This month, we celebrate Independence Day, a day that was instituted to celebrate and honour the fight against colonial forces and those who fought this battle until the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. We are all very aware of the process by now; the rhetoric has become very clear – we go to the National Sports Stadium where we speak about the glories of the war and the importance of our sovereignty. So entrenched within this rhetoric have we become that we have ceased to question or gain new perspectives surrounding the meaning of this nationalism in contemporary Zimbabwe, especially as it pertains to a nationalist feminist history.
The policy of remembrance, as we will notice during the month of August – when Heroes’ Day is commemorated – has a heavy focus on the men who fought in the liberation struggle, valorising their legacy of violence. There is, conversely, gross marginalisation of women; not only of their role in the struggle as fighters, but also as casualties. Absent from our celebrations are women who contributed to the cause of our liberation and, of course, the nature of their experiences within this war.
A lost masculinity and the omission of women’s role in literature
The colonial project had a simple agenda – to destroy – and it managed to do just that. This destruction was not merely on a physical level but very much on a consciousness level too, destroying the African mind and psyche. There was an infantilisation of the African which resulted in the feeling of emasculation amongst African men, and thus induced much frustration and anger. It is evident, then, that the nationalist liberation movements were triggered by the desire to regain the self through regaining a sense of masculinity. Christiansen states that the liberation project then became one to “regain an African manhood subjugated by colonial oppression”. This means that while collectively, it was a fight to regain space on a personal level, there was a simultaneous drive to assert a lost masculinity. This very much shaped the violent nature of the response to oppression.
This is made very clear in the representation of nationalist movements within African literature. The narratives that represent the history of this nation, written by male writers, aspire to attain this sense of self through regaining masculinity and reconstructing the violence contained in the liberation struggle. Muponde comments that
“Some of the war novels published after independence in 1980 had predictably heroic protagonists. Here I have in mind Edmund Chipamaunga’s A Fighter for Freedom (1982); Garikayi Mutasa’s The Contact (1985); I.V Mazorodze’s Silent Journey from the East (1986); Shimmer Chinodya’s Child of War (1985). Protagonists of these novels joined the war on the ‘right side’, and made their contribution towards the repossession of the land that the white settlers had ‘wrested’ from the Africans. The war is portrayed as a glorious opportunity to ‘correct the imbalances’ in land distribution.”
Rebellion against colonialism created not only masculine heroes but also marginalised women within nationalist movements and has silenced them, even in representation today. Several ways abound in which women’s presence and role has been undermined. Firstly, the literature of the period, the era of nationalist euphoria which glorifies the masculine battle for the freedom of the nation, produces texts that generally refer to women as mere bystanders, and which nullify their experiences, making them as good as non-existent in the annals of this history. Secondly, even within the context of the war, this marginalisation of women was very evident in the nature of the deployment of women. Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi aptly observes that,
“Although some women were…fighting as armed guerrillas, they never constituted more than a small component of the total ZANLA forces. Mostly they were deployed in “liberated” or “semi-liberated” zones as porters, nurses and political commissars. Their presence in operational zones merely served to extend the frontiers of their “auxiliary” operations rather than represent a change in their roles.”
Very few were allowed into the masculinised zone of ‘fighters’ but they were there, nonetheless and fought very bravely. Others who were passionate about the struggle were placed in spaces of ‘support’ which included teaching posts and several administrative positions. However, even these roles and contributions are not memorialised or seen as equal to the roles played by the men whose credentials are glorified.
Liberation war credentials make it contentious for women– they have to either prove their masculinist liberation war credentials or fall into their feminine role in this binary where men have political authority. This tension is evidenced by the current treatment of former Vice President, Joice Mujuru, whose ouster from the ZANU-PF party has consequently led to scrutiny and belittling of her war credentials which the state media now refutes as untrue.
Women still fighting the same fight
Another aspect of the gendered nature of not only the liberation movement itself, but also its remembrance, is the sexual violence that was perpetrated. The use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and as a part of the lives of the female guerrillas was widespread and systematic during the liberation struggle. Within the camps and outside, women faced the pain of abuse, which was silenced by the marginalisation of women in general from spaces of power.
As such, it is clear that women are still fighting the same fight they have been fighting before and during the war; a fight against sexual violence and objectification. We are still not subjects within our own history and when Independence Day and Heroes’ Day roll around, there is hardly any celebration of our fight, our resilience and our private wars. This weekend, we will once again be treated as quiet objects within the home, ‘auxiliary forces’ of the war, while only those who performed masculinity will be celebrated.
We have a few people who have made attempts to open up spaces in which to discuss women and nationalism, but it is difficult in a society which has stringent gatekeepers. A good example would be the movie, ‘Flame’ (1996), which tells the story of two female liberation war fighters, their struggles and triumphs as women fighting in a male-dominated environment. What is interesting about this film is that it is one of very few spaces in which the perspective of women in the liberation war is portrayed while the masculine forces of violence are not valorised, but questioned through the highlighting of the sexual and violent abuse of women in the forces and within the villages. While very popular with the masses, the film did not fare so well with the nationalist government in control of the rhetoric surrounding the liberation struggle and was – as a result – banned.
A need for alternatives
Nhongo-Simbanegavi has written ‘For Better or Worse? Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle’ which seeks to relate narratives of women’s experiences in the war and their place in the nationalist movement of ZANLA. This is essential reading for unearthing the silenced spaces that are still fostered today, and creating a culture of openness to challenge a language that excludes women. In the same light, Fay Chung’s memoir, ‘Reliving the Second Chimurenga: Memories from the Liberation Struggle in Zimbabwe’, highlights her and other women’s positions as educators and how this transformed the nature of the war since the fight also involved the education of people in order to groom fighters with consciousness.
With this move towards creating alternative sites of history, perhaps it is time we took Independence Day and Heroes’ month as opportunities to interrogate the real legacy of the liberation war. Both in representation and reality, the voices and experiences of women within the struggle are silenced, controlled and brought to serve the purpose of the image of the alpha male nationalist movement. The ultimate hero and fighter has therefore always been a very masculine man giving himself over for the cause of fighting for the nation. What does this mean there for the legacy of nationalism and women today? Are we then to accept perpetual relegation to the role of ululators and dancers at festivities and commemorations?
For healing to occur, there has to be acknowledgement – it needs to be heard and acknowledged that the treatment of women during the struggle was wrong and the marginalisation of their role in history needs to end. This will then open up the possibility of healing in a space that has, for a long time, justified violence against, and silencing of, women.
 Christiansen, Lene Bull, “Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle Recycled: Remembering the Principles of the Struggle in Political Ways” in Documenting Liberation Struggles in South Africa from the Nordic Africa Documentation Project Workshop 26-27 Novemeber 2009 in Pretoria, South, 49
 Muponde, Robert, “The sight of the dead body: dystopia as resistance in Vera’s Without a Name”,Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera ed. Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga(Harare: Weaver Press, 2002), 118
 Nhongo- Simbanegavi, Josephine,For Better or Worse? Women and Zanla in Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle, (Harare: Weaver Press 2000) quoted in Muponde, Robert, “The sight of the dead body: dystopia as resistance in Vera’s Without a Name”, Sign and Taboo: Perspectives on the Poetic Fiction of Yvonne Vera ed. Robert Muponde and Mandi Taruvinga. (Harare: Weaver Press, 2002), 123
 Christiansen, Lene Bull, “Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle Recycled: Remembering the Principles of the Struggle in Political Ways” in Documenting Liberation Struggles in South Africa from the Nordic Africa Documentation Project Workshop 26-27 November 2009 in Pretoria, South, 49