Please note: This is part of a longer draft paper “In search of a curved Nehanda” in which I focus on the Mbuya Nehanda statue and its impacts on the recognition and (re)positioning of women. I show how the erection of the statue is a continuation of the grand nationalist-patriarchal version of Nehanda that follows the patriotic trend and continues a gendered (re)positioning of women, especially by putting them on pedestals to service patriarchal ends. This includes the glorification of women’s gendered responsibilities of (m)otherhood and care. I argue how the need to maintain such a narrative of identities relates to the debate around the ‘image’ of Nehanda to be visibilised, (re)membered, honored and appreciated as ‘our’ (his)tory, hence the preference of an ‘old’ Nehanda to that of a ‘youthful’ Nehanda as a public statue for Mbuya Nehanda.
Introduction: Statues, erections and (re)membering Nehanda
There are both visible and insidious connections between gender, sexuality and nationalism in Zimbabwe’s memorialisation and erection of the statue of Mbuya Nehanda. I concur with Butler’s (1990) sentiments that gender and sexuality are performed in the everyday lives of the subjects of the nation. Statues, by their very nature, are phallic and erectile objects as they stand firm, visible and threatening, pointing to masculinities and particular forms of power that invite visibility and obedience to power.
On the 25th of May 2021 on Africa day, I watched a live broadcast in which the Mbuya Nehanda statue was finally unveiled by the Zimbabwean president, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. This was after delays in finishing the project and also after the rejection of the earlier model (due to its youthfulness). Just like the burial of national hero/ines, the unveiling of the statue of Nehanda (albeit under the covid-19 global pandemic) was turned into a major national event that feeds into Zanu-PF’s politics of the spectacular. Among others, works such as Mawere (2021, 2020, 2019, 2016), Ncube (2014), Fontein (2010, 2009), Muchemwa (2010), Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Willems (2009) and Thram (2006) have reflected on some of Zanu-Pf’s politics of the spectacular such as heroes burials, galas, songs and campaign advertisement in ways that resonate with Askew’s (2002) perspectives on performance.
Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, who is popularly known as “Mbuya Nehanda”, was a powerful spirit medium and heroine of the 1896/7 First Chimurenga war against British settler colonialism (Beach 1979; Cobbing 1977; Ranger 1967). She is one of the greatest African female heroines who shaped and influenced the early African liberation struggle against colonialism and allowed herself to be captured to avoid more bloodshed. The Nehanda medium, Charwe was hanged in 1898 for her contributions in mobilising communities against colonial rule. Before she was hanged she declared that her bones would rise again (Shoko 2006; Beach 1979; Cobbing 1977; Ranger 1967) to lead a new, victorious rebellion. The symbolism of rebirthing (which is articulated by her rising bones) which relates to Nehanda’s status as a woman is very significant in the construction of her identities, location(s) and belonging. In narratives of Zimbabwean nation-building, Nehanda has been associated with loyalty to her people and nation, mobilisation in defence of the nation, re-birth of the nation and (re)production of citizens.
The Nehanda statue was erected at Julius Nyerere and Samora Machel junction in Harare. Since Nyerere and Machel, (nationalists and former presidents of Tanzania and Mozambique respectively) played significant roles in Africa’s liberation struggles, locating Nehanda’s statue at this intersection seems to give Nehanda a regional or African appeal. The statue is also close to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the courts and the parliament of Zimbabwe which are some of the city’s grand spaces.
There were diverse views regarding the erection of the Nehanda statue, mainly around costs, priority, and politicking. Some dismissed the project as a non-developmental issue, hence an undermining of important projects. Although some saw it as necessary, they disagreed with the timing and considered it a non-priority issue in the face of failing health, roads and economic systems. Some people argued that the erection of statues is anti-cultural as evidenced by their absence at sites such as Great Zimbabwe. However, others saw the Nehanda statue as a symbol of liberation and called for more such monuments, regarding those who disagreed with the erection of the statue as people full of self-hate who do not appreciate history and heritage. Proponents of the landmark also argued that colonial/empire statues (such as Rhodes’ grave and David Livingston statue at Vic Falls) already exist, so why not liberation war aligned statues?
The above are very valid points which should be critiqued in depth. I, however, depart from the above debate and focus on issues around the statue model that was rejected by Mnangagwa and the one that he accepted as representative of Mbuya Nehanda. In The Herald newspaper, the presidential spokesperson George Charamba said, “The President didn’t agree and as it turns out that youthful face will be put away and will have a Nehanda who is closer to how the good lady looked in real life which means a lot more wrinkled” (The Herald 19 December 2020). The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe Executive Director, Godfrey Mahachi, pointed out that the picture used in the creation of the statue came from the National Archives of Zimbabwe, which is the image of Mbuya Nehanda as ‘most known Zimbabweans’ (The Herald 4 June 2021). During the unveiling of the accepted statue, Mnangagwa posits; “This statue is a bold and unapologetic statement that we are a people who know who we are and where we come from. It is a declaration that we stand proud of our nation and history” (The Guardian 26 May 2021). In the above statement, Mnangagwa makes the problematic issues of identity, nation and history very simplistic.
Monuments in general and statues in particular are tangible or physical representations of places, people or events that have value and significance to a community, people or nation. They help people to remember or associate themselves with their past(s). However, memory, memorials and monuments are political assemblies, recalling and (re)presenting histories and identities selectively, drawing popular attention to specific events and obliterating or obscuring others for specific purposes (Becker 2011; Ranger 2009; Thram 2006; Osborne 2001).
The erection of the Nehanda statue and the narratives around it should invite us to question what history is (re)captured, what memory is (re)captured and (re)membered, what past, present and future is performed and for whose benefit. In discussing the erection of the Nehanda statue, I problematise the fundamental ideological and discursive issues around gender and sexuality, focusing primarily on the gendered nuances characterising the erection of the statue.
The normal and the expected: Nehanda statue, cityscapes and (re)positioning of women
It is normal and expected that the erection of the Nehanda statue is seen as progressive to the recognition and empowerment of women. This is because (re)positioning Nehanda in public space seems to be breaking power hierarchies associated with space and giving agency to women. However, the choice of an old image of Mbuya Nehanda over a young/youthful and curved one to occupy the public space makes one rethink the state’s intentions. The celebration and honoring of Mbuya Nehanda is one example of how women are often revered when they make sacrifices (Mawere 2021). This is in contrast with heroics of war (for men) which are often connected to less passive and more aggressive tactics as shown in Mugabe’s (2001) account of heroes.
Generally, space is highly politicised (Schmidt 1990, 1988). Spatial arenas are often politicised along lines of race, ethnicity, gender and class regimes and the politico-aesthetics of inclusion and exclusion. Cityscapes have long been contested terrains where issues around gender, masculinities and sexuality have played out. Historically, the city has been conceptualised as a space for men, hence women who enter the city find themselves negatively labelled, perhaps as in crisis or vulnerable. Generally, there has been considerable surveillance and policing of women in the city, since the city is taken for granted as a space for men (Mawere 2019, 2016; Gaidzanwa 1993, 1992, 1985).
The erection of the Mbuya Nehanda statue at a public and popular junction in the city of Harare is narrated as a move for gender parity and the reimagining and recognition of women in the Zimbabwean society. The presence of women statues even in countries such as the US and UK is very low (Buchholz 2019). This keeps historical contributions of women insignificant and therefore their presence in the public invisible, setting the agenda for patriarchal magnificence.
The Nehanda statue signifies the personal contributions of the historic Nehanda, as well as the contributions of women to the struggle and national discourse, hence adding another narrative to dominant discourses of gender and space. Mnangagwa takes the position of a god, bringing back the dead Nehanda to life and glory in the cityscape, an urban space traditionally associated with men. By locating Nehanda at the centre of the cityscape, one is tempted to think that the state officially and publicly recognised the agency of women in public spaces. The performance would then be seen as challenging sexual and gender categories that normally marginalise feminine sexualities and relegate women and femininities to marginal and boxed locations such as the home and care.
However, a deeper discursive analysis of the political aesthetic of the statue and the politico-aesthetic around its creation challenges our thinking of the erection as a (re)positioning (in the sense of relocating and decentering marginal identities). Instead, what the erection achieves is a (re)positioning of Nehanda and women in general in a sense of (re)producing or repeating and affirming the present and dominant narratives.
Noting the acceptance an old image of Mbuya Nehanda, I argue that what the state erected is a cornered Nehanda and cornered womanhood/femininities, devoid of any erotic and agentive power. In many ways, the ‘erect’ statue amplifies the history and culture of the surveillance of women in Zimbabwe. It visibilises the ways in which bodies that are threateningly sexual and ‘contagious’ are directly and or indirectly denied public space. It reveals how these ‘impure’ bodies are disallowed to provide role models for patriotic nationhood and (m)otherhood. As such, the erection of the Nehanda statue promotes the invisibility of women in public and important spaces and promotes a narrow model of womanhood and motherhood that advances Zimbabwe’s patriotic and gendered nation-craft.
Satisfying the male gaze and celebrating a cornered Nehanda
The status of women and their voices in the public arena is generally mediated by men (Schmidt 1992), hence history continues to be written largely by men. The involvement of women in the whole process of the Mbuya Nehanda statue erection is questionable, more so their involvement in performing active and agentive roles. Rather, women’s role in the making of national narratives is deliberately undermined and ignored by nationalist historians and politicians (Mawere 2021, 2019; Ranger 2005; Zhuwarara 2001). The erection and (re)location of Nehanda is not outside her popular gendered role of national mobilisation, (re)production and (m)otherhood (looking over the nation and her children). This is buttressed by the politico-aesthetic surrounding the erection of the Nehanda statue.
As articulated by Charamba, Mnangagwa “disapproved the widely condemned statue of the first chimurenga heroine Mbuya Nehanda due to its youthfulness which did not depict her true physical appearance” (The Herald 19 December 2020). The popular picture of Nehanda, which was then used to create the unveiled Nehanda statue was when Nehanda was old, tired, captured, fleshless and about to be hanged. Making use of that picture continues the colonial dehumanisation, as well as the nationalist-patriarchal narrative of her gendered identity and roles in the nation. Thus, from colonial captivity, Nehanda lands into the captivity of patriotic and patriarchal history and parochial national imagination.
In an interview with the Herald, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe Executive Director, Godfrey Mahachi, commented that the statue of Nehanda is meant to “remind us of how our forefathers resisted colonial conquest” (Herald 13 July 2020), hence reflecting that this had nothing to do with ‘foremothers’ and apparently excluding and marginalising women as beneficiaries of the Nehanda statue as well as subjugating them to male power. The statue is affirming the patriotic and patriarchal shape and nature of Zimbabwean citizenship. In many ways, the statue keeps Nehanda and women in general in the bondage of both colonial and nationalist patriarchs. In this sense, the statue performs the ordinary script and fails to (re)imagine an agentive Nehanda and agentive womanhood and motherhood.
Looking at the image of Nehanda that was accepted and acceptable, its placement in the cityscape and the popular narratives around the statue, one sees a creation of the male gaze. Nehanda’s magnificent power is limited to overlooking the nation, watching and modelling womanhood and (m)otherhood as defined by the patriarchal gaze, taking care of the nation and like a hen, enclosing her children under her wings, hence her limitations to the (re)productive role, (re)producing citizens. The presence of Nehands’s statue symbolises the ways in which women are (re)presented in society, their (re)presentation and normalisation as care givers and (re)producers of citizens and the ways in which their visibility in the public space and political arena should drive and sensitises the important location of (m)otherhood in a patriarchal and nationalist sense.
The cornered Nehanda (who is shaped by (his)tory) expresses both women victimhood and patriarchal normativity. In this sense, silence is promoted since this Nehanda story is the common one in colonial, nationalist and patriotic (his)tories. A performance of this story obviously silences the other voices and other imaginations that are possible in the rejected and unspeakable curved Nehanda.
The twitter satire/meme that links the curved Nehanda to Zimbabwe’s controversial socialites like the late Moana and Madam Boss or the ‘Slay Queen’ tradition is reflective of how ‘normal’ certain voices have become to the extent that alternative voices and imaginations are seen as absurd and unspeakable. Old stories have been repeatedly performed to the extent that only their narrations are sensible. However, in some ways, the memes that are generated in the public media in response to the curved Nehanda also offer disobedient voices. The memes confirm that characters like Moana and Madam Boss are public figures and have already occupied the public space. The rejection of the curved Nehanda (who is as curved as Moana or Madam Boss) reflects the surveillance, policing and attempts to invisibilise women who entre the public arena. This has been characteristic in Zimbabwe as women politicians and entertainers are always policed and several attempts to silence them are made (Mawere 2019, 2016).
The rejection is an example of how women’s sexuality should be concealed. The rejection of the youthful Nehanda with her erotic body-visible and powerful sexuality embodied in the image buttresses the surveillance, censoring and physical and psychological elimination of young and powerful women from public spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016). This also relates to the historical policing of women’s dressing in Zimbabwe (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1993). Those women who make it in the public arena are given negatives terms such as Slay Queens, hence one twimbo referred to the curved Nehanda as Slay’handa.
In many ways, the above associate women public figures with contagious sexualities and associates their prominence with the absurd and presenting women as witches (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985). The rejection of the curved Nehanda is a clarion declaration that particular bodies are unwanted and unspeakable, that the state will not allow young and erotic women into public spaces. It is also a call that women and their sexual bodies should remain boxed and only allowed public spaces and recognition if they express a parochial and gendered identity that tallies with gendered roles and nation-craft. This resonates with Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s (2009:8) sentiments that nation-craft is “a highly sedimented phenomenon that has operated through privileging certain features of social life while suppressing or de-emphasising others that are considered repugnant to its chosen agenda” of what Ranger (2005, 2004) terms patriotic nation-building, which is grotesquely gendered and sexist.
The curved Nehanda offers some imagination of women’s resistance against socially constructed and constrictive gender relations and a whole corpus of patriarchal determinism and oppression. It is in the rejected curved Nehanda that lies silenced voices, empowerment and provocative agency for women. The curved Nehanda imagines an irresistible body worth recognising, celebrating and emulating, and not one that is ‘mournable’, ‘unagentive’ and inviting sympathy. The curved Nehanda (who is rejected because she is not embracing (his)tory) offers a departure from unrepresentative (his)tories and moves beyond constructed margins and centers. This, in many ways challenges the notion of history as fixed and unchangeable and the future as predetermined, hence questioning Mnangagwa’s idea of a known identity and a known history. The unveiled Nehanda statue reveals the apparent patriarchal uses of particular women and their visibilities to regulate and censor women; hence the censored expression of women in the public space is symbolically performed by the rejection of the curved and erotic Nehanda.
Thus, the choice of a rather non-erotic frail body with a full garb is a censored expression of womanhood, a mark of women’s limitations, especially if allowed to enter the public space. On the other hand, the rejected statue depicting a young and curved woman shows the ‘unacceptable’ and uncensored expression of womanhood. Even as a statue, Mbuya Nehanda’s burden continues as the statue is now a visual text through which patriarchy speaks. This shows that (re)presentation is a contested and ambivalent subject.
The images of women articulated by the accepted Nehanda statue show women as victims and biological mothers, thus in victimhood and (re)production, with men like Mnangagwa acting as their saviours by recognising and idolising their roles in the national script. The Nehanda statue turns to be a continuation of what Gaidzanwa (1992) terms the domestication of women and this is even evidenced by the renaming of the maternity ward at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare to Nehanda maternity ward.
Snatching Zanu-PF’s own tool and using it to demonstrate the Zanu-PF led government’s failure as done with the Zimbabwean flag by Evan Mawarire (Mawere 2020), the Almagamated Rural Teachers’ Union members performed a flash demonstration at the unveiled statue. They made symbolic cries of hunger and as children, asked the maternal Nehanda to feed and take care of them amidst Zanu-PF’s neglect. Although sending a disobedient voice to the partisan interest of Zanu-PF, the union also cemented Nehanda’s role as (m)othering and caring for the nation.
Considering the above, we still have what Wilson-Tagoe (2000) conceptualises as narratives of history rather than narratives out of history. I argue that the curved Nehanda represents narratives out of history. In many ways, the cornered statue shows the precarious nature of women’s lives as long as they are conduits for national and patriarchal excesses.
The youthful image of Nehanda, with a daring figure (re)present the erotic, but suppressed realities and voices of women, which is basically the source of their power and agency (Mawere 2019, 2016; Lorde 1982; McFadden). There is a general fear, surveillance and suppression of female sexuality in public spaces, unless if it satisfies or serves a male (and often colonial gaze). So, the unveiled statue of an old woman appeals to the nationalist, gendered and sexualised discourses that drive Zimbabwean nation-craft. Rather than (re)presenting the agency of women and their positive and active occupation of public spaces, the statue visualises and performs the existing patriarchal script.
In many ways, the erected statue (re)presents the (re)productive abilities of women that give rise to citizens rather than a sexuality and a gender that has agency. The statue is a loud voice shouting and compelling normative and naturalised identities and roles for women, and dramatising honor for sacrificing for and (re)producing the nation. The Nehanda statue (re)locates women and femininities in positions of care, especially when linked to how she is located in the dominant patriotic-nationalist narratives. In this sense, Nehanda the woman, the myth and the unveiled statue symbolises the apparent presence of honorary women who enforce subordination by acting as role models. There is a sense in which the statue symbolises women who are used to guide and mobilise other women to stay within their boundaries to drive the patriarchal agenda.
Conclusion: a suppressed erotic, in search of a curved Nehanda
For Mnangagwa, the increasing presence of heroines at Zimbabwe’s national heroes’ acre, where they perform as role models of wo(man)hood, (m)otherhood, female patriotism and good citizenship was not enough. Zimbabwe’s nationalist history (re)presents the figure of Nehanda as symbolic, sacrificial, resilient, and as unyielding and stubborn to colonial ‘penetration’ and measuring up to the expected principles national loyalty. The concepts of purity, morality, chastity, care, emotional, sacrifice, resilience and loyalty are glorified characteristics associated with ‘respectable’ and celebrated women in Zimbabwe, hence Nehanda is (re)invented as an ultimate link to and exemplar of (m)otherhood.
By erecting the statue of Mbuya Nehanda as a symbol of honor, an ambivalent discourse which affirms gendered roles in nation-craft is (re)produced. The erection of the statue is symbolic of the retrieval of the imagined threatened (m)otherhood and its material and symbolic presence. This was very important following narratives that Grace Mugabe and earlier on Joice Mujuru as well as the feminised and homosexualised opposition MDC wanted to take over presidency, hence gender boundaries had to be reaffirmed (Mawere 2019).
Nehanda’s symbolic occupation of the cityscape (a public and popular space) might show women’s occupation of spaces previously reserved for men. However, the form and shape that the statue takes in this public and popular space complies with gendered expectations and the limitations of women’s identities and roles. The statue appropriates the identity layers that embody the romanticised national woman. The stereotypical portrayal of women, depicting stagnant identities, unchanging and limiting roles is very patriarchal.
The cornered Nehanda that is (re)imagined by the unveiled statue of Mbuya Nehanda (re)represent a cornered history and cornered identities satisfying parochial and patriarchal ends. The statue lacks mythical consciousness best suited for legends and which give room for reinvention. I concur that “Mbuya Nehanda, both the woman and the myth, has been appropriated by male nationalists, and her image has been transformed into a patriarchal instrument of power (Muponde & Taruringa 2002: xi).
