekel 2013). It is a style that likens women to a wrapped package and emphasizes their black, African and alien otherness. The dress demands seeing the contours of the body; the close-fitting cut, the tucks of material that slope down to the woman’s feet and the play of ostentatious colours of the embroidery all make it difficult for the woman to move and slow down her movements. The abundance of material covering her body along with the many accessories reflect the woman’s Eritrean nationality. The symmetrical structure of the dress, the rhythm of the shapes and the play of the colours glorify the female body as the creation of the collective. All of these elements serve as a central site for the reverberation of the desired cultural values and the place of the women within the cultural framework: she is to be modest, soft and feminine. Western Dress: The Politicizing of Style In the opening of her book, Turkle (2007) dealt with the question: what feelings do objects arouse in us? In the complex relations between people and objects, a delicate connection is created that is based on feelings, memories or a look towards the future. In this section, I expand on the cultural meanings of the material world and examine what feelings clothing stimulates in the women refugees. The uniqueness of Western dress, as reflected in the interpretations of the research participants, lies in the idea of comfort. From this perspective, clothes can be seen as an object with a unique status, not only because of their material attributes that separate between body and space, but also because of the ways in which they serve as a dialogue between personal identity and our social perceptions of our surroundings. There is scarce literature on the concept of comfort (Grier 1989, cited in El Or 2014: 103) and even less that discusses the comfortableness of clothes. A garment’s degree of comfort relates to the range of movement that is determined by its material and design characteristics, and depends upon the degree of free movement it enables and its number of independent parts (Ashdown 2011). The physical attributes of the material are accompanied by cultural comfort—a concept that has the power to ascribe an item to the category of ‘comfortable’, as noted by Miller and Woodward (2012) in relation to jeans. According to these scholars, the notion of comfort is ‘naturalized’ over time through the repeated use of the element of clothing until it is positioned as a cultural sign and embodied in the comfortable garment. Paradoxically, jeans, which in certain climatic conditions or physical activities can physically limit the body, symbolize the cultural product of modern ideas of comfort. The connection between comfort and casual clothes can be found in Clemente’s (2014) examination of the dress code that was common on US college campuses during the first half of the twentieth century. She demonstrated how popular student culture abandoned the tailored look in favour of sports jackets and cotton shirts, and thus paved the way to the everyday appearance of casual clothes. Woodward (2005) tied the aesthetic perception, which is based on the exact combination of an article of coloured clothing and the texture, style and cut, to the individual’s interpretation that the clothes simply ‘feel right’. The style preference that she identified with London women was designed to mediate and externalize the individual’s traits to suit the gender identity and expectations. The concept of comfort in relation to clothing receives, according to Woodward, validity from the combination of the attributes of the material and the aesthetic suitability that confirms that the garment is ‘exactly me’ (2005: 27). As seen previously, Eritrean young women wear almost identical everyday clothing. Their popular dress code usually comprises blue jeans or plain leggings that end below the knee. A slightly loose shirt is at the top of their bodies, as if looking to maintain the appropriate space between body and material. The colours are varied but soft; likewise, the graphic designs tend to be subtle, traditional patterns. While the style may change from one dressed body to another, everyday clothes are usually made from cotton, which is flexible and light to wear and has an informal look. In my interviews, it became apparent that the women are aware of the advantages of the traits of this material and its cultural meaning. They said that they chose to wear Western clothes during the week because they are ‘simply comfortable’. In my frequent meetings with Tsgereda, an Eritrean refugee who arrived in Israel six years ago, she explained her decision to wear trousers and a shirt for the first time in Israel: I wear trousers and a shirt because they are most suitable for my work here [in Israel]. In Eritrea, I would wear a chiffon dress every day, but pants are more comfortable. In a similar interview, Zayet said: I like leggings because they are the most comfortable to wear. Sometimes I also wear jeans. I wear long shirts with the leggings; I feel that is the best. I can go everywhere in them, to work with them, and they don’t get caught up like a skirt does. All of the women perceive Western clothes as being comfortable; they are lightweight and do not weigh down the body during daily activities. Trousers allow flexibility and facilitate movement within the urban space. A loose, thin shirt covers and marks the top part of the body and does not bend the body to its shape. Tsgereda and Zayet are both aware that this style enables daily comfort. Tsgereda said that her work as a hotel maid demands lightweight and comfortable clothing. In one of our conversations, she said that, in Eritrea, she worked in her father’s vegetable shop and her day was often filled with dragging heavy crates of agricultural produce. In spite of their evident differences, both jobs demand physical effort and the body is central to the activity. It was only in Israel that Tsgereda was able to match clothing comfort to the body’s activities. Zayet used exactly the same words, describing Western dress as ‘the most comfortable’ and ‘the best’. According to her, the flexibility of trousers and the ensuing freedom of movement stand in clear contrast to the traditional dress, which, she claimed, makes it hard for the body to move in the urban space and limits movements. The choice of comfortable clothes reflects, first and foremost, the ability to choose. The plethora of stylistic options offered by Western culture allows the women to move away from traditional Eritrean dress and to adopt a more informal and liberating style of dress. Both Tsgereda’s and Zayet’s choices to wear a new style of clothing in Israel testify to their acknowledgement of the Western capitalist system that places the ‘self’ at the centre and sanctifies the rights of the self. Alongside the right to personal security and freedom, these also include the right to maintain bodily comfort. Another participant, Kedeste, described the move from traditional to Western dress as characterized in stages during the journey on foot to Israel: The first time that I wore trousers was on the way [from Egypt] to Israel. I didn’t manage to walk well in the [chiffon] dress and then somebody gave me trousers. He said that they would help me make progress on foot … . At first, they felt very strange, as if they were pasted onto my body. But today I only wear a dress when I have to. Trousers and a shirt are more comfortable for me, and sometimes I really forget that I am wearing clothes. Like most of the refugees from Eritrea, Kedeste crossed the southern border of Israel at the end of a long journey on foot. The ‘journey’, as described by BenEzer and Zetter (2014), is positioned as a liminal space in which the refugee exists between two different worlds