We are in danger of forgetting


There is a period between the worst of times and the best of times in which there is a lull…. The relief of having escaped a horrible circumstance tempts us to ease back for a while and eventually the memory of how bad things used to be fades.

We start to convince ourselves that things are fine now because we use the worst circumstance as a reference point instead of using the best of circumstances as an aspirational goal to work towards.

We comfort ourselves that things are better than they used to be and teach ourselves to be content rather than focus ahead on the best we can aspire for.

Between the worst of times and the best of times we fall into the trap of forgetting. We forget what used to matter because our discomfort has been eased a bit and we feel we can afford to take a breather.

Image

We forget the tears we shed to get this far, we forget the voices that spoke up and grew hoarse and we forget the sacrifices made by others on our behalf because things are not so bad anymore …because we have known worse we are more prepared to settle.

Over the last two months I have tried to understand why all the things that have mattered to me since teenage-hood matter and why I should bother following the course that I chose.

The older I become the more accommodative I am… of the world and its injustices, of people and their weaknesses, and of circumstances and their imperfections.

I am more ready to concede that my point of view is not the only version of reality and with each concession; I grow less certain of the battles that I choose to wage.

What guarantee is there that my most deeply held convictions are more valid than those of others if my own truth is not essentially the truth of others?

If I believe that the opinions of others are as valid as my own, then what right do I have to wish that my opinions be given primacy over those of others?

If I am right and know myself to be right at what point is it okay to point out the error of another?

I have always worked on the premise that things in life are black or white but now that I am older, I find there are varying shades of grey… and grey is as legitimate a color as any.

In some things it just can’t be black or white, sometimes you have to settle for the middle ground – for the grey.

I have discovered that my desire to stick with black or white…with the extremes was derived from a fear that compromise would mean defeat or that compromise would mean that I had become some kind of turncoat.

I have learned that sometimes you can stand for something without needing to stand against another.

I used to define the things that mattered to me by identifying the things that didn’t matter consequently making the things that matter to me dependent upon those that don’t matter. I have learned that the things that matter to me can and should be able to stand up to scrutiny without being juxtaposed to anything else.

One thing that has always mattered to me is the pursuit of justice – especially social justice. I say pursuit because I recognize it as an aspirational endeavor, as a goal that may not be realized in my lifetime but I work towards it hoping that in pursuing it I may become a better person for having bothered.

Sometimes I am scared that I will become complacent and forget why it mattered. Forget that the rights I enjoy and take for granted today were hard-won by women who came before me. Forget that the privileges I take as my God-given due were once denied to those born with female genitalia. And when we start to forget, we start to think that the battle is won, we start to think that victory is certain and that the status of women within their societies is assured.

But if nothing else, these 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence serve as a rude awakening and reminder that progress in terms of achieving equality in the public sphere does not guarantee equality in the private sphere.

We must not forget that women live the most crucial aspects of their lives in the private, not public domain – in their homes and not their offices; in their bedrooms and not their boardrooms…. And it is in these spaces that they are most vulnerable and that our advocacy efforts cannot effectively penetrate.

As we celebrate progressive laws and policies that advance the interests of women, elevate their status and protect their rights – we must not forget that without peace in their homes, women cannot thrive in their societies nor effectively execute their duties and responsibilities in the public domain.

Of women, gender and the search for equality


Some time ago someone sent me the following message:
“I’m doing a gender story. I want to know why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues? Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes? Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?”

The questions came during an inconvenient time (I was in the middle of my dissertation) but because they are questions that have been thrown my way time and again, I had to respond. This was my considered view.


Why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues?

Because gender issues seek to address, expose, redress, explore and understand the societal realities that often privilege men and simultaneously disadvantage women.

For example: a recent gender issue is the curfew which police have placed on women to limit their movement during the night time. This curfew affects women only BECAUSE they are women at the same time this curfew PRIVILEGES men by allowing them to enjoy freedom of movement without being harassed.

