Who is Irene Cohen? The Re-Discovery of Feminist Freedom in Modern-Day Angola

Every year, Irene Cohen and Deolinda Rodrigues, two Angolan nationalists, are eulogized on Angolan Women’s Day on March 2; their short and tragic lives are made emblematic of African feminism and national pride.

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Largo Irene Cohen (Irene Cohen Plaza) is the unassuming patch of green space in front of Igreja do Carmo (Carmo Church) in the well-to-do Ingombota neighbourhood of Angola’s capital city, Luanda. An internet search in English yields very little about the plaza’s namesake and the Anglicized name would easily give the impression that she was, perhaps, a South African heroine of Jewish ancestry. My quest to learn the truth about the life of Irene Cohen turned into a yearlong ethnographic introduction to her death; moreover, it led to the acute awareness of a contemporary, youth-driven intellectual arts movement keen to re-discover and re-introduce Angola’s independence war heroes.

Were the Angolan War for Independence (1961-1974) a screenplay, Irene Cohen would be the sensitive supporting actress, overshadowed by the more boisterous lead, Deolinda Rodrigues. And that, in fact, is how she was portrayed in the 2019 theatrical release, ‘Esquadrão Kamy’, which depicted the historical experience of five female Angolan freedom fighters who formed part of the Esquadrão Camy (Camy Squadron) that trekked from Congo Brazzaville to Angola from January 12 to February 17, 1967 (Rodriguez: 136). The play draws heavily on the 2003 release of Deolinda Rodrigues’ personal diary from 1956 to 1967, Diário de um Exílio sem Regresso, hence Deolinda’s prominence. It is a re-enactment that highlights the brief and tortuous weeks before the women’s capture and assumed execution by opposition forces in 1967...

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