and social orders. It becomes a special chapter in their life story and in their sense of self, which, according to Kedeste’s description, is also expressed in the adoption of a new style of clothing. The transition from a traditional chiffon dress to trousers and a shirt is explained using an utilitarian rationale; in other words, the hardships of the road and the physical effort needed to complete the journey obligate a new way of covering the body. Western dress is first experienced as having negative physical and symbolic significance—the tight-fitting material highlights the contours of the body, thus giving bodily attributes presence in space and emphasizing their existence. The tight leggings serve as an extremely thin divider between Kedeste’s body and the ‘journey’. As with Zayet, Kedeste too experiences contradictory feelings towards the cumbersome traditional dress, which, though shielding the body and protecting it from the challenges of the journey, also limits its movement through space. Seven years have passed since Kedeste underwent the journey during which she first adopted the new style of clothes. Today, rooted in the urban arena of Israel, Kedeste affirms the comfort of Western dress to the point that sometimes forgets she is wearing clothes. While there is a certain degree of humour in this statement, it clearly emphasizes the material and culturally significant attributes of the clothes. The ease and lightness of Western clothes—characteristics of their form and content—serve as a subtle border between the body and the social environment. The repeated use of this dress code positions the trousers and shirt as a cultural product of modern comfort. As expressed by Tarhat: Our dress is not as comfortable as a shirt and trousers. And that is what everyone wears here; it’s regular clothes. On Saturday I wear a dress; I put on make-up and jewellery, but most of the time I prefer to wear something regular, not special. From Tarhat’s words, it is evident that the comfort of the clothes is tied to their lack of uniqueness. While traditional dress necessitates additions such as make-up or jewellery, everyday Western dress removes redundant colour and reduces the body covering to a practical minimalism. From Tarhat’s point of view, the correct amount of visibility is invisibility; she does not want to look different, so she removes the tell-tale marks of the stranger (Lomsky-Feder and Rappaport 2012). Trousers and shirts represent transparent clothes—a taken-for-granted dress code. They help strengthen the feeling of being ‘like everyone else’, thus allowing her to assimilate into the urban space. Comfort serves as an end point of technological development and connects to social class via what is perceived as being socially desirable (Chappells and Shove 2004). Trousers and shirts therefore serve as expressions of comfort due not only to existing relations between the attributes of the material and the body, but also to their symbolic significance in providing a sense of shared identity with the surrounding community. Discussion and Conclusion The identity of Eritrean refugees serves as a meeting point for different social categories—such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, status and religion—in a way that empowers the multiple marginal statuses of refugees in their host country. The academic discourse also participates in marginalizing the women refugees and is not free of a bias that marks them as helpless objects who lack the ability to be active agents (Kelly 1993; Sherwood and Liebling-Kalifani 2012; Baker 2016). An exploration of the role of clothes promotes a renewed reflection on the life experiences of refugees in the host country. By examining clothes as an aesthetic arena that is simultaneously an everyday material product, I was able to avoid recycling the victimhood discourse that is always connected to refugees, particularly women refugees. The transition to Western dress and the relegation of the traditional style to the back of the wardrobe redraw the power of clothing as an instrument used by the marginal community to manoeuvre between power structures in Israeli society. Following the existing academic discourse on refugees, I propose seeing the geographical transition of women refugees as an experience that gives them the opportunity to move away from control of national consciousness and inflexible demands based on religion and gender and to expand their range of identities as expressed in clothes. The traditional dress has been stamped into the history of the Eritrean woman’s body and it remembers the body’s desired traits. This is a dress code that is based on a play of colours and shapes with a composition of stiff cotton material. Its tight cut, abundant material that leaves only the extremities of the body exposed and fancy embroidery of religious and national symbols weave the women refugees into one mass. The dressed body wears its communal identity proudly, regardless of differences in age, status or seniority. The traditional dress glorifies the female body as a creation that belongs to the borders of the collective and gives it a predetermined social and cultural role—a symbol of soft and obedient femininity. The traditional pattern of dress was not forsaken when the women arrived in Israel. The adoption of a new Western dress code should not, therefore, be perceived as signifying the disappearance of the old social order, but rather as expanding the women refugees’ range of possibilities and reflecting the constant exchange between the sacred and the secular and the tangible and the corporeal. The reality of urban life in Israel invites an encounter between many styles of clothing. These include the option of moving away from the celebration of colour that characterizes traditional dress. The positioning of the Western style of dress serves the central function of entrance into Israeli collective membership. This is a fashion code that sanctifies, in a simple manner, the values of minimalism and purposefulness that are imbued in the clothes’ attributes. The airy cotton material, with its clean and meticulous appearance due to the absence of design additions, adapts itself to the woman’s body and makes it easy for her to move through the urban space. These are the attributes of the clothing that ensure the body’s comfort. The right to choose their clothing—a right first emerging when they encountered Israeli society—becomes central for the refugee women. The comfort of the clothes is tied, first and foremost, to the absence of uniqueness. Their incidental and informal style allows the refugees to move away from the dimension of otherness in their identity and is thus an expression of an all-embracing Westernness. This shift is a political act that aims to expand possibilities and dissolve the old cultural gender order. The women will no longer be wrapped in traditional clothes that serve the community; instead, they become active players who carry on their body the values of independence and equality. Ostentatious clothing is replaced by utilitarian clothing; soft materials replace stiff and tough ones. Minimization and simplicity replace abundance. This is a new stylistic form that diverts the discussion from the dressed body and positions the woman in the centre as an individual. Traditional dress is kept almost exclusively for entrance into the space of the refugee community. It is not for exhibiting to others and does not publicly testify to their otherness. Instead, it is evidence of their similarity when they are just among themselves. It is a weekly reminder that they have not forgotten who they are. Tomorrow, however, they will return to being one of many in the diverse space. The anthropologist Karen Brodkin (2007, cited in Wargeft 2015: 277) described the tendency to categorize immigrants according to what they are lacking—language, education, culture, etc.