Sexual Harassment in Zimbabwe

by Anthea Taderera

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

Sexual harassment in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, has become a part of popular conversation following the public stripping of a minor by men, an incident that provoked the #MiniSkirtMarch. The protest prompted heated debate on the internet and within mainstream media. Dominant opinions were that women were merely trying to get away with being “whores” and that women’s bodily integrity and safety in public spaces couldn’t be considered a significant issue.

Our bodies are our primary means of participating socially, economically, politically, spiritually and creatively in society. They are the beginning point of the practical application of rights; the place in which rights are exercised, and for women in particular, the place where rights are most often violated. Without knowledge of and control over our bodies, including our sexuality, women’s rights can be neither fully exercised nor enjoyed.” – (Horn, Jessica. “Re-righting the sexual body” (pdf). Feminist Africa Issue 6. 2006: Subaltern Sexualities.

Sexual harassment in public spaces is commonplace for many Zimbabwean women. We get whistled at, catcalled, shouted at, and physically assaulted simply for having made the decision to leave the house wearing whatever we wanted. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not a new problem. Over twenty years ago, Zimbabwean women — students at University of Zimbabwe (UZ) held a massive protest after men at the university decided that they were entitled to strip women whether they were wearing miniskirts (the quintessential clothing of the immoral) or trousers. During November 2015, UZ students continued to experience sexual harassment on campus with no repercussions for the perpetrators. On 13th November 2015, women students from UZ organised a protest against the unabating sexual violence they  experienced on campus.The students were beaten and sixteen of them arrested by riot police.

Public spaces become “masculinised” spaces that women must learn to navigate. Such spaces are marked by men’s aggressive behaviour towards others. In them, sexual harassment and sexual violence become normalised. Women must then learn to mitigate their fear and develop mechanisms which permit safe passage through unsafe spaces until they are back in their own safe spaces. This is what feminist geographer, Gill Valentine, describes as a “spatial expression of patriarchy.” So when women leave their homes or other spaces over which we are presumed to have some sort of control, we are thought to have implicitly consented to the harms that we may experience outside of them, and to have accepted that the onus of dealing with those harms is with us individually, not with society collectively.

The oppressive framing of sexual harassment is based on the idea of an immoral, disruptive woman, a Jezebel who is “asking for it”, who distracts honourable God-fearing men from going about their daily lives, and puts “real women” at risk. Therefore the good people of Zimbabwe must resort to violent discipline in order to discourage such reprehensible dressing and behaviour. Women who do not wish to be considered immoral and who would like to be safe from harm or supported in the event of their being harmed, have a societally enforced obligation to dress “modestly”.

Modesty as a solution to sexual harassment encourages victim blaming. When the solution is modesty, the problem is women failing to dress appropriately and failing to conform to unsafe, masculinised public spaces. It obscures that ideas about women’s emerge from the way that women are consistently perceived (and experience themselves as perceived) and consumed (and experience themselves consumed) as sexual objects to which men imagine themselves entitled. But when women enforce their bodily integrity, exercise their autonomy, and deny men their perceived birth-right entitlement to our bodies, we often suffer violence. When we complain against this violence and the conditions that support it, we are further victimised either through victim-blaming — that attempts to explain how we clearly brought this harm upon ourselves — or through the deployment of state violence against us when we take to the streets. Victim blaming is a logical recourse for a society unwilling to confront the fact that it has a vibrant rape culture that normalises the sexualised harm of women. The insistence that if a woman is modest she will avoid sexual harassment is predicated on the misguided belief that society cannot be changed and that sexual harassment is an inherent part of the experience of womanhood.

Often, modesty is proffered not only as a solution to sexual harassment, but also as a formula for getting men to like you in the right way, to get consumed as a good woman. Women’s bodies are still objectified as sexually available to men’s advances which we are automatically imagined as desiring at all times and from all quarters. Modesty then ties into the way society regulates how and with whom women should engage in sexual or romantic relationships: women must be passive recipients of men’s attention, with no ownership of our bodies or our sexualities. Consumption of women’s bodies remains, male entitlement is reinforced, and objectification is continuously normalised as an inherent part of relations between women and men, a fact that women must learn to live with. The idea that women’s sartorial choices are contingent on what men will find acceptable and attractive, continues to be reinforced.  As a result, women cannot simply choose to cover up or not because of the ingrained patriarchal demand that women live for male desire. Sexual harassment and sexual violence is framed as the correct response to transgressing patriarchy’s demands.

Black women in Zimbabwe — and under the white supremacist global order — continue to bear the burden of being imagined as hypersexual. Racist reading of our bodies means that our bodies are perceived as sexually deviant with the implication that it is impossible to rape women who, by definition, are always already sexually available. We are perceived as inherently promiscuous and sinful, such that the mere presence of our bodies in certain public spaces is interpreted as solicitation (with sex workers being regarded by the state as unsavoury and immoral characters), leading to the arrest, detention, and fining of many women, and the institution of a de facto curfew for all women.

Every few years, a police operation ostensibly targeting sex workers but actually targeting all women, is launched. In 1983 it was Operation Clean-up  which led to the formation of the Women’s Action Group as a response to the mass detention, by soldiers and police, of about six thousand urban women in three days. More recently it’s been Operation Chipo Chiroorwa (operation Chipo Get Married).  Women have to go out of our way to counter the damaging effects of hypersexualised messaging and to establish recognition of our capacity to be victims of sexualised harm. This labelling of black women’s bodies by colonialists continues to haunt Zimbabwean society where many people profess some form of Christianity and where a lot of moral conservatism has been subsumed into our various cultures under the misleading banner of “Africanness”.

