BY Dr Alex T. Magaisa
The Sunday Mail today carried stories which severely attacked and scandalised Joice Mujuru, the former Vice President of Zimbabwe who now heads her own party, Zimbabwe People First. The attacks are consistent with the pattern in recent weeks, where state media has been at the forefront of a revisionist agenda in which Mujuru and her late husband, General Solomon Mujuru have been the principal targets. However, the tone of today’s attacks has shifted significantly into the domain of the very personal, focussing as it does, on allegations into her sexual behaviour. The paper advances a number of allegations against Mujuru, all of which are designed to downplay her role in the liberation war and generally to scandalise her.
This, as I argue in this article, is driven by sexist and misogynistic attitudes in a society which is inherently patriarchal. Yet the irony is that even the well-meaning can also unwittingly assume the role of agents of patriarchy, as Mujuru herself may recall. Some years ago, speaking at a public event, she counselled women on how to handle their promiscuous partners. It was a message that encouraged tolerance and patience. She might not have realised it then, but in seemingly condoning male behaviour, she herself was also playing the role of patriarchy’s agent.
Dongo and “Mugabe’s wives”
Back in the mid-nineties, a young ZANU PF female politician did something remarkable when she went against the grain. Her name was Margaret Dongo. She still lives and although she is not the force she once was, she left a bold imprint on the political landscape. She contested in the 1995 parliamentary elections as an independent in the Sunningdale constituency in Harare. She had previously represented ZANU PF in the same constituency but she had lost to Vivian Mwashita in the primary elections. She felt she had been cheated and competed as an independent. When she lost again in the election, she went to court to challenge the election result. Her lawyer was another young man whose name would later become popular in opposition politics. His name: Tendai Biti.
In a landmark judgment, the Court ruled in favour of Dongo, holding that the election was not free and fair. A new election was held and Dongo beat Mwashita. She had been vindicated. She had taken on the ZANU PF and state machinery and beaten them at their own game. Dongo’s star has not shown as brightly since those heady days, but she made her mark in the history books.
However, most people also remember Dongo’s colourful description of male ZANU PF politicians and their relationship with President Mugabe. They are all Mugabe’s wives, Dongo is often quoted as having remarked. It has become a popular cliché to describe Mugabe’s loyalists. Yet for a figure who blazed the trail for women in Zimbabwean politics, it is ironic that her name is also associated with a cliché which arguably carries inherent prejudice against women.
I understand the metaphorical meaning of Dongo’s remark, particularly within the cultural context in which it was made. Yet that is also precisely the source of the problem. Society quietly has regularised the irregular, without also appreciating the consequences. The description of male ZANU PF politicians as “Mugabe’s wives” was clearly in the negative sense. It was meant to demonstrate that they were subservient, loyal and unquestioning to and in respect of Mugabe, their ‘husband’. It was a rebuke that they were behaving like Mugabe’s wives. It was criticism that it was not good for them to behave like wives in a marriage, because apparently, in that world-view, wives are expected to be obedient, to be loyal and to follow without challenging the husband. So, don’t be like a wife, be like a man – and therein lies the stereo-typing.
This is not to condemn Dongo, no. Her statement was merely a reflection of the manner in which Zimbabwean society generally views women or more specifically, the role of women in marriage. This probably explains why it has become a popular cliché, often used liberally even in opposition and civil society spaces, despite claims to promoting gender equality and fighting gender-based prejudice. It’s thrown about casually in conversations on social media and elsewhere. Indeed, I have often observed that whenever it is deployed, the consequences of doing so are hardly ever questioned. Gender scholars have written about these subjects but as is so often the case with products of the academy, they end up in the academy, hardly ever seeping through to society at large.
Dongo’s “Mugabe’s wives” metaphor was designed to drive home a point about the weaknesses of male ZANU PF politicians who lacked the courage to stand up to Mugabe. But it is a metaphor which I find problematic to the extent that it is framed in a manner that seemingly endorses a negative stereotype of women, particularly in the political arena. It was well-meant, but a very unfortunate metaphor.
I was reminded of the Dongo metaphor today when I read stories in The Sunday Mail, the state-weekly, whose dominant theme was attacking Joice Mujuru. It is clear that ZANU PF is growing jittery about the challenge posed by Joice Mujuru, hence the onslaught by the state media. But it is the tone and style of attack against Mujuru which got my attention. It confirms a familiar pattern in Zimbabwean politics where female political actors are concerned. It is an approach which is informed chiefly by patriarchal resistance, misogyny, sexism and gender bias. The argument against female political actors all too often centres on the personal, especially their sexual lives. It is not about the merits of their arguments or policies. It is not about their qualifications or credentials gained from their professional lives. Rather, it is about the peripheral but very personal matters. It is about who they had a relationship with, who they have slept with, how many partners they have, whether they are married or single, if single, why they are single, if divorced why they are divorced, etc. Bar a few exceptions, male politicians are hardly subjected to similar treatment. If they are, invariably, it is the female partners in those relationships who carry the can. An attack based on the sexual life of a female political actor is usually the first and only point of attack by political opponents.