—and to see them as inferior and undeserving of entry into our society, unless they undergo correction and improvement. The allegiance to material, via the story of clothes, proposes a different perspective on the experiences of women refugees. The refugees’ forced transition to a new country along with their exclusion and positioning in the cultural margins is found to be an experience that also includes a feeling of liberation for the Eritrean women. 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New York : Nova Science Publishers , pp. 93 – 104 . WARGEFT N. ( 2015 ) ‘Nashim plitot b’yisrael’ [‘Women Refugees in Israel’]. In Kritzman Amir T. (ed.) Livinsky Pinat Asmara: Heibetim Chevrati’im u’Mishpati’im shel Midinut Hamiklat B’Yisrael [The Corner of Livinsky and Asmara: Social and Legal Aspects of Asylum Policy in Israel] . Jerusalem : Van Leer Institute , pp. 252 – 288 (in Hebrew). WILLEN S. ( 2007 ) ‘Introduction’. In Willen S. (ed.) Transnational Migration to Israel in Global Comparative Context . Plymouth : Lexington . WILLEN S. ( 2010 ) ‘Darfur through a Shoah Lens: Sudanese Asylum Seekers, Unruly Biopolitical Dramas, and the Politics of Humanitarian Compassion in Israel’. In Good B. J. , Fischer M. , Willen S. , DelVecchio Good M. J. (eds) A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities . Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell . WOODWARD S. ( 2005 ) ‘Looking Good, Feeling Right: Aesthetics of the Self’. In Kuchler S. , Miller D. (eds) Clothing as Material Culture . Oxford : Berg , pp. 21 – 40 . YARON H. ( 2009 ) ‘Your Papers or Your Life: The Significance of Documents in the Life Experiences of African Refugees in Israel’ . Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry 3 ( 1 ): 7 – 14 . YARON MESGANA H. ( 2015 ) ‘Divide and Conquer through Order and Disorder: The Politics of Asylum in Israel—Bureaucracy and Public Discourse’. In Kritzman Amir T. (ed.) Livinsky Pinat Asmara: Heibetim Chevrati’im u’Mishpati’im shel Midinut Hamiklat B’Yisrael [The Corner of Livinsky and Asmara: Social and Legal Aspects of Asylum Policy in Israel] . Jerusalem : Van Leer Institute , pp. 88 – 111 (in Hebrew). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Refugee Studies Oxford University Press

Between Clothes and the Body: National and Gender Identity among Eritrean Women Refugees

Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume Advance Article – May 30, 2018

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Abstract

Abstract This article focuses on issues of agency, material culture, and national and gender identity in the life experiences of Eritrean women refugees in Tel Aviv, Israel. This anthropological research examined two main styles of dress: everyday dress that reflects Western lifestyle and traditional patterns of dress. I demonstrate how clothes serve as a political site within which perceptions of gender and nationalism are reshaped, thus creating the women’s refugee identity. I conclude by suggesting that the refugee experience can be seen to reinforce expressions of liberation and empowerment. I further argue that the dressed body can be seen as an active agent that shapes the new reality of the women refugees in their host country. Introduction On becoming a refugee, the individual is separated from all familiar material aspects. When forced to leave their countries, refugees lose their material environment, and usually all that remain are the clothes on their bodies. On reaching a new country, they are required to adopt new meanings and a new identity—layers that are added to their cultural and historical worlds. They are often forced to live in the margins of society where they suffer from stressful life conditions and lack access to economic and cultural resources. Within these marginal groups, women become the most vulnerable minority group; in addition to their inferior national status, they further suffer from gender inferiority. The emergence of African refugees is still a new phenomenon in Israeli society. From 2005, a growing wave of African refugees began arriving in the country. Most entered via Israel’s southern border with Egypt at the end of a long and difficult journey on foot.1 This study focuses on refugees from Eritrea, the largest group in the refugee community, who made their complex and complicated way from the Horn of Africa to Israel. Eritrea is infamous for its repressive regime that systematically violates human rights, demands compulsory military service for an unlimited length of time and prevents political and religious freedom.2 The status of the Eritrean refugees in Israel is especially complicated due to the diplomatic and security relations between the two countries. Israel has a manifest policy of not acknowledging the status of the refugees as being persecuted for political reasons and systematically ignores their requests for asylum.3 Women are such a small minority in Israel’s refugee population that the Population Administration of the Ministry of Interior does not even relate to them as a distinct category (Wargeft 2015). Lacking official data, the number of women is estimated to be no more than 7,000—that is, less than 20 per cent of the overall refugee community in Israel. This small number and the fact that the women were more exposed than the men to harm and abuse in their homeland make them a particularly vulnerable population and an easy target for abuse. On arriving in their host country, women refugees find themselves in a foreign state where they often need to function as the head of household and support their children on their own. They are thus destined to a life of poverty and are vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of men who look to exploit their social weakness such as landlords, employers and other authority figures (Kaufman 2014). According to Sabar and Posner (2013), the literature dealing with African immigration to Israel has emphasized three main aspects: government policy (or lack of policy), the legal status of the immigrants and the socio-demographic characteristics of the community. In spite of the fact that the African refugees arrived in Israel over a decade ago, there is still very little academic interest in the topic. Most of the research knowledge concerning refugees in Israel has focused on: public policy (Ben Dor and Adut 2003; Yaron Mesgana 2015); the legal system (Afeef 2009; Kritzman Amir 2009; Livnat 2015); refugees and group identity (Anteby Yemini 2008; Yaron 2009; Sabar 2015); and the body and soul (Willen 2007, 2010; Nakash et al. 2014). These studies have not, on the whole, examined the experiences from the viewpoint of the refugee. As Monzel wrote: In recent years, the number of articles that deal with the topics of being a refugee has greatly increased. Indeed, surprisingly, few of them touch the question of what it feels like to be a refugee (Monzel 1993: 106). This study investigates the experiences of women refugees from Eritrea in Israeli society through the story of clothes. Within the existing relational systems between people and objects, the role of clothes can be seen as an intersection in which different social categories, such as gender, ethnicity and religion, are unravelled and rewoven into the creation of refugee identity. Miller (2005) offered a good way of understanding ourselves via a reflection on material. In his notion of a dialectical game between the human and the non-human, Miller asserted that there is a circular process, according to which social reality is constructed and reflected in the mirror of the material. The object has an operating force; it is created by us, and it creates us. Thus, exposure