Consequently those who are being disadvantaged by this curfew (ie women) are the ones most likely to make it a gender issue by insisting that they are being disadvantaged on the basis of their sex. On the other hand, while men themselves may feel that the curfew is unfair – they are less likely to pro-actively seek to redress it because it is not necessarily directly affecting their own liberties, in fact the curfew is affording them privileges that are being denied women.

Any issue is often associated with the social group that stands more to gain from its resolution than the ones that have little to gain or in fact are benefiting from the status quo.

Therefore the resolution of gender issues in our society would greatly benefit women and in some cases it would also diminish the unfair privileges men enjoy on the basis of their gender; which unfair privileges enable them to enjoy supremacy over women or exercise dominance over them.

No social group wants to be dominated by another, why should women be the exception? At the very core of it, gender issues represent a search for fairness eg it is unfair that women have a curfew placed on them; it is unfair that men are not given a curfew too. BUT it would still be unfair if women were given a curfew and men were also given the same curfew because that would restrict EVERYONE’s freedom of movement and infringe on their liberties. The fair thing therefore would be for women to enjoy the same privileges that men are enjoying i.e a just society would allow its citizenry to enjoy freedom of movement both male and female.

Gender issues tend to be associated with the social group that is disadvantaged and can benefit from the resolution of those issues that they feel are unfair, unjust or place them at a comparative disadvantage.

Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes?

No, they are not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes. What they are doing is RESPONDING to pre-existing inequalities in our society.

Any attempt at neutrality in terms of addressing gender imbalances in society requires us to pretend that everyone is starting off from an even playing field which is not the case. In our socialization, in our customs and cultures we have privileged the male citizens and relegated the female members – and we have done this because we insist that it is traditional or normal. Gender issues become a way of looking at these inequalities and assessing whether or not the gender roles men and women fulfil are ‘natural’ or merely constructed.

It is not ‘natural’ for girls to do the dishes and for boys to herd cattle – it is a socially constructed expectation, society expects, requires and assigns certain roles to its girls and to its boys and in the same manner it constructs roles, responsibilities, expectations and assigns ‘power’ to men and ‘rules’ to women.

In talking of gender issues and focusing on women and girls – we show an appreciation for the fact that there has been an uneven assignation of gender roles that has privileged men insofar as they have been afforded opportunities that women have not been granted; and these opportunities are opportunities that men received when they were still boys (being able to go to school without first having to do the dishes or sweep the yard) and these are the opportunities that girls could not enjoy (being married off at very young ages, missing some days at school to cope with menstrual pains, not getting enough time to do homework or read because they have chores).

Over the years the advantage merely widens within the job sector as women still have to juggle multiple responsibilities while holding down full time jobs (women are less likely to go for careers that require constant travel or long hours because the gender roles assigned to them necessitate that they be at home being hands on in nurturing their families while men are not required to be hands on and can have more time to invest in career development, being rewarded with promotions, benefits and eventually becoming the dominant partner in terms of acquiring and accumulating resources).

It is not discriminatory nor stereotypical to address an existing gender imbalance by acknowledging the need to give preferential treatment to the social group that needs that preferential treatment to offset the negative cumulative impact of an unjust societal status quo.

If you have two children and one of them has a limp; your offering a crutch to the limping child is not discriminatory but it is an appreciation of their comparative disadvantage. You cannot then insist on offering both children a crutch just to appear non-discriminatory. Similarly insisting that gender issues should provide a crutch for the social group that has historically enjoyed dominance and privilege is unhelpful.

Discrimination is unfair, women should not get favors just because they are women BUT by the same token women should NOT be denied opportunities or privileges for being women.

Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?

We are not saying that at all. We are saying that women and girls are comparatively worse off in terms of vulnerability. The key issue for me (as far as I can tell) is the issue of ‘comparativeness’…. there is a degree and an extent to which the vulnerability of women and girls to abuse significantly outweighs that of men and boys.

