Raised A Feminist in Zimbabwe
By Edinah Masanga
Mine is a tough country to be a woman. Even though Zimbabwe’s nascent Constitution adopted in 2013 recognizes gender equality, our society is still trapped in the ancient past, insisting on keeping women way down the social scale. The arsenal used to control us is often referred to as “ harmful practices” it includes forced virginity- testing, marriage by abduction, domestic brutality and perpetrator’s impunity. Almost half of women here experience sexual violence in their lifetime and a third are below the age of eighteen when it happens. My country also has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with up to 50 per cent of girls under the age of consent in rural areas.
So how did my mother ever become a feminist? How did she come to tell me that what I most needed in life was the ability to make money, not a set of household skills with an expertise in laundry making?
I grew up in a small village 120 kilometers west of Harare, the capital. Rural life means that people know each other and everyone expects traditional norms to prevail among all members of the community. Rituals are to be practiced the same way they have always been, unquestioned even in their most brutal expressions precisely because they are timeless.
I am the fourth born in a family of four boys and two girls and my late older brother was an aircraft engineer and an academic prodigy. He was a hardworking and smart man and in my village, people always greeted him as Doctor Masanga (whatever craft they chose, most educated boys are believed to become medical doctors and are referred to as such) but I too was smart only I was invariably referred to as Muroora or daughter-in-law.
It was thus made obvious to me that I was being groomed for marriage and that my primary identity would be to attend the needs and wants of my prospective husband’s family. Meanwhile. I could just watch my brother being educated and recognized as a professional. This didn’t seem to be anybody’s decision, it was just the system, and things were like they had always been.
I was an academic achiever but instead of receiving praises or support, as I grew up and became a woman, the persecutions began. I was harassed because of the way my body looked. I had large breasts but my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a bra so I went without during my entire teenage years. Unsupported, my breasts began to sag when I turned fifteen. Women in the village were the most punishing ones, they would lash at me implying that I had become a “slut”. This is a big word in my community, sexual activity involving single women or underage girls translates to women being sluts, not people with a sexual life, let alone victims of rape or sexual violence, just sluts. People would hint that someone must have been sleeping on top of me for my breast to look that way. No one thought that I was in desperate need of a bra.
But it didn’t prevent my mother from pursuing my education at all costs.
We are a poor farming family, yet when my parents went to work the fields without trailing their children along for the extra help, people in the village were confused. Girls were expected to work the crops while boys were out herding cattle. But I have never set foot in the pastures myself. Instead, my mother kept me home with my books. People in my village criticized her for it, arguing that she was raising a lazy girl. 'Who will marry her when she cannot even cook or do housework?” they would ask. Often, my mother played along and found ways to justify my “laziness” to other village women. Little did they know that she was the one encouraging me to pursue education and financial independence over marriage.
''To cook, you need to put food on the table first,'' she kept saying after they left.
Despite her outstanding support, I couldn’t help but resent the fact that my brother didn’t take part in any household chores yet was never criticized for it. No one ever complained that he was lazy or useless when he curled up with his own books to learn.
I reckon that I was supposed to be beautiful and to keep my breasts firm, even without a bra. I was supposed to preserve my image as a decent and suitable girl. I was supposed to live for a man in a men's world.
I would cry when old women pinched my breasts to check if they were getting softer (evidence that men were lying on top of me). I had never had sex, but I didn’t know how to defend myself against their allegations. I could not defend my body against irrational and ignorant expectations. I could not defend my hunger for education in a world where girls were to remain in the shadows. I could not defend my not going to work in the fields.
But my mother, the unknowing feminist, would console me and remind me that it was better to be a professional woman with her own car than a virgin without a bra.
Then, my brother began noticing the criticism, the shaming, and the judgment that I was facing every day. He started defending me, he asked people to take notice of my achievements and value me for them. When village women came to our house, he would say, “I am not better than my sister.” After his own behavior change, the banter in our community went from reviling to saying: “We hope she will find a husband who can entertain the idea of a wife who goes to work.''
Then, I was allowed to be gain academic recognition but not to have ambitions of my own. Men were still to be the center of my world. My decisions and my body had to please them—if it didn’t, I was a failure.
Again, my mother would tell me: “Do you want to be like them? Do you want to walk barefoot, have ten children and work in the fields your whole life?”
My mother's words kept forcing my eyes opened. They inspired me to want more in life. To know that what I saw around me—girls dropping out of school to become maids, children being married to start having their own children at the most tender age—wasn't all there was to life.
I became an honor student in high school even though I missed classes more than most of my classmates because we regularly lacked the money to pay the fees. But I have managed to leave the village and become a successful female journalist and women's rights advocate in Zimbabwe. I did not waste my mother's teachings. Her voice took me to the top—for me, “the top” means having four walls, electricity, food, clothes, panties, and being able to build my parents a house in an urban township. This is what I dreamed of, while chastised because of my sagging breast, hanging to my book in my mother's leaking mud house listening to her relentless words of belief in the worth of women .
I went from living with no bras or shoes to being well clothed, from being hungry to being well fed. I emphasize food because the most traumatic memories of my childhood are of going to bed hungry. But in that memory of hunger too, there is my mother's voice urging me to be strong, urging me to be that feminist and go on.
Edinah Masanga is a Zimbabwean Feminist, Journalist and Writer based in Sweden.
She is also the author of an upcoming memoir about her life; Dreams of Common Grl: The Triumphant Journey To The Top