Confronting rage and double standards
Many a time, I had to confront angry boyfriends and husbands at my front door, while their bruised girlfriends and wives sat in my bedroom out of sight. I found that I was not scared or intimidated by the threatening postures and the menacing words. Rather, they enraged me to a point where I actually wished that one these women bashers would try to assault me. That would have given me ample reason to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Seeing abused women in Glasgow brought back memories of a time in Zimbabwe when I had felt that same rage each time I saw an aunt or a cousin with a black eye or swollen jaw due to a beating from her husband. Young as I was, I felt angry at the manner in which men spoke to women, as if they were children to be chastised or flogged publicly.
I would bristle at the fact that boys were overtly treated superiorly to girls and that they were given privileges which girls were denied. I resented the fact that every male, even those younger than me, presumed dominance over me because I was a girl; I was known for fighting with the males in my family for my right to be myself.
I recall fighting my 17-year-old cousin when I was about 11 years old because he demanded that I make him a cup of tea while he sat under a tree. The presumption was that I, as a female, was at his beck and call and that it was my duty to obey him because he was male. When I told him to get his own tea, he slapped me and a physical battle ensued during which I beat him thoroughly.
It was at this point that I realised that in order to be taken seriously, I had to fight harder, work harder, negotiate tougher and always be one step ahead, because I was a woman.
The gendered dynamics of death
This was further reinforced when my father died when I was 12. My mother was 34 years old at the time and she was a widow with four children 12 years old and under to fend for. I recall my father’s half-brothers coming to our home at the time of the funeral and tallying up my father’s assets and demanding bank books and insurance policies as if my mother was not capable of administering the affairs of her late husband, and therefore her affairs, on her own.
I recall them discussing the sale of our cars, our house and a possible move to the village (a place we had never even visited when my father was alive. He had very little to do with his side of the family and was very close to my mother’s family) for my mother and her four children, where she was to resume her career as a teacher, but now inherited by one of my father’s half-brothers.
My mother was not present at many of these discussions about her life and her children’s lives. Her brothers represented her and spoke on her behalf. It was during this time that I stopped becoming a child and became a woman. I say this because I realised that my mother needed an ally and that she and I would have to work as partners to keep our family intact.
Where before I had seen my mother as merely an extension of my very domineering father, I now saw how extremely strong she was as she fought for her assets and for her right to remain a widow in Bulawayo, taking care of her children single handedly.
This is also when my contempt for patriarchy crystallised.
I developed contempt for all structures that sought to subjugate or belittle women and their efforts and this was because I saw very clearly that these structures were created out of fear and out of weakness and an obsessive need to control women. I rebelled against traditions that forced women to do things in order to benefit men and I blatantly refused to partake of any rituals where male dominance was emphasised and the ‘diminutive’ stature of women directly or indirectly alluded to.
All through my high school years, I wanted to be a nun because I felt that the option of marriage was not a viable one for me. Marriage to me represented oppression, bondage and the loss of myself, subsumed by the identity of my husband. All the married women I knew growing up were battered and depressed, and I had seen some morph into women who were mere shadows of their former selves.
It scared me to imagine a life in which I would be dancing or singing and at the sight of my husband, creep into a shell and diminish myself in order that I might take up as little space and be as inconspicuous as possible. I had seen many women do this. I had witnessed many women exhibit dual personalities: one very subdued, for when their husbands were present and another totally exuberant, for when their husbands were out of sight.
I did not want to become the woman who was silent when the men were speaking, eyes downcast. This was not my personality and I opposed the idea that I would have to change due to marriage, or that marriage would force the change on me.
The nuns represented liberation to me. I was fascinated that women, on their own, could live fulfilled and happy lives and did not flounder and flail about in a turbulent sea of “manlessness”.
I blossomed in an all female environment where the student body of my convent school was all female and only three members of staff were male. I admired the way they strutted across the playground, women unburdened by maleness. I imagined Jesus was an incredible guy, a guy who really knew how to love women because all his brides were glowing. I wished men could “love women the way Christ loved the Church” because it appeared to my teenage eyes that these women were truly loved and therefore thrived and became their best selves.
To Barbara, the nuns represented liberation. (Photograph from www.southernorderspage.blogspot.com)
This is what I longed for myself; to be loved in such as way that I became the best that I could possibly be. I enjoyed the all girl environment where we competed amongst ourselves in sports and in academics, bringing out the best in each other without having to deal with ‘second class citizenship’ status. In our school, we felt empowered and were not made to feel less capable than males.
Our examination results were always among the top in the country alongside the boys’ school. This, for me, was proof that we were in no way inferior as our culture had us believe at times. Males and females are different, and one is not more superior to the other.
Finding a man who understands me
I met my husband at the age of 25 and what drew me to him was the fact that I felt safe enough to be totally myself with him. I did not sense in him any desire to conquer or to “tame” me and neither did I feel as though all I was to him was a pretty face and a luscious body. In him, I found an individual who was very interested in what I felt and thought about many issues and who found my independence refreshing. We could talk for hours and my militancy on issues pertaining to women intrigued him.
He was comfortable enough in his own skin and his masculinity was not threatened by my strong personality. After we got married, I became aware that there were certain expectations of me as a wife, not necessarily from my husband, but from the society from which we both came. He is Zimbabwean also and so the expectation that I drop my maiden name and that I start breeding with immediate effect was a given.
I chose to keep my maiden name, with his support and chose to have children when I was good and ready, with his support. I didn’t stand for family members who, well-meaning though they were, sought to control my reproductive capacity by dictating when I should have children. While these issues were not always easy or pleasant, we pulled through.
Perhaps the fact that we met outside Zimbabwe and have lived outside (in the US) has had a positive effect on our marriage. The institution of marriage is very traditional; however, we have a somewhat non-traditional marriage because there are no female and male roles as defined by society. Whatever traditional elements are found within our marriage are there because we choose them for the benefits that they bring us and our children.
Having been married for 14 years, I am still a feminist and having four daughters has renewed within me the commitment to continue to speak out on issues pertaining to women, so that the struggles that are of my generation will not be their struggles when they become adults. My greatest desire is to see them happy and fulfilled and in order for this to happen, they must be able to make choices and live these out freely.
I hope that they make responsible, informed choices that will enhance them and make them productive members of society. I also hope that they do not take lightly the gains women have made in the fight for equality (in politics, business, academia, socially and under the law), because those gains did not come easy. And I hope that they too will fight on until every woman and girl can feel that they are important and worth as much as a boy or a man.
Feminism is not exclusive to women because it falls into the sphere of championing for human rights. The more women are empowered and given the same opportunities that are afforded to men, the better societies become and the healthier families and children become. Feminism, to me, is not about hating men, or female supremacy, or wanting to become men, as some may believe. Feminism is about choices, about being treated fairly, about having agency and participatory capacity. .
Those who criticise feminism without reflecting on its true meaning are those who do not or who choose not to understand what it is and what is it not; and often, they are those who benefit from the status quo.
I am a women’s rights advocate, I am a feminist who is also a wife, a mother, a scientist, a writer and a runner, because I chose to become those things.