to the relations that are constructed between people and objects in a given context requires us to see the clothes that the individual wears as something that creates the individual themself. As a result, the need to understand an object in a given cultural context serves as a central starting assumption, especially concerning the research of clothes, due to their place in relation to the body. Clothing is an object that signifies the periphery of the body (Woodward 2005) and defines its borders, separates and protects the personal from the public, and imbues tradition and social norms with material attributes. I therefore look at the styles of clothing worn by Eritrean women refugees not only as a product of actors in the economic marketplace, but also as an expression of a fluid cultural process that constructs their identity as foreigners in a new country. I pay special attention to two kinds of complementary clothes: the everyday style of the pattern of Western dress, which attempts to create a transparent and taken-for-granted universal identity within the urban space; and traditional Eritrean-style dress, which attempts to unify Eritrean women into one homogeneous group that demonstrates on its body the national and religious identity of the community. In order to understand the existing relations between the attributes of the material and its symbolic significance, I examine the dress code, which emphasizes the aesthetic space in which it appears, by exploring the components of the material: the source, quality, shape, patterns and symmetry of the clothes. Patterns of dress have always been an expression of the tension between the social and the personal, between coercion and choice, between what needs to be and what is possible (Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1992; Twigg 2009). I locate my description and analysis of the dressed and dressing body of my research participants along this tension. I probe their agency and power of action in shaping the reality of their new lives in the host country. My basic argument is that, in the experiences of Eritrean women refugees, clothes serve as a visual text that establishes political action. This action dissolves the traditional gendered cultural arrangement and reshapes it as an accepting Western identity. I see the wearing of the fabric as a unique space in which the women refugees, as active subjects, draw attention in order to gain a presence and thus manoeuvre their way between the structures of power in the host country. In the narrow gap between the body and the garment, I identify and describe the experience of being a refugee as one which comprises both the possibility to express feelings of liberation and empowerment and the opportunity of the dressed body becoming an active agent in shaping her reality in Israel. Methods A reading of clothes invites a discussion about the relations that are created between the object and the subject and between the garment and the body that wears it. The hegemonic discourse often positions the Western normative experience as a universal, neutral and desired attributional point (Dekel 2013), learned mainly from the textual world, namely from what is said, written and read. The desire to hold on to the material world can be useful for unravelling this one-dimensionality in an attempt to decipher the experience of gender, ethnic and class identity as it is formed among women refugees from Eritrea. The fact that Eritreans form the largest group of refugees in Israel facilitated my search for women interviewees and my decision to present their experiences using their points of view in a wide and deep manner. Moreover, the uniqueness of the Eritrean system of objects in general and clothing in particular demanded analytical and empirical work that would reflect the cultural and national context of the community. In the first stage, I examined the attributes of the actual fabric. I identified the style pattern, differentiated between textures, read the fibres of the embroidery thread and located the repetition of the rhythm, shapes and colours of the different types of dress. Nevertheless, and because I was a stranger, I knew that I would be unable to phrase in the voices of the women of the community the place of clothes within the refugee experience. While Israeli society labels the African refugees as ‘others’, in the relational system between me and the refugees, it was me, the white local woman, who was positioned as the outsider, the one who did not belong. This research is therefore based on the triangulation of data from additional sources, namely anthropological work in Eritrean clothing stores located in south Tel Aviv. Hundreds of hours of observations gave me a glimpse into the world of the traditional dress of Eritrean refugee women, the different preferences concerning the dress code, the way in which the garment is matched to the body and the women’s expectations from clothes. The fieldwork made it possible for me to engage in informal conversations with the store owners, as they bent over their old sewing machines or measured their clients’ bodies. It also gave me the opportunity to have frequent meetings with local salespeople when they arrived with their abundance of new dresses. The heart of the research is based on 15 semi-structured in-depth interviews conducted between 2015 and 2016 with Eritrean women from the Tigrinya group, the largest ethnic group in Eritrea, who are orthodox Christians. They are young and married, with the majority having lived in south Tel Aviv since arriving in Israel. Most of the interviews were carried out in Hebrew/English, and in some I was helped by a women from the Eritrean community who served as translators between Hebrew and Tigrinya. Since the interviews were conducted in the women’s homes, I also had the chance to look in their wardrobes and see the different styles of clothes, understand their organization according to patterns and sense, smell and feel the various materials. From Dresses to Trousers and Shirts: A Change in the Dress Code The dialogue between the body and different cultural perceptions includes, among other things, patterns of dress. Clothes have unique characteristics in the world of objects due to their position and relation to the body. This is the ‘cultural skin’, to use Turner’s (1980) term, which separates the self from the other, the personal from the public and the feminine from the masculine. An appreciation of the uniqueness of clothes in the lives of Eritrean women refugees requires an understanding of the common dress codes and styles in their homeland. My fieldwork allowed a glimpse into the changes that have occurred in the field of Eritrean women’s fashion in Israel. The most conspicuous change is the choice of Western style as the central pattern of dress. Life in Eritrea obligated obedience to a traditional style whose roots are based on a gender differentiation that locates the Eritrean woman as inferior in everything including fashion preferences. This was reflected in Sarah’s words: In Eritrea, I wore trousers and a shirt when I was young, but after I got married, I only wore a regular [chiffon] dress. A woman in Eritrea needs to be modest … we believe in God … I can’t wear whatever clothes I want. From Sarah’s testimony, it appears that Western dress styles are uncommon in Eritrea and most married women prefer to wear traditional clothes. This is due not only to the high cost of Western clothes in Eritrea, but also to negative attributes associated with the clothes. A similar attitude was expressed by Yehudit: Wearing trousers is considered sexy. Young women wear them, mostly those who live in the city, but after they get married, it’s forbidden. You need to wear a dress in Eritrea. Eritrean society is