Big Saturday Read: the sexualisation of women in Zimbabwean politics
The personality at the centre of this BSR divides opinion. It would not be an exaggeration to say she attracts more revulsion than sympathy from general members of the public. She has run roughshod over anyone who dares to stand in her path. She harangues and humiliates regardless of a person’s station in life. But the subject of this article transcends Grace Mugabe, the ambitious wife of President Robert Mugabe. I invite you therefore, to put aside whatever objections you might have regarding Zimbabwe’s First Lady and focus instead on the weighty subject of the sexualisation of women in politics.
Unpopular personalities make difficult company when one is trying to drive home a point. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take, if anything, to say, I may disagree vehemently with this personality but the treatment of women, exemplified by specific responses towards her is completely objectionable. I do so not so much on her account, but on account of millions of young women who might dream to occupy political space now or in future. If part of the long-drawn struggle in Zimbabwe is to promote better values and principles and involves a fundamental shift in mindsets, the subject of this BSR is one of the things that must be said. There are myths that have been accepted as normal, which are completely at odds with the moral foundations of a democratic society. This BSR confronts the normalisation of the abnormal, to borrow a cliche coined by Professor Jonathan Moyo years ago.
So what is it about Grace Mugabe that has merited a whole BSR on the sexualisation of women in politics? Actually, it is not so much what she has done but what has been done to her that is of interest in this case. It is the response to her conduct in the public sphere as evidenced on social media platforms.
Since her rise to political prominence in 2014, when she became the head of ZANU PF’s Women’s League her conduct has attracted a great deal of attention. From former Vice President Joice Mujuru to current Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, she has ruffled many feathers. At times, her language has been aggressive and uncouth. She has humiliated both men and women. Some of her public performances have been all but hysterical. It’s hard to watch entire videos of her speeches without feeling embarrassed on her behalf. But, as I have already said, it is not her conduct that is under discussion here. It is the response to that conduct that has attracted my attention. Rather, it is how responses to her reflect the use of sex as a tool of domination, control and discipline women in political spaces. I focus on political spaces but similar arguments might as well apply in other fields of human activity and interaction, such as business and civil society. .
“She needs a man”
By far, one of the most dominant narratives on social media is that Grace Mugabe’s conduct can be explained by the fact that she is lacking sex at home. On one occasion, I counted at least 20 social media posts within the space of 5 minutes in which Grace’s alleged sex-drought was deployed to explain her behaviour. Others chipped in with suggestions that what she really needed was a younger and more energetic man because at 93, her husband is now too old. She is sexually frustrated, hence her behaviour, others explained. The bottom line in most of these sex-related comments was that if Grace Mugabe got enough sex, she would not behave in the manner she was doing. Instead, she would calm down and would be more rational than she was exhibiting. In short, the message was: Grace needs a man. Some even claimed there were scientific studies to prove that her kind of behaviour was due to lack of sex.. Overall, in all these narratives, sex was framed as a tool that could instil discipline in a woman like Grace Mugabe. Underlying those views is the belief that sex is an instrument of domination, control and discipline. It is an instrument of power, in this case of a man over a woman.
I have to say I found these responses quite objectionable. What did the comments say about their authors and the society in which they live? Even more incredible though, is that there was hardly any visible challenge. If there were people who disagreed with them, they probably found it inconvenient to respond and let it go. People might have rationalised that the most important thing was the criticism of Grace, not the content of the criticism. Indeed, many people find her conduct objectionable that they might have rationalised that she deserved it. Perhaps specifically in the case of women, they had seen it all before, and it happens every single day, to the point that some simply choose to absorb or ignore it and move on with their lives. For my part, I certainly did not agree with those responses and I take responsibility for not raising these issues at the time. My rationalisation was that it was such a weighty matter which needed its own time and space, which explains this BSR.
