Getting my hair braided in a hair salon is always a stressful experience for me. I spend an ungodly amount of time in one position, my butt numb and my neck strained. On top of this, the kinds of conversations happening often make me extremely uncomfortable. Last week the topic of discussion was a group of young women who had walked into the salon. They were all in lively conversation, swinging their hips as they walked around greeting everyone, dressed to kill. I loved their vibe.
Unfortunately not everyone felt their presence was positive. Some of the women tugging at my hair whispered words like hure (meaning ‘prostitute’) to each other. “If you leave the house like that, you’re asking for attention you don’t want,” said one hairdresser. “They’re so forward. Hazvina unhu (‘It’s just not respectable’),” said another. They rattled off Bible scriptures in their comments about queer men, lamenting the loss of our African values and the sinful nature of the youth these days.
Last month, the Constitutional court ruled out the arbitrary arrests of women accused of ‘loitering for the purposes of prostitution’. In certain parts of the city, it was common practice for police officers to arrest women who were seen walking down the streets late at night. The assumption was that they were sex workers waiting on clients. This landmark new ruling made it illegal for police officers to arrest women based on these assumptions. While many women celebrated this ruling as a recognition of our right to move freely wherever and whenever we want, there are deeply rooted issues around this ruling we need to speak about.
Respectability Politics and Sexuality
Respectability politics was a term coined at the turn of the twentieth century in the US. It refers to the customs, behaviours and traits that are deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘correct’ by the dominant culture in a society. Zimbabwe prides itself on being a predominantly Christian nation, guided by both Biblical and selected ‘traditional Zimbabwean’ customs and beliefs. This has resulted in a Judeo-Christian understanding of gender norms and practices for men and women. Under these beliefs, women should be unassuming, submissive to their husbands (but this seems to extend to all men in general), and above all, their sexuality must not be overtly expressed.
Talking about sexual activity often ends in an HIV/AIDS awareness class at a school. It is associated either with keeping together a wholesome marriage on the one end, or promiscuity and deadly diseases on the other. Women are therefore held to standards of expressing sexuality within the confines of what men like, expect and will tolerate. Sex (note that this only applies to women) is seen as a sacrosanct gift from God. Our bodies are not seen as our own. They are seen either as the property of God, or the property of our husbands. Prostitution therefore stands as a ‘misuse’ of the gift of sex, and a perversion of the woman’s body.
The context around sexuality and women’s ability to be sexual beings and owning their bodies, is important. The Concourt ruling is simply a drop in the ocean of the kinds of changes that need to happen to ensure that women are autonomous individuals. Sex work therefore, must be seen for what it is – a business. Sex workers provide a service, charging according to the laws of supply and demand, the same way your mother determines how much to sell her chickens for. Sex workers, along with every other woman, must have the right to decide how to use and present their bodies because those bodies belong to them.
Half the Battle Won
Between 2009 and 2014, 12,383 sex workers were registered by The Centre for Sexual Health, HIV and AIDS Research (CeSHHAR). Just over 2,000 of them were found HIV positive, and were treated immediately. These numbers show that sex work is happening, but that it is our respectability politics that keeps sex workers from seeking the medical attention they have a right to as citizens of this country.
More recently in the war against child marriages, Prosecutor General Johannes Tomana said that girls as young as twelve should be allowed to consent to sex and marriage. Now, cultural or religious beliefs aside, it is the duty of the state to protect the rights of children. While the age of consent in Zimbabwe is 16, if a man rapes a girl between 12 and 16 years old and it can be proved that she consented, he may only be charged with “having sex with a young person”. This would naturally carry a lesser sentence (community service, for example). The rape charge is therefore only strictly applied to children below 12 years old. Girls are therefore not adequately protected by the law in the case of the violation of their bodies.
Keeping women safe means more than simply stopping the police from arresting them. It requires us to actively empower girls and women to have autonomy over their bodies. This includes protecting girls from rapists and child marriage advocates, and simultaneously recognising the choices that adult women make in expressing their sexuality. While I twerked in celebration of the Concourt ruling, I recognise that only half of the battle against the war on women’s bodies has been won, especially hearing the thoughts of people like the Prosecutor General.
The stereotypes and gender roles we have allowed to flourish in our society inhibit the ability of women to be full, rights-bearing citizens. We have allowed culture and religious beliefs to supersede the protection of our girls’ rights to safety, and we have allowed the male gaze to determine how women’s sexuality should be expressed. Our lawmakers must be made aware of the weaknesses of the law, and the extent to which these laws are harmful to women and girls. Beyond that, our society needs to change. We need to teach our girls that marriage does not add intrinsic value to their lives. At the same time, we should cultivate environments that allow women to talk about sex openly and to feel safe enough to express their sexuality. We may have won one battle, but the war on women’s bodies rages on.
Main image from blinkmediagh.wordpress.com