Zimbabwean Women In Social Media Spaces: A Critical Analysis Of The Potential And Challenges Facing Women In Social Media-Based Democratic Struggles

by Sibusisiwe Bhebhe

Often during revolutions women’s contributions in effecting social change are conveniently forgotten, convoluted and twisted to suit the dominant narratives. Sometimes they are trivialised. In some cases, they are completely erased from the history books. At best, they are presented as the supporting act to the main actors, who are predominantly male. This much is evident in the narratives of Zimbabwe’s struggle for liberation. However, even looking at post-independent Zimbabwe, the struggle for women’s inclusion on the political landscape and their contributions remains a key issue.images

Although the winter of protests in Zimbabwe, as exemplified by the spate of demonstrations by public transport operators, civil servants and cross-border traders, as well as social media-inspired hashtag protests #Tajamuka & #Thisflag do not constitute a revolution, they were significant markers in Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy and political change. It is arguable that this winter awakening includes mini-revolutions of sorts, such as in respect of women’s attitudes towards self-expression on economic and political matters and participation on social media platforms. This on its own, can be viewed as a sectoral revolution within the broader scheme of social media-inspired protests.  Because this sectoral revolution was passive, as in being an underlying phenomenon taking place often at subliminal levels, there is always a danger of it remaining unexplored or ignored in the ‘usual’ mainstream analysis of foreground events. This important in order to fully appreciate the role of women and their possible impact in future social media activism and mobilisation.

A Season of ‘firsts’?

 For a lot of Zimbabwe’s millennials, the three months between May and August 2016 were among the most exciting in political terms since they began to understand the political environment in the country. Social media has created a new and important platform for political critique, debate, activism and mobilisation. The activism, engagement, confrontations, political casualties, coupled with the suspense, thrill and plot-twists appeared stranger than fiction, and like something straight out of a John Grisham novel .

In the process, many firsts were registered. A key development was the appropriation of the national flag by citizens as a symbol of political protest. It is possible that outside of 1980 and major sporting events, this period marked the first time that the Zimbabwean flag has been this popular among a cross-section of citizens. Not only did many have it on their social media profile pictures, but some carried it with them wherever they went or wore it or its colours as both political and fashion statements. The flag itself was an instrument of free speech – encapsulating the pains, complaints and dreams of citizens. For the first time in a long period, many Zimbabweans were proud to wear the label of ‘patriots’, but in a counter-hegemonic manner which reclaimed patriotism and its symbols (the national flag included), from those who in the past had mastered the use of patriotism and its symbols for purposes of propping up hegemonic and politically-partisan narratives. This reclamation and restatement of a new patriotism embarrassed and challenged many self-proclaimed nationalists and patriots who had hitherto defined patriotism in exclusionary terms. This appropriation of the national flag challenged their exclusionary narrative and there were even threats to ban the use of the national flag in political protests.

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Amongst other ‘firsts’, this winter of discontent and protest also registered the first time in a long time that  the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation  publicly denounced their patron President Robert Mugabe. The season also marked the first time that ordinary citizens have widely used social media to mobilise each other for on the ground protests to express their frustration at government failures. It also marked the first time that ruling party youths were pressured into action to give a counter-narrative response to citizens action by marching (for or against -its been confusing) their party, to somehow prove  that they still had the numbers to back their leader’s stay in power. It marked a time when citizens thronged the courts at scale ( in their thousands) to support an accidental but inspirational leader, Pastor Evan Mawarire, who inspired the social movement now dubbed #Thisflag. It evidenced the first time that an estimated hundred lawyers offered themselves as representatives for  the cleric, pro bono.  The events of this winter, especially the #Thisflag campaign also saw more women than ever before finding their “activist’s voice” on social media, most of them millennials, who were discovering this side of themselves, for the very first time.

