January 03, 2013

Not Listening

Last week, someone I had held in high regard for many years lost my respect. This man, a social commentator and activist for progressive masculinities in Zimbabwe, had written on my Facebook wall that the mainstream women’s movement in Zimbabwe was increasingly becoming an irrelevant entity and that big western funders were ‘counterproductively funding an elite of women’s organisations who are extremely conservative, middle class and urban.’ In essence, he was calling for a ‘new way’ through a group of breakaway organisations, including Her Zimbabwe, which he had identified as being ‘progressive’

I honestly appreciated his critique as it brought up real issues that plague the Zimbabwe’s women’s movement in ways that many are not honest enough to acknowledge. I responded to him informing him that Her Zimbabwe was not a self-identified movement but rather a space for women that is still negotiating its way through the torturous terrain that is women’s organising. I added that at just eight months of existence, it was unfair to foist prescriptive revolutionary expectations on the platform when I, as its founder, and the team around me, were grappling with collective and personal concerns about our work and how best to articulate these and our stances on a variety of issues. I also challenged him to see that Her Zimbabwe was just as middle class and urban as the other initiatives that he was berating and that this qualified us for the same critique he was giving to other entities.

His response to my honesty was to tell me that it was, ‘Disappointing, but there is no middle ground left and you’ve decided which side you are on! I wish you luck in your endeavours, I’ll let the others know you are not up for it.’

At this point, I began to lose my cool. Disappointing?! So honesty is disappointing? Having an opinion different to yours is disappointing? Now I am the bad guy on the bad guys’ side because I didn’t agree with you? Oh, and you will let the others know? When exactly did you consult me within this planning of your revolution prior to posting on my wall and telling me where things stood? The fact that he would ‘let the others know’ implied that he had been having conversations about this without my knowledge. In essence, he was simply co-opting me into a pre-hatched plan.

You have to understand that I take no pleasure in recounting this story, but the fact that he chose to drag it through the public space of my Facebook page means that he chose to make this a matter for the public domain. You have to also understand that I have watched and commiserated with this man over many years, and taken seriously his growing despondency with the Zimbabwe women’s movement and its alienation of certain voices and sectors. But the approach he took to settling his despondency with me was simply unacceptable.

As he dished out his words, I wondered if he forgot that he was a white man originally from Europe. Did he forget that he was born of the most privileged and unchallenged species of human life? Did he forget that I was a black African woman, one of the most unprivileged peoples of this world? Did he forget that he could never see or understand my struggles in the same way as I experience them because his white skin and maleness afford him latent privileges knitted into the fabric of his very being?

The answer to all those questions is NO, for all I felt from him was coercion to take up his stance, or else be labelled a ‘non-radical’ by a movement which he had defined without prior consultation with me.

Did he really understand how neo-colonial, denigrating, paternalistic and infuriating this was for a young black woman working her damndest to contribute to dismantling the stereotype of the pliant and compliant African who doesn’t question jumping, but simply asks the master how high to go?!

I have since began to question what progressive forms of masculinities he stands for if his is a brand that coerces and bullies others into accepting his stance, or else passes negative judgement on dissent. I was disappointed, but sadly, I was not surprised. This half- blind paternalism and coercion disguised as solidarity is all around me. And slowly, I am learning that keeping silent about it only allows it to fester to the detriment of the self-determination of Zimbabwean and African women – a state that so many social and political factors continually work against.

Having been in the US for a few months this year, I have become acutely conscious and articulate about my disappointments with global feminist solidarity movements. A lot of these white-led liberal movements working with women of the global south confuse me. They seemingly make no efforts to collaborate with women of colour within their own localities in the west (except for movie stars and semi-conservative and therefore ‘safe’ women of colour) but somehow feel comfortable within the slums of Africa, South America and Asia amplifying the ‘voices of the oppressed’.

How is this credible?

Surely the best conduits to entry and understanding of women’s issues on those continents is through building solidarity and working with western feminists of colour (Asian, Caribbean, African, Latina) and others who have a greater contextual grounding in their issues, and through whom the women of the Global South can begin to see their faces reflected and represented. I hasten to add that the lived realities of an African-American feminist activist are markedly different to my own, but within the sea of whiteness, her black skin and her voice in support of me, and with me, means something significant – she understands what life is like in a skin that is ridiculed and abhorred by so many.