characterized by a patriarchal worldview and a gender inequality that is rooted in its traditional cultural structure (Kibreab 2008). When a woman’s status changes due to marriage, she must take on a style of dress that is appropriate to the gender expectations by adopting the traditional clothing code of her mother and grandmother. While Western clothing is identified with sexiness and temptation, traditional dress expresses a model of respectable femininity. Similarly to other interviewees, Janet succeeded in describing the complexity of the relations between the traditional Eritrean style of dress and women’s designated cultural and national role: There are those who wear trousers in Eritrea, but it is preferable not to. My mother always brought me up to wear either a dress or a skirt. Otherwise, people will look poorly at me. If you are a woman who believes in God and you want a good husband, don’t wear trousers. The connection between religious belief and strict gender perceptions obligates Eritrean women to wear traditional dress. Even though all of the women I interviewed silently and consensually obeyed the model of modesty demanded by traditional dress, their new life course has led them to adopt a different dress code that carries with it the opportunity for liberation from the cultural restrictions of their old world. The forced transition to the new country has entailed a change in everyday dress, namely a separation from their traditional dresses and the adoption of secular Western clothing. While it seems that most of the older refugees have chosen to remain loyal to their traditional dresses or, alternatively, wear skirts and blouses, younger Eritrean women in Israel have adopted a new dress code at work, at home or in different social frameworks in Israel. As a society based on immigrants, Israel is characterized by many different clothing styles, each belonging to a different cultural world. However, El Or and Regev (2017) pointed to the emergence of a prominent stylistic space that draws on Western cultural innovation. It is a monochrome, urban style with a tendency for dark colours and characterized by being flexible and anti-bourgeois. This popular clothing style can be seen among young Eritrean women in Israel. Leggings are a conspicuous fashion item in this Western system of clothing and are usually long enough to safeguard the body’s modesty. They tend to be dark, particularly black, brown or grey. Jeans have also become a common choice among the young women refugees, often adopted for the first time in Israel. They seem to prefer classic blue jeans without additional designs such as double seams, rips or worn material. If the jeans have any addition, it is usually delicate enough to safeguard their clean and simple look. In Fiske’s (1989) discussion on jeans, he stated that, as with all visual texts that contain polysemic meanings, the conservative look of the trousers provides freedom for the unique self while simultaneously safeguarding faith in the desirable social structure. This is a generic formula that moves away from the semiotic significance of the designer jeans with their sophisticated look and naturalistic characteristics that blur class and gender categories and connect the dressed bodies in one mass. In the case of the Eritrean refugee women, a cotton shirt is added to the trousers. The shirts have various colours but are not too bright. They are tight-fitting but do not overemphasize the women’s physical attributes. In the hot summer months of Tel Aviv, the women sometimes choose to wear sleeveless tops, but these are usually quite loose in basic colours (green, blue and black) and with delicate graphics. This is a style of clothing that is characterized by its simplicity. The play of colours between the top and the trousers is subtle and equates the monochromatic look with the female body, as if the women are looking to conceal themselves within the urban space. These are not the worn-out clothes of poverty, but rather a meticulous and reserved dress code. Despite being chosen from economic constraints, they do not signify class weakness. This style of dress also distances the women from the elegant and decorative bourgeois urban look. While this more tailored look is available at low prices in the areas where they live, the Eritrean young women choose to buy soft trousers and cotton shirts with a casual and easy-going look. The attributes of the material express ease and are soft to the touch. The cut of the clothes suits itself to the body and the design, if there is one, is added subtly to the edges of the garment. This prism adopts El Or’s (2014) perception of the object as carrying limited material attributes. The garment is therefore positioned as the simplest divider between the body and the urban space. The clothes are lightweight, as if allowing the wearer freedom of movement, unlike the conventional stiffness of traditional dress. This is an incidental code of style that allows women to distance themselves from their monolithic identity—as black African refugees—and to adopt a wider range of identities. Western dress expresses a process of assimilation in the global culture of consumerism. The more people are aware of the global consumerist culture, the more likely they are to adopt a Western style of dress, which is distinct from their ethnic group (Cleveland et al. 2012). The Western style of dress adopted by Eritrean refugee women in their lives in Israel expresses and recreates their position in the gendered social system of the host country. The change to trousers and a shirt liberates inflexible gender perceptions and makes it possible to unravel the existing gender arrangement and the demands to sanctify the body, according to the social codex (El Or 2014). This is a choice of transparent dress that is taken for granted as a sign of Israeliness or Western identity and that embraces the world. The Traditional Dress in the Mirror of the Collective African fashion is as varied as the continent (Gott and Loughran 2010); so too is the current academic discourse on the topic. Different studies have dealt with the place of clothing in post-colonial Africa, the connection between identity and dress, and the way in which processes of modernization leave their mark on traditional dress. It is worth mentioning inter alia the following studies: the hybrid patterns of clothes among women in Ghana as a combined expression of national pride and the adoption of Western fashion (Gott 2010); the central role of tailors in the creation of elite fashion in Senegal (Grabski 2009); clothing as a political actor among Nigerian women after World War II (Byfield 2004); the inculcation of gender and sexuality in different styles of dress in Zambia (Hansen 2004); loyalty to traditional dress in Senegal’s era of consumerism (Diop and Merunka 2013); and the changing place of the African fashion industry in the era of mass production (Rabine 2010). A partial overview, such as that presented here, testifies to the richness of research concerning different aspects of clothes; however, it also highlights the mainstream way of examining this phenomenon in, primarily, the Western region of Africa. This leaves a rather large theoretical and empirical vacuum concerning cultures in eastern Africa, Eritrea among them. However, the role of clothes in the construction of identity does not belong only to the African continent. While rich literature focusing on the African diaspora began appearing in recent years (Boateng 2004; Gondola 2010; Loughran 2010; Akou 2011; Tulloch 2016), these studies deal only with immigrant communities. We know very little, if anything, about the power of clothes in designing and changing the reality of refugees. This neglect possibly derives from the tendency to