The Forgotten Women of Liberia
Apoorva Chowdhary is currently a Junior at the University of Washington, pursuing a Bachelor's of Science in biochemistry. She intends on continuing to medical school, to fulfill her goal of becoming a physician. Her interest in Black literature grew from reading stories such as Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. She continues to explore up-incoming Black authors in her free time, as well as binging Netflix and conducting research.
In this essay, I analyze how the script of Eclipsed by Danai Gurira and articles written by Clair MacDougall and Diane Taylor highlight the ways in which Liberian women navigated the terrain of the second Liberian Civil War, both during and after. I will begin by providing context of the Liberian Civil War. Then, I will analyze how Gurira’s Eclipsed exposes the complex hierarchies formed and decisions made by women due to their need to gain protection and power during this war, and how these decisions revealed their inner vulnerabilities and psychological afflictions: the trauma of being raped until bloody or dead, held prisoner with nothing to eat but cassava root, or forced to rip the skin off of a human corpse. I will subsequently focus on MacDougall and Taylor’s articles, and assert how they connect readers to a female Liberian soldier dealing with these vulnerabilities and lasting trauma in a post-war environment, where self-agency no longer is dependent on the use of violence and the sacrifice of other civilians, as it was during the war. Because these women dealt with such atrocities during the war, they were forced to implement hierarchies – often at the expense of others – in order to survive. Humanity is rarely granted to these women, who continue to be haunted by their individual thoughts and own actions during the civil war, actions which are vastly remote from their moral compass.
The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999, catalyzed by opposition against the corrupt government of Charles Taylor, established after the First Liberian Civil War. Rebel groups such as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) fought savagely without acknowledging the consequences of war, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Liberian citizens. Violence against women staggeringly increased, and some surveys suggest that between 60 and 90 percent of Liberia’s women and girls were raped (MacDougall “Child Soldiers”). In order to escape this violence, many women succumbed to officers or joined rebel forces and became soldiers themselves, which Gurira focuses on within Eclipsed. MacDougall’s and Taylor’s articles focus on the resulting stigma, mental trauma, and lack of self-identity these women felt once the civil war ended in 2003.
Within Eclipsed, we see Liberian women who attempt to gain a feeling of autonomy and shelter within this harsh terrain, and neither is granted without sacrifice. Eclipsed focuses on the story of three wives of a commanding officer within a rebel camp, Helena, Bessie, and Maima. Maima, exhausted by constant rape and submission as a wife, becomes a female soldier and spites the other wives as she fights, murders, and steals in order to gain power. The story focuses mainly on the Girl, an unnamed character who, at 15 years old, has just been captured and brought to the war camp. Gurira portrays the Girl as naïve, sheltered, and solemn, making it easy for readers to feel sympathy for her. Gurira makes readers emotional through scenes showing the Girl reading stories about Clinton to the officer’s wives, silently wiping her thighs after being raped by the commanding officer, and grieving the absence of her own mother. I believe this projection is purposeful, because Gurira uses the Girl as a map to guide the reader through the terrain of a Liberian war camp, which is as new to her as it is to the reader. Only the audience is with The Girl when she chooses to follow Maima, a former wife to the commanding officer, and become a female soldier with her. This decision seems justifiable, yet frightening to most readers, as this is a chance for the Girl to escape the otherwise inevitable future of becoming a submissive wife to the Commanding Officer; however, within this choice lies possibility to witness grotesque actions and savage killings. Avoiding rape and abuse is what truly tempted the Girl to follow Maima and become a soldier, a perspective echoed by many other female soldiers during the Liberian Civil war who “were, like [the Girl], survivors of rape...and…had come to the conclusion that becoming a fighter was the best way to protect themselves against further rapes" (Taylor 2).
However, for Maima, the motives to become a soldier in the Liberian Civil war expand beyond refusing to accept abuse to her body. Maima’s reasoning stems from her craving for power and autonomy, as stated in other articles regarding female Liberian soldiers: as MacDougall explains, these women “had observed the power the soldiers enjoyed – and how they abused it...[these women] wanted their power, their air of being inviolate and untouchable” ( “Child Soldiers”). Maima is able to steal nail polish and rice, both seeming luxuries in the context of war, and believes that she is above the role of a wife to the commanding officer. This hierarchy is shown when she tells Bessie, the officer’s wife, “I no cook, dat de job you do,” as she is looking down on her past role as a complicit wife (Gurira 17). Maima believes herself to be higher in the hierarchy of the war camp because of the items she is able to loot and her ability to avoid rape, whereas the commanding officer’s wives believe they are higher than her due to their close relationship with the Commanding Officer and their protection from war violence.