The Mbuya Nehanda statue is a phallic object representing male erections, excitements and power. Mbuya Nehanda returns under patriarchal control, with no superior identity, claim or assertiveness, but as the ‘ordinary’ woman with no indication or energy to fight other struggles. Once again, this presents a battlefield over women’s bodies in the making of Zimbabwe’s national history. The rejection of the youthful and curved Nehanda statue should be understood in terms of how it frustrated the normalised identities and roles of women because of its inherent erotic aesthetics. A curved Mbuya Nehanda would challenge violations and allow the ‘unsilencing’ of narratives that have been boxed/constrained/oppressed. It would mean many more and diverse narratives of Mbuya Nehanda that are fluid to circumstances and that show stubbornness in being contained.
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 I regard erection in a dual sense of the physical construction of the statue and also in the symbolic sense of the phallic where male power is constructed and asserted.
 The accepted and unveiled ‘cornered’ Mbuya Nehanda Statue in Harare:https://www.google.com/search?q=Mbuya+Nehanda+Statue&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897&sxsrf=ALeKk01Wl75M2t5ZmcAnRzr61AtqzFwfNA:1627988755280&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwictdPb2pTyAhXLT8AKHQi0C50Q_AUoAXoECAEQAw&biw=1366&bih=600#imgrc=NAheriiZfBA_LM
 Mbuya Nehnda statues to be redone: https://www.herald.co.zw/mbuya-nehanda-statue-to-be-redone/
 The Mbuya Nehanda picture from the National Archives of Zimbabwe: https://www.google.com/search?q=Mbuya+Nehanda+&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwiejfLd2pTyAhVZwoUKHahMB70Q2-cCegQIABAA&oq=Mbuya+Nehanda+&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzIECCMQJzIFCAAQgAQyBAgAEEMyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQzIFCAAQgAQyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQ1Di4CtY4uArYIv2K2gAcAB4AIAB5AGIAeQBkgEDMi0xmAEAoAEBqgELZ3dzLXdpei1pbWfAAQE&sclient=img&ei=FyMJYd6lO9mElwSomZ3oCw&bih=600&biw=1366&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897#imgrc=8F0qWW0XsAQGFM
 Mnangagwa praises the Mbuya Nehanda statue:https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/26/anger-in-zimbabwe-at-nehanda-statue-amid-collapsing-economy
 The rejected young/youthful and curved image of Mbuya Nehanda: https://www.google.com/search?q=Mbuya+Nehanda+&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwiejfLd2pTyAhVZwoUKHahMB70Q2-cCegQIABAA&oq=Mbuya+Nehanda+&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzIECCMQJzIFCAAQgAQyBAgAEEMyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQzIFCAAQgAQyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQ1Di4CtY4uArYIv2K2gAcAB4AIAB5AGIAeQBkgEDMi0xmAEAoAEBqgELZ3dzLXdpei1pbWfAAQE&sclient=img&ei=FyMJYd6lO9mElwSomZ3oCw&bih=600&biw=1366&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897#imgrc=KNrnkafk6W2AwM
 Gap between male and female statues in monumental: https://www.statista.com/chart/17299/number-of-public-statues-depicting-men-and-women-in-the-us-and-the-uk/
 I use cornered to denote the normative and linear as well as to denote entrapment.
 Mahachi on Mbuya Nehanda statue: https://www.herald.co.zw/mbuya-nehanda-statue-demystified/
 Geo-location of Nehanda statue in the city of Harare: https://www.google.com/search?q=Mbuya+Nehanda+&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwiejfLd2pTyAhVZwoUKHahMB70Q2-cCegQIABAA&oq=Mbuya+Nehanda+&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzIECCMQJzIFCAAQgAQyBAgAEEMyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQzIFCAAQgAQyBQgAEIAEMgUIABCABDIECAAQQ1Di4CtY4uArYIv2K2gAcAB4AIAB5AGIAeQBkgEDMi0xmAEAoAEBqgELZ3dzLXdpei1pbWfAAQE&sclient=img&ei=FyMJYd6lO9mElwSomZ3oCw&bih=600&biw=1366&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897#imgrc=sb6wDIUKvj07hM
 This (re)presentation of women as (m)others and taking care of children (and citizens) also characterise the recent memorial statue of Princess Diana erected at Kensington Palace: https://theconversation.com/diana-statue-and-the-tension-between-the-public-and-private-british-monarchy-164034
 The sensible falls within the boundaries of what is affective, visible and audible, what is within the boundaries of spaces and times and is carefully re/constructed to instill particular thoughts, emotions, behaviors and actions that tally with prevailing dominant ideologies (Mawere 2016; Birrell 2008; Ranciere 2006)
 Zimbabweans mock Nehanda statue: https://www.zimbabwevoice.com/2020/12/01/zimbabweans-mock-slay-queen-mbuya-nehanda-statue/
 Patricia McFadden, Standpoint. Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice http://www.agi.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/429/feminist_africa_journals/archive/02/fa_2_standpoint_1.pdf
The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) at the University of Pretoria (UP) is pleased to announce the appointment of our new Director, Prof Rebecca Hodes, with effect from 1 August 2021. This follows the retirement of our founding Director, Mary Crewe, in 2020.
Rebecca Hodes (D.Phil, Oxon) is a medical historian. While directing the CSA&G, she will also have an appointment as Associate Professor in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at UP. Before her appointment at UP, Rebecca served as the Director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit in the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town.
Rebecca is a founder and co-Principal Investigator of the Mzantsi Wakho research study, about medicines-taking and sexual health among South African youth. She is the author of Broadcasting the Pandemic: A History of HIV/AIDS on South African Television (HSRC Press, 2014), a monograph that combines analyses of health communications and social movements.
Rebecca’s academic writing has been published in AIDS, AIDS Care, African Affairs, the African Journal of AIDS Research, Critical Public Health, Global Public Health, the Journal of Southern African Studies, the International Journal of African Histories Studies, Medical Humanities, the Social History of Medicine, the South African Historical Journal, and the South African Medical Journal, in addition to other peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes.
Her current research interests encompass histories of science, race and sex; popular responses to epidemics; qualitative and participatory research methods; bioethics, and the medical and pharmaceutical humanities.
The CSA&G team looks forward to starting a new chapter in our history under the guidance and leadership of our new Director. The Centre thanks Mary Crewe for her vision and leadership as founding director of the CSA&G – an innovative university centre that, over the course of its decades of history, has served as a model for research and transformative leadership.
Introduction: Zimbabwean nationalism and gendered identities
Broadly, the literature of nations and nationalism neglects the question of gender (Walby 1997) while nation-gender theories still lack the impetus to provide a comprehensive analysis of how the complex interrelations of gender and nation add to the (re)production of nationalism (Smith 1998) as well as the (re)production of gendered and sexualised national identities. Scholars such as Lewis (2007, 2008), McFadden (2002), Zake (2002), Nagel (1998), McClintock (1995), among others address this gap. In this paper, I contribute to this growing body of knowledge by exploring how the heroine subject is a (re)production of Zimbabwean nationalism. I go further to show the ways in which this (re)production repeatedly performs and (re)produces inherent sexualised and gendered identities and binaries that sustain, authorise and legitimise Zimbabwe’s patriarchal nation-craft.
In most Southern African societies, dominant discourses such as nationalism have, by and large, been shown to be prescriptive, coercive, gendered and dangerous (Lewis 2008; McFadden 2002; McClintock 1995). As such, discourses of nationalism tend to (directly and insidiously) violently coerce individuals and groups into prescriptive, normalised and naturalised national identities that tally with patriarchal national projects. Zimbabwe is one of the Southern African countries where nationalism has been revived with unequalled intensity since the year 2000 (following the formation of a strong opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change MDC in 1999 and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Party Zanu-PF’s loss in a constitutional referendum). The period also witnessed an increasing presence of heroines at Zimbabwe’s national heroes’ acre, where they performed as models of womanhood, female patriotism and good citizenship in Zimbabwe’s nation-craft. In addition, they also (re)produced power hierarchies within the Zimbabwean ‘national family’. In many ways, this continues to have a pronounced effect on gender imbalances, gender injustices and their (re)production in people’s everyday lives.
In Zimbabwe, considerable emphasis has been placed on propagating national unity and loyalty based on a narrow, authenticated and officiated historical past which Ranger (2003) terms ‘patriotic history’ and uncontested foundation concepts of the nation and national subjects (Christiansen 2009). This ‘patriotic history’ (which has partly triggered the Patriotic Bill parliamentary motion by the Zanu-PF legislator, Alum Mpofu in March 2021) intensified from the late 1990s. The late 1990s saw the majority of Zimbabweans disillusioned by independence and from 2000, Zimbabwean nationalism was revived to (re)generate loyalty to the Zanu-PF. Although violent and authoritarian nationalism haunts Zimbabwe and is an instrument used to authenticate belonging and citizenship (Mawere 2019, 2016, Sachikonye 2011), non-violent and ideological methods have also been used to turn people into willing products and producers of the fundamentals of nationalism (Mawere 2016).
Despite the use of violent means to revive Zimbabwean nationalism, Turino (2000:14) states that Zimbabwean nationalism banks on cultural and artistic domains, “with language, music-dance, sports, food, religion, and clothing style often being central.” In line with this, Kriger (2003) asserts that Zimbabwean nationalism is scripted on the specific party slogans, symbols, songs, and regalia used by national bodies at national ceremonies. These become cultural texts performing Zimbabwean nationalism. Cultural texts are sign systems, storytelling tools and symbols that contribute and shape a society’s culture and have underlying cultural meanings which require certain cultural knowledge to be comprehended.
Chikowero (2008, 2009); Muchemwa (2010); Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Willems (2009, 2010) examine how some cultural events and activities as well as the appropriation of heroes like the former Zimbabwean Vice President, Joshua Nkomo, are cultural texts used to instil Zimbabwean nationalism. In this paper, I explore how the heroine subject is employed as cultural capital to perform Zimbabwean nation-craft and how this performance is an extension of naturalised sexual and gender identities that are both binary and based on power hierarchies that privilege patriarchy and authorise its power. In many ways, the paper problematises thinking within gender binaries and highlights the need to rethink gender beyond binary.
The National Heroes’ Acre as symbolic material culture
Many African states, emerging from a protracted struggle against colonialism, have built shrines in honour of those who participated in the liberation struggles. In Zimbabwe, shrines have been constructed at the district, provincial and national level (Bvira in Goredema and Chigora 2009). The National Heroes Acre, which is found in Harare, is where those conferred with the highest honour and named national heroes/heroines are buried. Mandima in (Goredema & Chigora 2009:077) clarifies, “National heroes or heroines are those that led the national liberation struggle.” Describing the purpose of the National Heroes’ Acre, the Zimbabwean government stated;
The national heroes’ acre has been established to honour a specific and exclusive type of hero. It is that hero, whose courageous deeds were designed for and connected with one sole objective – the liberation of Zimbabwe. Those who risk their lives. (Sunday Mail of October 1982).
The hero status is determined on a case-by-case basis, which perhaps reflects inconsistence in the criteria employed. However, in the article “President Mugabe clarifies hero status” (The Herald 1 October, 2010) Robert Mugabe, the then-President makes it clear that the National Heroes Acre is a preserve for those who fought in the liberation struggle. As such, “The national heroes’ acre is the pride of the people of Zimbabwe. It is a symbol of bravery and selflessness of those whose remains are laid to rest there” (Ministry of Information and Publicity 1989:3). The National Heroes’ Acre, as well as those buried there, are thus rendered material symbols of Zimbabwean nationalism.
Important to note is that the burial of a national hero/ine is turned into a major national event that feeds into the Zanu-PF’s politics of the spectacular. On this day, as part of the ‘drama’, the national flag is lowered, and citizens are given free transport and encouraged to attend the burial. To extend and further visibilise the spectacle, the death and burial are given exclusive coverage, especially by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporations (both the ZBC TV and radio stations), and state-controlled newspapers under the Zimbabwe Newspapers (Zimpapers Ltd) stable. In addition to this, the signified body of the dead person is taken to different locations of symbolic significance (such as the Josiah Magama Tongogara army barracks – formerly King George VI, KG6 where hero/ines’ bodies lie in state the night before burial) before it is finally taken to the National Heroes Acre where more often than not, the President gives a speech.
The National Heroes Acre and those buried on the site become cultural texts that are products of, as well as (re)producers of, Zimbabwean nationalism. This offers an explanation as to why, when the death of a hero/ine occurs, the nation is usually taken back to the contributions not only of the fallen hero/ine, but of all the Zimbabwean hero/ines and the liberation struggle in general. The death and burial of an individual hero/ine is thus always an evocation, commemoration and ritual appreciation and celebration of all hero/ines. I argue that it is also a celebration, enactment, commemoration and reification of a particular kind of Zimbabwean nationalism. I further argue that it is a celebration, (re)production, performance and reification of the gendered and sexualised identities inherent in Zimbabwe’s nation-craft.
In this paper, I take note of the debates and contradictions pertaining to the conferring of the national hero/ine status, but primarily, I deal with conventional categories of gender and sexuality, that are embedded in Zimbabwean nationalism as both its products and (re)producers. I employ Althusser and Foucault’s Ideology and ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Bio-power respectively in understanding the heroine subject in Zimbabwe. I posit that conventional gender and sexual discourses have, in an interestingly complex and ideological manner, informed the conferring of the heroine status in ways that tally not only with the Zanu-PF’s construction of Zimbabwean nationalism, but also dangerously (re)producing patriarchal and binarised gendered and sexualised identities.
Zimbabwe’s national heroines: The need for national (m)othering
Prior to 2010, there were six heroines at the National Heroes’ Acre. Only one heroine, Sarah Francesca Mugabe (former President Robert Mugabe’s first wife) had been laid there before 2000. She had died on the 27th of January 1992, was celebrated as the mother of the revolution and the mother of the nation, and was laid at the National Heroes’ Acre on the 1st of February 1992.
In this paper, my primary focus is on the national heroines who died between the years 2000 and 2010, who arguably embodied the (m)otherhood that Sarah (Sally) Mugabe had. During this period, a total of five heroines found their way to the national shrine and were instrumental in dramatising Zimbabwe’s urgent need for (m)othering in face of threats endangering nationhood and citizenship.
Firstly, there is Johanna Nkomo who died on the 3rd of June 2003. She was 74 years old at the time of her demise. She was buried on the 7th of June 2003. She became the second woman to find her way to the national shrine. Secondly, there is Julia Tukai Zvobgo, who died on the 16th of February 2004. She was 67 years at the time of her death. She was buried on the 19th of February 2004, becoming the third national heroine at the shrine. Thirdly, there is Ruth Chinamano who died on the 2nd of January 2005. She was 80 years old at the time of her demise. She was buried at the National Heroes Acre on the 7th of January 2005. She became the fourth heroine at the national shrine. Following is Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira who died on the 13th of January 2010. She was 82 years old at the time of her death. She was buried on the 18th of January 2010, and became the fifth heroine at the acre. Lastly, there is Sabina Mugabe who died on the 29th of July 2010. She died aged 75. She was buried on the 1st of August 2010, becoming the sixth heroine at the national shrine.
Most of the debates around national hero/ines oscillate around issues that are economic, political and historical and rarely focus on the ways in which the politics of gender and sexuality play a significant role in the conferring of the Zimbabwean hero/ine status. Still, those who have attempted to focus on gender seem to focus on the obvious issue of the number of women against that of men, and do not address the fundamental ideological and discursive issues around gender and sexuality (Mawere 2019).
Goredema and Chigora (2009) argue that it is disturbing that the national heroines laid at the national heroes’ acre are all wives (except Sabina, who is Mugabe’s sister) of nationalists who were and still are Zanu-PF elites and prominent figures in the state (namely, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Eddison Zvobgo, Josiah Chinamano and Leopold Takawira.) Secondly, they point out that these women were the ones given political positions during and after the liberation struggle. Thirdly, they find it very problematic that “…these… were the only heroines the president saw as risking their lives at a national level of the 10 000 women who joined the struggle…can the…women who lie at the acre explain the number of women who risked their lives during the war…” (2009:077-078). Goredema and Chigora (2009), therefore, implicate the ideology of femocracy in the conferring of national heroines and objectively dismiss the official reasons given for the conferring of the heroic status on the current heroines. They posit that “Femocracy is an ideology which believes that in order for women to rise in the political arena they have to be linked to men in political positions…” (Goredema and Chigora 2009:076).
The arguments raised above are interesting, full of substance and topical in Zimbabwe, especially if one considers the relationship between all the named heroines and men in power and authority as those named above. Goredema and Chigora (2009) assert that there is an omission of history somewhere. The omission is that some deserving women were denied the heroine status and also that the number of national heroines does not tally with the number of women who risked their lives for the nation. In this paper I look at the heroine subject and its intersections with Zimbabwean nationalism in light of Althusser’s subjective consciousness which is enabled by ideology and ISAs and Foucault’s ideas about the construction of a nationalised body, which is enabled by the scientific knowledge about the body. In general, I argue that the conferring of the hero status embodies Zimbabwean nation-craft and responds to real and/or imagined national threats. Specifically, I posit that following the perceived national threats that arose with the emergence of the MDC, there was need for national (m)othering and the national heroines conferred from 2000 to 2010 served that purpose.
Subjective consciousness, bio-power and the creation of the Zimbabwean heroine
Louis Althusser (1971) argues that for the state to govern its subjects in a more effective and persuasive manner, it uses ISAs which create present conditions as rational truths, therefore enabling the subjects of the nation to enact them willingly (subjective consciousness). He argues that it is this subjective consciousness that constructs the citizen/national(ist) subject. Althusser goes on to posit that the subjects of the nation who are produced by ideology and ISAs, and concretised as free, in turn reproduce the nation/the system that has produced them by willingly and ritually performing it and therefore, are instruments of its (re)production (interpellation). Relatedly, Foucault (1977, 1983) posits that power enables the creation of scientific knowledge of the subject’s body. This provides a rationale for ‘self-discipline’ and ‘self-surveillance,’ leading to the construction of a ‘national body.’ He argues that this is more effective than openly coercive means, since it is based on scientific knowledge and rationality which may be verified. In this way, power uses reason and scientifically-based knowledge to make the subject willingly and reasonably yield to its system. This results in the subjects performing the system as well as reproducing it through bodily effects of ‘discipline’ and ‘self-surveillance.’
The above concepts by Althusser and Foucault may provide some insights for understanding the subjectification of the Zimbabwean national heroine by the ideology of nationalism. My concern is offering an understanding as to the ways in which the ideology of Zimbabwean nationalism, in its project of creating the nationalist woman, relies on subjective consciousness as well as scientific and rational knowledge about the bodies of women. Using The Herald’s coverage of the deaths and burials of those on whom heroine status is conferred in Zimbabwe; I present certain (re)presentations and meanings as outlined below.
Firstly, the heroine is a product and (re)producer of the expected, naturalised and common-sensical feminine patriotism that serves the interests of Zimbabwe’s macho patriotic history as expounded by Ranger (2003). Secondly, there is a nexus between womanhood/wifehood, nationhood and the heroine subject. Thirdly, is the qualification of the marriage institution (and its accompanying features such as loyalty, sacrifice and (re)production) in the heroine construct. Following, is the normalisation of (m)otherhood as a heroine construct. There is also instrumentalisation of the heroine to appraise fecundity and normalise heteronormative identities. Lastly, I consider the concepts of purity, morality, chastity, care, emotional, sacrifice, resilience and loyalty as the heroine’s indispensable qualities, but also as glorified characteristics through which women are subordinated and marginalised. The above presentations and constructs, however, are closely connected, and intersect, to embody the Zimbabwean heroine.
In many ways, the ways in which heroines are identified and their stories narrated and acted out, does not only resonate with common-sensed everyday feminine embodiments, but repeatedly perform them.