perceive refugees first and foremost as helpless victims in need of support services (Sabar 2015). Since refugees are people who were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave their communities due to political reasons, natural disasters, government policies or poverty, there is a consensus that they have undergone forced migration (Stein 1981; Misago and Landau 2005). This distinction raises moral and methodological difficulties with regard to refugees by treating them as incapable of working to change their own realities. I, on the other hand, perceive traditional clothes and the dressed body as active agents in the creation of a national gendered identity in the host country. Among Eritrean women in Israel, traditional dress is saved for special occasions such as going to church, holidays or weddings. The flexible clothing style allows the young women to choose what they want to wear and to have a wardrobe of clothes to suit each kind of event. Such a choice encourages the Western dress style and safeguards the ethnic-cultural identity of the community in shared social frameworks. At the weekend, when a large number of the Christian Eritreans attend church, many of the young women choose to wear the chiffon dresses that served as a central daily item of clothing in their homeland. As previously mentioned, most of the older women wear such dresses in their daily lives in Israel, too. These dresses are made from synthetic fibres—a mixture of nylon and polyester—which give the dresses a shimmering appearance and make them stiff to the touch. The choice of this style is usually based on the low cost of these dresses in the local stores in Tel Aviv that sell traditional clothes. These chiffon dresses come in many styles; some have a wide cut to conceal the contours of the body, while others are snug with thick bands at the waist to emphasize the woman’s shape. The length of the sleeves is suited to the seasons of the year and ranges from the elbow to the wrist. The dresses are usually in one solid colour, but with a wide variety of colours such as turquoise, purple or orange. They have a fixed repetitive pattern—usually flowers in different styles and colours—that compliments the main colour of the dress, thus allowing a delicate play between colours. The Eritrean nationality is reflected in the traditional Tilfi dresses: the most valuable and important dresses that are saved for special occasions such as holidays, weddings and birthdays (see Figure 1). The Tilfi dress is made from double layers of material and has an outer layer of white cotton, hand-sewn by men, which has a compressed weave, lending the dress a thick appearance and making it feel stiff. The lining, which seals and conceals the woman’s body, is made from synthetic satin. It has long cut ends at the ankles, long sleeves that cover the arms and a delicate neck opening, which is either straight, rounded or V-shaped but always has a narrow opening for the head. The top of the dress is separated from the bottom by tucks at the waist that emphasize the curve of the woman’s body. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean Woman in Tilfi dress Figure 1 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean Woman in Tilfi dress The Tilfi’s embroidered decorations are usually simple geometric shapes with straight lines and sharp angles. They give the garment a colourful appearance and draw attention to the shiny white of the cotton. The embroidery is thick with a noticeable texture and begins with two stripes at the neck. These stripes connect and divide the front of the dress in the middle, continuing all the way down to the bottom. The matching embroidered decorations also create a border at the bottom of the dress and decorate the material that slopes downward and the shoulders of the sleeves. This is mass-produced embroidery made of rayon fibres that is sewn onto the cotton material as one uniform piece and covers a large part of the dress. The uniqueness of the Tilfi dress is in the additional hand embroidery that is sewn onto the back at the bottom of the dress, thus connecting the top and the bottom of the mass-produced embroidery into one continuous line. The hand embroidery is sewn in the shape of a fancy cross, each arm thus consisting of miniature crosses. The colours of the hand embroidery match the mass-produced embroidery and tend to combine two or three colours with a preference for shades of blue, green and gold. It is the embroidery of the cross that gives the dress its prestigious status in the Eritrean Christian community, and the price is set according to this embroidery. For example, the price in Israel of a Tilfi dress with delicate hand embroidery and smaller crosses is approximately 200 US dollars, while the cost of a dress with embroidered decorations along the entire length of the dress and the addition of longer and wider crosses is approximately 400 US dollars. Zuria is another kind of traditional dress, very common among Muslim women. It is similar to the Tilfi but without the hand-embroidered cross. It is therefore perceived by the Eritrean Christian community as less valuable and is therefore purchased for economic considerations, as it is less expensive. A long white cotton scarf called a Netela is added to both types of traditional dress and is designed to cover the woman’s head and shoulders. In the case of Tilfi dresses, women tend to choose a Netela with matching embroidery in order to create an impressive uniform appearance. The Netela is not fastened tightly around the woman’s head, but rather positioned loosely in a way that reveals her elaborate hairstyle that comprises different types of braids and gold decorations. There is a well-known Tigrinya saying: ‘May you fill your stomach with vegetables, but do not put bad clothes on yourself’ (Tesfagiorgis 2010: 229). This saying is imbued with new significance in the refugee community. The traditional dress with its abundance of colours and shapes serves as a bright and ostentatious display against the background of dull city hues. Their dresses unite the women refugees, the young and the old, the newcomers and old timers, in one homogeneous cultural tapestry and blurs their unique personal identities (see Figure 2). Figure 2 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean wedding in Tel-Aviv (photo by Miri Davidovitz) Figure 2 View largeDownload slide An Eritrean wedding in Tel-Aviv (photo by Miri Davidovitz) In this delicate interplay between shape and style, the female Eritrean body is placed in a ready-made cultural form that makes the woman the centre of attention. The women are proud of the national and religious identity of their community. The white of the dress emphasizes the dark skin and its foreignness, their foreignness, in Israeli society. This is the binary image that turns the black women into a monolithic category that contrasts with the colour white and functions as a kind of meta-colour that envelops their bodies (Dekel 2013). It is a style that likens women to a wrapped package and emphasizes their black, African and alien otherness. The dress demands seeing the contours of the body; the close-fitting cut, the tucks of material that slope down to the woman’s feet and the play of ostentatious colours of the embroidery all make it difficult for the woman to move and slow down her movements. The abundance of material covering her body along with the many accessories reflect the woman’s Eritrean nationality. The symmetrical structure of the dress, the rhythm of the shapes and the play of the colours glorify the female body as the creation of the collective. All of these elements serve as a central site for the reverberation of the desired cultural values and the place of the women within the cultural framework: she is