The sacrifices that the Commanding Officer’s wives make to procure protection and power entail having rape and abuse committed on themselves, rather than inflicting these atrocities onto others. In the case of Helena, one of these wives, her identity is no longer that of an independent Liberian woman, but rather that of a sex slave or ‘trophy’ wife. However, Helena accepts this role because she believes her loyalty to the Commanding Officer gives her authority, which she gains by being “wife #1,” as she was the first to be captured. This hierarchical and objectifying title is assigned to her by the man who captured and continually rapes her, but Helena stands by it because it allows her to get first choice of objects the C.O. brings his wives, tell Bessie what chores to do, and get protection from gunfire within her dilapidated shelter. To the reader, these small choices may seem like little to no compensation for the abuse and neglect Helena faced for years. But the savage conditions of War help the reader reluctantly understand why Helena fully accepts this tradeoff, and remains loyal to the Commanding Officer and the other wives. They also help the reader understand why Helena attempts to protect the Girl, and keep her from the dangers and trauma occurring outside of their shelter. Helena’s trauma is similar to that of the Girl and Maima; however, all of these traumas are encountered by these women in a different manner based on their role during the war.
Throughout Eclipsed, Gurira makes readers realize that being an empowered female soldier in a Liberian Civil War comes at an emotional cost. Both the Girl and Maima struggle with the inner vulnerabilities and trauma that result from their experiences as female Liberian soldiers. Gurira gives readers glimpses into their moments of weakness, through both subtle remarks and significant gestures. These scenes help readers sympathize with these women, and bring to light their humanity as they struggle with the consequences of the violent acts they commit.
Gurira takes the readers on a journey with the Girl during her transition into a soldier, which proves to be a journey of denial, trauma indecisiveness, and guilt. The denial begins when the Girl announces her plan to follow Maima as a soldier, and Helena, no longer able to protect her, warns her of the actions she will commit, saying "See whot happen to you - de ting you go' end up doin' out dere. You wanna kill a man, a woman, a small small chile?” (35). When the Girl is confronted with these possibilities, she disguises her fear and ignorance with denial, repeating “I no gon’ do dat” over and over again (35). Like many other young Liberian girls who became soldiers, she is unable to fathom the sacrifices she will have to make in order to gain agency.
The guilt and indecisiveness rise within the Girl after she grows into a merciless soldier, and contemplates whether the sins she commits are worth avoiding abuse and a life of submission. The Girl learns that her first sin is rounding up civilian girls to be raped by the soldiers, which is framed as a sacrifice she must perform in order to avoid getting raped herself. Maima tells her that the soldiers “is beasts and beasts need to be fed,” and “you feed dem, you do not get eaten” (Gurira 38). We see the Girl use religion in order to cope with and excuse her actions as a soldier (shooting innocent men, giving soldiers girls to rape), repeating, “God keeping my conscience for me – it gon’ be clean and new when dis ova (42). However, this use of religion backfires when she herself is cursed by a young woman who she gives up to male soldiers, causing her to reach her breaking point. She tells Maima through tears, “I pray dat God bless ha soul…But it my fault she dead, and she tell me, ‘Devil bless you’… I cursed, I got dis sin on me” (49). The reader sees the Girl finally feel the overwhelming guilt of her actions, and observe the deep trauma it causes her as she tells the gruesome story of how the woman was raped and bloodied.
Gurira’s depiction of Maima goes beyond her teaching the Girl how to be a soldier, shoot enemies, and steal goods. After fighting, she visits Helena and Bessie, offering rice and directly asking for their forgiveness, saying “you neva hear of FORGIVENESS? Dat when you forget de past and give people new chance” (17). Maima seems to be seeking assurance that her multiple acts as a soldier will be forgiven once the war is over, as well as seeking relationships with other women. As for relationships with men, Maima maintains sexual relationships with many other soldiers, which she claims to do in order to “be protected” and gain power (Gurira 43). However, she contradicts herself by saying that one man “got [her] heart”, and proceeds to giggle (43). Maima uses this man to express her emotions, to be able to show affection towards someone, something that she is rarely able to do as a soldier. Seeking forgiveness and affection aren’t Maima’s only vulnerabilities, as she seems to live in a constant fear of what her role will be once the Liberian Civil War is over. Similar to the denial the Girl expresses, Maima denies the possibility of the War ending every time it is brought up, stating “De fightin’ is getting stronga! LURD is getting bigga! We tekin’ more an’ more!” and “I not letting my gun go for notin” (40, 54).