The national heroine and feminine patriotism
Althusser (1971) reflects that a shared national history and memory is crucial to the creation and (re)production of subjective consciousness. Jonathan Friedman (1992:838) calls national history “a meaningful universe of events and narratives” necessary for the “nationalisation” of each individual. They enable individuals to define the present social world as non-coincidental, historically rooted and authentic.” A number of scholars have reflected that Zimbabwe’s national selfhood is premised on the (re)invention of its history (Ranger 2003; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2009).
From 2000, when Zimbabwean’s selfhood was seen as weak and ‘threatened’ by imperialists and their ‘surrogates’, there was an intense effort to (re)create it. This history that reflects Zimbabwean nationalism has been termed ‘patriotic history’ by Ranger (2003). Interesting to note is that this patriotic history creates its subject with homogeneity and as founded on the same memory. So, the general idea in Zimbabwe is that the nation and its subjects are products of patriotic history and that this patriotic history should be jealously guarded and passed on to other generations to such an extent that the patriotic history has become “an invariant substance” (Baliber 1991: 86). As such, the purpose of this patriotic narrative is to enable subjects to (re)construct themselves as the ultimate realities and expressions of sameness, as chemically bonded by Zimbabwean nationalism, which in this case graphically illuminates in patriotic history.
In Zimbabwe, the ‘Chimurenga’ (revolution) myth, which is traced to Nehanda and Kaguvi is part of the foundation of Zimbabwe’s patriotic history and is used to construct Zimbabweans as both products and (re)producers of nationalism. It is this patriotic history that is used to embody and reflect acceptable foundations for unity and allegiance as traceable to the past that is essential in marking current identities in general and specifically, the heroine identity and in enabling its continuity. This makes sense in light of Althusser’s sentiments about how a common history that unifies a people based on a shared past can be used to create subjective consciousness (Althusser 1971).
Patriotic myths enable the continuous performance of Zimbabwean nationalism as well as its (re)production (its interpellation) in the everyday lives of Zimbabweans. The heroines under study have been (re)invented and made usable as ‘concrete’ reflections of women’s contributions to Zimbabwean nationalism, but also as reflections of everyday gendered spaces and roles. Interestingly, their deaths during the period that witnessed a massive resurgence of Zimbabwean nationalism made their dead bodies available ‘texts’ for nation-craft. Biggs (1999) posits that the way nationalism writes the past is similar to how nations are essentially represented by maps and territorial shapes, hence, fitting into what Althusser (1971) points out as the role of ideology and ISAs which make sure that subjects have no other way of seeing things except that intended by ideology and ISAs. Chung (2006) deals with the male-female relationships during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation and how the male gaze ‘naturally’ and ‘sensibly’ used women as ‘objects’ satisfying the male guerrillas such as Josiah Magama Tongogara.
The heroines at Zimbabwe’s national shrine help to institute feminine patriotism, which is necessary for the (re)production of women patriots/nationalists. What is said about their heroic acts situates them in a particular and intended location that is normalised by the patriarchal society. Zimbabwe’s national heroines are texts where one may read discourses of wifehood, (m)otherhood, matrimony, heterosexuality and their sub categories of culture, purity, morality, chastity, care, loyalty, resilience and sacrifice. These characteristics link the heroines to the patriarchal-nationalist depiction of the figure of Nehanda, who is (re)invented as an ultimate link and exemplar to the heroines who are often named ‘mothers of the revolution’, as well as to (m)otherhood in general.
Zimbabwe’s nationalist history (re)presents the figure of Nehanda as symbolic, sacrificial, resilient, and as unyielding and stubborn to colonial ‘penetration’ and measuring up to the expected principles in defence of the land/tribe/family/nation. The Herald’s coverage of the deaths and burials of the heroines portrays them in a similar fashion to such an extent that they reflect and exemplify Nehanda as well as (re)producing her (re)invented image which dominates patriotic history. In many ways, this construction (re)invented normative traditions around women’s contributions, roles, and identities in nationalist discourses. Zimbabwean heroines are thus modelled to (re)appropriate Nehanda’s image which is articulated in patriotic history. Each of the heroines under consideration are thus seen as revolutionaries in a feminine sense; they have certain prescribed roles that they internalised and performed for the sake of the nation and these are set as unique and normative to their gender and sexuality, and contribute immensely to Zimbabwe’s hetero-normative nationalism.
The national heroine is “interpellated” in relation to Nehanda and this determines and explains the present and future in terms of the (re)presentations and positions of patriotic women. Just like Nehanda whose bones (re)produced (mapfupa angu achamuka/my bones shall arise), the heroines are praised for giving birth and taking care of children, marking fecundity or their (re)productive capacities as central to Zimbabwean nation-craft. All heroines, except for Ruth Chinamano, have been noted to have stayed home taking care of the children while their husbands were fighting the struggle for independence (The Herald 4-7 June 2003; The Herald 15-19 January 2012). Their patriotism is enshrined in (re)production and (m)otherhood, taking after Nahanda, who allegedly gave rise to revolutions and revolutionaries. This (re)presentation of heroines speaks to the assertion that women are located as biological producers of members of particular collectivities (Mazarire 2003; Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989). The Herald articles reflect heroines as mothers of the revolution. For example, when Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira dies, in a feature article Tendai Manzvanzvike writes;
MOTHERS of the revolution are women who were in the inner circle, living and sharing the pain and sorrows that their nationalist husbands who were spearheading the liberation struggle went through. They were women of valour whose bravery, resilience and perseverance were tested beyond limit, but they never relented (The Herald, 18 January 2010)
Manzvanzvike even elaborates this by positing that these mothers of the revolution “nurtured the liberation struggle, each in her unique way” (ibid). Emphasised here is (m)otherhood and care as inextricable from feminine patriotism. Central also is their victimhood which enables them to share experiences.
However, what is more striking is the performative, but insidious, patriarchal language that Munzvanzvike employs in describing and glorifying the mothers of the revolution. The idea of the ‘inner circle’ reveals ways in which particular in-groups are created, legitimising certain performances of femininities and obviously marginalising others. The inner circle also alludes to the inner, intimate and hidden space that women are supposed to occupy, thus relating ‘good women’ to those who stay at home. This is in contrast to the phallic imagery and phallic space associated with men. The nationalist husbands are said to be ‘spearheading’ the liberation struggle. Both the ‘spear’ and the ‘head’ are phallic symbols that connect the husbands to masculinities, but also connecting masculinities to militarism, leadership and public spaces. This is why men who did not ‘actively’ participate in the liberation war are feminised (Mawere 2016, 2019).
Also, all the articles mention the resilience, commitment and love and care for the weak, such as the sick, children, women, the poor and the lame that was displayed by the national heroines (“National heroine stood for poor, vulnerable groups”- The Herald 7 January 2005; The Herald 18 January 2010). The National Heroes Acre and the heroines have thus been made usable in providing the ‘correct’ and ‘acceptable’ version and model of women patriots, whose roles and identities are centred on and located in normalised gendered roles. The (re)presentation of the heroines as continuous with the Nehanda ethic echoes Althusser’s suggestion that in (re)producing national(ist) history, ISAs aim to create a distinct and unique national subjective consciousness, which is concretised and rationalised with a sense of roots, embedded in notions of a historically continuous identity and national future aspirations. The memory of the shared national past (such as the Nehanda heroine ethic) in Zimbabwe’s patriotic history is persuaded to become the destiny of the Zimbabwean women and (m)otherhood.
Each of the articles in The Herald chronicles the heroines as resilient and as having displayed an uncrushed and stubborn endurance in face of the colonial regime, while at the same time displaying total commitment to their husbands and marriages in general (The Herald 18 January 2010). It is interesting that these heroic qualities are a continuity of the image of Nehanda that is (re)presented in nationalist history. Nehanda is figured as a resilient and enduring character who sacrificed herself for the land (nation) and so displayed unequalled loyalty to her people. Endurance, sacrifice, resilience and commitment to family/nation feature prominently in the coverage of the deaths and burials of national heroines. These are the qualities associated with patriotic women. It is interesting that this (re)presentation emanates as texts that (re)produce gendered categories and normalise the location of women in particular gendered spaces. In many ways, their appearance elsewhere is taken as an inversion of the sensible and therefore undesirable.
Taking into consideration that the nation is more often than not conceptualised as a conventional biological family (Lewis 2008; McClintock 1995, 1993), the heroine, who is embodied with feminine patriotism, comes in support of the hero, who embodies masculine patriotism that rescues the nation. This gender dynamic is accomplished by supporting the husband’s cause, taking care of the children and remaining loyal and committed to marriage. In building the national project, all this becomes evident and easily projected and normalised if the wives of leading nationalists are conferred with the heroine status.
Wifehood, nationhood and the heroine subject
While growing up, the stories of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, the First Chimurenga heroes who had resisted colonial rule, were commonplace. Personally, the idea that Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi were wife and husband was stitched into my mind. The (re)presentation of the figure of Nehanda in nationalist discourses made it challenging for me to stop thinking of her as Kaguvi’s wife. That one is presented as “mbuya” and the other “sekuru” (grandmother and grandfather) respectively created an irresistible suggestion of wife and husband. This idea was buttressed by the fact that most pictures depict them side by side. Moreover, Nehanda is rarely mentioned without mentioning Kaguvi, again giving them some unique proximity. Related to this is that Nehanda and Kaguvi are usually (re)presented as persons rather than spirits. In many ways, women are taken seriously and ‘recognisable’ within the ambits of wifehood.
In The Herald’s coverage of the deaths and burials of the heroines, all of the women are identified as ‘wives’. Important to note also is that their personal identities are constituted by their husbands’ identities. Moreover, for them, identification as wives appears in the heading and or in the first sentence of the articles. Interesting also, is that for all of them, their contributions seem to be seen through the contributions of their husbands. This is evidenced by how the articles make efforts to reflect on the heroic deeds of the husbands, rather than sticking to the heroines’ contributions. The only exceptions are Ruth Chinamano and Sabina Mugabe. Although Ruth Chinamano had been married, her identification as a wife comes much later, since she is identified in terms of the crucial positions she had held. Also, she is given a personal identity and not one that is constituted through her husband (“ZANU-PF Central Committee member and veteran nationalist Cde Ruth Chinamano is no more”-The Herald, 3 January 2005). As will be discussed later, Ruth Chinamano’s ‘foreign’ roots might have created the complexities surrounding her unique identity. As for Sabina Mugabe, her identity is constituted through her brother, Robert Mugabe, for whom she stood as a mother figure. What is implied is that women cannot solidly stand on their own, in the absence of husband, the sons or the fathers are used to make the women ‘recognisable.’
As has been shown above, almost all heroines have been portrayed as wives. There is a recurrent trend in the articles to name the heroines as wives of their husbands. The article on the 4th of June starts with “JOHANNA NKOMO, the wife of the late Vice-President Dr Joshua Nkomo…” (The Herald 4 June 2003). This continues in almost all the articles about her death and burial that appears in The Herald. The Herald’s coverage of Julia Tukai Zvobgo also has similar features. The first story that appeared in The Herald when Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira died was titled “National hero Takawira’s widow dies” (The Herald 15 January 2010). Just like other coverage of other heroines, her identity as a wife came first and it is the one that was used to construct her heroine identity. It is important to note that being a wife is taken to be what is natural and normal to all women. Important to note also is that it is being wives that kept almost all, if not all, heroines at home, away from the battlefield, taking care of the nation’s children and giving support to husbands. There is an effort, therefore, to show the place and roles of a good wife as much as there is an effort to show that being a wife makes a good woman patriotic. Wifehood is used to demonstrate Zimbabwean nationalism as well as to (re)produce it. Besides Sabina Mugabe who is identified with her brother, Robert Mugabe, there is only one heroine who is treated differently. Ruth Chinamano’s identity is based on her own person, although later on, she is acknowledged as a wife, showing the futility of escaping wifehood and its meanings.
It is a surprise that Ruth’s coverage in most of the articles is very distinct from the rest of the national heroines. Ruth’s identity seems to be centred on her own person rather than that of her spouse, as is the case with other heroines. Presumably, it is because as having South African roots, she cannot suit the ideal wife embodied in Nehanda. However, it is also clear that Ruth seems to be given a masculine character or gender rather than a feminine one, “she broke the norm and faced head on the colonial powers, plunging herself into the murky waters of detention without trial,” “In the streets where we demonstrated and fought pitched battles with the Rhodesians, especially in High fields…Ruth was there in the thick of things..”- (The Herald, 5 January 2005). This is because there are suggestions that she had a controversial character (ibid), that she could stand against men seen as formidable (“Having been a member of the House during the era of the late Lazarus Nzarayebani and Sydney Malunga – hotheads to say the least, Cde Chinamano was the only woman who could stand up to them”- ibid), that she was outspoken and fearless, that she fought alongside men and did not spend much of her time at home with the children, but was in the thick of the struggle (“Chinamano: A true Warrior,” “…Cde Ruth Chinamano too was a firebrand member of Parliament during her days in the House..”- ibid) makes her distinct. Ruth’s identification as a comrade (Cde) masculinises her and relates to her ‘active’ role. All these characteristics are seen as alien to other women and this suggests that she was living outside the expected gendered categories.
However, having such rare character does not dissociate her from wifehood, how she is associated with the areas of (m)otherhood and care, which the rest of the wives fall into implicates her as a wife. In fact, it seems her warrior character was actually in defence of the roles of a wife as conceptualised by patriarchy. For example, “It is undisputable that the nation has been robbed of a fiery fighter, a mother and a true champion of the total liberation of women” (The Herald, 6 January 2005) identifies her as a mother and patriarchy closely relates (m)otherhood to wifehood.
The fact that most if not all of the heroines do not have identities that stand absolutely on their own reflects that women do not have a complete or whole personal identity in patriarchal contexts. Identifying them through their husbands becomes a way of acting the patriarchal society that exists. “The wife of…” that characterise most of The Herald articles sets the heroine’s identity as resting on the identity of a hero-husband. It appears we can only get to know about the women through knowing the identities of their husbands. Nagel (1998:257) reflects:
our presence in the masculine institutions of state – the government and the military – seems unwelcome unless we occupy the familiar supporting roles; secretary, lover, wife. We are more adrift from the nation, less likely to be called to ‘important’ and recognized public duty, and our contributions more likely to be seen as ‘private’, as linked only to ‘women’s issues’, and as such, less valued and acknowledged.
Bringing the husbands to the fore reveals the centrality of patriarchy in society, whilst at the same time reinforcing dominant (patriarchal) gendered scripts for social relationships. Also, almost all the articles take time and effort to reflect on the heroic acts and identities of the husbands instead of focusing on the late heroic figure. This suggests that heroines do not have any history or any story to tell outside the his/tory of the hero.
Essentially, the emphasis that has been placed on wifehood chronicles its value and significance in patriarchal spaces. In patriarchal gender configurations, legitimate wifehood entails (m)otherhood and therefore naturalises the gendered occupation of certain spaces and the enactment of certain gendered behaviours and practices. Also reflected is that however controversial a woman’s character may be, she still cannot escape from wifehood. This makes wifehood an instrument and model that is used to control women, and it continues to be bolstered in Zimbabwean society. The articles from The Herald reveal that the heroines lived like patriotic women since they were wives and had managed to live up to the expectations of wifehood.
Important also is how this resonates with Foucault’s (1977) sentiments about self-discipline and regulations. Being a wife, the woman has to discipline her body. So much is said about the heroines sacrificing their own interests to live up to expectations of wifehood, they also remain committed to their marriages despite the husband’s absence and they did not remarry after the deaths of the husbands. This reflects qualities of self-discipline and self-control which are associated with normative expectations for women’s genders and sexualities. Since wifehood entails that the heroines are identified within patriarchy, by associating them with heroes, they have an incomplete heroic identity. This means that their heroine identities do not reach fruition unless they are associated with heroes, whose acts were more public and acknowledged than theirs. Since the heroines are associated with wifehood, it becomes necessary to qualify the marriage institution as a heroine construct. This is because as wives, the heroines in question find themselves in the institution of marriage.
Qualifying matrimony on the heroine construct
The identification of the heroines as wives is a normalisation and instrumentalisation of marriage in Zimbabwe’s nation-craft. Foucault (1977, 1983) mirrors how considering the nation as a body entails that people conduct themselves in ways that make the nation healthy and therefore (re)productive. In addition to laying the foundation of a heteronormative nationhood, the marriage institution is used to provide some guidelines as to how individuals discipline themselves to contribute to the nation’s well-being. Naming the heroines as ‘wives’ automatically locates them in the institution of marriage and dramatises Althusser’s (1971) role of ideology and ISAs in this institution. This kind of identification thus reflects and buttresses the value that is associated with the marriage institution.
The value that is placed on marriage may be evidenced in the case of Ruth Chinamano, suggesting that women should not put on mini-skirts as this tends to destroy marriages because men leave their wives and rush to women wearing mini-skirts (The Herald 5 January 2005). There is a suggestion that it is natural and normal for a woman citizen to find herself in this space. It is also important to note that the marriage institution is closely related to the institution of the family and as such, the female heroines are meant to carry family values. Talking about the heroines as wives is thus an attempt to reflect that the heroines have been in a marital situation and therefore have lived as ‘normal’ women.
Important also is the fact that all the articles mention that the heroines kept on holding to their marriages despite being left by their husbands when they had gone to fight for liberation, or that they did not remarry despite the deaths of their husbands. It is also important to note that the marriage institution is mirrored as an institution that the heroines valued, and stayed committed and loyal to till death.
The above speaks to ideas of purity and sexual surveillance that are associated with the bodies of women. Being committed to the marriage institution becomes synonymous with being committed to the nation. Women’s marital discipline therefore becomes symmetrical to one’s commitment to the nation; women come to embody the cultural boundaries of a nation that cannot be broken, a nation that remains unwavering and unique. This sounds very familiar as the nation is usually conceptualised as feminine by the use of pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘her’ (Yuval-Davis & Anthias 1989) as well as by the axiomatic expression, ‘mother of the nation’. Staying in the marriage institution becomes synonymous with being inside the family, with being unique and private and, therefore, with being a pure and able (re)presentative of a nation’s unique culture and well-being. In many ways, this leaves going beyond the family, defending the family and the nation, as man’s natural business.
The ways in which the marriage institution is used metaphorically to show the relationship between the nation and its subjects is made clear by Mugabe’s sentiments that juxtapose Johanna Nkomo’s commitment to her marriage with her commitment to the struggle. Mugabe says, “Mama MaFuyane represented the quiet but unbending dignity of an African princess born and married to the turbulence of struggle” (The Herald 4 June 2003). Important to note is the quietness and incorruptible dignity associated with ‘good’ or legitimate women. Interesting also is the construction ‘African princess’, which tries to link Johanna Nkomo to a pastoral past in a bid to reflect cultural preservation. Quite interesting, however, is the marriage metaphor that is used. Also referring to Johanna Nkomo, another Zanu-PF and government top official and now current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, says, “You stood by your husband during and after the struggle and continued to be a torch bearer for the empowerment of women…” (The Herald 8 June 2003).
For Julia Zvobgo, Mugabe reveals how she supported her husband and his cause by smuggling political messages and mobilising medicines for the liberation fighters. It is interesting, therefore, that seeing the nation in marriage terms entails conceptualising it as a human body, that should be disciplined and under surveillance, but also (re)produce. Johanna Nkomo’s marriage to Joshua Nkomo is symmetrical to the relationship between an individual and the nation. The nation is seen as a living body that enters into marital relationships and obviously desires qualities such as commitment, chastity, obedience and sacrifice (evoking Foucault’s (1977) discipline and self-surveillance), without which the marital relationship becomes strained or collapses.