to be modest, soft and feminine. Western Dress: The Politicizing of Style In the opening of her book, Turkle (2007) dealt with the question: what feelings do objects arouse in us? In the complex relations between people and objects, a delicate connection is created that is based on feelings, memories or a look towards the future. In this section, I expand on the cultural meanings of the material world and examine what feelings clothing stimulates in the women refugees. The uniqueness of Western dress, as reflected in the interpretations of the research participants, lies in the idea of comfort. From this perspective, clothes can be seen as an object with a unique status, not only because of their material attributes that separate between body and space, but also because of the ways in which they serve as a dialogue between personal identity and our social perceptions of our surroundings. There is scarce literature on the concept of comfort (Grier 1989, cited in El Or 2014: 103) and even less that discusses the comfortableness of clothes. A garment’s degree of comfort relates to the range of movement that is determined by its material and design characteristics, and depends upon the degree of free movement it enables and its number of independent parts (Ashdown 2011). The physical attributes of the material are accompanied by cultural comfort—a concept that has the power to ascribe an item to the category of ‘comfortable’, as noted by Miller and Woodward (2012) in relation to jeans. According to these scholars, the notion of comfort is ‘naturalized’ over time through the repeated use of the element of clothing until it is positioned as a cultural sign and embodied in the comfortable garment. Paradoxically, jeans, which in certain climatic conditions or physical activities can physically limit the body, symbolize the cultural product of modern ideas of comfort. The connection between comfort and casual clothes can be found in Clemente’s (2014) examination of the dress code that was common on US college campuses during the first half of the twentieth century. She demonstrated how popular student culture abandoned the tailored look in favour of sports jackets and cotton shirts, and thus paved the way to the everyday appearance of casual clothes. Woodward (2005) tied the aesthetic perception, which is based on the exact combination of an article of coloured clothing and the texture, style and cut, to the individual’s interpretation that the clothes simply ‘feel right’. The style preference that she identified with London women was designed to mediate and externalize the individual’s traits to suit the gender identity and expectations. The concept of comfort in relation to clothing receives, according to Woodward, validity from the combination of the attributes of the material and the aesthetic suitability that confirms that the garment is ‘exactly me’ (2005: 27). As seen previously, Eritrean young women wear almost identical everyday clothing. Their popular dress code usually comprises blue jeans or plain leggings that end below the knee. A slightly loose shirt is at the top of their bodies, as if looking to maintain the appropriate space between body and material. The colours are varied but soft; likewise, the graphic designs tend to be subtle, traditional patterns. While the style may change from one dressed body to another, everyday clothes are usually made from cotton, which is flexible and light to wear and has an informal look. In my interviews, it became apparent that the women are aware of the advantages of the traits of this material and its cultural meaning. They said that they chose to wear Western clothes during the week because they are ‘simply comfortable’. In my frequent meetings with Tsgereda, an Eritrean refugee who arrived in Israel six years ago, she explained her decision to wear trousers and a shirt for the first time in Israel: I wear trousers and a shirt because they are most suitable for my work here [in Israel]. In Eritrea, I would wear a chiffon dress every day, but pants are more comfortable. In a similar interview, Zayet said: I like leggings because they are the most comfortable to wear. Sometimes I also wear jeans. I wear long shirts with the leggings; I feel that is the best. I can go everywhere in them, to work with them, and they don’t get caught up like a skirt does. All of the women perceive Western clothes as being comfortable; they are lightweight and do not weigh down the body during daily activities. Trousers allow flexibility and facilitate movement within the urban space. A loose, thin shirt covers and marks the top part of the body and does not bend the body to its shape. Tsgereda and Zayet are both aware that this style enables daily comfort. Tsgereda said that her work as a hotel maid demands lightweight and comfortable clothing. In one of our conversations, she said that, in Eritrea, she worked in her father’s vegetable shop and her day was often filled with dragging heavy crates of agricultural produce. In spite of their evident differences, both jobs demand physical effort and the body is central to the activity. It was only in Israel that Tsgereda was able to match clothing comfort to the body’s activities. Zayet used exactly the same words, describing Western dress as ‘the most comfortable’ and ‘the best’. According to her, the flexibility of trousers and the ensuing freedom of movement stand in clear contrast to the traditional dress, which, she claimed, makes it hard for the body to move in the urban space and limits movements. The choice of comfortable clothes reflects, first and foremost, the ability to choose. The plethora of stylistic options offered by Western culture allows the women to move away from traditional Eritrean dress and to adopt a more informal and liberating style of dress. Both Tsgereda’s and Zayet’s choices to wear a new style of clothing in Israel testify to their acknowledgement of the Western capitalist system that places the ‘self’ at the centre and sanctifies the rights of the self. Alongside the right to personal security and freedom, these also include the right to maintain bodily comfort. Another participant, Kedeste, described the move from traditional to Western dress as characterized in stages during the journey on foot to Israel: The first time that I wore trousers was on the way [from Egypt] to Israel. I didn’t manage to walk well in the [chiffon] dress and then somebody gave me trousers. He said that they would help me make progress on foot … . At first, they felt very strange, as if they were pasted onto my body. But today I only wear a dress when I have to. Trousers and a shirt are more comfortable for me, and sometimes I really forget that I am wearing clothes. Like most of the refugees from Eritrea, Kedeste crossed the southern border of Israel at the end of a long journey on foot. The ‘journey’, as described by BenEzer and Zetter (2014), is positioned as a liminal space in which the refugee exists between two different worlds and social orders. It becomes a special chapter in their life story and in their sense of self, which, according to Kedeste’s description, is also expressed in the adoption of a new style of clothing. The transition from a traditional chiffon dress to trousers and a shirt is explained using an utilitarian rationale; in other words, the hardships of the road and the physical effort needed to complete the journey obligate a new way of covering the body. Western dress is first experienced as having negative physical and symbolic significance—the tight-fitting material highlights the contours of the body, thus giving bodily attributes presence in space and emphasizing their existence. The tight leggings serve as an extremely thin divider between Kedeste’s body and the ‘journey’. As with Zayet, Kedeste too