“…and to make matters worse – some of us, and some of the other women – when there is a rape, there was no mother to tell that somebody abused you. There was no law, there was no justice where you could report to, there was no court of law…You are hurt, that’s it. You just had to keep quiet.”
– Margaret Dongo, co-founder of the National Liberation War Veterans Association
Narratives of liberation struggles are what this country has been built on. The glory of beating the white man, taking back our humanity, sticking a middle finger to colonialism and mapping out our own destinies is what this country was built on. The euphoria of newly found freedom from oppressive laws, exclusion, daily violence, racism, segregation and murder was enough to mould a narrative of liberation that spoke only of courage in the face of danger, fierce and unwavering patriotism, and powerful feelings of ubuntu. If anything, those that spoke against this narrative were traitors – ungrateful souls that didn’t understand the sacrifice that went into waging this war and that should be silenced immediately, lest we offend our comrades. And so only certain truths were accepted, and only one narrative was adopted. The rest were thrown into the ocean on the banks of Mozambique.
This morning I read an article in The Sunday Mail about female ex-combatants demanding compensation for their suffering during the liberation struggle. Women who sacrificed their dreams, risked their lives and fought for what they hoped would be a better Zimbabwe. A more equal, a more inclusive, a freer Zimbabwe. In the book Women of resilience, nine ex-combatants speak about their lived experiences of the war, and the toll it took on their lives and their ability to exercise the freedom they fought for. The book documents the conversations these women have about female soldiers being raped, harassed and marginalised. Some of the women were impregnated, shipped off to secluded camps, and expected to fend for themselves and their children, with little more than a gun and their training skills.
Today, almost 35 years into independence, the women who survived the ordeal of being ‘othered’, abused and sidelined after independence, have come out to have their say and to demand the slither of compensation that they deserve after such an ordeal. In comes patriarchy on the back of patriotism and nation-building with its single story, selective memory, all wrapped up and packed tightly in a Zanu-branded car. I’ll give you two major reasons why these stories of rape and sexual harassment won’t make even the tiniest ripple in the public sphere (unless we make them visible of course, and actually speak openly about them and about ways of resolving them).
1. Women either aren’t heard, purposefully ignored, misunderstood, or simply not given the space to speak.
Last year, Twitter was ablaze with conversations around the young woman who was stripped at a kombi rank in Harare’s CBD. A number of men and women blamed the assault on her ‘indecent’ dressing, basically saying that she asked for it because of how short her skirt was. This is a point columnist Sisonke Msimang speaks about, saying that the stripping of women in public spaces has very little to do with their clothing, but everything to do with where they are going. Increasingly, women have occupied spaces that have been reserved for men in the past. Their presence goes against every damned little stereotype patriarchy has created about women and their inability to lead and excel in professional environments. Is it therefore a surprise when women ex-combatants are sidelined, silenced and forgotten with regards to their abuse in the war? Of course not. If anything, the silencing of the ex-combatants is chillingly similar to the silencing of women today, young and old, whose bodies are constantly under attack.
2. Women in positions of power have added to the silencing.
Like I said, it’s been 35 years. The recent political upheaval aside, women that have sat in government have sat with this information of abuse and rape of their fellow comrades for 35 years. The lone voices here and there such as Margaret Dongo’s have been a breath of fresh air, but have unfortunately not been taken on, even by other women in government. Power is a tricky, consuming thing. To be part of a patriarchal system, and to thrive in it, often means to take on its characteristics. Some of those include not speaking about the rapists in your midst, who fought tirelessly and fearlessly for the freedom of Zimbabweans, but clearly didn’t give a rat’s ass about the very women that fought alongside them, cooked their meals, hid them, lied for them, died for them, and bore their children. Again – the single story of liberation and the silencing of other narratives.
And so the war on women’s bodies rages on. My hope is that we take these stories seriously, that we understand the pain we cause by silencing those that have given up so much and have been denied their dignity and humanity, and that we continue to speak up and out about abuse; even as we’re overshadowed by crafted collective memories of glory and liberation.