In Zimbabwe, the Enduring Fear of Single Women

Thokozani Khupe, right, and Nelson Chamisa, center, at a memorial service for Zimbabwe’s former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, after his death in February. Many expected Ms. Khupe to succeed Mr. Tsvangirai as opposition leader, but violent clashes between their supporters erupted and Mr. Chamisa assumed the role.CreditJekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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When Zimbabwe holds general elections on July 30, its first after the ouster of Robert Mugabe in November, only four of the 23 presidential candidates will be women. The opposition to President Emmerson Mnangagwa is marred by infighting between two factions within the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai, which was founded and led by the former prime minister and trade union leader Morgan Richard Tsvangirai until his death from cancer in February.

By Panashe Chigumadzi – Ms. Chigumadzi is the author of a book about the coup that deposed Robert Mugabe.

After Mr. Tsvangirai’s death, many expected Thokozani Khupe, a former deputy prime minister and a senior leader of the opposition, to succeed him. Ms. Khupe was upstaged by Nelson Chamisa, a charismatic 40-year-old former minister whom Mr. Tsvangirai had appointed as a vice president of the party. Mr. Chamisa assumed leadership without a party vote.

Ms. Khupe has challenged Mr. Chamisa’s party presidency. Violent clashes between the factions erupted at Mr. Tsvangirai’s funeral; Ms. Khupe was forced to hide in a grass-thatched hut, which Mr. Chamisa’s supporters threatened to burn down.

On May 22, when the Supreme Court in Harare was adjudicating on a dispute between Ms. Khupe and Mr. Chamisa over the use of the party name and symbols, a crowd of Mr. Chamisa’s supporters shouted derogatory slogans and sang vulgar songs to shame Ms. Khupe and called her a whore.

Along with weakening the opposition, the factionalism has also brought to the fore an enduring malaise in Zimbabwean polity: its fear of single, independent women in the public sphere. In physically threatening and declaring Ms. Khupe a whore, Mr. Chamisa’s supporters stoked the fear of “unruly” African women, a fear that is pervasive across political formations and has roots in the early colonial state.

As the urbanizing colony of Rhodesia drew rural African men into towns and cities in the early 1930s, some traditional leaders colluded with the colonial state to introduce passes restricting the movement of African women in urban areas. African women fought for their space and organized campaigns such as the 1934 beer hall boycotts.

In 1956, the City Youth League, the party that would become the home of young firebrand leaders such as Robert Mugabe, displayed its capacity for political mobilization by calling for a bus boycott in Salisbury — as Harare was known then — after colonial authorities increased bus fares. Some women living in hostels in the city ignored the boycott and took buses to go to work, mostly as domestic workers and secretaries. They were raped by male workers as “punishment.”

In the 1970s, Robert Mugabe and his comrades led the liberation war against the settler regime. Apart from thousands of women who provided support to the liberation war effort as lookouts, transporters, informants, cooks and cleaners, around 7,500 Zimbabwean women fought in the armed struggle. The nationalists presented female combatants as heroic freedom fighters, while the Rhodesian settler regime branded them as “murderers” and “prostitutes” of male fighters.

After liberation in 1980, when it would be expected that all who fought for freedom would be held in esteem regardless of gender, female war veterans continued to struggle with the cultural perceptions created in the colonial era. For some, the question became, “Who would want such a woman for a daughter-in-law?”

Several legal reforms reinforcing gender parity were ushered in. In 1982, for example, the Zimbabwean government passed a law granting women 18 and older the legal right to act as adults, own property, enter into contracts and inherit their fathers’ estates.

Yet only a year later, the government embarked on Operation Cleanup, in which soldiers and the police arrested over 6,000 women — whose ranks included former combatants — after claiming that the women were prostitutes because they had dared to move about unaccompanied after nightfall.

More legal reforms followed and empowered women, but so did another backlash. In 1992, a young woman was attacked and almost raped on the University of Zimbabwe campus because she chose to wear a miniskirt, the supposed attire of prostitutes. Female students responded by protesting in miniskirts and trousers.

Decades later, miniskirts and charges of prostitution continue to be used to discredit women leaders. In 2014, the former first lady Grace Mugabe ousted a former vice president and war veteran, Joyce Mujuru, from the presidency of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s Women’s League. Ms. Mugabe publicly shamed Ms. Mujuru, claiming she had video evidence that Ms. Mujuru was a “miniskirt wearer.”

Last November, the military intervened in the power struggle within ZANU-PF and put an end to Ms. Mugabe’s bid to succeed Mr. Mugabe as president. While the numerous accusations of corruption and misuse of power against Ms. Mugabe were valid, the old fear of women returned, and in rallies and marches across Zimbabwe marchers chanted “Hatidi Kutongwa Nehure” (“We do not want to be ruled a whore”).

Politics in Zimbabwe remains a man’s game, and virility is a measure of one’s ability to rule over others. Mr. Mugabe was 72 when he married the 31-year-old Grace Marufu. Constantino Chiwenga, the country’s 61-year-old vice president, is married to a woman almost half his age. Even the famed opposition leader, Mr. Tsvangirai, was embroiled in several sex scandals before marrying a woman 25 years younger.

After the fall of Mr. Mugabe, it was expected that President Mnangagwa would appoint Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, the ZANU-PF’s most senior female leader and a veteran of the liberation war, as the vice president. Mr. Mnangagwa chose Mr. Chiwenga, the retired army general who was instrumental in pushing out Mr. Mugabe, and gave Ms. Muchinguri-Kashiri a ministerial position.

While major party politics does not seem to hold much space for women in the forthcoming July elections, there are a number of young women contesting as independents in Harare and Bulawayo, the two major cities.

In January, I attended a volunteer rally for Fadzayi Mahere, a 32-year-old lawyer, who is contesting the July elections for parliament from Mount Pleasant, a Harare suburb. The volunteers in her campaign reported that one of the pressing questions they faced from potential voters was why she was still unmarried and childless at 32. In a conservative country that holds “family values” dear, suitability for political office is often attached to marital status.

Many Zimbabweans hope that the first elections after Mr. Mugabe will be a break from the past. Few realistically expected that the ousting of Mr. Mugabe would create greater space and more opportunities for women in Zimbabwe politics.

And yet, if we continue to accept a political space in which “unruly women” who refuse to keep in line with the patriarchal politics of visibility and respectability “invite” verbal and physical abuse, we accept a break with Zimbabwe’s democratic future.

Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of “These Bones Will Rise Again,” a book about the coup that deposed Robert Mugabe. This article was first published by the New York Times