experiences contradictory feelings towards the cumbersome traditional dress, which, though shielding the body and protecting it from the challenges of the journey, also limits its movement through space. Seven years have passed since Kedeste underwent the journey during which she first adopted the new style of clothes. Today, rooted in the urban arena of Israel, Kedeste affirms the comfort of Western dress to the point that sometimes forgets she is wearing clothes. While there is a certain degree of humour in this statement, it clearly emphasizes the material and culturally significant attributes of the clothes. The ease and lightness of Western clothes—characteristics of their form and content—serve as a subtle border between the body and the social environment. The repeated use of this dress code positions the trousers and shirt as a cultural product of modern comfort. As expressed by Tarhat: Our dress is not as comfortable as a shirt and trousers. And that is what everyone wears here; it’s regular clothes. On Saturday I wear a dress; I put on make-up and jewellery, but most of the time I prefer to wear something regular, not special. From Tarhat’s words, it is evident that the comfort of the clothes is tied to their lack of uniqueness. While traditional dress necessitates additions such as make-up or jewellery, everyday Western dress removes redundant colour and reduces the body covering to a practical minimalism. From Tarhat’s point of view, the correct amount of visibility is invisibility; she does not want to look different, so she removes the tell-tale marks of the stranger (Lomsky-Feder and Rappaport 2012). Trousers and shirts represent transparent clothes—a taken-for-granted dress code. They help strengthen the feeling of being ‘like everyone else’, thus allowing her to assimilate into the urban space. Comfort serves as an end point of technological development and connects to social class via what is perceived as being socially desirable (Chappells and Shove 2004). Trousers and shirts therefore serve as expressions of comfort due not only to existing relations between the attributes of the material and the body, but also to their symbolic significance in providing a sense of shared identity with the surrounding community. Discussion and Conclusion The identity of Eritrean refugees serves as a meeting point for different social categories—such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, status and religion—in a way that empowers the multiple marginal statuses of refugees in their host country. The academic discourse also participates in marginalizing the women refugees and is not free of a bias that marks them as helpless objects who lack the ability to be active agents (Kelly 1993; Sherwood and Liebling-Kalifani 2012; Baker 2016). An exploration of the role of clothes promotes a renewed reflection on the life experiences of refugees in the host country. By examining clothes as an aesthetic arena that is simultaneously an everyday material product, I was able to avoid recycling the victimhood discourse that is always connected to refugees, particularly women refugees. The transition to Western dress and the relegation of the traditional style to the back of the wardrobe redraw the power of clothing as an instrument used by the marginal community to manoeuvre between power structures in Israeli society. Following the existing academic discourse on refugees, I propose seeing the geographical transition of women refugees as an experience that gives them the opportunity to move away from control of national consciousness and inflexible demands based on religion and gender and to expand their range of identities as expressed in clothes. The traditional dress has been stamped into the history of the Eritrean woman’s body and it remembers the body’s desired traits. This is a dress code that is based on a play of colours and shapes with a composition of stiff cotton material. Its tight cut, abundant material that leaves only the extremities of the body exposed and fancy embroidery of religious and national symbols weave the women refugees into one mass. The dressed body wears its communal identity proudly, regardless of differences in age, status or seniority. The traditional dress glorifies the female body as a creation that belongs to the borders of the collective and gives it a predetermined social and cultural role—a symbol of soft and obedient femininity. The traditional pattern of dress was not forsaken when the women arrived in Israel. The adoption of a new Western dress code should not, therefore, be perceived as signifying the disappearance of the old social order, but rather as expanding the women refugees’ range of possibilities and reflecting the constant exchange between the sacred and the secular and the tangible and the corporeal. The reality of urban life in Israel invites an encounter between many styles of clothing. These include the option of moving away from the celebration of colour that characterizes traditional dress. The positioning of the Western style of dress serves the central function of entrance into Israeli collective membership. This is a fashion code that sanctifies, in a simple manner, the values of minimalism and purposefulness that are imbued in the clothes’ attributes. The airy cotton material, with its clean and meticulous appearance due to the absence of design additions, adapts itself to the woman’s body and makes it easy for her to move through the urban space. These are the attributes of the clothing that ensure the body’s comfort. The right to choose their clothing—a right first emerging when they encountered Israeli society—becomes central for the refugee women. The comfort of the clothes is tied, first and foremost, to the absence of uniqueness. Their incidental and informal style allows the refugees to move away from the dimension of otherness in their identity and is thus an expression of an all-embracing Westernness. This shift is a political act that aims to expand possibilities and dissolve the old cultural gender order. The women will no longer be wrapped in traditional clothes that serve the community; instead, they become active players who carry on their body the values of independence and equality. Ostentatious clothing is replaced by utilitarian clothing; soft materials replace stiff and tough ones. Minimization and simplicity replace abundance. This is a new stylistic form that diverts the discussion from the dressed body and positions the woman in the centre as an individual. Traditional dress is kept almost exclusively for entrance into the space of the refugee community. It is not for exhibiting to others and does not publicly testify to their otherness. Instead, it is evidence of their similarity when they are just among themselves. It is a weekly reminder that they have not forgotten who they are. Tomorrow, however, they will return to being one of many in the diverse space. The anthropologist Karen Brodkin (2007, cited in Wargeft 2015: 277) described the tendency to categorize immigrants according to what they are lacking—language, education, culture, etc.—and to see them as inferior and undeserving of entry into our society, unless they undergo correction and improvement. The allegiance to material, via the story of clothes, proposes a different perspective on the experiences of women refugees. The refugees’ forced transition to a new country along with their exclusion and positioning in the cultural margins is found to be an experience that also includes a feeling of liberation for the Eritrean women. 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For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Journal of Refugee StudiesOxford University Press

Published: May 30, 2018

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