This same vulnerability is also echoed by Helena, despite the polarity of her and Maima’s roles. When Helena is told by the C.O. that she has been freed, she responds with hopelessness because she isn’t able to deny the truth: “Whot I go do now?” she asks, explaining, “I don’ know whot GO means!” (Gurira 52). When Maima yells to Helena, “you know notin’ about whot gon happen to me,” it seems she is addressing the readers as well, who likewise aren’t able to comprehend what role she will play once the War ends (54).
Authors like MacDougall and Taylor focus on former female soldiers like Maima after the Liberian Civil War, analyzing both their roles in society and the continued effect the war still has on them. Female soldiers like Maima struggle with not only the social stigma and psychological trauma that plagues them after the actions they’ve committed, but also acclimating back to an environment where they no longer play the powerful role of a soldier. Oftentimes, these women hold onto aspects of their relentless soldier identity because of the power and pride it provided them. As in the case of Mary, a former soldier, "She is trapped between the past and the future, still unwilling or unable to let go of her wartime identity as a fighter, which, if nothing else, offered her a sense of purpose and direction” (MacDougall “Child Soldiers”). This is similar to why Maima was terrified when she was told that the war was over: she felt that she could no longer fit into any role but that of a soldier, and feared the loss of a title that had gotten her so high in the social hierarchy. Mary believes that the social hierarchy of the war still applies in a post-war environment, which is shown when she states that “because of her past serving as a commander in the war she is ‘his superior’” (‘his’ referring to a customer whom she had recently beaten). Mary almost instinctively turns to violence in any situation where she feels remotely threatened, because this is what brought her protection during the war. However, the social ladder that Mary had fought so hard to climb up during the war no longer exists in modern Liberia, where former female combatants are seen as “unfeminine, tainted, and depraved” (MacDougall “Child Soldiers”). Both Mary and Black Diamond, another former female soldier, struggle tremendously to raise their children in the slums as single mothers, while also dealing with internal vulnerabilities invisible to those who so easily discriminate against them.
Psychological trauma is deeply rooted and complex for these women because they had both received and ordered for gruesome and savage punishments during their time as soldiers. Black Diamond “remains haunted by all the horrors she witnessed, such as skinning a prisoner and watching a gang rape of an innocent woman with her own eyes (Taylor 1). Mary also struggles to deal with the weight of her actions, as MacDougall summarizes: “she will half-brag about her own cruelty and then, moments later, appear tormented by the horror of what she did.” Mary brags because her actions demonstrate the immense power that she carried as a commander within the war, and for this reason she also struggles with handling the responsibility of these actions. Similarly to Maima and The Girl, at one time Mary may have justified these actions by using religion or the material objects and luxuries she was able to receive, but in a post-war climate these justifications seem to hold no power to help her manage the guilt she feels. Rather, these justifications only tamper with both Mary’s and the reader’s opinions of whether she deserves to feel guilt for her actions, leaving us to contemplate whether all of the sacrifices she made as a soldier could be excused by the agency and protection she gained during the War.
These women made the decisions they did in order to survive the Liberian Civil War and protect their own consciences while simultaneously dealing with savage violence and emotional abuse. The way Gurira, MacDougall, and Taylor portray these women by allowing readers to see what they went through – Helena submitting to a lifetime of rape and abuse, the Girl crying hysterically after she’d subjected a woman to rape and death, and Mary beating up a bar patron for simply gesturing at her – allows readers to understand why these women chose to do what they did. Reading these narratives, I found myself at a crossroads: a part of me admired these woman for their perseverance and ability to gain power in such an adverse environment, but another part of me felt utter disgust toward the actions they’d committed, witnessed, and been the victims of. However, it is important that readers come to this crossroads, because it proves that these authors didn’t simply focus on the power and protection these woman gained, but also the harsh sacrifices they made order to do so and the trauma that resulted. There are many stories of Liberian women still waiting to be told, and it is important that we acknowledge them in a holistic manner that justifies their experiences in order for readers to be thoroughly informed and connect with these women. The ability for readers to fully understand and sympathize with these women’s sacrifices and traumas is what makes these stories legitimate, and what brings humanity to the Liberian women within them.
Gurira, Danai. Eclipsed. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2017. Print.
MacDougall, Clair. "When Child Soldiers Grow Up." Newsweek. N.p., 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.
Taylor, Diane. "Black Diamond: A Female Victim of Charles Taylor's Crimes Speaks out." The Guardian.
Guardian News and Media, 28 May 2012. Web. 1 June 2017.<https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle