Public Toilets: a Space for Eritreans’ Resistance Against Oppression


— By Angesom from Eritrea

One of the highlights of 2016 was the debate over transgendered people and bathrooms. Last May, the issue was covered by most of the mainstream media, and it became elevated to international legal theater, but not in Eritrea, a country located in the arid mountainous regions of Eastern Africa. In a time in history where public bathroom rights has entered mainstream politics, ironically, here in Eritrea, public bathrooms are taking their place in history by becoming a center of the growing resistance against the regime.

Eritrea remains one of the most repressive countries on earth, but the government has attempted to downplay this reality. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights concluded in its May 8, 2016, report that Eritrea’s government is guilty of committing crimes against humanity since independence a quarter-century ago, with up to 400,000 people “enslaved.” Yet the Eritrean government dismissed it as wild accusations that do not meet fundamental standards of accuracy, objectivity, neutrality, legality.

In every resistance against dictatorship, each action that an individual or a movement undertakes requires a space, whether it is physical or virtual. The resistance movement inside Eritrea finds its own space in the most unexpected arena – public toilets and bathrooms.


Why public toilets and bathrooms? The answer would be simply, “Why not?” The most obvious reason would be simply the police state, the regime created that monopolizes the press, that dubbed Eritrea, “the African North Korea.” The other reason would be the heavy surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the regime that has instilled deep fear and mistrust among the population.

Regard this fact: the population has turned to public bathrooms to express their frustration and resistance against the regime safely by writing and drawing graffiti.

These are translations from Tigrinya (the official Eritrean language) of these graffitis:

  1. Warning to those opportunists who are part of this dictatorship and repression, your time is near,
  2. If this is freedom, there was no colonization.
  3. Everything has its time.

The effect of these graffitis shouldn’t be downplayed. An estimated number of 200 people visit the public toilets and bathrooms every day. The total is higher on the busy public toilets and bathrooms in the slums. Besides, with a nonexistent private press and sluggish Internet network, the public toilets and bathrooms are the only safe, private, and available space for freedom of expression.

This shows the growing resistance of the population against the regime and at the same time the breakaway against fear that have been gripping the population for so long. However, if the resistance is confined only to this limited space, it could alienate the movement from individuals who don’t naturally visit that space. Besides, without access to the general population, the resistance will likely fail to ignite popular support.

Therefore, it is vital that a gentle harmony should be found in a variety of spaces, in order to fully reach the potential of the movement and to exert the most pressure on the Eritrean government.


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