Women and activism in Zimbabwe

The reality of course, is that far from being novices or new-comers in activism, Zimbabwean women’s participation in  protests and revolutions dates back to pre-independence Zimbabwe.  Even during the early colonial times icons in the battle against segregation included women like Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo, wife of King Lobhengula  of the Ndebele and Mbuya Nehanda, a spirit medium in Mashonaland . While Mbuya Nehanda features in a lot of the narratives, Queen Lozikeyi remains relatively muted. It is quite possible that there were more women of that era who made important contributions to the resistance in the early years of colonialism but have been written out of history. As such, only Mbuya Nehanda tends to feature amongst a host of male figures. In more modern times the likes of Sally Mugabe, Johanna Mafuyana, Fay Chung, Judith Todd, Sheba Tavagwisa, Joice Mujuru and Jane Ngwenya  are among a long list of reputable, strong women who confronted the colonial regime to usher in majority rule. Despite having been a senior member of the ZAPU leadership, Jane Ngwenya, who still lives hardly ever gets a mention and lives a life far removed from those who lead Zimbabwe. Sheba Tavagwisa, reputed to have been a widely respected commander was not even given the honour of national hero when she died. In recent days, the narrative of Joice Mujuru’s role in the struggle has been manipulated and trivialised to that of a girl of loose morals who hopped from one bed to another in service of the male guerrillas. The patriarchy and misogyny that informs these exclusionary narratives was recently articulated by Alex Magaisa in his article entitled,“Scandalising Joice Mujuru: The Toxic mix of patriarchy and misogyny in Zimbabwean politics”http://alexmagaisa.com/2016/08/21/scandalising-joice-mujuru-the-toxic-mix-of-patriarchy-and-misogyny-in-zimbabwean-politics/ The narrative deliberately excludes or trivialises women’s contributions.

Even more recently, struggles for women’s equality and recognition at various levels of society have been championed by women, both individuals and institutions. From the associations of women’s clubs in the 80’s, to women’s unclaimed leadership of pro-democracy movements as presently constituted in Zimbabwe, these exemplified by the role of the Women’s Coalition in the formation of the constitutional contra movement of the late 90’s which eventually gave birth to the National Constitutional Assembly and eventually the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. Unsung heroines of civic activism like Thoko Matshe who chaired the National Constitutional Assembly in 2000, as democratic institutions gave their first big blow to ZANU PF’s hypnotic control over poll outcomes, at the referendum for a new constitution. Matshe also went on to presided over the establishment of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Some of the names in the early struggles for women’s rights include Everjoice Win, who was a trailblazer with the Women’s Action Group, giving a voice to women when it was almost taboo to challenge the dominant male and patriarchal narratives. More recently, women like Jenny Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and their consistent street actions, multiple beatings and arrests, Virginia Muwanigwa and the Women’s Coalition’s role in championing the new constitution, Jestina Mukoko and the Zimbabwe Peace Project’s efforts at monitoring and promoting peace at grave personal cost. Rindai Chipfunde-Vava’s leadership on elections and electoral reform since 2000, Irene Petras’ over a decade leadership of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights to provide cover for human rights defenders and activists among many others, have all been at the front and center of contemporary political struggles from civil society, but less acknowledged than their male counterparts. Multi-award winning lawyer and chairperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, the respected and fearless Beatrice Mtetwa has been among the few most consistent human rights defenders whose reputation extends internationally.

Some of these women have clearly been vibrant and visionary leaders, as are the structures they formed around their visions, but their visibility has often been impaired and profiles muted. Some due to institutionalized annihilation of women’s voices and their achievements, others due to fear of public scrutiny, judgement and or fear of state security reprisals. The abduction and torture of human rights’ activist and veteran journalistJestina Mukoko, the incarceration on unfounded charges for over a year of ZimRights Deputy Director Cynthia Manjoro, the arrest and detention of women like Florence Ndlovu and Patricia Tshabalala and the latest long incarceration of Linda Masarira, all serve as constant reminders of the states capacity to deal brutally with women activists. During the 2008 election violence, women and girls were the most vulnerable with sexual abuse being the weapon of choice against them. The wonder then, when very intelligent and articulate women refuse to be quoted in the media for fear of at best being misunderstood, misread and misquoted, and at worst being victimised, incarcerated, sexually-abused and tortured as reprisals. Even where the media utilises no quotations, it often uses women as the bad end of marketable headlines, usually without retraction or apology.

The gendered dynamics of Social Media, alternative activism & new media as protest platforms

The fears faced in real life encounters have since permeated the social media sphere, a space viewed by scholars like Zizi Papacharissi in The Virtual Sphere, as having tremendous potential for civic engagement and governance. Others like Simon Susen in Critical Notes on Habermas’ Theory of the Public Sphere, see this space as having multiple alternative public spheres on the strength of ever changing modern communication trends, notably new information and communication technologies and the internet.

The Habermasian concept of the public sphere, as a metaphorical transitional space of engagement in which various groups in society are afforded platforms of engagement and debate between and with power holders at levels of relative equality, has been given fresh meaning by new media. The initial spirit in which exchanges are meant to be frank and debates unencumbered by protocol seem to have found greater expression in this redefined public sphere, were spaces have moved from physical to virtual.

