Her Zimbabwe (HZ) recently had the pleasure to meet and interview Shereen Essof (SE), a Zimbabwean feminist activist who has worked with a range of social justice organisations focusing on feminist political education, movement building and the creation of accessible information. She has published widely in the area of feminism, women’s movements and social movement organising for both online and hard copy journals in South Africa and internationally. She currently works as regional coordinator of Just Associates Southern Africa (JASS).
HZ: In your opinion, what is the current state of women’s organising and Zimbabwe’s women’s movem
SE: The women’s movement, like civil society, has been affected by the social, political and economic environment of the last few years. There has been an incredible level of fracturing that has happened; and a weakening, a polarisation, a lack of political principles and practices. This has been exacerbated by the unravelling of the social fabric of Zimbabwe, the movement of people for reasons of political, economic and social security. The issue is also about how people have chosen to vision themselves and whether Zimbabwe is a place that can hold those visions. All of this has impacted on women’s organising.
HZ: Have there been any other factors that you would say have impacted this fracturing?
SE: There is also the issue of donors’ shift and change with regards to priorities; they take a step back or take a step forward depending on their reading of the context. If we are not careful they mould how we think about ourselves and our work. Their impact on women’s organising in Zimbabwe can’t be ignored because the face of the women’s movement in Zimbabwe has in the last two decades been an NGO face.
Survival politics is also important to acknowledge. When you are in a place where you need to survive from day to day at the most basic level, and where the context is one of repression, it becomes very difficult to position yourself in more radical ways because your positioning comes with certain consequences.
So I think that women’s organisations, for a range of different reasons that I am not going to necessarily be critical of in this conversation, have managed to stay alive and stay afloat through a very careful reading and navigation of the whole context as it has played itself out. But a consequence of that strategy, I think, is that you can end up being part of the status quo and by extension, a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
One of the things that the power bases in this country have done successfully is to kill our ability to dream and think of alternatives. For me, that is one the biggest violations that can happen because if you don’t have the ability to dream, to vision something different you become stuck. From my reading, that has happened to some parts of the more recognised “women’s movement”. The strategies and approaches of the 1990s are of that time. They served a purpose at that time but our context has shifted. And the question has to be: What role or spaces can women’s organisations morph into in order to really begin to think critically of themselves and about the work that needs to be done moving forward?
This is a bold thing to say, but women’s organising in Zimbabwe – and even in the region – does not have a strong ideological base. I’m not usually an advocate for ideology, but I use the word ‘ideology’ as a politics. We could ask: What is the politics that is informing our organising, or our movement?
HZ: Could you give an example of what this politics could look like?
SE: An example is the MST, which is a movement of the landless people in Brazil. They work from a base that notes that capitalism, neo-liberalism and patriarchy are systems that are oppressive in different ways to both men and women and therefore have to be fought against. If that is the base, then it means every single decision made after that is informed by a politics.
Their analysis has led them to a point where they have identified the need to create alternative schools because they note that the schools that already exist will only continue to produce children who are going to be fed into the system that they are trying to fight. So they have set up alternative schools; they currently have a university that is staffed by people who have come through the system they have developed.
A variety of types of cooperation characterise the MST’s rural land reform settlements. The movement has established a monthly newspaper to communicate its ideas, an educational system based on a “work-and-study” methodology, and an intense process of political-ideological formation through study groups on radical theory. Within some of these groups, a newly developed consciousness concerning social, rather than private, ownership of the means of production is emerging. They are attempting to put their politics into practice.
The MST is by no means perfect, but one of the lessons I take from them is that as a movement, they have become influential, with thousands of activists fighting for agrarian reform with revolutionary passion. Solidarity, social justice, and autonomy are their fundamental ethical values.
HZ: Do you think that Zimbabwe is ready for a politics?
SE: Yes, I do think so. Because if not now, then when? I think it may be complex but I think there are enough people – certainly whom I have met – who, if they came together in a particular configuration, could form a base (even in the smallest way) and be able to push for something different. But that takes a different kind of work. It takes grounded organising work, the creation of spaces for political education, for feminist popular education. What we have at the moment is not taking us anywhere; or if it is taking us somewhere, it is taking us down a dark and destructive path. And it’s not just destruction of things like the economy, it’s destruction of the self. People are broken in different ways and how we create safe spaces to think about and politicise self care is critical to reimagining what we can do as women.
HZ: So would you then say there is one unified movement, or rather, splinters of different movements in Zimbabwe?
SE: That’s a question that hinges a lot on theory and one’s understanding of movements; and I don’t want to go too much into that. What I do want to say is that the terrain is very large and there’s space for a range of different kinds of interventions. For me, what is critical is that women’s organising, or feminist organising, has to be rooted in transformatory power based on a reading of oppression. It’s not just about patriarchy. It’s about challenging and dismantling patriarchy and all oppressive systems. The naming – do we have a movement, don’t we, are you a feminist, are you a gender activist – sometimes becomes a ball and chain.
I have found women in rural contexts who do not understand the language of feminism, but yet are transforming their lives and the lives of other women in their communities. Over a sustained period of time and with increasing numbers; is that not a feminist movement of women? I have also been in spaces that are completely unconventional where women are organising from a politics that is completely transformatory.
HZ: Transformatory how?
SE: Transformatory in terms of challenging power and the institutions of patriarchy stacked in a way that works against women. I’ll give you a story from the communities we work in as Just Associates (JASS) Southern Africa.
There’s a community of women in Malawi that we work with. The women are amazingly strong and passionate. They are leaders. For women, life is hard and the stigma of being HIV positive is heavy; women’s bodies become sites of struggle.
In one instance, HIV positive women appealed to the chief for land and fertiliser – both important resources. After listening to the women, he announced that he would not waste important resources on walking corpses. This was met with approval from the broader community. Months later, one of the women leaders was sitting eating dinner with her children when she saw an old bent man standing at the door; it was the chief. Never before had he made such a move.
He said he went to the hospital and was tested HIV positive. He needed help.
This woman claimed her power and told him she would help but that there were conditions. He was to call a meeting and explain that when he refused to give fertiliser to the women, he did not know what he was doing and he had to apologise. He needed to declare his status there and then, and persuade people to go for testing. Above all, he would find fertiliser for the group of women. Only then would he be allowed to join the support group as the only man.
The lives of those women and that community will never be the same again.