When Mugabe refers so much to qualities displayed by Johanna Nkomo and other heroines in their marriages, inter-alia, commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, resilience, quietness, dignity and resilience, he means much more than this. The issue goes beyond individuals, or personal marital relationships, to become a microcosm of national identity and national order. The bigger picture here is how individuals and groups should commit themselves to the fundamental ideals of nationalism and live within them without any blemish. This is further supported by what Mugabe says in the same article that Johanna Nkomo “…symbolised the hopeful and uncomplaining self-denial of a marriage whose joy and comfort the pangs of struggle took away” (The Herald 4 June 2003).
What is implied therefore is that while men do a practical and direct service to the bigger marriage partner, the nation, the women should be supportive and remain committed to the micro marriages since these are functional to the creation and survival of the nation. The functionality of the micro marriage to the macro marriage is graphically illuminated in this article in the words of Mugabe who says, “She came under enormous pressure from the occupying racist settler colonial Rhodesian regime. But she would not crack, she would not betray the cause of her husband which was the cause of her people” (The Herald 5 June 2003.) The way in which heroines remained committed to their marriages and faithful to their husbands metaphorises a commitment and faithfulness to the ideals of nationalism.
The association of the national heroines with the marriage institution depicts them as products of nationalism in as much as it (re)produces nationalism. Belonging to a marriage institution is shown as the normal and natural thing to do. In this case, the marriage institution works as a tool to (re)produce nationalism. Locating the heroines in this institution also means loading them with certain expectations, and behavioural practices that are gendered and sexualised, to satisfy a patriarchal and hetero-normative culture. Notably, patriarchy has made it almost impossible to think of the marriage institution without the normalisation and naturalisation of (m)otherhood, making it challenging to think of Zimbabwe’s heroine construct outside marriage and (m)otherhood.
Normalising (m)otherhood and the heroine construct
Foucault (1977,1983) warns of ways in which power and authority use scientific knowledge and reason to rationalise prevailing systems, thoughts and ideas to make them cyclic or a continuous repetition. Being a wife, and belonging to the institution of marriage, the woman is more often than not, expected to be a (m)other and or demonstrate qualities of (m)otherhood.
Based on the above argument, it is intelligible that all the heroines at the National Heroes Acre portray (m)otherhood as inextricably linked to nationhood and they also (re)produce it and normalise it as part of Zimbabwean nationalism. All of the articles express that national heroines had children and performed (m)otherly roles. This figures the woman as a body that (re)produces and cares for the nation to ensure its continuity; hence they are called ‘mothers of the revolution’ (The Herald 19 January 2010). The feminised body is also seen as a useful ‘other’ whose occupation of particular spaces and performance of particular roles is seen as ‘functional’ to nationhood.
The articles reflect on ways in which the heroines were good (m)others who managed to take care of the children and give them an education. Dr Samuel Takawira said “the family had lost a mother figure who stood by the family” (The Herald 15 January 2010) and this is confirmed by Mugabe who says, “She was a true mother to all her children” (The Herald, 16 January 2010).
For the heroines, it appears the period they were left alone by their husbands during the liberation struggle was a litmus test which proved that m(otherhood) is a role ‘natural’ to women. It also appears that their abilities to be good (m)others are linked to their location, which ultimately is the home, the family, and the institution of marriage. In addition, after independence, most of the heroines are associated with helping the poor, disadvantaged children and women, and people with ‘disabilities.’ Basically, they are located within the institution of care, love and compassion, which are difficult to distinguish from m(otherhood). For example, Johanna Nkomo was the patron of the Children of Hope Foundation (The Herald 5 June 2003) and all other heroines are associated with domains of the weak, disadvantaged and poor.
Noting the above, the value that is placed on (m)otherhood is illuminating and the given narratives and commemorations of the heroines make attempts to show that they lived up to it. The Herald articles covering their deaths and burials emphasise on ways in which these narrations and commemorations are of significance to the nation and to nationhood. In respect of Johanna Nkomo, Mugabe says, “We were convinced that she…would continue to be with us, reflexively playing her warm, motherly role our nation had grown to take for granted” (The Herald 5 of June 2003). Commenting on Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira, Victoria Chitepo alludes to ways in which the late heroine had been instrumental in the formation of women’s social clubs and nursery schools for children (The Herald 18 January 2010). On the same heroine, Acting Prime Minister, Arthur Mutambara, says Sunny was “mother of the whole nation” (The Herald 16 January 2010) and continued to say that Zimbabweans should learn the lessons of sacrifice, commitment and perseverance from her. There is, therefore, an effort to write and read heroines not only as mothers to their specific children, but as (m)others of the whole nation, reflecting ways in which women are valued because of their (re)productive capacities as well as their performative abilities to give care.
When Johanna Nkomo dies, the then Vice President of Zimbabwe, Simon Muzenda says, “Her death is not only a loss to the Nkomo family, but to the nation at large” (The Herald 5 of June 2003”) and the article is entitled, “Zimbabwe has lost an illustrious mother” (ibid). Zimbabwe is taken as a living being, a body that had been born of a woman. In this case, Zimbabwe ceases to be a geographical space and becomes a living organism that feels. Even Ruth Chinamano, who appears to have abandoned her children for the struggle (The Herald 5 January 2005), is located in defence of the weak as the then vice-President Joseph Msika says the, “National heroine stood for poor, vulnerable groups” (The Herald 7 January 2005). This is reflective of her protective (m)otherly nature and the very fact that this statement stands out reveals that it testifies to everything that surrounds her character. Also, her primary concerns in the parliament seem to be the general primary and marginalised concerns which patriarchy has associated with femininity. Ruth is known for fighting for the poor, children, families of the late freedom fighters and also raising women ‘issues’ in parliament. However she did this, and whatever the results, it is clear that she is associated with the weak and her role is in caring, mothering, loving and supporting. Even her so-called ‘ferocious fights’ and controversial lobbies are located in the perimeters of (m)otherhood, hence Msika rightly points out that she stood for the vulnerable (ibid) and that “She always reminded the government of the need to take care of the welfare of the children and spouses of fallen heroes” (ibid).
I therefore argue that in as much as Ruth Chinamano could stand up to some men, in as much as she had a ‘controversial’ character, and in as much as she was fearless and ferocious, all this made her life oscillate around care, welfarism and love, which are gendered spaces. It seems that even the struggle itself failed to transform her or enable her to break the gender boundaries prescribed by patriarchy. Instead, she becomes nothing but an active performer of the female gender script. She, therefore, does not stand outside the boundaries that are associated with the other heroines.
Looking at the foregoing, one may be forgiven to link Zimbabwe’s heroines to Nehanda (a shared past), who is figured as a mother who raised (nationalist) children who fought against the colonial regime. Thinking of the (m)other as such reflects how she should be ‘protected’ and, therefore, stay in the home so as to continue performing her role of bearing children, raising them and, therefore, supporting the struggle in her own unique sense. More so, the fact that Nehanda’s (m)otherhood is founded on sacrifice, relates to ways in which heroines in particular, and women in general, are taken seriously or put on a pedestal only when they sacrifice to (re)produce the nation.
It is in the above context that Zimbabwe’s current heroines qualify to be such. Being wives of known nationalists, who supported husbands, took care of the children and demonstrated (m)otherly love and care to their families and the nation, they become worthy archetypes of the woman patriot/nationalist, hence their deaths are a loss to the whole nation. Nagel (1998) argues that by performing traditional roles assigned to them by nationalism, like supporting husbands, caring for children, and doing any other service to their families, women become performers of nationalism. Consequently, they become performers of gender and sexuality.
Nagel’s (1998) sentiments become lively when Mugabe comments on the heroic acts of Johanna Nkomo. Mugabe says:
Through shear effort and determination, she raised her family virtually all her children single handedly, ensuring that they receive good education while their father was in detention or had left the country to lead the struggle. She took most of the pressure thus keeping her husband sequestered and thus focused on the enormous challenges of leading the struggle for independence, therein lies her heroic contribution.” (The Herald 5 June 2003).
Mugabe does the same with regard to Sunny Nombiyelanga Takawira. He notes that Sunny had all the qualities of motherhood such as love, humility and care, and lived up to them (The Herald 18 January 2010). The above sentiments by Mugabe naturalise the family, and the home as a natural space for women and naturalise (m)otherhood as a woman/wife’s normal role. He seems to articulate that this is the way in which women serve their nation as opposed to men who should be away from home fighting the enemy. In this case, the article constitutes childcare as a preserve for (m)otherhood as well, as that it is difficult for the woman to live the marriage, or family.
The above reflects that women (re)produce the nation; they give birth to it through care and support. The women’s roles in the families become a microcosm of the roles of women in the nation. Many theorists of nationalism have noted the tendency of nationalism to liken the nation to a family (McClintock, 1991, Skurski, 1994); it is a male-headed household in which both men and women have ‘natural’ roles to play. This echoes Yuval-Davis and Anthias’ (1989) seminal assertions that while women may be subordinated politically in nationalists’ movements and politics, they occupy an important symbolic place as mothers of the nation, with impeccable purity. Resultant is the nationalists’ special interest in the sexuality and sexual behaviour of their women. While traditionalist men may be defenders of the family and the nation, women are thought by traditionalists to embody family and national honour to an extent that women’s shame is the family’s shame; the nation’s shame is the man’s shame.
As reflected above the national heroines are the exemplifiers of nationalism in as much as they (re)produce it. All the heroines at the National Heroes Acre, therefore, signify and (re)produce the general location and expectations of women in Zimbabwe. Any patriotic woman would discipline and submit herself to such a system. As mothers, both of children and of the revolution, the women patriots involve themselves in areas of education and mobilisation. It is important to note that they function ‘well’ in these areas because they are at home and not at the war front, they are within the families with children, and that they are wives of known nationalists.
Yuval-Davis and Anthias (1989) further note that women are central in the (re)production of national culture. This makes a lot of sense considering that women are left with the role of socialising the children. Important also, is how the role of mobilisation is associated with women. All the heroines have been praised for being transmitters of the nation’s culture, which is evidenced by their abilities to raise children and their morality. They have also been praised for their abilities to mobilise others as well as sourcing material needs for their husbands.
The then-minister of Information, Nathan Shamhuyarira, notes that the Zanu-PF Women’s league highlighted Mama MaFuyane’s contribution in mobilising women within the party and her social welfare work. Again, her contributions are associated with educating and caring. Shamhuyarira says, “It was an unanimous decision spearheaded by the Women’s league. She was very helpful in mobilising women in the provinces within and outside the party” (The Herald 5 June 2003).
The same is also said about the rest of the heroines. This reflects that mobilising, educating and moralising are roles that are left for women. Since this has to be done while the husbands are into politics, it reveals that the role of women in the Zimbabwean nation is to protect the nation’s culture and to pass it on to the next generations, while men’s role is to defend and fight for the nation. Shamhuyarira’s sentiments were repeated by Zanu-PF Women’s League spokesperson who says, “We will always cherish her deep-seated values of hard work, family centeredness and cultural preservation” (ibid).
Important to note is that the qualities that are associated with the family cross their immediate boundaries and go on to figure the qualities of nationhood. Significantly, this is commensurate with the female gender. I argue that the worthiness of these women to be accorded with the heroic status is primarily because they had managed to perform their gendered roles as required by the imaginations of Zimbabwe nationalism. In many ways, the narrated practices and behaviours of the conferred heroines polarise gender and sexual identities. In addition to revealing the politics of (m)othering in Zimbabwe, the ways in which the heroine is constructed and (re)produced imagines and performs Zimbabwean nationalism as heteronormative.
The heroine and the normalisation and naturalisation of heterosexuality
So far, the paper has reflected on how nationalist history force Nehanda into wifehood, and ways in which her figure is usually depicted together with that of Kaguvi, suggesting a marital relationship. In addition, the paper has reflected how all the heroines, except Sabina Mugabe, who is Robert Mugabe’s sister and is largely seen as a mother figure to him, are located in the marriage institution as wives, as well as the ways in which heroines have been used to normalise marriage and (m)otherhood.
Ultimately, the above sections reflect how the national heroine exemplifies and (re)produces a conventional heterosexual family where female fecundity is valued. The implication is that patriotic women should be wives, married, have children, pass on the national culture and perform roles that (re)produce and support the fundamentals of Zimbabwean nationalism. It is alleged that if they manage to do this, then there will always be a healthy and (re)productive nationhood. In this case, heterosexuality becomes the rationale in so far as it ensures the said national continuity. Subjects thus have to discipline their sexuality to make sure that the nation remains healthy. It is in this sense that the heroines’ identification as wives and (m)others perform and (re)produce the heterosexual ethic of Zimbabwean nationalism. Coupled with their dead or alive husbands, the heroines become archetypal (re)presentatives of a Zimbabwean family where the wife belongs to and is identified through the husband, where the couple lives under the guidance of the marriage institution, where family continuity has to be guaranteed by giving birth to children and therefore, where heterosexuality is the norm and the natural.
With the kind of family that is exemplified by the national heroines, with the kind of space that they have been located to, and with the kind of roles and responsibilities ascribed to them, it is unimaginable to think of any other family formation that goes beyond the heterosexual ideal in Zimbabwean nationhood. Wifehood, m(otherhood) and all their associated characteristics normalise, naturalise and (re)produce the heterosexual family that enables Zimbabwe’s dominant nation-making. Images of (m)others and fathers pervade The Herald coverage of the deaths and burials of national heroines. This is an attempt to bring in binary gender and sexual divisions which cannot be crossed if the well-being of the nation needs to be preserved. Interestingly, the image of Leopold Takawira as “the Roaring Lion of Chirumhanzi”, and that of Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira as “a roaring lioness” (The Herald 18 January 2010), seem to reflect the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ gender and sexual categories that characterise Zimbabwean nationhood. Members of these binary categories work in their unique ways towards national imperatives. Having couples at the national shrine, and the tendency to turn to the marital profiles of heroines and their late husband’s, is meant to reflect on the nature of the national family in Zimbabwe.
The (re)presentation of the national heroines constructs a conventional family that has polarised gender and sexual roles for its subjects and where these binary gender and sexual practices are supposed to be respected for the well-being of the nation. Nationalism defines the practices of each gender and sexual category and provides some kind of rationality for the different practices characterising each gender and, therefore, enables the continuous performance of such practices. This situation brings sense to Butler’s (1990) sentiments that gender and sexuality are performed in the everyday lives of the subjects of the nation. Zimbabwe’s heroines are shown to have lived up to the expectations of nationalism. More importantly, however, the narratives of their heroism have been drawn to live up to the expectations of the conventional gender and sexual binaries. Constructing them as heroines and having them on the national shrine is materialising the gender and sexual meanings that they embody.
Heroines, glory and marginality
Descriptive words such as purity, morality, chastity, loyalty, care, sacrifice, resilience and emotional are usually associated with a particular gender and sex to such an extent that it has been internalised. In the above sections, I have reflected on the ways in which most of these descriptive words feature in what is said about the heroines. The Herald articles reveal that all heroines have been described using a number of the above terms. It appears all the current heroines have been praised for not entering into other marriage commitments after the deaths of their husbands. One may suggest that another marriage was going to disturb child care, pollute the heroine’s body and dishonour both the husband and the nation. Thus, it was commonsensical to maintain their purity and chastity by avoiding other marriages that would contaminate them. This actually puts them in the realm of morality, which is very important in figuring the nation’s uniqueness.
Chastity and commitment to the ideals of the marriage and husband is equated to unquestionable loyalty to the ideals of Zimbabwean nationalism. In any case, Mugabe makes it amply clear that the cause for which Johanna suffered for was that of her husband and her people (The Herald 4 June 2003), and so one may be forgiven for suggesting that it was not her own cause, she did it for others. All kinds of suffering and denial should be expected and endured as sacrifices to one’s husband, as well as in the service of nationalism. This is why Mugabe sings praises for Johanna Nkomo, for “She stoically accepted that the man she married was the man she would lose and cede to the struggle, making herself a virtual widow, her children virtual orphans” (The Herald 5 June 2003). The other heroines are also highly praised for having many of the above qualities.
If commitment to the husband and the children makes a woman remain within the family, then it means that the family is very essential to her. She cannot survive without it. On a broader level, the family represents the nation, and what is articulated, therefore, is that one’s commitment to nationalism should never be betrayed. More specific to this work, there is an imperative that one should be committed to one’s gender and sexual ‘identity’. All the heroines are glorified as having been fully committed to the family and nation to motivate patriarchal and national control on women’s bodies as well as to encourage self-surveillance.
Many theorists of nationalism have noted the tendency of nationalism to liken the nation to a family (McClintock, 1991, Skurski, 1994); it is a male headed household in which both men and women have ‘natural’ roles to play. While women may be subordinated politically in nationalists’ movements and politics, they occupy an important symbolic place as mothers of the nation, their purity must be impeccable, and so nationalists often have a special interest in the sexuality and sexual behaviour of their women (Nagel, 1998). As such, the dressing of women becomes important. Ruth Chinamano is well known for her parliamentary suggestions that women should be banned from wearing mini-skirts and that modelling should be banned as it exposed the bodies of women, thereby robbing them, and consequently the nation, of dignity (The Herald 5 January 2005).
The above alludes to Foucault’s sentiments of reading the woman’s body as that of the nation. There are therefore attempts to control the sexuality of women in Zimbabwe as well as to set boundaries for their gender. When it is mentioned that the heroines did not marry when their husbands died, and when it is mentioned that they remained loyal to their marriages, it becomes clear that purity, chastity and loyalty are very essential qualities of nationalist women and therefore of heroines. Taking it from this sense, therefore, being a nationalist woman means living within certain confinements of gender and sexual categories that are characterised by particular descriptions.
Referring to Johanna Nkomo, Mugabe underlines her sacrifices, loyalty, resilience and commitment to the family as very crucial. He says;
To be the wife of a nationalist politician in those days was not easy. One was exposed to a hard life in cruelty, pain, self-denial constant danger and tragedy. Mama Mafuyana met all these pressures but labored steadfast, unflinching, loyal, virtuous and committed to the family. (The Herald 4 June 2003)
Emmerson Mnangagwa added to the above point by saying, “We will remember you and your resilience, inspiration, dignity as a mother and determination” (The Herald 8 June 2003). The issue of suffering, commitment, hardworking and undefeated love for the family is also echoed by Maud Muzenda as she reflected on Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira’s life (The Herald 15 January 2010). Moreover, Rugare Gumbo, the-then Zanu-PF deputy secretary for administration commended “She belonged to the generation of brave and enduring women…” (The Herald 18 January 2010) and described her as ‘consistent’, and ‘resolute’ woman (ibid).
Suffering and endurance seem to be qualities that are associated with femininity. I argue, therefore, that when Sunny suffered and endured because of the preoccupations of her husband, she was actually performing her own gender, just like the rest of the heroines. She was acting loyal and subservient. Julia Zvobgo is also shown to have been committed and loyal just like the rest of the heroines. It is evident that the traditional roles of women are receiving applause and I argue that the current women at the Heroes’ Acre have been rewarded for performing their gender in line with the expectations of Zimbabwean nationalism.
Above all, there is also an attempt to associate all the heroines with care. As has already been mentioned in the previous sections, all of the heroines are described, in one way or the other, as full of love and care, qualities that are linked to (m)otherhood. I argue that by qualifying the above terms on the heroines, the heroines are shown to have lived up to the expectations of nationalism. More important to my case, however, is that they have lived up to the expectations of conventional gender and sexual binaries. Constructing them as heroines and having them on the national shrine is materialising the gender and sexual meanings that they embody.