The episode left me with many questions. Is it true that a woman lacking conjugal rights behaves as Grace does? Does this also apply to men? The truth is I have never heard that line used against male politicians, not even against Mugabe who has said more outrageous things and done worse in public life than his wife. There are many eccentric male characters in Zimbabwean politics and their conduct has never been explained on the basis of their lack of access to sex. I have been intrigued however, by the fact that this line is used against a female politician and never against a male politician. If sex-related comments are made against male politicians, it is typically in order to exclude from what is regarded as “normal” sexual behaviour. Therefore, it is not unusual to see comments where some male politicians are labelled as gays and in a country where homophobia is ubiquitous it means the labelled person is regarded as a sexual deviant.
Grace Mugabe herself has not been innocent in the use of sex-related comments a form of negative labelling and exclusion. On at least two occasions, she has publicly cast aspersions on the sexual behaviour of a certain male politician whom she does not name. She also scandalised Joice Mujuru in 2014 when she made insinuations regarding her sexual behaviour. These sex-related comments by Grace Mugabe were designed to label Mujuru and exclude her as a sexually deviant individual. Thus although she has been a victim of sexualisation, she too has exhibited similar behaviour which is highly objectionable. Some might argue that all this makes her fair game, and that she deserves what has come to her, but as I have already stated, this is not merely about Grace Mugabe, but the general implications of such sex-related responses to women in general.
Sex as a tool of domination and discipline
The way I see it, the sex-related responses to Grace Mugabe suggest that sex is framed as a tool of power, domination, discipline and silencing in the hands of men. It is framed as a tool to discipline women. The underlying message is that she would not be as hyperactive and aggressive as she is if she was getting enough sex at home. In other words, if she had a younger and sexually-active man, she would be more disciplined. Sex, therefore, is a tool to discipline and control a woman. It is both an instrument and assertion of masculinity and power over a woman. But are these sex-related responses appropriate? What are the implications of accepting such remarks?
A usual line of defence is that the comments were made innocently without any intention to cause harm or offence. It’s just banter, they might add. Yet therein lies the problem of normalising the abnormal through casual sexism or misogyny. This term refers to the expression of something that is hateful towards or about women but the author of the statement rationalises is by describing it as a joke or something just said in passing. Another “ism” that can be casualised is racism. They make a racist statement and explain it as banter. The danger of course is that it does what I have already referred to as “normalising the abnormal”. It feeds into a culture were objectionable language and conduct is accepted as normal and harmless because well, it is banter.
I have raised this issue because I think it is important for us as a people to reflect deeply upon what we are really fighting for. I have referred to Grace Mugabe in this case, but it could well be any other woman in politics or other field. Forget, for a moment, that Grace Mugabe is the subject of our example in this case, and replace her with another woman whom you like and respect. Would it be acceptable in the case of that woman to frame sex as a disciplinary tool?
The implications of these sex-related comments that present sex as an instrument of power, domination and discipline are far-reaching. In the extreme forms, they manifest in sexual crimes of aggression, such as rape and indecent assault. No reasonable person would argue with the point that rape involves the use of sex as a weapon of power - with the intention to subdue, dominate, control and punish. During Gukurahundi and the election violence in 2008, women and girls were targeted for rape and other sexual assaults. Here violent sex was clearly used as an instrument of punishment and discipline. How dare they vote against Mugabe? How dare they take an active role in politics? Perpetrators responded to them in typical fashion. They raped and assaulted women. Sex in this case was a disciplinary tool, an assertion of power and a reminder of where women belonged. They were not thinking any different from a person on social media who thinks Grace or any other woman has gone too far - she needs a man, she needs sex to calm her down.