And it is practical for most to start by dealing with the bigger problem before addressing the smaller one – but in dealing with the bigger issue we are not saying that the smaller issue does not matter or is unimportant. We are merely prioritizing in appreciation of where the resources, support and mobilization are needed the most.

We could of course, say lets prioritize the abuse of men by women and forgo (for now) the abuse of women by men – but you would find that it would not go anywhere in terms of addressing the issue of abuse in our society because such an approach has IGNORED the social group that is most deeply affected by the problem. It is not about being dismissive towards the suffering of men or about pretending women do not abuse men but it is about appreciating the varying realities of men and women that make women more vulnerable to abuse than men.

And as for the violation of young boys, there is no way anyone in their right mind could insist that the suffering of little girls is more important than the suffering of little boys. The suffering of children is categorically unacceptable and gender issues are all encompassing in relation to the rights of children. However the truth is it is impossible to protect the rights of children (both boys and girls) without securing the rights of women.

If the rights of women are violated, their capacity to provide for their children materially or emotionally and otherwise is diminished and severely hampered. Battered women are battered mothers and their condition as victims of abuse and violence dis-empowers them and diminishes their capacity to create and sustain safe home environments for their children.

Gender issues are intertwined with the issue of children’s rights, with the issues of fairness, of social justice and of equality between the sexes in terms of enjoying similar privileges, enjoy equal access and freedoms and in terms of enjoying the liberties of being a full citizen. The only reason why these gender issues become synonymous with women as a social group is that men as a social group already enjoy all of the above. And in seeking the elevation of the status of women in society – gender issues is just a means of saying, “lets all share it together”.

SHUT UP! No more violence!


A while ago, a certain woman suspected that her husband was having an affair and decided to confront him in order to lay the matter to rest.

The woman decided to enlist the aid of a female friend or relative (I don’t remember) to assist her in interrogating her husband over the allegations and so the pair took the man to task.

...if it burns you on the inside - what makes you think it won't hurt the person you say it to?

They questioned; interrogated, yelled, shouted, hurled insults; screamed at the top of their voices and generally caused a horrible racket as profanities and obscenities spewed out of their mouths.

The man decided to walk out of the room and the wife followed him pelting him with vulgar words and bludgeoning his ears with a constant stream of raw and abusive vocabulary.

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer.

In the face of this verbal onslaught – the man was rendered a mute, defenceless victim of the worst kind of demeaning, degrading and abusive attacks – the effects of verbal abuse have been known to render some men impotent.

He walked away because he knew that he was no match for his wife in the shouting stakes; that he was not equipped with the ability to wield his tongue as a lethal weapon to maliciously strip another person of any shred of human dignity they possessed.

That is the power of verbal abuse; the power to reduce a grown man into a dithering, cowering and fleeing fool.

As the verbal violence escalated, as the woman persisted in her attack, as the insults rained like an avalanche of blows on that man he kept walking and she kept following – then to defend himself he turned around and hit her.

Retaliating to the verbal violence through means he thought would be most effective – physical violence.

For the shredding of his sense of dignity – that man chose to attack his wife and with the rage, anger and emotion that had built up in him throughout the verbally induced assailing of his space, person and dignity – he beat her very hard.

Weeks later he was arraigned before the courts facing charges of contravening certain sections of the Domestic Violence Act; his wife was the complainant and she had a doctor’s report to back her up, some bruises and a few tears on standby should she need to invoke pity.

..words pack a punch just like a fist! Shut up if what you have to say is meant to hurt


Yet, in all fairness, she was the aggressor, she had been the attacker, she had been the violent, malicious and vengeful provoker of a man who tried everything to avoid a confrontation, including walking the hell away!

If we are to apportion blame in the incidents of violence in homes and in society – women need to bear their fair share of it because so many of them just won’t shut up when it matters most.

Some months ago a dear friend and fellow blogger, Natasha Msonza blasted the Big Brother Africa All Stars show for what she perceived as the condoning of violence against men citing the eviction of Uganda’s Hannington Kuteesa after a physical scuffle with South Africa’s Lerato Sengadi.

