Madamismo and fascist women



Early Italian settlers  aside from trying to gain economic benefits were on a mission to “civilize” the backward locals. In Eritrea these settlers were ,as we know, mainly single men.  The “madamas” (as Iyib states), were a colonial adaptation of contractual marriages, concubinage or dual households of preindustrial societies. On a higher level than prostitutes but the relationship was always one of “master – slave”.  These women were caught in the “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” syndrome.  After fascism many of these women were active in the resistance either as fighters or mothers and daughters of patriots.  It is discouraging to read that after Eritrean independence women were still treated as second rate citizens with only token women as ministers.  Women have played an important role in the history of Eritrea but continue. I liked the onion image of peeling off the images of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to explain and understand the effects of the past on the present and above all how it continues to shape the present.  Our study of Italian Colonialism has shown again and again, that we need to delve into the past if we are to understand what we did wrong and to rectify those wrong doings for future generations.


Fascist  Women and the rhetoric of virility


This reading was difficult for me.  The fascist intellectual feminist was ridiculed and threatened the whole idea of fascism.  The discussion goes around in circles because it excludes women from being anything other than wife or mother and yet calls them to participate in political life.  A virile woman was a weak woman, needed in the workplace but she should not sacrifice her feminine qualities.  What are feminine qualities?  Labriola wanted fascist women with a maternal heart and a virile mind.  Not masculine but spiritual values were called for.  She also condemns “the characteristics of femininity in intellectual fields”.  What does that mean?  I see a connection between the rhetoric of fascist women and madamismo in that both relegate women to a role of inferior being  and subject to male power and domination.  Wasn’t the idea of a fascist woman very similar to that of a madama in the end?


Barrera: The Construction of Racial Hierarchies in Colonial Eritrea

Barrera: The Construction of Racial Hierarchies in Colonial Eritrea

This article began with the idea of Italian “natural” racism and how it was limited to division of fascism.  Maria, being used to exemplify the relationship between colonizers (mostly those in the government, rather than regular Italian civilians) and those colonized, illustrates the contradiction in the naturalness of categorization of and racism towards Eritreans. Ultimately, this article fully illustrated this contradiction not through the example of Maria, but rather through the exploration of governmental policies- especially those regarding class/racial opportunities, identification of nationality (determined by paternity of mixed races), and the education of native Eritreans.  For example, racial policies ultimately served to support the colonizer’s superiority by providing opportunities of authority and prestige over natives (as supported by the inability of Eritreans to arrest Europeans and a number of other examples, such as social segregation). Furthermore, the use of social segregation was considered a “tool” to prevent intermixing of both class and race.  If intermixing did occur, there were a number of ideologies that determined how that produced child would be perceived by both the colonizers and the colonized-which ultimately determined levels of education, which were also determined by the government. (I will not elaborate on the subject of pursuit of hierarchy via enforced native academic limitations because I believe it is better articulated in Negash’s article The Ideology of Colonialism).   


Ultimately, what I found to be most interesting in regards to the actual construction of racial hierarchy was how Barrera argued that “racial and class hierarchies did not always overlap.”  Generally, the opposite notion would be what I except when studying such social developments.  To support this, he suggested that the mixing of class and race was essential to the establishment of the economy.  Clearly, this is supported by the idea that individuals can provide different talents and services to a market (which included the skills of natives, in this case).  Although I agree with and understand Barrera’s argument here, the argument itself was counterintuitive to me because I generally assumed that the colonizers would subjugate all those who were colonized into a lower class through some force, which is supported by the very colonial desire to maintain an “aura of superiority” over the natives. 

The Comfort of Women

I found it very interesting that Iyob used the word “comfort” when describing the life that foreign women provided men abroad. It reminded me of the previous articles we read in class where women were thought by fascism to deconstruct masculinity. Iyob says that colonizer’s “comfort wives” were blamed for male incompetence in the colonizers. The article never explicitly states how the comfort wives caused this incompetence although I assumed it was by distracting the men with sex. Iyob seemed to focus more on how the relationships between men and women in the colonies were degrading to the women and how the women couldn’t really leave the relationship as she was being used by the colonizer. Although I very strongly disagree with the way the women were treated in this way Iyob also claims that the women, i would say the more business-minded women of the bunch, were able to transform their situation into a system that benefited them despite their suffering. For example, comfort wives, especially of upper class colonizers, gained financial security, social acceptance, and could use their positions to gain protection for their families and provide information to the resistance fighters.

Overall I found the message of this article confusing. I believe it presented too many sides to the same argument. Although it provided a lot of facts it didn’t seem to have a real purpose except to make general claims about specific instances which I found frustrating.

Ruth Iyob

Exploring gender and racial bias and stereotypes, the focus on the role of women in Eritrea post WWII and their relationship to the Italian padroni ultimately determines that the identity and independence of these women was/is essentially dismissed or rejected. This article focused on the transition from precolonial roles of women to post WWII roles of women, which experienced little change. Precolonial roles of Eritrean women, especially wives and mothers, were predetermined through conjugal arrangements. Madamismo was colonial adaptation of this system to fit the colonial ideology of long-term marriage. Madama then became a term for this period which signified a native woman’s relationship with a colonial man. The difference between pre-madamismo and madamismo is seemingly the voice of a native woman and a say in the “relationship,” as exemplified by the fact that women could now participate in regular household decisions that regarded a man’s action. That is not to say, however, women suddenly had either their own identity or independence- because they did not. Clearly, expectations of women were contradictory in this new system that ultimately complicated the “civilizing” of Africans, in particular African women, for colonizers.
What I found to be most interesting was how female engagement in society was regarded as a threat to the patriarchal society. These ideologies, which focus specifically on the experiences of colonized women, reflects the same mentalities and ideologies regarding gender roles in a nationalist society expressed in Spackman’s article. The difference, however, is sexual servitude. Although there were still underlying expectations of such in the nationalist society in Italy, these expectations were clearly made significantly more explicit towards colonized women. I found the argument of relationship between the role of government in sexual relations to be especially interesting. In particular, the definition of post-colonial societal constructions as “re-socialized,” rather than women’s participation being mobilized. Clearly, this article efficiently articulates the reason for such an inability for mobilization. This reason being, the government’s role in a woman’s ability to escape the expected gender role-as the expected gender role was supported and enforced by the government itself in postcolonial Eritrea.