Where is that woman in all these programmes? I know she exists. I have seen her, I have spoken to her. So why is she invisible?

And where also are the women from the global south on boards of governance? You see, you can’t authentically own power if you have no say at the table where decisions are made. And I do analyse organisational structures and mostly find no women from the Global South in my analyses; we only seem to sprout at the tail end of processes – the implementation phase. To me, it feels like we are co-opted into activities and programmes after all the processes and plans have been carried out. To me it seems we are a means of validating projects through the roping in of ‘grassroots voices’.

It pains me that the strategies that global women’s networks use to engage women of the Global South still resemble archaic developmental models where strategies and evaluations thereof are conducted somewhere out there – New York or London perhaps – with little attention paid to how contextually and culturally different women of the Global South are. This Global South is made up of continents with countries and cultures, sub-cultures and counter-cultures. To define it as one site of struggle is to essentialise and triviliase the plights of individuals and collectives in various settings. What works in India has no guarantee of working in Indonesia, and what works in Harare has no guarantee of working in Bulawayo. These are people for whom the prescriptive does not apply wholesale as if there is homogeneity among them. We know well that there is diversity among western women, so why is this not understood and respected for African women or Asian women?

But does anyone really care about what I have to say about such approaches, or should I keep quiet and simply be glad that I have even been engaged, that someone wants to hear my opinion (mostly when it conforms), that someone cares about my continent when no Africans seem to be taking up the responsibility, that someone has cared enough to even fly me to workshops, pay a good stipend, and put me up in a swish hotel?

Are these the concessions that I must make so that the status quo is maintained and everyone is happy?

My answer? YES.

And yes, I admit to failing to speak up for myself on several occasions because it cost too much to do so. Yes, I admit to enjoying the luxuries of silence. Silence means that you are likeable and workable with. As long as you smile at the right pauses and say and do all the acceptable things, you are like ‘one of us’ because you understand that we are helping you, and not harming you in any way at all.

Silence means that you have the right sort of radicalism, the type that understands things from a western perspective of what that means – never mind that for you wearing a skirt an inch above your knees might be the most radical thing that you do each day to claim your own version of the word. I tried to explain this to an esteemed feminist and opinion leader recently, telling her how I have a Zimbabwean friend with visible tattoos all over her body who shares my anxiety at wearing shorts outside the house; not because of her tattoos, but rather the way she was socialised to see her body. She (the feminist I refer to) called it ‘absurd’ and hastily moved the conversation on to something else.

She didn’t listen to me. Radical to her wasn’t about such struggles. Radical was beyond this challenge my friend and I shared as products of our socialisation, who have had had it soaked into our beings from adolescence that good girls cover up their bodies. This was a part of our struggle for radicalism and she could only see it as fickle and trivial. Real radicalism was about saving women in war-torn zones in Africa. After all, that’s where the authentic realness of women’s stories is found, not with a sometimes gauche 28-year-old (me) who has suffered a love-hate relationship with her ‘kiss madolo’ (kissing knees) since some vendors on the street followed and heckled her about it in her early teens, forcing a flood of tears and self-condemnation of her body. My story doesn’t fit the predominant lens used to understand an African woman’s struggle, so it is labelled absurd and irrelevant – it is not worth talking about.

And it is in such ways that the western feminist gaze over the continent is cast; a gaze that eliminates some narratives and illuminates others.

I don’t doubt for one minute that my knees are not the most important issue that the feminist struggle has to look at, but I would appreciate it if my encounters with patriarchy would not be shooed aside. Or is it that my story won’t measure up against funders’ expectations of an authentic African patriarchal struggle? Because if that is what it is, it would make it easier for all if I knew to not have to speak and let the ‘real women’ have their say.

I assure you that I am not the first person to voice these concerns and neither will I be the last. It’s high time that well-meant western-initiated (and yes I think a few of them do come from a genuine desire to be of assistance) programmes and implementers thereof ask these searching questions of themselves. It’s not that African women are not thinking all of these things… it’s just that sometimes we keep silent for fear of retribution. And what is often worse than silence is speaking up and being condemned for exercising one’s right to have an opinion formed from individual interrogation.

Can it get more paternalistic than that?

This post was originally published on Fungai’s blog here.

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