Although the show has ended and although this opinion Big-brother-condones-violence-against-men was made in reference to an incident that has since escaped the minds of many – this blog post has haunted me since then because it rightfully puts women in positions of culpability both in initiating and deliberately provoking violent reactions from men through verbal abuse.

To me the only; silver lining in this unpleasant discovery is the knowledge that if women can accept part of the blame for the violence that our societies are immersed in – then they can claim the right to become part of the solution.

...women have been known to turn their lips into weapons of mass (male) destruction!!


In acknowledging the blame worthiness of their own verbally abusive conduct; women can play a huge role in reducing incidents of violence and the surprising remedy is to learn to shut up unless they can communicate in a manner that does not demean, disrespect and disregard the sense of dignity of the people they are addressing.

Words hurt!

Let’s not downplay the severity of verbal abuse. Some women have perfected the vicious art of verbally undressing their men to a fine art and sometimes they actually push and keep pushing – well stop it!

Shut up! No more verbal abuse, no more verbal violence!

…how women love to keep counting


If there is one thing that women like to do – it is to keep counting…. I have found that women take more comfort in the length of their relationships rather than their quality.

...you know how far you've come - but where the HELL are you going?

In other words, a woman will happily brag of having been with a fellow for 5 or more years and neglect to mention the tiny detail that 3 of those years were sheer hell because the chap was an incurable skirt-chaser.

Even those whose partners have habitually mistaken them for a punching bag still pride themselves in keeping count – marking days, ticking weeks, noting months and celebrating every year that passes in their agonizing relationships.

To most women, the quality of the relationship does not matter at all – they are quite prepared to endure any abuse, swallow any cow dung and settle for being treated like a toilet seat as long as they can show off by counting the years.

To many women, the quality of the man is quite immaterial – they will put up with any riff raff of a chap, and quite happily put up with being disrespected, humiliated, ignored and neglected as long as they can still keep counting the years.

“We’ve been together for blah blah years,” you often here women say, with a trace of triumph in their voices as if what matters in a relationship is how long you can stick it out for rather than whether you’re fulfilled or not.

Women don’t care about fulfilment – they’re in relationships just to prove they can go the distance because any sensible woman who decides that a relationship has grown stale is seen as a weak, cowardly fool who chickened out and will live to rue the day she decided to go it alone!

And that is really why women put up with abuse – because they want to ‘keep counting’ even if they are heading for an early grave.

Most women are proud of being in long-term relationships; they view these accumulative years as an accomplishment, an extraordinary feat that validates them as ‘real’ women because they suffer, endure, struggle and are prepared to maim or kill themselves just so they can keep counting the years.

I find married women often suffer from this condition because they prefix every problem by reminding themselves of all the years they’ve put into the marriage and will happily stay in a deteriorating marital relationship because the number of years matter more than misery they are going through.

Many women will fight off their husbands’ ever-changing girlfriends, year in and year out, not to defend the marriage and not out of love but really out of pride – because they don’t want any woman messing up with their counting schedules.

I am no longer impressed by people who’ve been in a relationship for donkey years, neither am I particularly awed by the length of a relationship – at the back of my mind I always wonder, “but are you happy?”

It seems futile to me to do anything, to sacrifice everything, to go through so much and still remain unhappy.

I used to resonate with the sentiments of that singer who sang, “I’d rather be alone than be unhappy” because it should not be about how long you’ve been together – it should always be about being happy, being fulfilled and being safe.

a legacy of platitudes


A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of witnessing a woman being viciously assaulted by a man; she had a three-month-old baby on her back and while she struggled to keep it from sliding off her back her assailant mercilessly rained blows on her.

He was apprehended by a policeman who happened to be nearby and the woman, whom I later discovered was a vendor, had to breastfeed the child to stop its piercing and heartrending cries.

The man had beaten her  up because apparently he had told her it was time for her to pack up her wares and go home to prepare him a meal but she had remained there to sell her goods paying no heed to his demand.