Conclusion: Politics of the spectacular, nationhood and citizenship
Power and authority are enabled by the formation of the subject in a manner that identifies and (re)produces the subject (Althusser 1971; Foucault 1977). Nationalism in general, and in Zimbabwe in particular, is embedded with power and authority that has created and (re)produced the national heroine in particular ways that naturalise women’s subordinate identities and the framing of their abilities within (m)otherhood. Looking at those on whom heroine status is conferred in Zimbabwe, specifically from 2000 to 2010 (a period dubbed the third Chimurenga by the Zanu-PF), nationalism has created a gendered and sexualised national (m)otherhood that tallies with the ideals of ‘patriotic’ history. The national heroine subject is both a product of nationalism, thus she has been selected and (re)created as a national model for (m)otherhood, and is also an instrument of nationalism, in that she is used to (re)present, (re)produce and perform the ideals of nationalism in its gendered and sexualised sense. The idea of honouring, of nationalising, of preserving, of distinguishing, of symbolising, of continuous reference and commemoration, and of incepting into history, gives rise to the (re)production of the nationalist woman and a performance of gendered and sexualised identities.
The paper has shown the ways in which nationalism, gender and sexuality are conventional and polarised discourses that can be read on those on whom heroine status is conferred. Althusser’s (1971) concept of ideology and ISAs, which organise social life so that the dominant ideology can create subjects who (re)produce the social order, has been important in tackling the conferring of the heroine status as a discursive issue. According to Althusser, the goal of those in power is achieved by constructing ‘subjective consciousness’ through socialisation and interpellation. Accepting and glorifying the heroine status in Zimbabwe evidences the idea of interpellation. Hence, Althusser argues that subjective consciousness is both produced and guaranteed by power relations. I have used this concept to unravel the hidden, complex and often neglected discourses behind the conferring of national heroines in Zimbabwe.
While nationalism produces the heroine, the heroine also (re)produces a Zimbabwean nationalism which is gendered and sexualised. As such, in as much as the heroines are constructed and performed by Zimbabwean nationalism, the heroines are texts that (re)construct and perform Zimbabwean nationalism, thereby (re)producing some kind of continuous repetition. In the same way, Zimbabwean nationalism constructs and performs a gendered and sexualised heroine in as much as the gendered and sexualised heroine is a text that constructs and performs Zimbabwean nationalism and, thereby, maintaining conventional, dichotomised gender and sexual discourses and maintaining a particular kind of Zimbabwean nationalism.
Also, Foucault (1977) brings to fore the concept of bio-power, which is very useful in the analysis of the bodily aspects of the subject formation, which in this case is the Zimbabwean national heroine. Foucault posits that power and authority are founded on scientific and expert knowledge about individuals as both social and biological beings and thus modern forms of governments make use of this knowledge on the subjects to keep them at bay. The heroine construct, which is a product and (re)producer of nationalism, is “anchored in familial scripts and the invention of the nation as biological families” (Lewis, 2008:107). This reflects that scientific knowledge about human beings, whether social or biological, is a useful resource in the (re)construction and (re)production of nationalism as well as gendered and sexualised bodies. Thus, social and biological scientific knowledge about human beings has (re)constructed a ‘patriotic’ and nationalist heroine who conforms to the principles of Zimbabwean nationalism patriarchal citizenship.
The selection of heroines falls more into the complex body politics of Zimbabwean nationalism than it is simply the result of the relationship between the heroines and the men in powerful positions. It is an ideologically-driven process that ensures the knowledge about national bodies is concretised and performed. I argue that far from “falsification of history in Zimbabwe” (Goredema and Chigora 2009:76), the selection of heroines actually adds on to Zimbabwean history, which has seen its nationalism constructed through the complex interplay of gender, sexuality and ‘patriotic’ nationalism.
All of the heroines buried at the national shrine fit the gendered and sexualised text that is used to construct the Zimbabwean nation, especially if one takes into cognisance that nationalism figures a country as a biological being where different subjects enact or perform certain roles in the well-being of the whole body. The connection dramatically completes the nature of the conventional family that is constituted by patriarchal, gendered and sexualised connotations. By bringing in this particular group of women and their narrativisation into patriotic history, the Zimbabwean family is (re)constituted and so is Zimbabwean nationalism. The point being made is that Zimbabwe is a family because of family unity and because the members of the family are guided by loyalty, commitment and particular boundaries related to their specific roles.
Therefore, the conferring of the heroine status in Zimbabwe is an (un)conscious and insidious process of inclusion and exclusion that is meant to (re)produce and (re)construct the nationalist woman and her place; as well as (re)produce, naturalise and authorise inherent gendered and sexualised identities and hierarchies in the making of Zimbabwean nationalism and citizenship. This process is founded on the complex but existing interconnectedness between gender, sexuality and nationalism and reduces the heroine to both a product and also an instrument of Zimbabwean nation-craft under the Zanu-PF. The Herald coverage on the deaths and burials of the heroines dramatises the ways in which gendered and sexualised discourses have been internalised, naturalised and normalised in a complex way that sustains them. While the deaths and burial processes of national heroines are symbolic of the imagined threatened (m)otherhood and nationhood, the deaths, funeral proceedings and burials at the national ‘shrine’ also (re)presented the material and symbolic presence of (m)otherhood and nationhood. This (m)otherhood and nationhood could be retrieved and performed by the living to (re)generate the ‘threatened’ (m)othering and nationhood. Those who fail to retrieve and perform the presented and visibilised texts of Zimbabwean nation-craft are automatically excluded from nationhood and citizenship.
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The Herald coverage:
Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira
|15 January 2010
|page 1: National hero Takawira’s widow dies
page 5: continuation
|16 January 2010||page 1: President consoles Takawira family|
|18 January 2010||page 1: Amai Takawira to be buried today
page 2: continuation
page 3: Mai Takawira: Still waters that ran deep
|19 January 2010||page 1: We’re masters of our destiny, says President|
|3 January 2005||page 1: Veteran Nationalist Chinamano dies
page 4: continuation
|4 January 2005||page 1: Chinamano declared national heroine
page 4: continuation
|5 January 2005||page 1: Chinamano to be buried tomorrow
page 7: Chinamano: A true warrior
|6 January 2005||page 1: President consoles Chinamano family
page 2: continuation
|7 January 2005||page 1: Chinamano laid to rest
page 2: continuation
|12 January 2005||page 1: President pays tribute to Chinamano
page 2: continuation
Julia Tukai Zvobgo
|17 February 2004||page 3: Julia Zvobgo dies|
|18 February 2004||page 4: President consoles Zvobgo family|
|19 February 2004||page 6: Politburo to decide on Julia Zvobgo status|
|20 February 2004||page 1: Julia Zvobgo declared national heroine
page 2: continuation
page 9: Julia Zvobgo leaves a legacy of endurance
|21 February 2004||page 14: Heroine’s body leaves for Masvingo|
|23 February 2004||page 1: Amai Zvobgo hailed
page 2: continuation
|4 June 2003||page 1: Johanna Nkomo ‘Mama MaFuyane’ dies
page 2: continuation
|5 June 2003||page 1: Mama MaFuyane declared national heroine
page 2: continuation
page 8: Zimbabwe has lost an illustrious
|6 June 2003||page 4: Mama MaFuyane’s body to be flown into Harare today|
|7 June 2003||page 2: Mama MaFuyane’s body arrives in Harare|
 The national heroes’ acre is where those identified as national hero/ines are buried
 I use this concept in a dual but related sense. First, to reflect the glorified and superfluous identities of mothering related to purity, care, provision, protection, sacrifice and perseverance. Second, in a subversive sense that teases the particularisation of motherhood as a marginalised ‘other’ and with specific roles and spaces within patriarchal families and nations.
 Nehanda and Kaguvi are Zimbabwe’s most revered spirit mediums
 Josiah Magama Tongogara is an honoured and glorified national liberation hero, he was a military commander and chief of defense during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation.
By Vickashnee Nair (2021)[i]
Exploring the phenomenon of ‘gender reveal parties’ on Google and social media platforms quickly immerses audiences in overwhelming seas of blue and pink. The ‘gender reveal’ trend is replete with gender stereotypes, creating a spectacle of gender performance where expectant couples (most commonly middle-upper class and heterosexually-identified) take centre stage in reaction videos. In these videos, it is typical to see displays of different emotions, as soon-to-be parents (with friends and family members as spectators) “discover” or “reveal” the gender identity of their unborn child(ren).
Gender reveal parties tend to receive greater press coverage when things go awry. A notable example can be identified in the case of a reveal party that caused widespread fires in California (Morales, & Waller, 2020). After this particular incident, the woman who is credited with the creation of the ‘gender reveal’ trend called for an end to gender reveal reaction videos and parties, stating that they can be destructive and dangerous. She went on to highlight that such events have also caused significant harm to transgender and non-binary communities, showing that the impact of ‘gender revealing’ transcends the reproduction of pink and blue dichotomies, with far reaching consequences for broader society (Wilkinson, 2020).
The discourses of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ that are used throughout this paper warrant a note on terminology. It has been argued that the term ‘gender reveal party’ is itself a misnomer: one author even refers to these events as ‘genital reveal parties’ as they actually proclaim the sex of the foetus, and not the gender (Jack, 2020). This distinction reveals some of the potential reasons for problematising the trend, and argues against the conflation of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.
‘Sex’ refers to biological differences between people, with hormonal, chromosomal and anatomical bases, whereas ‘gender’ denotes the practices of femininity or masculinity that flow from physiological attributes, but are informed and supported largely by social relations (Hird, 2000). Audiences that witness typical gender reveals tend, however, to impose particular gender stereotypes and roles onto the unborn child(ren), thereby conflating ‘sex’ with ‘gender’. In these instances, there is an interplay between the two terms/concepts: the child’s ‘sex’ is often established through ultrasound detection of genitalia of the foetus. However, psycho-social and relational expectations are then projected onto the unborn child, comprising the practices and beliefs in which family, friends and parents may be invested (Jack, 2020). It is often at the point of reveal, where emotions are heightened, that these projection (and fantasies) are expressed and performed most intensely.
To provide context for gender reveal parties, at least relating to popular media, it is first necessary to outline how the sex of an unborn child is ascertained, and how this biological knowledge then supports the socialisation of the child, according to the assigned gender identity. An ultrasound is first conducted by a medical professional, where the sex of the child is ascertained. From there, expectant couples (in preparation for ‘gender reveal’ events) can ask not to be told immediately about the sex of the foetus, which is then sealed in an envelope or communicated in a secretive manner to those who have to organize the surprise announcement. Alternatively, the soon-to-be parents can ask to know so as to announce it to their family and friends themselves (Pasche Guignard, 2015).
It can be argued that the rising popularity of gender reveals has catapulted what would have been a private or intimate phase of pregnancy into public knowledge (Giesler, 2017). It also reflects the modern capacity for sharing, competitive consumerism, and a drive to share moments that might be temporal and abstruse (Giesler, 2017). The notion of a modern capacity for sharing seems to align with today’s understanding of how disclosure is encouraged via social media. There may be multiple reasons for thrusting something intimate into the public eye: personal gain that can be gleaned through tangible benefits; empathy through the garnering of emotional and social support; and social engagement, communication and collaboration with others (Oh & Syn, 2015).
It is also worth noting the competitive consumerism embedded in gender reveal parties. An example is the social media platform, Pinterest, where displays of gender reveal parties are an expression of identity-driven material consumption. There is always a cost that is associated with the event, things that are to be purchased and then presented to others in ways which earn them social capital (Applequist, 2014). Traditional capital is also often exchanged for social capital, where expectant couples garner attention and focus, gaining social capital through the rituals involved in a gender reveal party, such as the reception of gifts, and the valorisation of the traditionally feminine characteristics of the mother, and the masculine characteristics of the father (Applequist, 2014).
Social capital here refers to a person’s or group’s sympathy toward another person or collective that may re/produce potential benefits, advantages and preferential treatment for another person or group (Robinson, Schmid, & Siles, 2002). This describes the shared experience of the gender reveal, where there might be sympathy or connection to the experiences of the expecting parents, and the potential social benefits and acceptance that these parents may receive through sharing. Thus, it may be argued that gender reveal parties have commodified the socially-constructed gender assignment of babies: a process that seeks to perpetuate particular cultural norms and gender roles (Applequist, 2014).
Other perspectives might suggest that historically, social and emotional investment in knowing or identifying the sex of unborn children has been prominent: one might consider examples such as China’s One Child Policy, and even the investment in male heirs by monarchies and other social/religious institutions. Often, the first question that is posed to a pregnant person is “is it a boy, or a girl?”. Indeed, there can be multiple reasons for expectant parents to engage with the ‘gender reveal’ trend, but this piece posits that there is a complex performativity of “sex and gender management” in ‘gender revealing’, through the lens of sexual and gendered difference (Giesler, 2017).
Spaces that are created by gender reveal parties/videos utilise performative strategies and rituals, involving gender, sexuality and the body (Giesler, 2017). The parties/videos themselves might happen in myriad possible ways, depending on the choices of the people planning them. However, a defining feature across most gender reveals is the presence of fun and games that surround the main event of the reveal (Pasche Guignard, 2015). These ritualistic games might involve dressing in the colour of the couple’s guess of the child’s sex, or casting a vote in a gender reveal ballot, amongst others. Other interesting games and details rely on dichotomous gender stereotypes to mark each sex, including moustaches for a boy, and a ribbon or a pair of red lips for a girl (Pasche Guignard, 2015). Ultimately, these features and patterns highlight that the gender binary is re/produced through these events and social practices.
Within the gender reveal trend, gendered symbols of masculinity and femininity feel limiting and rigid. It seems that the reliance on stereotypical symbols of boy/girl gender identities supports a sense of security by making the unknown visible (Giesler, 2017). These social practices seem to make plain what is actually quite complex and unpredictable: ‘gender’ is something fluid that evolves over one’s lifespan, rather than something that we can claim to understand and/or control fully. In this sense, the gender reveal trend might devalue plural and fluid perspectives of ‘gender’ that make space for a wide range of possible gender identities and performances to be lived and experienced.
To further tease out such intricacies of sex, it is also important to distinguish between various expressions of it – sex, itself, is not binary. Determining the sex of a foetus depends on the accuracy of the ultrasound test, which cannot always determine sex, especially when the foetus shows other presentations of sex, such as those that have intersex expressions after birth (Jack, 2020). ‘Intersex’ refers to the state of being born with biological sex characteristics that vary from what is typically seen as exclusively male or female (Griffiths, 2018). There is much debate about the nomenclature of “intersex”, particularly within the medical professions. Just as we understand that gender and sex are separate concepts, we can also have a nuanced idea that intersex presentations do not necessarily influence gender. For example, it is important to note that ‘intersex’ people should not be seen as deviating from ‘normal’ sex presentations such as binary ‘male’ or ‘female’.
By presenting ‘sex’ as something binary, and by pinning ‘gender’ onto ‘sex’ and neglecting to make important distinctions between the two, gender reveal trends portray gender expression as something that is a ‘natural’ phenomenon, eliminating the idea that gender expression is socially and relationally constructed (Wiseman, & Davidson, 2011). This binary discourse can also delegitimise gender diversity and freedom, by deeming alternative forms of gender expression ‘unnatural’ (Wiseman, & Davidson, 2011). Therefore, a binary discourse with regards to gender can be wholly unhelpful and inaccurate, especially when it is an attempt to concretise something that is quite uncertain and fluid, both in its contextuality and temporality (Wiseman, & Davidson, 2011). These aspects make a strong case for the problematisation and disruption of the ‘gender reveal’ trend.
Socially and emotionally, it seems obvious that much rests on the sex of this child. There are clear expectations and fantasises that are associated with ideas of ‘having a boy’ or ‘having a girl’. Often, parents invest in the imaginary baby, which represents what they hope for the child. This can have different impacts for first time parents, as it this is compounded with becoming parents for the first time. An additional experience that can be considered here, is the loss of a child through still birth, or miscarriage, as often this is often thought of as a loss and a bereavement process (Cacciatore, 2013). Such a loss has a wide array of psychological impacts which then effect relationships, functioning, work, and emotional wellbeing amongst many others (Cacciatore, 2013). This is testament to the bond that forms between the parents and the unborn child.
In gender reveal videos, the reactions of siblings, even young ones, show how they (even at young ages) hold ideas about the gender of their future sibling, which can include their relationship, the types of play they imagine they would engage in, and what role they would take as an older sibling to this child. Every aspect of the unborn child’s gendered socialisation is determined by its sex: before its birth, the child already has gendered clothing, gendered toys and a gendered nursery (Pasche Guignard, 2015).
A deep drive is exhibited here towards a collective recognition, and an almost commemoration of sexual identification, which creates a series of anxieties and demands in the need to identify the child (Giesler, 2017). It is a need to shift from ambiguity and to address the “inexplicability of life not yet made visible” (Giesler, 2017, p. 665). Again, this can be considered a collective effort to make concrete that which is not yet known, the idea of life not yet visible but known. This idea shows the very unique phase that pregnancy represents, which also has implications for the experiences of the expectant parents, their bonding with the unborn child and the symbolism that underlies all of this. What is relevant is how the sex of the child impacts upon this process, and how the perceived gender identity of the child then continues to shape it after it is born. Socially, this constitutes quite an intriguing process of grappling with something that is at this point to still be realised; the foetus initiates this process.
An interesting phrase that is often used when talking about expectations of a pregnancy is: “Well it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl, as long as it’s healthy”. From an intersectional perspective, this highlights some of the ways in which, even before birth, our (presumed) gender identities are already linked to other aspects of the self, including (dis)ability, for example. At this very early stage in the development of the foetus, social and relational influences are already enacted upon it: in some instances, sex-selective abortions even make it possible for pregnant people to keep/abort the foetus depending on whether it is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, and whether or not it is able-bodied.
Sex and ability-selective abortive practices have long been documented in Asian countries such as China, and India (Hesketh, Lu, & Xing, 2011). In such countries, there is a significant son preference combined with various other factors, such as a small-family culture, and easy access to such sex-selective technologies, which have led to highly imbalanced sex-ratios (Hesketh, Lu, & Xing, 2011). In China, a factor that complicates this further is the one child policy (Hesketh, Lu, & Xing, 2011). This also introduces an example of how even policy imposes an additional layer to sex-selective abortions, going beyond just cultural norms and ideas around gender in particular societies. When more males than females are born, there are a variety of consequences for populations. One consequence is female infanticide, which has been prevalent since British colonial rule in India (Ecker, 207). In India, factors that contribute to this sex-selective practice include the tradition for sons to inherit a family’s wealth, and it is often he that supports his parents in old age, whereas daughters become financial burdens through payment of dowries and various other costs linked to marriage, which predates British colonial rule (Ecker, 2007).
However, although there is literature of such practices in Asian countries and post-colonies, one must also be cautious in focusing on communities of colour as the primary perpetrators of sex-selective abortions (Jack, 2020). For example, we should problematise why there is a dearth of research on these practices in other communities, especially since such technologies are more widespread than ever and data collected on such may be skewed or inaccurate when reflecting wealthier populations (Jack, 2020). This evidence would also need to be read against the availability of abortions for different populations.
Even within these contexts, there is variation and heterogeneity in terms of people’s practices in relation to knowing/identifying foetal sex and sex-selective abortive practices. In India, for example, there is often little difference of son preference by education or income, but selective abortion of girls is more common in educated and wealthier households. It is hypothesized that wealthier people can afford ultrasound and abortion services more readily than those from a lower economic status (Jha et al., 2011). Although there can still be varying contributing factors that might lead to sex-selective abortions, this is nuanced by the fact that there are different implications for families depending on their economic status, where those of a lower status might be in more dire situations and may utilise sex-selective abortion (Hesketh, Lu, &Xing, 2011).