My own class privilege and access to classed public spaces keeps me safe(er) because I am usually perceived as one who belongs to them. I have access to legal and communal recourse should I be harmed in them. Different rules govern these classed spaces. I am able to frequent them because I can afford it and because, in them, I feel relatively safer. In the more affluent areas of Harare women can bare a lot more skin and will merely be ogled rather than attacked. In spaces that are ostensibly accessible to the entire public class dynamics still play a part because men tend to hesitate to harass a visibly privileged person; whereas I’ve been whistled at, spat on, and cussed out as I walked through downtown Harare or got off a kombi, other women have been groped and stripped, and otherwise assaulted.

Whilst modesty is the patriarchal standard for all women, the way in which it is enforced is affected by the class to which we are perceived to belong. For the pedestrian or passenger in public transportation, chances of sexual harassment in public space are high. Those of us who have access to private transportation are free from the anxieties of walking through public space or using public transportation to get to destinations outside our homes. Having the luxury of a vehicle reduces occasions of sexual harassment in public spaces simply because we aren’t interacting with people which sometimes creates the illusion that sexual harassment is a rare occurrence caused by the harassed woman doing something provocative and wrong.

After the stripping of a minor last year, the Katswe Sistahood, called for a protest, the Mini Skirt March. The goal was to have a diverse group of women show up in miniskirts or whatever they felt comfortable wearing and assert the fact that women have the same right and access to the city as men do, that regardless of what we wear, we must be able to walk around without fear of harassment and harm and that we have a right to bodily integrity. On October 4th, 2014 there were about two hundred women, each decked out in clothing of her choosing, who were ready to sing, dance, and give statements of solidarity. I remember wondering why there was such a low turn-out because, in my mind, sexual harassment is a problem that affects us all, and surely we could all come together to put our foot down and say enough. But as it turns out there were quite a number of objections to the way the march was going to be carried out: forthright, in-your-face-protesting combined with women showing their skin. This approach presented a version of womanhood that is coarser than the clean image of good, hardworking, morally upright, respectable womanhood often relied upon to push through necessary legislative reform. This created a tactical disconnect within the movement.

Respectability as a political strategy requires that those who are marginalised or oppressed show that they can meet the standard of objective goodness which is set by the oppressor. Those who become respectable people gain moral authority and political  legitimacy which can then be parlayed into hitherto unobtainable rights. In Zimbabwe, women perform respectability by indicating that they are willing to be, and capable of being, hands-on mothers and fantastic wives to men. Respectable women promise that the extension of political/economic/social rights afforded to us will not rock the boat, that we will manage to fulfil our roles and do more to feed ourselves wonderfully into the system, helping to make it more economically productive. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a good mother or a wife, rather there is a problem with there being a mandatory societal expectation that all women perform these roles and only these roles in order to be considered “real” women.

The reasoning goes that the system cannot retain its coherence while still denying respectable women their basic human rights. Concomitantly, it is easier to push through reforms if the system does not perceive you as a threat but rather as possible collaborators conforming to the values underpinning the status quo. If a group can present the ideal of righteous discontent or erroneous exclusion, then, the argument goes, the systems of oppression will be more likely to fall away. In Zimbabwean women’s organising, respectability politics emphasises a need for good wholesome womanhood as characterised by heterosexism, muted sexuality, marriage, religious affinity (preferably to Christianity) and reticence in nuanced discussions about our culture. Controversy is to be avoided in order to do the practical work of improving women’s lives by meeting immediate needs. Women in miniskirts, wreaking havoc over their rights, ensuring that it is not business as usual in the central business district, subverts the image of respectable womanhood. Modesty as a solution to violence against women feeds into respectability politics because it presents an image of a woman who has done her utmost to avoid being harmed in public spaces and who then needs help dealing with a few “bad apples”, perhaps through legislative attention or the arrest of touts who strip women. This is a story the public can get behind because it does not implicate wider society in a rape culture. This strategy does not allow for deeper conversations about the denial of women’s personhood and bodily integrity, nor does it confront the reality of men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies.

The premise of respectability politics is that of oppressive institutions: that basic human rights can and should be earned. Contrary to this is the idea that the human dignity inherent in all persons is what guarantees our human rights; otherwise rights become contingent on ‘good behaviour’, that is,  women have the right to walk in public spaces safely as long as they are ‘appropriately’ dressed, it’s not too dark, they are accompanied by a man who is their husband or other relative (lest they be suspected to be soliciting). Our behaviour and protest tactics are policed by those within marginalised communities to ensure that we don’t make each other look bad. While some of us are asserting our right to be able to walk around wearing as much or as little as we like, others propose a ‘less antagonistic’ way to engage that will not compromise their legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

We need a conversation about women’s personhood because  the majority of the Zimbabwean society seems to struggle with the idea that women are, in fact,  human.

Women are people. We are each of us human beings with human dignity deserving of all the rights that are accorded to persons.

This includes the right to bodily integrity, autonomy, and the freedom of movement that ensures our access to public goods, as enshrined in our constitution.

Women continue to be objectified and infantilised — blamed for being harmed, not believed when we complain about the violence that we endure day-in-day-out. In having a broader conversation about personhood we can put an end to the idea that there is a specific form of womanhood that is worthy of being safe, accorded basic human respect, and imbued with basic human rights while other forms of womanhood must not only be met with derision but must be stamped out violently. If we can recognise that women are human, the rhetoric that bolsters the advocacy for and granting of conditional rights that come with good behaviour clauses becomes patently ridiculous and never pragmatic. We come to realise that certain compromises merely engrain our complicity with an oppressive system and contribute to the continued structural exclusion of those women who are perceived as ‘bad’. We need to really, finally, come to believe, that women — all women — are people.