What I found disturbing was that there were people there who did nothing to intervene, those who did try were interested only in grabbing the baby off her back so that the woman could be further assaulted with greater convenience.

I have no idea how the matter was later resolved, I only know that it is only in Africa were such a disgusting public display of barbarism would be tolerated and even condoned.

So recently when a young twenty-one year old mother appeared at my doorstep, bruised, battered and swollen after being attacked by her husband in the streets, in broad daylight, with no one coming to her aid; I was reminded again of why we became feminists.

I would love to rant and rave against the male sex, to blame it on the men and to say they are oppressing us but I blame every woman who had no legacy to pass on to their daughter except a legacy of platitudes.

Every woman who told her daughter that if her marriage failed it made her less of a woman because that impossible ideal is what has kept many women trapped in loveless marriages.

Every woman who shut the door against her abused daughter sending her back to her marital hell armed with nothing but a platitude that said ‘it’s part of marriage.’

Every mother who makes her daughter believe that she can’t be a whole human being if she isn’t a ‘Mrs Somebody’ forcing her to suffer in silence just to live up to that expectation.

So this woman stood at my door, tears in her eyes and told me a tale that is all too familiar, a pattern of abuse that has become like the theme song that accompanies the lives of many women (married or in relationships).

‘He beat me up for asking where he had slept. He kicked me because his shirt had lost a button. He choked me because I found him fondling someone else in our bed. He slapped me because he says I am his whore, that I belong to him and he owns me. He dragged me outside because he says he doesn’t want me anymore. He punched me because he says I disrespect him.’

And the litany goes on and on but what really angered me was that she had gone to her family, her aunts, consulted her relatives, sisters and other elderly women and neighbors desperately hoping she would find somebody who could advise her on what to do.

They told her that she should be patient, that marriage was like that – they all fed her a heap of platitudes.

In different words they all told her that what she was going through was ‘normal’ that her pain was nothing unique and that enduring that abuse would make her a better woman. They told her to celebrate her pain and to embrace her suffering for these are the credentials of a ‘real’ African woman.

‘Yikho ukubamgumfazi’.

This is the plight of many women whose pain is trivialized and buried under meaningless statements, that reinforce the stereotypical belief that women in Africa are the appendages of their men, properties of their husbands and have no autonomy whatsoever.

We were raised to understand that a man endures pain as an undeserved punishment; but a woman accepts it as a natural heritage; so we became feminists in order to reject the ‘natural heritage’ of pain.

African women are possibly the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness; to have been taught to take pleasure in being hurt, tormented and degraded.

So many women have been unwittingly buried alive under platitudes afraid of going against the grain, of defying the status quo and standing up for their rights because they have deeply engrained the fallacious belief that they have no rights.

But that young woman has rights, she has human rights, if nothing else, because she is first and foremost human before she is female.

So where are those who would defend her? No where. They are all hiding behind the flimsy wall of platitudes forgetting what Robin Morgan once noted that, ‘women are not inherently passive or peaceful.  We’re not inherently anything but human.’

Perhaps one day she will (like others before her) snap and retaliate in violence but I hope that when the day comes and I have daughter and she turns to me in her hour of need, I may be able to offer her more than mere platitudes.

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. – Susan B. Anthony

how do you plead?


...does our womanhood obscure our humanity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing before the jury of life
They’ll ask in voices dead
And indifferent –
Are you the washer of clothes,
The tiller of fields
The fetcher of wood
And the cook bending over the fire
And how do you plead
I plead woman, woman as charged!

Kneeling in obeisance
Before the altar of patriarchy
They will ask –
Are you the bearer of children
The suckler of infants
The raiser of mankind
And the keeper of home fires
To this how do you respond
I plead woman, woman as charged!

Lying prostrate before
The edifice of culture
They will demand to know –
Are you the keeper of silence
The longsufferer of wrongs
The beast of burden
The slave of all who are male
And how do you plead
I plead woman, woman as charged!