This is why it is easy for The Sunday Mail to spend acres of space vilifying Joice Mujuru, digging into her past alleged sexual relationships and liaisons. This is also why the abuse of young women during the war has been covered up for so long and when brought up, the narratives are written in a way which suggests the young girls who were abused were to blame, not the perpetrators. But this is not surprising as this is precisely how patriarchy ‘behaves’: male behaviour is easily explained and the victims are blamed for their predicament. Indeed, in some cases, they are even blamed for causing their own victimisation. If a woman reports a case of sexual assault, the standard used to measure whether she reported within a reasonable time-frame is inherently patriarchal. It is not unusual to hear people demanding why it took her so long to report.
The tone and style of reporting in relation to Mujuru shows ZANU PF is getting jittery over Mujuru’s challenge. However, it also demonstrates how these media entities are institutionally patriarchal, just like the state itself. The dominant actors are male and the institutional culture is inherently patriarchal. This is why it is very easy for The Sunday Mail to run such stories focusing on Mujuru’s sexual behaviour. You would expect male behaviour during the war to be subjected to similar treatment but instead this is suppressed, unless abuse is cited to vilify a particular political target, in this case Mujuru. I recall when the war film, Flame was released in the 1990s, there was serious resistance and vilification within the corridors of power. One reason for this was that the film showed the sexual abuse which took place during the war and this was considered politically incorrect at the time. This was patriarchy refusing to acknowledge abuse by male cadres during the war. But now they are bringing it up only because it is convenient for their agenda to vilify Mujuru.
A common problem
This is not the first time that I have written about the plight of women in Zimbabwean politics. Neither is the problem described and analysed here uniquely Zimbabwean. I’m certain it’s an issue that resonates with many across the world. I just chose to write about Zimbabwe, because that is the political space with which I am most familiar. Further, while I have focused on state media and ZANU PF, this behaviour is not limited to those spaces. I have also observed that such attitudes are prevalent in opposition, civil society and business spaces. The vilification of Mujuru, the inherent misogyny and sexist attitudes in the stories attacking her on the basis of her sexual behaviour represent just one example. The reality is that these attitudes are all too common across the board. Women in politics and civil society like Thokozani Khupe, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, Grace Kwnjeh, Beatrice Mtetwa, Jessie Majome, Trudy Stevenson and many others have all suffered the same challenge that Joice Mujuru is going through right now. Oft-times there is no substantive argument against their work and ideas. The cowards simply home in on their personal lives and sexual behaviour. Of course there are male politicians who have been subjected to similar treatment, but by far the predominant victims of such attacks are female politicians and civil society actors.
The irony is that those who live in glass houses are often the ones who throw stones. The political elites and editorial staff who are behind these smear campaigns are themselves not immune to similar romantic liaisons which they are accusing Mujuru of having used to ascend to the top. Indeed, their own bosses’ hands are hardly the cleanest on these matters. The male politicians who have fathered children with other women during their marriages are hardly subjected to the same vile attacks that Mujuru has been subjected to.
The most important negative effect of all this is that women are dissuaded from entering political and civil society space. People wonder why females are under-represented in political spaces and this is one of them. My work allows me to speak to a lot of people. The overwhelming majority of women cite the fear of vilification, smear campaigns, vitriolic attacks and invasion of privacy as factors which cause them to stay away from civil and political spaces. One young lady, whose talent I rate very highly, wrote to me today and she was feeling despondent. “Mukoma,” she wrote, “Look what they are doing to Joice Mujuru, a mother and grandmother, a war veteran of note and a former Vice President of our country. If they can do that to her, what about little people like me?”
I was already disappointed after reading The Sunday Mail. But when I saw that message, my heart sank. It’s not hard to see how and why the country loses great talent in the female ranks given the harsh and unforgiving environment which is both patriarchal and misogynistic. It took me a while, but I thought perhaps a word or two on this issue would be in order. It’s hard to imagine that The Sunday Mail can sink any lower than today’s dismal performance. But then again, this is not the first time I have thought so. They will continue to break records in the relentless race to the bottom.
I started this piece with a reference to Margaret Dongo’s heroics in the 1990s but also cited the irony of her deeply patriarchal statement, which has since morphed into a popular cliché. People might say it does not matter. They might say it’s just a lighter way of illustrating a problem. But this is because people underestimate the force of casual sexism, misogyny and gender-stereotyping. It’s all casualised but it is precisely this casualization which establishes and cements patriarchal norms in society. It makes people believe that it is not a problem. It regularises the irregular.
One of our big challenges, both men and women in political, civil society and academic spaces, is to knock down the walls and pillars of patriarchy. There is too much talent that goes to waste because the political and civil spaces are thoroughly inhibiting and prohibitive and the vile treatment of Joice Mujuru today is just but one example. We can start by ditching the “Mugabe’s wives” cliché because no, our Constitution does not require wives to be subservient and unquestioning followers of their husbands. It demands equality and those are the values that we must be promoting.
Read more at www.alexmagaisa.com