Social media platforms like Twitter,  Facebook and WhatsApp seem to have a largely equalising effect on participants as they have equal access to the same service features, word limits (in the case of twitter) and so forth. One can come and go as they please, tag whomever they want and set the agendas to be debated on their wall. This is not to say there are no inequalities on social media. No. Virtual spaces like real life platforms host their own biases and binaries. Online language is learned and this puts those more fluent in it at a higher advantage than social media “novices”. Similarly, elitism and cliques exist on social media platforms just as they do in real life to the extent that groups are formed and engage according to interests, intellectual contributions and at times even formed around offline social interaction. Furthermore with the commercialisation of some of these social spaces, it is yet to be seen how neutral they remain as future access to people and content may well be based on who has paid the most money to do so.

While social media use has gained tremendous ground in Zimbabwe over the last decade, women seem to be still afraid, in the main, to take up free expression on these platforms.  This is attributable to the reality that the same vices that bedevil them in the physical terrain have also manifested in the virtual spheres

Women attempting to raise issues and express their opinions on social media have been trolled, stalked, harassed more than their male counterparts. In 2015 the UN Women released a report stating that cyber-bullying against women had become as violent as physical bullying, with 73% of women who use the internet having reported that they have been victims of cyberbullying.

It is, therefore, noteworthy, that the uptake of social media as a platform for response and expression by women, who in the past have either been present but quiet or not on any of  these platforms at all, has  gained traction. Between the months of May and August 2016, comments on governance, posts and articles in response to government action or inaction towards citizen’s demands, and the support of growing movements like #Thisflag  and “#Tajamuka”, among other nationwide formations, have also been buoyed by women’s fervent engagement and participation. Videos in the mould of pastor Evan Mawarire’s, have also been seen from women showing that they too are also either unafraid, or can no longer go on without asking tough questions of leaders and expressing how they feel about what is happening in the country.  An increased number of female twitter users has been noted engaging and tagging politicians directly to respond to issues. Users who were previously passive, picture posters or just likers of other users’ posts , are now seen sharing, commenting and posting about political and socio- economic issues in the country.

Notable are social media activists like @Madube who has not shied away from tackling political conversations and confronting the powers that be on her twitter timeline. Similarly, seasoned off-line activists, like Jenny Williams and Nyari Mashayamombe, are now more active on twitter and facebook, respectively, with the latter even recording videos and posting her critique of government misconduct on her facebook wall.

Far from just raising trivial “salon talk”, women are using social media for critical analysis and engagement on key national issues. Women like Advocate Fadzayi Mahere have penned  thought provoking analyses raising cross-cutting political issues and calling leaders within and without the state to account. Social commentators, like Jean Gosho, who wrote an open letter to express her disappointment at Pastor Evan Mawarire’s decision to leave the country, are also asking very critical questions and raising pertinent issues on these public domains.

Missing links: From Tweets to Streets and Streets to Tweets

 Despite the amazing ground women have gained as articulated above, the missing link has been and remains women’s activism across platforms. Often, the faces of female activists on the streets are not translated to virtual existence, this is why the appearance of stalwarts like MP Jessie Majome and Jenni Williams on Facebook and Twitter are notable, commendable and encouraging. The reverse is also true, as influencers on social media seem to have limited ground or physical presence. In promoting their “Beat the Pots” campaign, the MDC-T women’s league took  to social media to promote and mobilise, something they had hitherto not widely used, if at all. Women who have always maintained an online presence may now need to take similar steps, cross the floor; and venture into physical spaces – something akin to what Magaisa has referred to as moving from the terraces to the dancefloor.. #Thisflag seemed to encourage this when hundreds of women who are very active online stepped out to rally behind calls to release pastor Evan Mawarire when he was charged with inciting public violence and trying to subvert a democratically elected government on 12 July 2016. Brave female activists like Linda Masarira who is still in prison as I write, have dared to step out and be counted. She represents a growing number of brave women who are using all available spaces on and offline to call the Zimbabwean government to account, regardless of consequences.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that many women, especially young women, have been active and vocal on social media. However, even more women have emerged and taken to social media “streets” with a level of boldness and strength that had not been seen prior to the ‘#Thisflag campaign. Social media has become to them more than a “meet and greet” space, but a “meet and make an impact” space so to speak. Whether this momentum will hold, is a question best left to the future and fortune tellers. What is relatively certain is that the recent strength women seem to have gained, and the voices they have discovered is testament of how much fear is out there among women, and how far many of them would and will contribute to discourses on governance if their safety were to be assured. The voices need to be many, louder, clearer and at times coordinated to have impact. Whatever the outcome of the past months’ events, one thing is certain, women have found a formidable voice through social media, it is about time that voice is used to its fullest potential.

 

Sibusisiwe Bhebhe is a journalist , media and gender activist who loves to give commentary on emerging social issues. She can be contacted on twitter @busiebhebhe. The article appeared first at www.alexmagaisa.com