On the streets of Harare, similar attitudes against women are not uncommon among young men. They appropriate a role as “moral police” of society, deciding what is the appropriate length of a woman’s skirt. Those who who fall foul of this “rule” are “disciplined” , which ironically takes the form of striping the woman naked in the streets. There have been several such cases in recent years. The reasoning is not dissimilar. The young woman will be mocked and harassed. She will be told that she needs a man. Here again, sex is framed as a tool to discipline the woman. All these sex-related acts are raw assertions of power. Some are overt and perhaps extreme but a lot are subtle. They are not always obvious and their harmful nature might even surprise their authors. The common denominator in all cases, whether it’s rape, stripping a woman in the street or making a comment that she is in need of sex, is that there is an aggressive assertion of power, in which sex is framed and applied as a disciplinary tool. Many people would agree that rape is vile and criminal. However, they might not be sure that the effect of their misogynistic comments which is sugar-coated as banter is usually to create an aggressive and hostile atmosphere for women in public spaces.
Sex as a response to rising power
It may not be immediately obvious but the sex-related response to Grace Mugabe is correlated to the perception that she is occupying public space and has become too powerful. According to the reaction, she needs to be controlled. These comments about Grace Mugabe have only become more frequent and prominent after she has become politically assertive and powerful. Before that, there was hardly any suggestion that she needed a man to give her sex in order to behave. When she was in the private corner, no-one suggested that she needed a man for sex. Criticism was reserved to her shopping habits. It is not a coincidence that the “prescription” that she needs sex to keep her in check has come at a time when there is a perception that her political stock is rising. What I read in the sexually-related comments is: “Since Mugabe is too old, there is no man to give her sex at home and that’s why she is misbehaving. The solution therefore, is to find her a man to enforce discipline through sex.” The net effect is, she is assuming too much power and she needs to be controlled. More importantly, since this is not merely about Grace, this attitude towards powerful or assertive women is not unique to her alone. It can and probably does happen to many women. It is not even a uniquely Zimbabwean problem. I believe it is a global problem, one found in various guises across societies. It needs confrontation at all levels of society and across societies around the world.
A common quip often deployed against Grace Mugabe is that “power is not sexually transmitted.” Underlying this cliché is an assumption that the only way Grace can assert herself politically and gain power is through sexual transmission from her husband, Mugabe, which is an impossibility. According to this narrative, Grace Mugabe lacks agency. She is a political actor only on account of her husband. But this cliché ignores a number of things. First, she is by no means the first woman associated with a powerful man who is in politics. Joice Mujuru was married to a powerful man. Auxillia Mnangagwa replaced her husband in the Chirumhanzu-Zibagwe constituency. No-one ever said power was sexually transmitted. Second, the possibility that Grace’s entry into politics was her own independent decision and that her manoeuvres with her allies are independent of her husband’s wishes or designs. Indeed, there have been a few clashes between husband and wife, such as when Grace implores Mugabe to name a successor but Mugabe refuses to do so, Mugabe questions Moyo, while Grace defends her in the Politburo, etc. But these clashes stand in the way of the cliché that Grace thinks power is sexually transmitted and are conveniently overlooked. The danger here is allowing clichés to replace rational analysis.
It is interesting, of course, that there has been very little debate on this issue so far which probably has much to do with the subject of the comments than the gravity of the issue. If it had been any other woman, it is possible the sex-related comments on social media and elsewhere would have drawn a more critical reaction. Still, however, the issue should transcend the personality. The sex-related comments must be framed for what they are: they are about masculinity, power and domination. They have been made in response to Grace but they could be used against any other woman. They are not right and should be condemned by all in the progressive movement. How is a young woman with political aspirations supposed to feel when she sees other, more powerful women being told so publicly that they need sex to control and discipline them? How do victims of sexual abuse feel when they see such comments being thrown casually on social media? Overall, the question has to be asked: are political spaces safe for women?
The struggle is not merely to remove a repressive system. It is also to get rid of a retrogressive culture and attitudes that weigh heavily upon society’s progress. Grace Mugabe is far from sainthood, but the sex-related response to her conduct shames us all. It communicates a bad message about us as a society and to other women with aspirations in public life. There are many solid reasons to challenge Grace’s ambitions and to criticise her approach without resorting to such sex-related jibes which in the end normalise abnormalities.