If there continues to be little formal and published telling of herstory from within the Zimbabwean women’s movement, the story will continue to be told to us by others who may not have all the facts right or be so kind about the flaws and failures the movement endured.
The book ‘Shemurenga: The women’s movement, 1995-2000’ launched in March 2013 attempts to rectify this by telling her side of the story. And coming at a time when there is much hearsay and questioning of the role the women’s movement has played in the lives of ordinary Zimbabwean women’s lives, it has definitely arrived at an opportune moment.
Authored by well known feminist researcher, Shereen Essof, ‘Shemurenga’ does a good job of retelling women’s own recollections and herstory of the struggle for their rights, within the context of other struggles Zimbabwe’s people have gone through such as the liberation war, land redistribution and constitutional reform. In essence it is the telling of ‘Shemurenga’, translated to mean ‘her struggle’.
Does Zimbabwe have a women’s movement?
I read the entire book on a 300-kilometre journey between Harare and Masvingo and could not put it down. But that’s not to say that Shemurenga is an easy read. It is technical and full of jargon; it would have been wonderful if it were a lighter read that ordinary women in every corner of Zimbabwe could read and pass on. At the same time, however, the book bravely attempts to answer – in under 80 pages – the question, “Does Zimbabwe have a women’s movement?”.
Essof insists that rigid definitions can hinder our perceptions of our organising because it is the forms of organising which are disqualified as ‘movements’ which form the bulk of women’s organising worldwide, and locally. Particularly refreshing is the author’s admission that there cannot be one story about the women’s movement because there is no one universal women’s experience since women are not all the same and so cannot have an undifferentiated collective recollection of events and experiences. Shemurenga is thus the tale of women from different walks of life coming together, with a common vision, when it matters most.
The book paints a detailed picture of the journey Zimbabwe has travelled from Independence up until 2000, and details the beginning of formal women’s organising as we know it today. Essof adds necessary context to the book’s focal years, 1995-2000, by detailing moments like the formation of the first formal women’s organisations such as the Association of Women’s Clubs formed by the Methodist church.
A brief exploration of the advent of codified “customary law” is insightful as it shows how the colonial system and western views of womanhood have heavily influenced customary law, helping to entrench the more patriarchal aspects of Zimbabwean culture.
The reader is also taken through the journey of the post-Independence struggles against this status quo, led by women who had fought in the war as well as their peers in academia and other professional codes. Their work, the book notes, resulted in the passing of a plethora of new laws soon after independence which protected women’s rights, key among them the Legal Age of Majority Act (LAMA) – a ground breaking law that awarded women the majority status at the age 18 that men already enjoyed.
Essof skillfully weaves the story together to show the initial commitment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to women’s organising, writing at length about the ministry’s formation, its early work and close relationship to activists. But she is also very candid about how, after a while, the women’s movement realised that the state had no intention of challenging women’s subordination and therefore, the status quo.
It was the 1983 ‘Operation Clean Up’, a police exercise that set a curfew for women and rounded them up if they were seen unaccompanied at night, which provoked a change in women’s consciousness and organising, thereby triggering a new form of activism outside of the state and Ministry of Women’s Affairs. For the first time, women came together from around Zimbabwe to protest the operation. As a result, well known women’s organisations such as Women’s Action Group (WAG), Musasa Project and Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) – among others – emerged.
As Essof documents, the organising did not stop with Operation Clean Up but continued when government declared a land acquisition programme which made clear that the government’s gender considerations would be accidental at best. Analysis of women’s access to land showed that land was conferred – upon marriage – to families, which in the self-perpetuating patriarchal system, were represented by men. Thus, women had challenges accessing the land which they too had fought and collaborated in the liberation war to acquire.
While this early history, and limitations thereof, sets the scene for the five year period under Essof’s analysis, one of the challenges I had with the book was that Essof writes much on the background of the formation of the women’s movement as we know it today, leaving little room to extensively unpack the period under the book’s review.
All the same, the narratives about coalition-building make for insightful reading as Essof takes the reader through moments of increased consciousness and boldness brought about by Zimbabwean women’s participation at international women’s organising platforms such as the Beijing World Conference, the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, among others.
Ground-breaking moments are also recorded, such as the historic ruling by the Supreme Court which allowed Zimbabwean women to bestow citizenship on their husbands and children. The 1999 Magaya vs Magaya case where the courts ruled against Venia Magaya accessing her father’s estate due to the patriarchal dictates of customary law dealt a major blow to the women’s movement as it reinforced discrimination against women with regards inheritance and property law.
Essof’s retelling of the formation of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and its subsequent organising around constitutional reform is particularly well-timed given that this book launched just before the passing of a new constitution in Zimbabwe which will hopefully bring into being many of the demands tabled by the women’s movement in the past decades.
The place of feminism in Zimbabwean women’s organising
As a self-identifying feminist, Essof delves into an analysis of feminism within Zimbabwe’s women’s movement, something that quite often elicits divisive feedback.
As she notes, feminism in Zimbabwe has questioned the status quo of gender and power relations – and has thus often been ridiculed and labelled as western and imperialist, and not born of local women’s needs and demands. As a result, many in the women’s movement have distanced themselves from the terminology of feminism even as they dedicate their energies towards its causes.
As one of the respondents interviewed by Essof for the book notes, “Zimbabwean women were not ready to defend feminism”. Thus the language of feminism gradually disappeared to be replaced instead by its more subtle alternatives such as ‘gender’ and ‘mainstreaming’.
Observes Essof, the very women’s organisations born of revolution have today joined the global fold where feminist discourse is largely muted and limited to safe spaces. Feminist dialogue still exists within these spaces, but – she notes – it is not articulated much outside of them.
Shemurenga’s account of the women’s movement’s work between 1995-2000 in no way romanticises what transpired; Essof is candid in retelling both the successes and failures of the movement. To sum it up, ‘Shemurenga’ boldly confesses this;
“If we are going to judge a (women’s) movement by its inability to enshrine, protect and preserve women’s rights, then yes the movement fails. But, if we … view struggle as process… moving forward incrementally over time…then a complex and interesting scenario unfolds. It is a scenario that reveals exciting potential for women’s activism in Zimbabwe”.
Young women and men scoff at feminism and women’s organising from a position of relative ignorance, yet a lot of gains have been made to allow us our existence as we know it today. Too many of us have no idea about that. ‘Shemurenga’ is a wake-up call to the next generation of the women’s movement, an account of what it has taken to get us here and a reminder that the struggle is far from over.
There is work yet to be done; for ourselves, our daughters and our future.