The verdict is in
The shackles made of tradition
The cells forged by stereotype
We pronounce you woman
Sentence you to a lifetime
Of subjugation, of oppression and inferiority
You one of us but less than us
What have you to say for yourself
I plead human, HUMAN like you!

(in cognizance of the 16 Days against Gender Violence campaign)

Sleeping with the enemy


...the calm before the storm...

...how sure are you that you're not sleeping with the enemy?

Recently a colleague became the butt of a few newsroom jokes after we discovered that the bulk of the stories he had written this year were largely comprised of brutal murders and horrifying acts of domestic violence and assault.

Among the tidbits of advice that were generously proffered was a cheeky suggestion that he compile all his stories for the year and write a best-selling horror novel which, it was said, would likely rival Stephen King’s fear factory of literature.

Typically, I couldn’t just let the matter rest but went on to the library and went through his gory stories one by one and read one narrative after another of gruesome killings involving married couples.

One thought that kept crossing my mind was that all of the dead spouses would probably have never thought that when they died, the person they married would be the cause and that they had literally spent all their married life ‘sleeping with the enemy’.

My first recollection of the marriage institution as a potential deathtrap is nearly a decade old and involves the tragic deaths of former soccer chairman after his wife set their home on fire following a domestic dispute.

I remember thinking at the time that it would have been better if they had had a divorce rather than staying in a situation that had potentially become dangerous and life-threatening.

I site this example only as a way of establishing how disturbing I have always found these incidents of spousal murder to be and not to be critical of a couple I know virtually nothing about.

Having said this, I find it unsettling how blood is shed almost willy-nilly within the domestic sphere and have wondered what really could be done to curb these tragic and horrifying incidents.

I have often found that the average wife is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain.

I have also found that it is this kind of wife that society embraces, eulogizes and celebrates, our mothers feeding us the tedious dictum of being ‘patient, enduring and long-suffering’ – kuyabekezelwa emendweni.

While circumstances vary, it is almost predictable that the stoical wife may one day be pushed too far – beyond her control, snap and do the unimaginable, a person can only take so much pain.

This is not to excuse such behavior but it is to say that in all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things we have long taken for granted, things like a wife’s ability, willingness and capacity to endure cruelty, abuse and neglect.

I think there are many who will dismiss this article arguing that it is premised on incidents that are rare, few and far between – but those readers would be gravely mistaken because crimes of passion are frighteningly on the increase and our coverage of them represents only a tip of the iceberg.

I am one of those people who believe that a woman must know when to call it a day and for those who want some pointers – call it a day the very day he sends you to hospital with a cracked rib or two.

Crossing over the boundaries we’ve been taught to live within is a tough business. But I’m getting used to the idea they’re not so formidable.

Any man who knows he has been cruel to his wife must know that every act of cruelty, of malice, of neglect and abuse is being laid up in her heart and one day when you least expect it – she’ll turn on you and lash out in retaliation.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I have to state that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

I recall a book I studied and critiqued in my final year at varsity entitled ‘A Tragedy of Lives: Zimbabwean women in prison’ which was a collection of testimonials by female inmates held at Chikurubi.

I remember my friends and I took special interest in the chapter that had testimonies of women who had murdered someone and found much to our shock that more than ninety percent of them were in jail for killing their husbands!

Usually the act itself was neither premeditated nor intentional but it was usually the culmination of years of frustration, pain, anger and despair endured by these women in relationships that were unfulfilling, oppressive and abusive.

Why did they not leave? We asked ourselves at the time but the answer is one we only uncovered now as we came of age ourselves – they couldn’t act in manner contrary to what they had been socialized into.

So they stayed, endured, cracked and killed.

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign commences these blood chilling acts of domestic violence require us to stem the tide of bloodshed and Commit. Act. Demand. We CAN end violence against women!

Parting shot: The moment a man claims a right to control the will of a fellow being by physical force, he is at heart a slaveholder. ~Henry C. Wright