I thought of Marry Chiwenga when I came across a tweet by renowned South African poet, Lebogang Mashile.
In her tweet, Mashile asserted that society banks on the idea that women’s support for one another is conditional on whether they like the victim as a person. Mashile’s argument that solidarity should not be dependent upon a victim’s likeability would be a tough sell in Zimbabwe, where support is often conditional on whether people like the victim’s political leaning or political faction.
Like our politics, solidarity is polarised. I use the term ‘solidarity’ very loosely and in reference to the act of showing support for someone who is under siege.
If we aspire for a society where gender equality is a reality, we will not get there by cherry-picking which women to defend from gender-based violence, from sexism and from violence during elections.
In 2018, a seemingly strong case was argued in the court of public opinion concerning an ostensible conflict of interest arising from Justice Priscilla Chigumba’s love life. In my view, a case which was supposedly that strong could have stood on its merit without needing the sexist, salacious, misogynistic and melodramatic commentary that accompanied the grand reveal of that illicit affair.
Sexism can be a confusing concept so I must pause to explain how I deploy the term. Firstly, women who hold or seek positions of public leadership can and should face warranted criticism as men do.
Secondly, the criticism of women who hold or seek positions of public leadership should be focused on their ability and experience (or lack thereof), as it is with men.
Yet what often transpires is something I find hard to stomach. It is when the criticism of women who hold or seek positions of public leadership focuses on their character, their morality, their appearance, and their conformity (or lack thereof) to traditional gender roles and norms. That is sexist.
Examples abound of women that have been subjected to this kind gendered and sexist commentary.
If you cannot defend people, defend principles
As new images of Marry Chiwenga went viral, public opinion around her plight was sharply divided. Expressions of empathy were few and far between. When we speak against the abuse of Marry Chiwenga by her powerful husband who is abusing his power by bringing to bear the State machinery to crush his sickly wife, are we defending her specifically or defending a principle, an ideal?
The ideal or principle that State power, resources and institutions should not be hijacked to settle personal scores. Perhaps our ‘dislike’ for Marry Chiwenga (stemming from the privilege she enjoyed as a beneficiary of patronage, corruption and looting) is more important than defending democratic principles, human rights principles and yes, even feminist principles.
When we choose to not defend ‘unlikeable’ women when they are being victimised, regardless of the form that victimisation takes, we concede ground. We concede ground because we make it seem as though our principles, ideals and core values are conditional rather than non-negotiable and flexible rather than fixed.
To avoid conceding ground, we must learn to defend principles and not people, especially when doing so is inconvenient.
In 2018, Grace Kwinjeh argued that any feminist or women’s rights activist worth their salt needed to assess the situation through fine lenses because Justice Chigumba was destroying the hopes and aspirations of a generation. Kwinjeh asserted that Justice Chigumba was not advancing the cause of women, but actually setting it back quite substantially by becoming “an obstacle to a free and fair election”.
In the case of Chigumba, one might argue that Kwinjeh’s support for her as a victim was withheld because it was conditional on Chigumba’s political leaning, personal choices and what those choices said about her character.
Ground was conceded
I know ground was conceded because two years later, Kwinjeh would pen a brilliant but piercing article decrying the misogynistic attacks she was being subjected to, which she observed was consistent with a pattern of violence againstwomen in both ZANU PF and the MDC.
“Instead of focusing on the merits or demerits of my concern, I endured 72 hours of the most horrible, torment, attacks on my person by democrats. The same mentality in Zanu PF of humiliating in order to silence, became clear, I was called all sorts, ‘Chembere’ ‘Gogo’.” – (Grace Kwinjeh)
In her article, Kwinjeh noted how there has never been outrage at attacks against Thokozani Khupe allegations that she pleasures herself on the President of the country because instead of opposing Khupe with solid arguments, the ‘hure’ tag hovers over her head, as “senior male leaders write without shame on her wall that she has opened her skirts for Mnangagwa”.
Kwinjeh was appalled that these senior male MDC leaders, these democrats, saw nothing wrong with this.
Every ‘unlikeable’ victimised woman that we choose to not defend (because of their political affiliation or whatever else) represents an inch of ground we are conceding along our journey to a new Zimbabwe that is tolerant, democratic and equal.
The right of all women to live free of patriarchal oppression, discrimination and violence – as envisioned in the Charter of Feminist Principles – depends on it.
Ultimately, whenever women concede ground in the face of sexism and misogyny, they act against their own interests.
Milayo Ndou is a feminist thinker and media scholar pursuing research on Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWIE). She has a keen interest in tracing how gendered repression manifests and the ways in which it constricts women’s effective political participation. Twitter handle: @MilayoNdou