Within the gender reveal trend, there is so much emphasis on what is present within the uterus of the pregnant person, and on its possible sex and gender (Pashe Guignard, 2015). This hyper focus shows some of the ways in which pregnant women are embedded in patriarchal contexts, where their status and worth are often acknowledged and/or augmented only when they carry and/or provide children. The body of the mother takes central stage here, scrutinising physically-embodied ideas and expectations of femininity. The common phrase ‘bun in the oven’ is a clear example of how gendered language functions to objectify the bodies of women as ‘natural born’ carriers of babies. Rather than essentialising pregnant women’s bodies, and imposing gendered expectations onto them, we might consider the fluidity and plurality of pregnant people’s identities and experiences.
Not all people who fall pregnant identify in the same gendered ways, and experiences of pregnancy are unique and variable. Furthermore, the idea that women are ‘born to be mothers’ is also a social myth that should be questioned and dispelled. Expected gender expression is often institutionally rewarded; when gendered identities are performed incorrectly, this is often seen as a transgression, and pregnancy shines a spotlight on the mother and thrusts her body into the domain of the public (Ryan, 2013).
Pregnancy has also been commodified through the lens of wealthy and middle-class populations: attending yoga classes, eating organic food and being able to take off time for work are features of privileged living (Jack, 2020). Therefore, pregnancy experiences might feel elitist and alienating to those who cannot access them in the same ways, and gender reveal parties are no different. The expense and privilege that accompanies throwing such a party does not translate to every woman’s experience of pregnancy, highlighting the role that class has to play here. It commodifies the experience of parenting, as such public performances become quite lavish in nature, and expecting parents compete to almost prove their capabilities in raising the child (Giesler, 2017). In South Africa, the strong interplay between gender, race and class is especially relevant when thinking about how people experience and navigate both pregnancies and parenting.
This also brings about interesting discussions as to how parents themselves choose to express their genders, and how parents who do not subscribe to stereotypes or the gender binary might experience pregnancy and parenting processes. An interesting trend to consider is how the LGBTQIA+ community has adopted ‘gender revealing’ in creative ways, such as in the case of parents of transgender individuals that hold gender reveal parties to introduce their children who have transitioned. In a recent example, parents who held a gender reveal to introduce their transgender daughter threw a party using balloons in the colours of the nonbinary flag instead of the usual pink and blue (Austrew, 2020; Lee, 2020). These show intriguing ways that the LGBTQIA+ community can adapt ideas and traditions of the gender reveal and make meaning out of it in their own unique ways. However, further counter-discourses to the practice of gender revealing should be explored.
After children are born, gender becomes an ever-present reality in parenting style. For many heterosexual couples, traditional gender roles may dictate how women and men become placed into specific boxes of ‘nurturer’ for the young girl and ‘breadwinner’ for the young boy (Halpern, & Perry-Jenkins, 2016). Modelling also has a crucial role to play here, as parents become incredibly influential in the process of learning and applying gender and gender roles (Halpern, & Perry-Jenkins, 2016).
Mothers in particular seem to hold a significant role in imparting knowledge of gendered behaviours, where girls have been found to possess more knowledge of feminine gender stereotypes when their mothers engaged in it and sons showed less knowledge of masculine behaviours when their mothers performed typically feminine behaviours (Halpern, & Perry-Jenkins, 2016). However, in the same research, father’s roles also had a role to play in shaping how their sons formed knowledge of feminine stereotypes (when they held traditional ideology) but when they were more egalitarian their sons had less knowledge of feminine stereotypes (Halpern, & Perry-Jenkins, 2016).
Such notions of traditional gender beliefs can even impact upon career choices of children, which is an intriguing notion, but plausible as often careers are themselves gendered (Halpern, & Perry-Jenkins, 2016). In essence, parents have great influence in their children adopting gendered ideology or practices, however this might look different in single parent households or in non-traditional homes where more than the parents raise the children, such as when there is the involvement of grandparents, extended family, amongst others. This emphasises the potential roles that parents play in inducting their children into a gendered binary and world.
A consequence of traditional beliefs being imparted to children about gender, is that gender tends to be essentialised, where it can promote descriptive stereotyping, or generalisations about particular social groups: for example, women are said to be “emotional”; and prescriptive stereotyping, for example that women should be nurturing (Meyer, & Gelman, 2016). This is meaningful, as when one views gender as an essentialised category it shapes how people might behave and view themselves (Meyer, & Gelman, 2016). Essentialism can bias the stereotypes and attitudes of a child, once group membership becomes relevant, and importantly here it provides the foundations for prediction and the explanation of group differences (Meyer, & Gelman, 2016). It also provides evidence for gender typed preferences as being immutable and beyond one’s control, leaving little room to challenge them, or for flexibility; this is due to the fact that essentialist thinking leads to thinking that behaviour or preferences are determined by gender rather than individual choice or socialisation (Meyer, & Gelman, 2016).
Although “evidence” for this must be read with some caution, mindful of limitations in applicability, it still provides valuable insight showing that such gender parties are not just “harmless fun” and can have a significant impact. Gender reveal parties do not occur in a vacuum, but are a product of society that itself is so explicitly and implicitly gendered. A possible counter-discourse can be identified in the rise of gender-neutral parenting, which though less common, has been brought to public attention by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Adele, Zoe Saldana, Charlize Theron and Pink, who have adopted this practice (Kaye, 2018).
Such parenting styles have arguably introduced more freedom for children who are encouraged to not feel limited by boundaries of what is considered to be feminine and masculine. In some cases, the parents adopt roles not traditionally associated with their genders so as to model this for their children. This form of parenting and approach in having children represents a shift away from the pink and blue sea towards an island of gender neutrality that allows young children to have freedom and space to explore their own selves and their world in ways that feel affirming.
Pregnancy and child-rearing are undoubtedly complex and nuanced experiences and events in the lives of people everywhere. At their core, gender reveal parties convey the importance and psycho-social valence of these processes, but they may have harmful consequences. As we reflect on this phenomenon, it may be important to acknowledge the exciting new possibilities that such discussions can bring, while still being aware of what exists within the gender binary as it continues to shape and support patriarchal societies. Holding a critical view of ‘gender revealing’ in mind may present us with more balanced and nuanced ideas of what these events can mean for expecting parents and their unborn children. Ultimately, it is essential for people to engage beyond the gender binary: The “bun in the oven” might rise to different expectations!
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[i] Vickashnee Nair is a counselling psychologist in private practice in Bryanston. She holds a Masters in Community Based Counselling Psychology degree from the University of Witwatersrand. She was a writing contributor for the Centre of Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender in the year 2020. She also has experience working in therapy and assessment with children, adolescents, and adults. Vickashnee is passionate about mental health, community psychologist, LGBTIAQ+ issues, social justice, advocacy, gender, race and identity.
“Women need to understand that it’s okay for a married man to be in a sexual relationship with more than one woman” …
Hearing a woman say this on a radio show recently made me feel very angry. I was also confused about what she was suggesting with these words…I found it difficult to understand why a woman, in this day and age of gender oppression and the fight for gender justice, could have said such a thing.
In fact, I was enraged by what I was hearing. Radio is supposed to be a medium of communication to people who need accurate, day-to-day information, and I felt that the audience was getting misinformation on such a sensitive issue. Why is this issue sensitive, and why did I experience such a strong reaction to it? In this short piece, I offer some personal reflections on the clashes that I have observed between issues of generationality, “culture” and gender, specifically in relation to marriage and its long-standing traditions.
In essence, I felt like the woman on the radio was promoting and encouraging reckless behaviour and infidelity. It is oppressive to expect women to conform to a culture that says “Monna kemokopunaba”. This saying means that it’s okay for a husband to spread himself around like pumpkin branches. Or the saying “Monna le selepewaadimisana”: He is an axe, it’s ok for other woman to borrow him to cut wood. Because they are male, and because “culture” allows this norm, many married men are unfaithful.
These behaviours and sayings show some of the ways that many gendered practices (such as having multiple sexual partners, despite being in a monogamous relationship) are normalised in the context of broader patriarchal cultures. Patriarchal dominance is something that justifies disloyalty to one’s partner, and these acts are often excused as “boys being boys”. Men are often made out to have unsatisfiable sexual needs, that have to be fulfilled whatever the cost.
My opinion about the norms that allow for married men to have multiple sexual partners is that: we are no longer living in the times of our great grandfathers and great grandmothers. Then, things were done with respect and dignity, and polygamy was discussed, allowed and introduced in the “right” way. Back then, “cheating” (or perhaps I should say, a man having a sexual partner outside of a monogamous relationship) was done for specific reasons; reasons which were culturally accepted and understood.
For example, if an elder uncle in the family was married to a wife, and after some time the parents realised that the wife was not getting pregnant, they would secretly consult a traditional healer (the Inyanga) to get advice on whether there was fertile Imbewu (sperm) or not. If the traditional healer said that the man could not produce children, the parents would not tell him, but would arrange for their younger son, or the wife’s father-in-law, to assist without the elder son’s awareness. They arranged, for example, that the father-in-law or the younger son occasionally slept with the older son’s wife until she fell pregnant. Because the wife would still be having sex with her husband, he would not be surprised when she fell pregnant.
Or, in a different scenario, if a woman’s husband was to leave his family temporarily, to work in another country or region, for example, he would ask his trusted friend to look after his family, basically asking him also to satisfy his wife sexually. The woman would be made aware of the situation and would accept the arrangement. It is possible that some women did not like or accept these arrangements, but it may not have been easy to challenge this. Back then, women did not have a voice and/or an opinion, and they were not even given an opportunity to speak an express their feelings. These practices became embedded because of cultural beliefs that said women needed to be a certain way.
In a way, these situations “worked” because the “system” was “accepted” by all and the arrangements were meant to uphold the family system. But today, many men feel entitled to sleep with any other women because they say it is “cultural”, and their wives are no longer protected by the family and community system. And in fact, many women today are often abused or harmed, killed even, if they challenge their partners or show some independence.
Also, during the dowry (Lobola) process, older women would advise and teach women how to conduct themselves in a marriage. They would be told that “Monnakeselepewaadimisana” and Monna kemokopuwanaba” and they should not have any problems with him doing that. And if he did not come home, a woman could not ask her husband where he had been and why he had not slept at home. “Bogadibakgothleleloa”: you had to have perseverance in marriage. The idea of ‘perseverance’ is often gendered, too. An example of this can be identified in the novel “So Long a Letter”, by Mariama Bâ, where the author documents (through a series of letters exchanged between two best friends) a Senegalese woman’s struggles to reconcile cultural expectations for her to mourn the recent death of her husband, and the fact that he wanted nothing to do with her in the years of their marriage before he passed. The woman relates to her best friend, in these letters, how she struggled during the last years of her marriage to make things work, and this includes a critique of the idea that it is the woman who should persevere when she is unhappy.
Despite high levels of violence against women, we have to keep working towards gender equality and remain hopeful that times are changing. More and more, many women are no longer expected to stay at home, raise children and let men be the sole providers for the family. Many more women can go to school than before, which means that they can obtain a quality education and get better jobs to be able to raise their children effectively.
Many women now also have a choice about whether they want to be part of traditional norms that we might now see as oppressive. Technology (invitro fertilization, sperm donors) can minimise the conflict that might arise between the modern woman and man caught up in cultural norms that no longer benefit their marriage or relationship. More and more families reject that idea that women are to blame for not falling pregnant.
Many women are educated and liberated to not stay in abusive relationships, and for some women, financial independence means that they can escape abusive situations and support themselves. Some of them even find the voice, with support from others, to challenge societal ideas that they will be seen as failures, a disgrace to the family, weak for not making their marriages work, to stay in a toxic marriage even when it hurts to stay.
However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done around gender-based violence, femicide, destructive intergenerational relationships, and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. For many women (especially those who are economically disenfranchised, for example), the option and/or choice to leave an abusive relationship is simply not available. For a start, activists and gender scholars have long called on state and social institutions to acknowledge that gender-based violence is very serious and to advocate for the relevant measures to be put in place to act against it.
How serious is South Africa’s government?
“In October 2019 after the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, during the State of the nation address (SONA), there was a promise that the government will spend money on GBVF. Instead of action, there has been a report by the Emergency Response Action Plan (ERAP) that the government failed to act on the items they promised to act on and never explained what happened to the funding provided for these items.” Duma Qubule, an Economist.
Not serious enough, it seems. Cultures are shifting along with our modern times, so when is the government going to shift its priorities and show it is serious about GBV? I was very angry at what the woman said in the Radio, because of her expectation for another woman to accept infidelity and persevere in a toxic relationship. It is unfair for women to be expected to accept the cultural practises that oppress and degrade them; this kind of behaviour is unacceptable in the new times.
By Tinashe Mawere, Henri-Count Evans & Rosemary Musvipwa
Introduction: Re/thinking climate change
Gendered scripts, gendered identities and gendered hierarchies are evident in the everyday. Gender is not inborn, but is procreated; and gendered meanings are made practical and visible through performances of the mundane (Butler 1988; Beauvoir 2010). Climate change has become an everyday discourse from which we can observe and critique the performances of gender and the re/production of gendered categories and gendered meanings. Just like nations that are recurrently configured through the iconography of familial and domestic spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; McClintock 1993; Yuval-Davies 1997), narratives of climate change, especially those founded on Western epistemologies, have conceptualised nature and the climate within particular (white, heterosexist) familial and gendered orderings. Climate change discourses, therefore, naturalise and normalise gendered roles of feminised bodies as mothers and care givers, whose duty is based around caring for and feeding children. Within the narratives of Zimbabwean nationalism (and other nationalisms), where food and re/production are central to nationhood (Mawere 2020) feminised bodies are configured as both sources of food and sources of life (reproduction and regeneration), hence the need for their surveillance and protection is naturalised and normalised. The climate change crisis, and strategies for its mitigation, are therefore deliberately shown through the bodies of women to sensitise the importance of surveying and protecting reproductive bodies (and all feminised bodies) and to highlight the centrality (a centrality which makes surveillance and control inevitable) of feminised bodies in recovering and regeneration.
The impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme weather, affect the entire planet and the life within it. The crisis has deprived people, animals and other living organisms of food, good health and security. However, not all people have been affected equally since the crisis (just like the other current crises like the Covid 19 pandemic) has illuminated and amplified existing social classes and the power and privileges dis/associated with them. Black bodies, and mostly black women living in poor areas and disadvantaged in various ways, who (ironically) have the lowest complicity in creating the crisis, are profoundly affected. This has made them the gaze of capitalist, western and patriarchal epistemologies and mitigation processes that are focused on production and continuities. Climate crisis-induced conflicts are widespread and disadvantaged communities live under constant threats not only of droughts, floods and heatwaves, but also of ideological bankruptcy; and mis-fitting and decontextualised mitigation strategies. These problems are forms of deprivation of the freedom to survive. Unfortunately, this maintains the entire world ecosystem, which is built around the supremacy of white, capitalist heteropatriarchy. The climate crisis constitutes what Sen (1999) called ‘forms of unfreedoms,’ and adaptation action becomes an attempt to gain liberation from climate-induced deprivations. Inequality, as a form of unfreedom, is extended by the climate crisis. While it is imperative to deal with the climate crisis, it is equally vital to be careful enough not to perform and re/produce epistemological blunders that normalise and perpetuate forms of inequality and injustice, whether obvious or insidious. In line with this Pinheiro (2020) argues “A key facet of reworking and adapting our existences involves an alertness and critical sensitivity to the connections between climate change and identity vectors such as gender.” Our imaginations of nature, the climate, the climate crisis and interventions to the climate crisis should therefore be transformative.
Studies on climate change in Southern Africa have often focused on the mainstream news media and how the media have framed and re/presented the global climate crisis. This is consistent with arguments that place the media at the centre of social, economic, environmental and political discourses (Evans 2020). Considerable literature has also been written around the subject of climate change; specifically, on how and why disadvantaged populations are the ones greatly affected by climate changes (IPCC 2007, 2014, 2019). A lot of literature is also available on climate change mitigation measures and adaptative measures suggested to the most vulnerable, and focusing primarily on ‘disadvantaged’ black women. For example, Babugura (2010) argued that climate change impacts were different for men and women and hence called for “gender differentiated responses”.
Although many gender scholars have critiqued the fact that ‘gender’ is often used as a synonym for ‘women’ or framed within a women-versus-men dichotomy (Djoudi et al. 2016; MacGregor 2010), the climate change policy documents that refer to gender are still based predominantly on this view. As MacGregor noted, “Rather than theorizing gender as a social and political relationship between people with masculine and feminine identities, most analyses of gender and climate change fall into the familiar trap that gender-means-women” (MacGregor 2010:124). The challenge is that if causes of inequality and vulnerability are not considered, suggested solutions will not only fail to address the problems related to climate change, but could also exacerbate underlying forms of injustices (Djoudi et al. 2016). In the same manner, if the language of climate change continues to be gendered, climate change vulnerability is likely to be seen through a gendered gaze, and solutions are likely to be both gendered and sexist, hence perpetuating existing patriarchal injustices. We believe that the gendering of climate change is heavily present in the normative language used to frame the issue, as well in how the climate change subject is aestheticised in Southern Africa.
Studies on climate change, gender and aesthetics, especially in the context of Southern Africa, are rare. Central to observe is that art has steadily risen to articulate environmental issues and artists have long been part of the environmental movement galvanised against fossil fuels and the multilateral inaction (Evans 2020). However, it is crucial to re/think climate change discussions and focus on the language, power and gender dynamics prevalent in the narratives and aestheticisation of climate change. Such a re/thinking problematises the extent to which existing studies on climate change and climate change interventions manage to deal with questions of power and gender. It also questions how climate change concerns can adequately be dealt with outside the problems of gender and power. We argue that in order to address the issue of climate change, it is imperative to be sensitive to the gendered and sexual economies of climate change. Beyond being gender-sensitive, we believe that the language should also develop to become gender transformative. The transformative agenda entails moving “beyond individual self-improvement among women and toward transforming the power dynamics and structures that serve to reinforce gendered inequalities” (Hillebrand et al. 2015: 5). This shift is in the context that individualisation and notions of “empowerment” are often entangled with systems of racial injustice and oppression that seek to divide people (systems such as capitalism). Such systems have underwritten a very parasitic/one-sided relationship between the Global North and Global South where the West uses paternalistic policy and strategy to maintain the status quo. We argue that the transformative agenda can be achieved by questioning the power dynamics and social structures that shape behaviours, attitudes, and norms. We further argue that language is part of those structures that build unequal power boundaries.
The Language of Climate Change and the Patriarchal Gaze
Language that feminises nature and naturalises women describes, reflects, and perpetuates unjustified patriarchal domination (Adams 1990). The official construction of climate change (especially as used in UNFCCC and IPCC reports and used by major scholars of climate change), makes extensive use of the dominant patriarchal language of re/production and continuity, so as to make the subject of climate change ‘sensible’ and acceptable. This language is also extended or linked to agriculture and land use, as well as land pollution, where land is imagined as having reproductive capacity if well used, and if polluted, fails to produce, reproduce and sustain and regenerate life.