What I found most interesting in this article was Labriola’s ideal of femininity, the debate between artificiality and naturalness and its relationship to nationalist rhetoric regarding virility. In recognizing the paradox of Labriola’s ideal, the author exemplifies the general concept of the time that in order to successfully maintain the ideology of virility, society must successfully maintain the ideology of femininity. This is made clear in spackman’s statement, “Labriola ends up constituting an ideal of womanliness whose logic mimics that of ideal manliness” (46). Ultimately, this supports the fascist notion that each gender was expected to abide to their ordained role in society. These roles were based off a predetermined ideology of what is considered biologically and dutifully masculine. Women were considered biologically different by means of “natural discourse,” and therefore inherited traits that were opposite of men. So, accordingly, men were educated to be soldiers and nationalists. Because of this belief and discourse, women were educated to be mothers to raise nationalist sons and to be nationalists themselves. Obviously, this was essential to the growth of fascist nation. Opposition to such could be made punishable by regarding such women as “amoral.” The very idea that Labriola expresses and defends is the extent and right to pursue women’s intellectual capabilities and which qualities they posses in general. This very notion, however, opposes the nationalist’s ideas of gender roles.

Response to “Madamismo and Beyond”

I found this article to be interesting but not entirely clear. By the end of it, I was still unsure as to what message she was trying to convey. I understand that her goal was to “examine the representation of the Eritrean madama in colonial discourse to show how it misrepresents the sociocultural, economic, and political context within which the “comfort wife” operated,” but I was still confused by the end of the article on how she achieved this goal.

I did like her point on the pictures taken of the “comfort wives” and they portray the “duality of their existence.”  Even though the Eritrean customs did not allow adults to expose themselves in such a manner, these pictures show these women as naked, exposing “them to the gaze of many more people than their contractual husbands.” The way that I interpreted this was that these “comfort wives” were trying to stay true to who they were but had to change in order to appease their new husbands. I was confused on her point that the postcards with these naked pictures on them would entice new settlers to come help “civilize” the nation. Perhaps what she meant was that the postcard showed that there was still “civilizing” work that needed to be done due to the naked image on the postcard (I am assuming that at the time, public nudity was seen as “uncivilized”) but the way that I would have looked at it would have been showing and using the idea of the “exotic” that we have talked about before.

Another point of interest was the quote from General Graziani. I found it extremely interesting that the government was trying to do all that they could to provide “sexual relations” for the soldiers by setting up brothels for them to attend when their needs rose. This interested me because I found it surprising that the government would take such a keen interest in whether or not their soldiers sexual needs were being met or not. Perhaps the reason for this was because of all of the interracial relationships that were going on against Mussolini’s command.  I can’t image an army now taking such keen interest in this subject but perhaps I am just not aware that it also happens today.

Margot’s Post on Ruth Iyob’s Article

Ruth Iyob’s article on Eritrean Women touched on an aspect of colonization we haven’t talked about lately. More in  the beginning of the semester, we talked a lot about the image of land as a woman, and about the rape metaphor that goes along with that image when discussing colonization. The women in this article were absolutely taken advantage of in ways that the Italian public had no way of understanding.

I found it very interesting, but not particularly surprising, that these madamas were blamed for Italian failures. “Judged in colonial texts as being guilty of imbestiamento, which can be roughly translated to mean the “turning of men into beasts,” the madamas were blamed for Italian military incompetence, from the Adwa defeat to the later unraveling of the Empire During World War II.”pg 233

Iyob kept using the phrase “comfort wife” and “comforts of the home.” I’m assuming as these were always put in quotations, that this was the terminology used at that time, to avoid any suspicions of prostitution coming from the home land. The way Iyob describes the portrayal of these women was very interesting. Their sexualization not just in the colony but also in Italy was striking. “…image of a nude Eritrean woman attempting to replicate the pose of Botticelli’s Venus…” pg 234

(When I tried to find an image of a “comfort wife” I kept getting a failed search engine. It could have been my improper search terms but I found it very telling that nothing came up.)

Comments of the Iyob Reading

I really did not like the way that Ruth Iyob wrote this. I thought her experiences and her perspectives were informed and interesting, but I found the way she wrote obnoxious and her use of the first person wasn’t fitting for the historical writing and thesis she was trying to present. In the first section, “Encountering the Past in the Presnt,” I understand that she was writing about her own encounters during her travels, but I found that this section did not add much to the historical context of the article. She wrote, “I again encountered the silent face of the colonized woman–this time in the curio shops that sells crafts and postcards” (234). This sentence would have been more suitable if she was writing a novel, or a work of historical-fiction. Really didn’t care for this section. Otherwise, the topic was interesting, but I still had trouble understanding the idea she was trying to convey to the reader. The last section came to the conclusion that women have gained some freedom in the 21st century, but at the same time have been forced back by “social mores” that make them into housewives rather than the powerful women that in the history of Eritrea have jumped to social and political forefront. I don’t know what everyone else thought about this, but I was really bummed out by this article. Nothing special.


Eritrean Guerrilla