In October, Katswe Sistahood organised a peaceful protest in Harare’s city centre in a campaign dubbed the ‘Miniskirt March’.The march was mainly inspired by the experience of a young woman who had been stripped by touts for allegedly for wearing too short a skirt. There has generally been an increase in random attacks on women perceived to be under-dressed, mostly by touts at bus termini; and just last week, another such violation occurred. A viral video of the public stripping led to an emergency press convening by the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe. As a result, a video produced by Her Zimbabwe created its own virality and has been viewed, at the time of writing, over 8 000 times in just 4 days.
We caught up with feminist activist, Winnet Shamuyarira, who is a Programme Officer at Katswe Sistahood and one of the organisers of the October protest march, to learn more about her perspectives on mass action and future steps in the face of ongoing street harassment.
Natasha Msonza (NM) What was the miniskirt march all about? What was its main objective?
Winnet Shamuyarira (WS): It was a campaign that sought to put across the message that we condemn any acts of violence or sexual harassment perpetrated against women, particularly on the issue of how they choose to dress. It is an infringement on their right to freedom of self-expression, and to freedom of movement. We were making a clear statement that women’s bodies are not battle grounds and this idea that touts have the role to police women’s bodies, and dressing, has to be addressed.
NM: Is it your feeling that this was the most effective way to put the message across?
WS: Everything starts from somewhere, and a statement had to be made. The fact that people are talking about this march – whether negative or positive – means that something has been stirred. The marches we have had in the past on different issues have not generated nearly as much interest and attention. We also had a very good turnout, over 200 women, and this was despite the bad weather and the fact that there had been some mis-communication in some quarters about time and place of the march.
NM: What is or was the overall strategy, following the march?
WS: The march was not an end in itself, but was part of a larger strategy. We have had marches in the past, on issues of interest to women, for example maternal health, the Gumbura issue and Bring Back Our Girls. The bottom line of such direct action is basically to bring attention to important issues. On the miniskirt march, we did get the desired level of attention, as well as a lot of both negative and positive feedback, and we are going back to the drawing board to refine the strategy and maximise on the momentum and traction so far gained, as well as to take this campaign further, more effectively.
We especially need to take into great consideration issues of security and safety for women activists in our networks and women in general, as we anticipate that there could be backlash from the touts following such protest marches. Hence, we are also trying to rope in the police to try and ensure that women’s safety and security is guaranteed,as stipulated by law,in public spaces We are worried that backlash would see more women harassed, and this is something we need to prevent in the future.
On the whole, we realise that we need to change mindsets, and this is quite a big task because power is involved. There is need to challenge the patriarchal ideology that seems to have some men think that they have unfettered control over women’s bodies.
NM: While applauded by some, the march has received criticism from others. Some commentators have stated that were it not for the police escort, the women marchers would have been beaten by dissenting onlookers. What’s your take?
WS: This is true; there was a lot of venom and threats at Town House, with an inexplicable crowd there that threatened to beat up the marchers. But I must hasten to add that I believe that the rowdy crowd of potential troublemakers was a hired crowd paid to disrupt the march and disable women from demanding the right to have agency over their bodies. For three hours they would not disperse and this tells me something about people with idle minds in this country; people who have nothing better to do to the point that they can be so preoccupied with how I am dressed. It’s ridiculous.
We have had criticism against this campaign with some saying that there are better things to be protesting about. Well, these people that concentrate their energies on harassing women; they should also focus on better things like finding employment for themselves and make use of their idle minds. Furthermore, bodily autonomy and guaranteed safety and security are things that are of great importance to me as a young Zimbabwean woman. It is an immediate need that threatens my ability to secure all other rights. If I cannot have ownership of this body and claim it to be mine, how do I even assert myself and talk about my right to water?
Also, one of our biggest targets in this march was the police, because when women are harassed, the police have a responsibility and can play a major role in ensuring that perpetrators of such criminal offenses are effectively dealt with. Roping in the police in a consistent way would probably set an example and bring a certain level of sanity to Harare’s streets and bus termini where most of the harassment of women takes place.
NM: In the feedback that you have received, you might have come across the opinions of women who were against this campaign. What were some of their biggest concerns?
WS: I think there may be a lot of reasons. One, it’s possible that because this was branded as a ‘miniskirt march’, and mini skirts are associated with ‘bad women’, sex workers or women considered loose in some way, we may have lost some women who are opposed in that sense. As I mentioned before, for a lot of people, this really became just about the miniskirt, and not so much about the fundamental issues; women being harassed not so much because of dressing, but a lot more to do with the fact that one is a woman. Some men just think they can exert control over you. I think it is also fundamental to link struggles of dress and all the other struggles that we have to fight as women. The mini skirt may seem like it is removed from other struggles that women face, but central to those struggles are systems – such as patriarchy – that are in place to control women’s agency and bodies. The miniskirt struggle is not separate from struggles against early child marriages, once we start peeling off the layers. It is a struggle against structural inequalities that are inherent in our society.
NM: Have you had any personal experiences of street harassment?
WS: Yes. My first experience was at Fourth Street bus terminus where a few touts ganged up around me and heckled me about my dressing, which they obviously felt was inappropriate. Even though my skirt was just above my knees, they felt it was too short. I however managed to stand my ground firmly, and they eventually dispersed. The second time was at Copacabana where some touts again catcalled and teased me about my body type.
NM: You describe very different scenarios of street harassment, the latter which many might not even realise is an act of harassment due to the way society has ‘normalised’ such activity.
WS: Harassment of women by touts is not just based on your wearing a short skirt, or so-called ‘inappropriate dress’. You can also be harassed for simply having a certain body shape too. In short, they will always find some silly reason for which to abuse you. This is why it became imperative for us to march and say that this is not about miniskirts, because even if you wear the longest of skirts, another excuse to harass you can always be found.
NM: What do you think explains the fact that we rarely hear reports of the sort of downtown street harassment that women experience in uptown Harare?
WS: I have made a similar observation, and I think it’s a class issue to some extent. If you jump off a kombi at Copacabana or Fourth Street, some hwindi (tout) can immediately perceive you to be his inferior and that he has control over you which entitles him to do or say whatever he wants to you. That same hwindi can never do that to the same woman in Avondale or Borrowdale. What is ironic is these women who are stripped at bus termini would have been in kombis from places like Avondale and Borrowdale; and once they suddenly get to Copacabana, their skirts suddenly becomes too short. Did that skirt grow short on the way to Copacabana?
NM: Any final remarks?
WS: These comments about how we should be focusing on so-called bread and butter issues such as water, electricity… For us, the fundamental issue is that issues of bodily autonomy are of equal importance. I won’t be able to go and question someone about electricity if I am not comfortable in my own body. The insecurity of having this very real threat of being randomly abused for what I am wearing is my most immediate concern that needs to be addressed. Those who feel strongly about water and electricity at this point can go ahead and also march about that.
Photograph is republished from www.harare24.com