In many ways, this language of reproduction and regeneration buttresses and naturalises the prevailing gender relations and binary sexual categories in society. The use of terms such as “mother-nature” or “mother-earth” and acts of rebirthing as associated with allowing natural processes of giving life to reoccur on the damaged earth is significant to gendered identities and the complex of subordination in societies. When we consider general references to mother earth we perceive ‘her’ to be a woman, we personify ‘her’ and we take note of her ‘fragilities’ as we do human mothers. We also acknowledge all that ‘she’ does in nurturing us with her various qualities. This normalises motherhood within the parameters of fecundity, care, resource/provision, sacrifice, submission; but also situates her as vulnerable and therefore requiring surveillance and protection to enable regeneration. There is also a way in which such a language vindicates articulations that discard non-heterosexual relations as they do not fall within the ‘normative’ and ‘sensible’ discourse of reproduction and regeneration. In out-casting non-heteronormative sexualities, Robert Mugabe often referred to nature and the sensible. In his castigation of gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe, he used the example of animals where reproductive organs ‘clearly’ define sexual orientation and challenged gays and lesbians to make children if they are to be recognised and accepted. The ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians has also occurred on the same terrain of the sensible and ‘natural’. Gender constructions of climate change impacts, for example, have been used to refer to ‘women victims’ and thus has worked in passivising and nominalising the agency of women in addressing the climate crisis and at the same time out-casting gender minorities.
In addition, the language of climate change, especially adaptation and sustainability discourses, has always been entrenched within the normative and patriarchal systems. The historical and cultural privileging and naturalisation of male power is implicated and acted out through notions of family (Mawere 2019, 2016; Nyambi 2012; Lewis 2002; McClintock 1993). In discourses of climate change, the earth is constructed/represented as ‘our mother’ and ‘our home’. Human beings are seen (through the processes of agriculture/consumption and industrialization/modernity) as having defiled nature and therefore risk experiencing low yields of deficient foods (consumption) and limited luxuries (modernity), making future livelihoods precarious (see Beck 1992; Foster et al. 2010, Guatarri 2000).
The need to address climate change is thus anchored in the need to preserve the reproductive and generative power of ‘our mother’ (through controlling and subordinating) so as to sustain life now and for future generations. In this way, the imagination of the climate and the language of saving the climate becomes synonymous to how nations are imagined and the language used during calls to save nations (Mawere 2019, 2016). Within the scientific domain, (IPCC, UNFCCC) reports and other scientific writings on climate change have also produced nature as feminine. The sustainability discourse itself has become a dominant intellectual force because of its appeal to common sense. Underneath the common-sense idea of allowing nature regenerative and reproductive capacity lies the embedded performance and re/production of patriarchal norms and languages.
Home and mother: Mediating the marginal and the symbolic
Reporting on the Climate Action Summit 2019 with the theme, ‘A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win’, Tarik Alam Solangi, a Research Fellow at EMRO, World Health Organisation, entitles the report, ‘Fight climate change: let mother earth breathe’ (Solangi 2019). In an earlier report by Sophie Yeo and Gitika Bhardwaj, entitled ‘Climate Change is Killing our Mother Earth’, there are various voices on the impacts of climate change (Yeo and Bhardwaj 2014). Earlier in the same year, in the report ‘Saving Mother Earth from Climate Change’, Adrianna Quintero, the Director of Partner Engagement at NRDC says “As we approach Earth Day and our celebration of Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), most of us can’t help but be concerned about her health and the impacts that climate change is having on her and our own lives” (Quintero 2014).The above reporting on climate change is consistent with how nature has been personified and feminised.
Nature is re/constructed as our home to entail an aspect of maintenance and sustainability, as a source that sustains, reproduces us and cares for us; and a source of life. As a powerful maternal force that reproduces life, nature is perceived as in need of protection and defense. This reinforces the patriarchal ‘protection’ of women, who are maternal figures responsible for reproduction. Man has turned up to be the defender or protector of our home (nature) as well as our homes (families), hence discourses of climate change reflect a masculine project and are embedded in patriarchy. This continues the existing discourse of specific roles for each named gender (Mawere 2019; Eisenstein 2000; Peterson 2000; McClintock 1993). There have been calls for fewer emissions to allow for the next generation and regeneration of nations. These calls clearly present a metabolic relationship between nature and human beings, but the climate change discourse also presents a gendered imagining of the climate and gendered nature/human relations that hinge on the commonsensical heteronormative politics of reproduction and regeneration.
Both home and mother have conflicting identities, where they are both marginal and symbolic spaces. Ample literature has shown home and the mother as feminine. At the same time, literature has positioned the home and mother as the source of life where everyone and everything derives sustenance and where everyone turns to for reflection and regeneration. Subsequently, the home and mother have been located in the politics of reproduction and regeneration, which again feminises the space, but also calls for their protection in order to allow continuity and continuous benefits. The dominant narrative that;
women and nature are inherently linked is a tacit acceptance of their mutual exploitation. Even as we have spent decades subjugating the power of Earth, American children have been taught to address the environment as “Mother Nature.” The idea that the Earth is a parental figure because it sustains us is a comforting analogy. But what we do not learn as children…is the harm caused by gendered and sexist language that reinforce gender stereotypes and hierarchies (Milner-Barry 2015).
The re/construction of nature is a crucial aspect in understanding the gendering of climate change discourses. To invoke the protection of nature and take the subject of climate change seriously, the images of endangered nature and climate have been imagined using the images of vulnerable nations and women. Specifically, the effects of climate change have been associated with images of poor black women. From the policy documents on climate change, African women are re/presented as individualised agents that have to be empowered. Empowerment is narrowly defined as enabling women to become active participants in the ‘reproductive’ economy, or by assisting women in the roles they play in sustaining their households and communities. Empowerment strategies typically involve assisting women with microfinance, and/or with technological fixes that would make them more resilient and functional in the reproductive economy and consumer capitalism. Such ‘empowerment’ strategies are not only microcosms of broader power relations between men and women, and between the global North and South, but also work to naturalise and sustain them.
In the context of the above, most climate change narratives are normative and part of the patriarchal surveillance that naturalises and normalises gendered roles and at the same time, authorises patrols on women and all feminised bodies. Since the feminised climate and nature are portrayed as vulnerable, it is implied that all feminised bodies are vulnerable and should be watched and protected. This authorises the policing of women and other feminised bodies in societies. Narratives approximating women to nature naturalise their subordination, since nature itself is everywhere devalued and subordinated. Thus, the capitalist exploitation, transformation and even ‘protection’ of nature relates to patriarchal contexts where women’s labour and reproductive abilities are exploited for patriarchal benefits (Tiwari 2020; Merchant 1990; Ortner 1974). The devaluation of both nature and women, as well as the subsequent connection between nature and the invented qualities expected of women, was made commonsensical, leading to terms like “virgin earth,” “fertile land,” and “barren soil,” which are still dominant (Merchant 1990). In many ways, narratives on climate change enable the naturalisation and commonsensical positioning of femininity in the home and care, hence femininity is linked to reproduction and is assigned a specific space and specific duties.
Since climate change discourses position home as commonplace for femininities, it consequently naturalises home as a space for women and all feminised bodies. This is a way of trivialising women and subordinate masculinities and deterring them from participating in the public or in what are naturalised and normalised as male spaces (Mawere 2019; O’Neill, Savigny and Cann 2016). The boundaries that are drawn for women relate to their characterisation as inferior, emotional, uncontrollable, illogical, unreasonable, beautiful but destructive if not contained, hence their limitations to venture into the public space (Mawere 2019). This characterisation of women and feminised bodies is similar to the characterisation of nature, for example, during weather coverages (Milner-Barry 2015). The above calls for intersectional approaches that consider inter-alia, class, race and gender when dealing with climate change issues.
Conclusion: Climate change, aesthetics, gender and agency in Southern Africa
It is important to critique the climate change issue on how its expression and aesthetisation draws on, and re/produces dominant discourses around gender. Re/production and regeneration are part of the heteronormative lexicon prevalent in the discourse of climate change. In dealing with the subject of climate change, it is important to question on issues of representation and who has power and agency? Whom does the language of climate change give agentive power to and who is disempowered and robbed of agency? We should be careful that how we discuss climate change and how we deal with the climate change crisis does not re/produce and transport toxic knowledges and practices about gender. Studies focussing on Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular, would add to scholarly work on climate change, aesthetics, gender and probably, the African and Southern African context would offer alternative epistemologies in dealing with the climate change issue. For this reason, forms of African expression such as graffiti, songs, drama and symbolism and imagery can be important archives on African-centred research on climate change.
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 Speaking in Shona and commenting on gay marriages at a Zanu-Pf rally, Robert Mugabe instrumentalised the Biblical Parable of the talents and used the example of bulls and cows to evoke sensible sexual orders, “Cde Robert Mugabe speech gay marriages (2)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAw45wBj0ic
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About the authors
Tinashe Mawere, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS & Gender (CSA&G), University of Pretoria, South Africa
Tinashe Mawere is currently a researcher at the CSA&G. He joined the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the CSA&G as a Postdoctoral researcher in May 2017. His interests are on identity constructions, nationalisms, gender and sexualities and the workings of popular culture in political and social contexts. Previously, he was a Doctoral Fellow in the Programme on the Study of the Humanities in Africa (PSHA), at the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), and a Doctoral student in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
Henri-Count Evans, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Eswatini, Eswatini
Henri-Count Evans holds a PhD in the Discipline of Media and Cultural Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His thesis is entitled: Re-articulating Media Re/presentations of Climate Change Discourse(s) in South Africa: Climate Change Politics in the Global South. He has done research work about media practice and reporting of climate change issues and sustainable development. Henri-Count Evans has co-edited the book “Knowledge for Justice: Critical Perspectives from Southern African-Nordic Research Partnerships. Cape Town, South Africa: African Minds.”, and has been section editor for the Handbook of Climate Change Resilience published by Springer under the prestigious Climate Change Management Series. He is a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Eswatini/Swaziland. He is also the Training Development Consultant at Climate Tracker.
Rosemary Musvipwa, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Eswatini, Eswatini
Rosemary is a Journalism and Mass Communication lecturer at the University of Eswatini teaching television broadcasting, public relations and development communication. She has an interest in research about communication and sustainable development. She has a passion for empowering and mentoring youths with critical life skills, especially young girls and women with knowledge and information about their sexual and reproductive health rights (coupled with their vulnerabilities and responsibilities). She has been part of sex education and HIV life skills training projects which involved the use of theatre, drama, song and dance in high schools in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Next year it will be forty years since the first stories of a new illness, seemingly only affecting gay men in New York, started to circulate. It was called GRID then – gay related immune deficiency – a grim reminder that conflating sexual orientation, morality and disease was second nature to society. Later, we came to know this as AIDS, a complex, fatal and frightening syndrome, caused by a virus that was named HIV. The H stood for human, a belated reminder that it was humanity that was called for, not knee jerk stigma.
Forty years later there is progress. ARVs work for people who get them, use them well, and have social support. PEP and PreP have made it possible for an HIV infection to be medically prevented. HIV work has opened many fruitful conversations about the nature of society, about the limits of biomedicine, about the politics of patents, about the corporatisation of health, about inequality.
But stigma around HIV is still with us, we are still without a workable vaccine, over a million people die each year, adherence to ARVs is still suboptimal, and many millions become infected and are living with HIV.
And so each year we mobilise our flagging energies and ‘celebrate’ World AIDS Day, sponsored by UNAIDS, with an inspirational theme. This year it is “Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility”. This has been the subtext of many World AIDS Day calls. The notions of ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘solidarity with people living with or affected by HIV’ have been an attempt to move away from questionable ideas of ‘individual choice’, the fantasy that being ‘rational’ in sexual matters is as easy as ABC: abstain, be faithful, condomise said the billboards.
However, this has a somewhat hollow ring to it in 2020, the year of the response to COVID-19. While the nature of COVID-19 and its transmission are very different from HIV, they are both ‘social’ diseases, steeped in the way we make sense of new things, hauling out our usual defences of denial, blame and projection.
In the early days of the HIV epidemic there was no celebration of gains and successes: it was wrapped in shame and secrecy, governments were slow to act, condoms (the HIV PPE) were not made widely accessible, groups were blamed, stigma thrived and intensified, the links between HIV and ‘having sex’ were acute.
COVID-19 has to some extent escaped the worst of this shame and stigma. However, naming and shaming hovers on the edges of the narratives. Who is it that goes maskless and frequents taverns? Who goes to ‘super spreader’ events? Who are those asymptomatic people who don’t know they have it and might spread it? Who is travelling to celebrate the end of the year with family, instead of staying home and self-isolating?
So we have the fear, the anxiety and the sense that we need to monitor and police the behaviour of others. We feel obligated to tell people to cover their mouth and noses while breathing normally, and we ask for social distancing. We blame people for taking crowded taxis in a country that has never provided a good, cheap, safe, public transport. We see crowds around the pension and social grant payment venues, where there is no space, and no chairs, and we condemn them for trying to survive.
So while batting the fear and anxiety and the social surveillance provoked and promoted by COVID-19, we need to reflect back on HIV.
Why is it that HIV seems to have fallen off the radar. Why the silence? Indeed, an earlier World AIDS Day slogan was ‘break the silence’, but it seems that the health and social needs of people living with and affected by HIV are increasingly silenced. Where is the critical response to assure people with HIV that they will access their medications, that they will get the access to clinics and hospitals? Could it be, that along with people who use alcohol, people with HIV will be the next category of people who are blamed for filling up the hospitals and clinics? Will people with HIV be blamed for the ‘burden’ on the health system? It has happened before, when there was the narrative that people with HIV would cripple the health sector. It happened before, when people who contracted HIV were blamed for not making the ‘right choices’ to safeguard their health, as if choice is something that can be exercised freely and without coercion.
What has happened to good and effective HIV and AIDS education? Increasingly in our work we encounter young people, not yet born at the start of the epidemic, who have lived their whole lives in a world with HIV, yet they exhibit inadequate knowledge about HIV and the ways to try and prevent it.
What have we failed to learn from HIV about intimacy, social cohesion and risk? Lockdown has exacerbated tensions within families, communities and society. In crowded spaces the privacy needed for good health is often difficult to achieve. There are many anecdotes about increasing levels of gender violence, both during and after the alcohol ban. There have been stories of young women, locked down in crowded places, of being coerced into unsafe sex because they were not able to access condoms.
So while we recognise that COVID-19 is an immediate threat – and that transmission needs to be slowed and people cared for – it is difficult to accept that this comes often at the expense of the already immediate threat of HIV. HIV is a lifelong illness. It remains with you always – yes there are good drugs, but there is no cure, there is no vaccine.
Perhaps AIDS has been silenced because people believe that with the treatments it has become another manageable illness. Maybe the silence is because no matter what we profess we are still uncomfortable talking about sexuality, sexual diversity and sexual behaviours. Perhaps getting free ARVs means one should be silent about stock outs. Perhaps being well means silence is easier than disclosure. Is this a web of silence we have become trapped in?
COVID19 has forced us to face hard truths and ask difficult questions. It’s shown us who is expendable and who lives. It’s given us a reminder to keep talking about the silenced and the side lined, about people living with HIV, showing that we still care, that we still value their lives, that their stories are a mirror to our stories.
Introduction: Contextualizing the Zimbabwean land question
In Zimbabwe, land became a prominent political and ideological issue after colonisation in 1890; catalysed by the ‘invading’ masculine British South Africa Company (BSAC) and its violent ‘penetration’ and appropriation of land. The physical and symbolic violence that can be associated with land ‘invasion’ is gendered through the figure of Charwe, a female spirit medium housing and personifying the spirit of Nehanda, Zimbabwe’s most revered ancestral spirit. The ‘purification’ of the colonial-polluted land thus relied predominantly on the reproductive and generative capacities of Nehanda, whose bones would “rise again.”
The land ‘invasion’ led to armed struggles, primarily over land, and chimurenga became the code for each of these wars, but also a pedestal for national masculinisation and violence, as the notion of chimurenga is associated with grand masculinities and a war ethic (Mawere 2019; Vambe 2004). The First Chimurenga was waged in 1895-6 and is associated with popular ancestral figures like Nehanda, whilst the Second Chimurenga of 1964-1980 (Ranger 1967; Bhebhe 1989) is associated with the current war veterans in Zimbabwe, whose narrative has been appropriated and monopolised by the ruling Zanu-PF party. The Second Chimurenga brought independence through protracted battles between the Rhodesian Forces and the Patriotic Front armed groups, i.e. the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA).
ZIPRA was the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), while ZANLA was the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). In 1987, the ZAPU and ZANU merged into one party (ZANU-PF), through a Unity Accord (Bhebhe 1989). Based on the prophecy of mapfupa angu achamuka (my bones shall arise), which is ascribed to the spirit of Nehanda, the Second Chimurenga fighters have positioned themselves as the rising bones of Nehanda, or as Nehanda’s sons (Mawere 2016; Shoko 2006). This positioning imagines and entangles Zimbabwean struggles and Zimbabwean nationalism in the politics of regeneration and re/production. Those without the reproductive and generative capacities and those falling out of amadoda sibili (real men able to purify the land and restore the lost reproductive and generative capacities) (Mawere 2019, 2016; Muwati etal; Mugabe 2001), had their citizenships erased and violence authorised against them. At the same time, fighting for the invaded land has been synonymous with fighting to restore the imagined dignity and respectability of Nehanda’s ‘raped’ womanhood, as well as to restore the masculinities and honour of national men.
Zanu-PF’s greatest challenge to power came from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was formed in the late 1990s. This strong opposition party brought about competing masculinities that challenged Zanu-PF dominance. The formation and impact of the MDC gave rise to the Third Chimurenga, led by war veterans and Zanu-PF, which is associated with the violent repossession and occupation of white-owned land. The politics of re/production that personified and gendered land became instrumental to the discourses used by the State and by Zanu-PF. I posit that land has garnered a great deal of symbolic significance, with political aesthetics playing out in physical, social, psychological, political and economic everyday spaces.
Land and the g(j)endered metaphors of re/production
In Zimbabwe, connections to land are figured profoundly in terms of gendered, biological re/production and the fecundity of the female body. In light of this strongly gendered imagining, contests over land could not be reduced to a struggle over a physical place, but a special, almost mystical affiliation to a space that inhabits history, identity and livelihood and ensures survival. Patriarchal fabrications locate land as a key marker of identity and this is why Zimbabweans are referred to as vana vevhu (children of the soil). This suggests that Zimbabweans gain complete identity by being in touch with their source, the motherland, vindicating the government’s efforts to repossess land and get rid of national pollutants. In this logic, land symbolises statehood and nationhood, whilst its absence signifies the absence of both. In discourses of land, there is a re-telling, re/production and repeated performance of naturalised power configurations, gender and sexualities that propels belonging and citizenship. Beyond the materiality of land, deeper and affective symbolic discourses ensuring the survival of patriarchy are capitalised.
Just like nationalism, the land question, which is core to Zimbabwean nationalism, “has sprung from masculinised memory, masculinised humiliation and masculinised hope” (Enloe 1989:44). It is in this sense that land is tied to both “gendered” and “jendered” metaphors of re/production. “Gendered” refers to the associations of land with hierarchical differences in and performances of masculinity and femininity, while “jendered” refers to the use of the testicles, which implies the forceful and violent enactment of masculine power and patriarchy (Mawere 2019, 2016). The appropriation of land, and the language of appropriation by the state and Zanu-PF, echoes a patriarchal enforcement of gendered and sexual categories. Talking of land in nationalist terms implicitly communicates naturalised gender and sexual meanings and behaviours that are acceptable to the state. Land, which traditionally provides space for sustenance, also manifests as a space for the performance of power, and a space for struggles around citizenship and gender.
