In past weeks, Zimbabwean gossip – from the mainstream media to social media to bars and public transport – has been dominated by talk of the conviction, on multiple charges of rape, of End Time Message church leader Martin Gumbura’s, and the accompanying fate of his eleven wives.
“Who will now have his women?” asked one online publication.
An interesting question, and one which suggests these women are in need of rescuing – and salvation from (sexual) solitude – after their husband has been sentenced to 40 years in prison on four counts of rape and one for possession of pornographic material. It is also quite interesting that while such questioning suggests that these women are “his” (Gumbura’s), it is concurrently implied that these women are now public and charitable goods that someone must take over ownership of.
Comments suggesting similar concerns, on social platforms like Facebook, have seen some men offering to take in the youngest or prettiest of the wives, keeping them ‘satisfied’ until Gumbura’s return, if he indeed returns at all.
These sentiments got me asking myself a few questions. Are these women as helpless and gullible as some media and social debates have so far painted them out to be; these wives whose ages range between 24 and 52? Could there be more of a strategy to the choices that they have made for their lives? Are they victims, villains or victors?
In one of Gumbura’s court hearings, the prosecution insisted that his wives had been brain-washed and indoctrinated to an extent that they were afraid to leave the house, even during his time in remand prison. The court was also shown a letter in which one of the wives asked if the women could sit in the lounge to watch television. In his defence, Gumbura stated that that was his way of reigning over his family and instilling discipline as they could not watch television all the time, and not every channel either. Instead, he preferred that they watch some of his recorded sermons.
Some would view these women as hapless victims of patriarchy; victims of a hegemonic masculine oppression. Some feminist perspectives view women – and men – as slaves to the rigid gender roles that society has imposed upon them, and which favour hypersexual expressions of masculinity, to the detriment of all other expressions (the monogamous man/ the sexually adventurous woman, etc).
It is thus this system that perpetuates oppression (patriarchy), and the mission, therefore, is to overthrow this system through any possible means. Gumbura is, in this regard, a stumbling block to the mission of transforming society equitably.
Through the religious and cultural prescriptions of the life he has lived with these women, he has kept them within rigid gendered roles that celebrate continuous child-bearing, domesticity and feminine docility.
In this view, patriarchy – with its learned, accepted and confining systems of being ‘man’ and more especially, ‘woman’ – is the only viable basis upon which these women can be defined, despite the fact that some of them are well educated and were gainfully employed (and therefore somewhat autonomous) before this union. Education and/or independence do not bring half as many benefits, and in the same amount of time, that sharing one wealthy man with ten other women may bring.
The ‘victims’ argument – the victims of patriarchy – is furthered by accounts such as those that state that these wives called Gumbura by the pet-name ‘Shewe’, which I have been made to understand means “My lord”. It is hard to imagine a woman in love calling her sweetheart by a domineering name like that, but then again, some women will do and say anything to make their men feel like all-providing kings.
In other conversations, views on the eleven have stood in polarity to the first. They have been called opportunists; gold diggers willing to give away their freedom for the ‘good life’, or at least the financially sound life. In an interview with the Teclar, Gumbura’s third wife, is said to have given up her job as a bank teller to be one of Gumbura’s wives. In an article carried by the Herald, she speaks of how she was promised a better life and double her salary every month if she joined the union.
“I consider my marriage with him as greener pastures. The more children I bear the more money I get. I have five children and want more,” she boasted.
Clearly, this woman has abandoned all possibilities of surviving through her own means, except through her sexuality and ability to bear children. While a similar argument to that raised previously, here Gumbura’s wives and their deliberate efforts to perpetuate a limited notion of an acceptable femininity – and not Gumbura himself – represent the ultimate setback.
Some feminist views see femininity and reproduction as a limitation to women’s abilities to fully and meaningfully contribute to society, its growth and development. Women should essentially be ‘genderless’ or ‘sexless’, and hence neutral. As such, women should control every aspect of their feminine sexuality; including how and when they reproduce, with less time being devoted to child-bearing. Promoted strongly may be interventions that include abortion, contraceptives and other forms of birth control.
Teclar’s bold declaration that her ambition is to have more children in order to earn more money from her husband therefore contradicts such notions, constructing her as a villain where this cause of liberation – by rejection of ‘normative’ reproductive roles – is concerned. In other words, these women are intentionally perpetuating patriarchy through confining their feminine autonomy, which is a choice available to them. This may be seen as selling out, or a state of villainess, to other women fighting for equality and rights.
Yet still, these wives can be constructed as victors; victors against a society that likes to dictate how a woman must live her life, or win her battles against patriarchy. Who says every woman wants to be independent by toiling every day for her survival? Who says every woman defines employment and monogamous unions as symbols of freedom?
In the same Herald interview referenced before, two of the wives are said to be related. Concilia, who is older, confesses that she invited Pamela, her niece, into the polygamous setup arguing that she could not enjoy the good living all by herself.
“We dress exquisitely when he is here,” one of the wives said. “We also do each other’s hair and sew. We know which hairstyle Shewe prefers on this woman, what he does not like on that one. We emphasise on working on our weaknesses rather than attacking each other’s strengths.”
Clearly these wives are comrades in arms and have a winning strategy over one man’s sexual weakness. In her book, Adrienne Levy references the rise of what she calls ‘raunch culture’; a form of feminism that uses women’s sexual strengths to exploit the patriarchal system. This can involve frolicking to male-oriented fantasies for economic gain.
In this way, while men may think they are getting what they want, women are actually giving men what they want in exchange for what the women need. At no point is the woman out of power or without control, or agency.
When one considers the assets and businesses that Gumbura owned, the concubines and unfortunate victims of his sexual lust, his eleven wives really did not have to carry out much in terms of sexual obligations to get the life they seem to have gained in exchange.
Furthermore after his incarceration, the wives have had the freedom to go about their business ‘as usual’, driving their cars in and out of their mansion without any attempts to escape their life of ‘misery’. They have been going shopping and keeping up appearances in a seemingly normal way.
One would expect that if they were under as tight a leash as conveyed through the media, many of their resources would have been frozen by now, with the requirement that Gumbura himself authorise access to them.
The homogeneity of womanhood
Whichever angle you choose to look at this issue and the fate of Gumbura’s wives from, what stands true is that they have redefined the position and status of women in relation to marriage today, and proven that not all women think and move in one direction all the time.
Women are not homogenous. Some seek liberty (financial or otherwise) in the confines of a polygamous marriage to a very wealthy and sexually ribald man, while some seek it in the vast choices they can make from outside the limitations of marriage and reproductivity.
As women, we may all may want freedom. But freedom means different things to different women, depending on who defines it, how, and why; so much so that one woman’s victim is another woman’s victor.
Photos are, in chronological order, from www.herald.co.zw, www.rodkaromanovich.deviantart.com, www.bigislandchronicle.com and www.ppdtojoy.com