The re/construction of the Zimbabwean nation, as founded on the land question, provides a space for the institutionalisation and naturalisation of sexual categories and gendered differences, and the naturalisation of knowledge around productivity, re/distribution and survival. The Zimbabwean land question is thus imagined in terms of g(j)endered metaphors of re/production that oscillate around conventions within heterosexual-familial space, where male power and patriarchal violence are tied to land re/productivity. This has sensualised permissible and natural sexualities and has given rise to particular g(j)endered hierarchies where those that are feminised and perceived as without testicles are marginalised. In a bid to maintain what is permissible and natural, “jendered” male power is instrumentalised to rid the land of polluting figures and thereby restore land purity. Thus, the identity of land as a political signifier and a space where violence is performed has been, to a great extent, acted out through gendered and sexualised national bodies. Thus, the discourse around land, and land and re/production perform surveillance and discipline on the genders, sexualities and power of national bodies.
In dominant ‘nationalist’ texts, there is a symbiotic relationship akin to marriage, where land acquires a feminine identity associated with fecundity and national re/production. Articulated in these texts is a naturalised connection between land and the people, but also between Zanu-PF, the custodian of the land, and the people, who are both fathered by Zanu-PF and also identified as children of the soil (vana vevhu). At the same time, Zimbabwean citizens embody a national purity which runs according to Zanu-PF’s patriarchal imaginations and dissenting voices are thus imagined as pollutants and consequently denied citizenship.
Polluting figures and g(j)endered power
The opposition party MDC has been positioned as a pollutant, a threat to the purity and the re/productive and generative capacities of the Zimbabwean nation. A discourse of protection over feminised land aligned with Zanu-PF, against the incursion of the MDC, emerged in the post-2000 period. However, it is a resurgence and recirculation of historic discourses constructing feminised land, first established by British imperial imaginings of the colonised territories as feminised sites ready for British men’s conquest. Zimbabwean anti-colonial fiction, for example, Feso and Pfumoreropa by Solomon Mutswairo and Patrick Chakaipa respectively, is replete with portraits of land as female subject needing protection by valiant sons of the soil against the white intruder. So, the shift here is the notion of some indigenous sons as traitors and unworthy of the land; in the tensions between MDC and Zanu-PF, which were either prefigured in the Nkomo-Mugabe or ZANLA-ZIPRA conflicts that resulted in the Gukurahundi, where an estimated 20 000 civilians in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland and Midlands provinces were killed by the state.
Tagging Zimbabwe with familial notions, the feminization of land and the ‘jambanja’ (violence) associated with land takeover as Third Chimurenga gives moral justification to Zanu-PF in its fight against national penetration, allegedly aided by the polluted oppositional voices like the MDC. As in war situations and family defense, enemies have to be vanquished. The attacks on pollutants are performed through the techno-politics of some Zanu-PF jingles such as ‘Tinoda kudeleta Machinja ose’ (We want to wipe off all MDC members).  The grotesquely technical term ‘delete’ used in the jingle conjures visual images of violent annihilation of people refusing to conform to Zanu-PF nationhood and those supporting the MDC, as one can relate ‘delete’ to how one gets rid of unwanted texts from the popular mobile cell phones (Mawere 2016). As dissent has been feminised in a nation requiring amadoda sibili and sexualised outside heteronormativity in a nation focused on reproduction and regeneration, violence against oppositional figures is authorised. I concur with Manganga (2011) that in a new millennium Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF perceive male respectability and responsibility as instrumental in the surveillance of bodies and protection of ‘national interests’ by any means necessary, and it would mean eliminating enemies. This echoes earlier sentiments by Muchemwa and Muponde (2007:2) that in the post-2000 epoch, “…outside the war ethic, driven by an excess of masculinity, individuals whose gender does not contribute to the war economy are under threat.” This is because they do not serve the projected image of the Zimbabwean nation, which needs masculine figures.
The state and Zanu-PF have thus feminised certain men who cannot perform the expected male roles and whose characters fail to act “manly”, hence their re/invention as homosexuals in a hetero-normative nation whose thrust is centred around and towards purity, fertility, re/production and regeneration (Mawere 2019, 2016). The construction of oppositional voices as homosexuals is symbolic of how some men are perceived as failing to tally with the national project of regeneration and reproduction. The conflict between Zanu-PF and the MDC thus reflects a longer history in Zimbabwe and Southern African politics; a history characterised by male-led political parties where the national project becomes a phallocratic contest between men over a feminised national citizenry, and by extension, over land.
Although most literature discusses land as a physical, historical and economic space, I posit that land has garnered a significant deal of symbolic significance and political aesthetics, playing out in physical, social, psychological, political and economic everyday spaces. Land, in its feminised discursive nature, is constructed as a pure source for male satisfaction and requiring strong/masculine security. The land, once taken over by white-male British settlers, was ‘bastardised’ and the wars of liberation were, therefore, an attempt to reconfigure the ‘purity’ and sanctity of land, now as a re/productive figure and also ‘our mother’. Similarly, the hegemonic nature of the Zimbabwean state has relied on re/constructing the white settlers, and ‘now’ local opposition political figures, as polluting figures whose agenda was to poison the ‘land’ and dispossess it of its food, re/production and ‘motherly nurturing’ roles.
Bhebe, N. 1989. “The Nationalist Struggle, 1957-1962”, in C. Banana, ed. Turmoil and Tenacity: Zimbabwe, 1890-1990, Harare: The College Press:50-115.
Chakaipa, P. 1961. Pfumoreropa. Harare: Longman.
Enloe, C. 1989. Bananas, beaches and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.
Manganga, K. 2011, Masculinity (dodaism), gender and nationalism: The case of the Salisbury bus boycott, September 1956. In Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni & James Muzondidya (eds.), Redemptive or grotesque nationalism? Rethinking contemporary politics in Zimbabwe, Oxford: Peter Lang, pp. 133-134.
Mawere, T. 2019. Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath. Pretoria: CSA&G Press.
Mawere, T. 2016. Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture. Thesis (PhD). University of the Western Cape.
Mutswairo, S. 1982. Feso. Harare: Longman
Muwati, I., Mheta, G. & Gambahaya, Z. 2010, Contesting ‘patriotic history’: Zimbabwe’s liberation war history and the democratization agenda, South African Journal of African Languages, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 170-179.
Ranger, T. 1967. Revolt in Southern Rhodesia: A Study in African Resistance. London: Heinemann.
Shoko, T. 2006. ““My bones shall rise again”: War veterans, spirits and land reform in Zimbabwe.” African Studies Centre, 68.
Vambe, M.T. 2004, Versions and sub-versions: Trends in Chimurenga musical discourses of post-independence Zimbabwe, African study monographs, vol. 25, no. 4, pp 167-193.
 After Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC got more votes than Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, one Zanu-PF youth who was leading a pro-Mugabe campaign team of more than 200 Zanu-PF supporters ahead of the run-off election bulldozed into a bar where I was among some patrons. Wielding a big Okapi knife, the youth declared “Mugabe panyanga zvejende!!” Panyanga is a Shona word literally meaning, at the horns. In the Zimbabwean everyday language, it means being at the top/helm. The Shona word for testicle is jende and zvejende literally means using testicles, but in the Zimbabwean everyday language, it means use of brute and masculine force to demonstrate one’s manhood (Mawere 2016).
by GS Pinheiro
*Please note, this essay contains descriptions of sexual violence
In this short piece, I offer some personal thoughts and reflections around the notion of “violence”. The writing centres on my own associations with the word, and some personal instances of normative and bodily violences that I have experienced, with particular focus on my identification as a queer woman. Throughout the reflection, experiential knowledge is connected to broader ideas around gendered and sexual identities, as I contemplate some of the ways in which my personal narrative might speak to wider gender arrangements in South Africa and beyond.
Furthermore, whilst this piece is not strictly theoretical in nature, I have drawn from, and been inspired by, several feminist theories throughout the process of self-reflection, including that of intersectionality (e.g. Crenshaw, 1991) and feminist theories of the body (e.g. Cleary, 2016). Intersectionality theory offered a useful lens through which to think about my own experiences in relation to those of other queer, South African women. Within feminist circles, there is substantial debate around the notion of “experience” and, in particular, the tendency to represent all women’s experiences as homogenous is critiqued (e.g. Bachmann & Proust, 2020).
In order to problematise and address these issues, intersectionality theory takes into account different identity vectors (such as race, class, occupation, age, sexual orientation, etc.) and considers how they might relate to a person’s gender identity. Moreover, the theory recognises the situatedness of people’s identities within particular socio-political contexts, and embraces the fluidity and plurality of people’s (especially women’s) identities and realities. It thus provides a sophisticated and complex theoretical perspective on the notion of “experience”.
As I was reflecting and writing, therefore, intersectional principles encouraged a mindfulness around the idea that, whilst many queer women will be able to relate to the subject matter of my personal narration, people’s realities and identities are complex, nuanced, dynamic and unique. Especially as I am an academic who writes and works in South Africa, where people’s identities and circumstances vary widely, and where particular positions offer and/or constrain one’s access to space and other resources quite explicitly (particularly where race and class are taken into consideration), I felt it was important to acknowledge this at the outset.
The occasional reference to these, and other theories in the piece serves as a guiding framework through which to make sense of my personal reflections and self-narration. These personal modes of writing can be considered, in themselves, transformative and healing acts that have the potential to establish alternative meaning systems and voices in spaces that have traditionally been dominated by patriarchal perspectives (such as in academia, for example).
One of the core principles of feminist work is to establish spaces and opportunities for women’s experiences and voices to be prioritised, and there is thus an overt disruption of the traditional dichotomy between “academic” versus “personal” writing and research methodologies (e.g. Kiguwa, 2019). The process of self-reflection and narration that the writing of this piece entailed thus allowed me, in many ways, to hear my own voice, and my intention in sharing my experiences is not only to take up space, but to create spaces for other people to reflect on their own ideas and experiences around the theme.
I suppose it is unsurprising (but no less disconcerting) that, when asked to reflect about my personal thoughts and experiences around “violence”, some of the first ideas that come to mind are violences with which I have been confronted at normative and bodily levels. I am a queer woman, and (especially in South Africa, where I grew up and where I now live and work) physical violence – and sexual violence, in particular – features saliently in the realities of many people who identify (and/or who might be read) in this way (Clarke, Ellis, Peel, & Riggs, 2010).
When I speak of “normative” violence, I refer to gendered expectations and norms that are naturalised in many societies – evident particularly in patriarchal settings – and that have been a central feature in my experience as a queer woman.
When I mention “bodily” violence, I am referring to physical forms of violence that I have experienced, mainly in connection with the normative strands of violence that code for a society’s given gender order.
Throughout my twenty-six years in South Africa, I have found that the two strands are interwoven and connected in intimate and intricate ways. There is rigidity and embeddedness in the rules and regulations that govern our experiences of growing up and living in bodies that are gendered even before the moment of our births.
My personal gendered beginnings happened around the time of my own birth, which initiated a process that Judith Butler (1990) terms “girling”. For me, the girling process was replete with violences and traumas – some rather big, and lots of smaller ones, too. The now-trendy ‘Gender Reveal Party’ (which imposes its own kind of violence to unborn people and is deeply reflective of naturalised gender rules in our world) had not yet been popularized in those days. At my birth my parents were delighted that I was a girl and I was promptly bundled into a pink blanket and taken home after a few days, where I would stay blissfully unaware of my “girlness” for the first few years of my life.
One of the first (and most vivid) memories that I have of seeing my body as gendered can be traced back to when I was about three-years-old. I had received a plastic kitchen set (complete with miniature utensils, stovetop and oven) as a Christmas gift from some of our extended family. On Christmas Day, I remember feeling a keen desire to play on the bikes that the boys had been gifted, but I also remember the sharp sting of disappointment that followed after my Aunt prevented this, saying: Girls mustn’t get their clothes dirty; come let’s go and make something in your new kitchen!
As I grew up I began to realise that not only where there “boy things” and “girl things”, but there were also “bad” men and “good” men. A bad man was the one who masturbated in a cinema whilst staring at me (fortunately I was with my mother who took me away swiftly), good men were found in my home. There I had largely been exposed to much softer kinds of masculinities where my father and uncles (perhaps as a result of their Portuguese upbringings) shared in domestic responsibilities and showed tenderness and love – not only towards the women and children in their lives – but towards one another, too. It was not uncommon for the men in our home to kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting, and my father painted pictures and played Barbies with us as much as he played rough-and-tumble in the garden. At that point, I had little clarity as to what and where “bad men” were, but I had internalised ideas that I was not always safe and men were not always trustworthy.
After several childhood years of dresses, hair bows, fake muffins, plastic stovetops, being afraid of my friends’ fathers at sleepovers, worrying when I used public bathrooms, and trying to keep my clothes in pristine condition, I started to develop breasts at the age of ten. I “developed early” (my mother put it down to my “Mediterranean roots”) and became even more confused when these bodily changes meant that people (girls and boys) began treating me differently. I had never been kissed before, and yet the boys in my Grade Four class would tell me that I was a slut (I had to ask my mother what the word meant) and rumours circulated that I had probably kissed three boys each weekend since the beginning of the school year. To younger girls and boys, I was dangerous, but to older men in societal circles, I was desirable: once, at the age of twelve and walking around a shopping mall, I felt the eyes of two men on my chest:
- Jesus, look at those tits…
- And that face!
- Bro, she still reads Baa Baa Black Sheep…
- Don’t lie, you’d still tap.
To this day, I have deeply conflicting feelings about my body. These experiences speak to the subtle, but cumulative, normative violence that I, and many other women, encounter in our everyday realities. The implicit and explicit transgressions of personal and bodily boundaries that are inflicted by misogynistic patterns, discourses and hierarchies have profound effects on the psyches and experiences of those who are targeted, and trauma is often held in the body long after the event(s) (Cleary, 2016).
When I was thirteen-years-old, my first period arrived and my mother, trying to relay the news to my father, said through the phone: Your daughter became a woman today. Even at that young age, I remember having questions, and confusing thoughts, about whether this was what made me a woman, and/or whether one’s capacity to menstruate delineated who could (and could not) be considered a “real” woman.
In later years, my hair would become a source of trauma, like the time a man came up behind me in the queue at a coffee shop, and ran his hands through my long hair without my consent: Now this is real woman’s hair, he whispered. Or the time a different man spat in my face and called me a lesbian (I had a short pixie haircut) when I refused his advances at a bar. Today, I’ve come closer to seeing my head and body hair as tools for self-expression, self-acceptance and resistance. However, there continue to be remnants of past trauma there, and I still experience moments of dysphoria with my follicular friends (Synnott, 1987).
As an Undergraduate student at university, I was exposed, for the first time, to critical Gender Studies, and to terms such as “gender-based violence”, “consent” and “hate crime”. When I took my first Gender Studies Honours Course in 2016, I felt as if it was the first time that I had the necessary tools, and a language, to put a face to the problems and uncomfortable feelings that I had been experiencing as a young woman. I also realised that, having often felt constrained and unsettled in my own body for so many years, and having encountered several issues around power (my own and that in relation to others – especially men), it was no surprise that I wanted to learn more about “gender” and even to make a career out of its study and exploration. Simultaneously, I was grappling more intensely with issues and questions around my gendered and sexual identities, and feeling as if I had, for many years, presented in ways that had conformed to standards and expectations that I had not set for myself, but that had been imposed. I mourned what I felt were lost years of free expression, autonomy and play.
In the June of my Honours year, an extension of that bodily mourning ensued after I was raped at a party by a man that I knew reasonably well. I found myself believing all kinds of myths that I had heard circulated about sexual violence, and questioning every aspect of my experience. Months later, I developed severe depression, and my anxiety and dissociative symptoms became more acute. Eventually, I sought the guidance of a professional therapist who helped me to come to terms with what had happened to me.
While my body still holds onto the pain (physical, emotional, psychological) that resulted from that experience, I am now able to challenge rape myths and to call others out when I see “rape culture” in action. I am also no longer in a position where I feel I need to remain silent about what happened to me, and have found significant healing in the telling of my story, especially to other women who share similar experiences.
Along with speaking out, one of the most helpful tools in my healing process has been to read, and read again, a book by Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola (2016), which is titled Rape: A South African Nightmare. In Chapter Seven, she writes:
Rethinking and debunking rape myths is an important part of the conversation of how to bring down the rape statistics and how to create a world without rape. Addressing them allows us to move closer to a world in which rape is taken seriously, where survivors can be supported and recover and where rape is dissuaded rather than excused.
However, it has been, and continues to be, at certain moments, immensely challenging to grapple with the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in the world, but in my home country, especially. At times, it has been difficult and painful to think that the possibility of feeling completely safe and comfortable in this body – and in the spaces through which it moves – may not be realised in my lifetime.
When I hear the word violence, I think instinctively of my own body, and I see alongside it the bodies of other women and gender non-conforming people in our country, many of whom share the same, reflexive associations of violence with their gendered identities and physical forms. In South Africa, and in the context of global gender configurations, many of these bodies continue to exist as sites of contestation and violence.
The most recent revival of masculinist politics – especially in capitalist powerhouses such as the United States of America – means that normative and bodily violences against women (and gender non-conforming people) are naturalised as acceptable parts of our lived realities. Sometimes, it feels as though ours are bodies that must police themselves in order to avoid violence; bodies that have remain hyper-vigilant; bodies that must always be ready to run, to fight, to resist; bodies that are shaped by norm and expectation; bodies that are told to make themselves smaller; bodies that are rarely seen as whole, but that are split into parts for objectification and consumption; bodies that are (de)valued according to their appearance; bodies that are taught to be alienated from pleasure and sex; bodies that are commodifiable and expendable; bodies whose rage and resistance are not tolerable.
However, I also don’t want to see or experience my body as associated (solely, inevitably or automatically) with violence. My body, and my identity, are complex, fluid, evolving, multi-faceted and multidimensional. In this body, I have experienced painful trauma, and violence has been inflicted against me because my body is gendered in certain ways. However, I have also experienced – and continue to experience – pleasure, joy, playfulness, vulnerability, strength, intimacy, curiosity, fascination, love and power with and in this body.
Part of my daily resistance against violence, then, is to recognise and accept the ambivalence and conflict that continues to (and likely will, always) characterise my relationship with my body, and to find even a small moment of lightness and presence with it.
When I think about violence, I try to train my attention, energy and focus towards its roots: towards problematic and oppressive histories, enduring structural inequalities and gendered patterns and hierarchies and how these might be challenged. All the while, my body continues to serve as a physical enactment and representation of my own history, and of the ways in which I explore my identity as I continue to embody this body in a gendered world.
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Butler, J. P. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge
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Cleary, K. (2016). Feminist theories of the body. In N.A. Naples., R.C. Hoogland., M. Wickramasinghe., W. Ching., & A. Wong (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell encyclopaedia of gender and sexuality studies. Wiley-Blackwell
Crenshaw, K.W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299
Gqola, P. D. (2016). Rape: A South African Nightmare. Jacanda Media.
Kiguwa, P. (2019). Feminist approaches: An exploration of women’s gendered experiences. In S. Laher, A. Fynn., & S. Kramer (Eds.), Transforming Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Case Studies from South Africa (pp.220-235). Wits University Press
Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381. https://doi.org/10.2307/590695.
 Queer does not only mean that an individual may inhabit a counter-normative identity, often around sexual orientation or gender identity, but it includes an identification with (citing Nadia Cho): resistance to structural rigidity; challenging the privilege of the “normal”; confronting all forms of oppression; understanding the intersectionality between race, nationality, gender, sexuality and class; searching for alternative ways of being and living; bringing unheard, minority experiences and stories to light; learning to appreciate and celebrate difference; and striving for constructive, fair and happy ways to coexist with each other. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nadia-cho/being-queer-means_b_3510828.html