by on May 19, 2015 at 7:38 pm

I am a writer, and an avid reader. But I am always left thinking where the stories about me are? When do I ever read a story in which I can see or even feel me? I’m black, I’m a woman, I'm queer, and I hail from the colonially-designated geographical space called Zimbabwe on the continent of Africa. All four of these identities are complex and constructed on the back of hundreds of years of history that happened before I was even born. For most of my life, the representation of each of these identities in the media I consume is fraught—but put them all together? The picture is certainly bleak…

As a black Zimbabwean woman I am either “simple” or “slutty”, I am a “witch” or a “whore”, I’m a “vixen” or a “victim.” I rarely get to tell my own story and I never get to be the hero in your summer blockbuster. If I’m lucky, I might be a love interest—but only if my skin is of a particular colour shade, and my hair isn’t too kinky, and my body type fits an acceptable box. There is a high likelihood I will die in the first act because black women’s lives are disposable in movies as much as they are in real life. In the news, I’m the subject of vilification or victimisation, sometimes both at the same time. In advocacy work, I’m just one of the masses of poor, helpless victims waiting for someone, preferably white and Northern, to come and save me from myself and my bad decisions.

I am not alone in my thinking; and my outrage. I asked other women – part of an African feminist listserv - what kinds of stories they see in magazines or novels, on news bulletins or at the movies. Nearly every woman who offered her perspective mentioned how beauty in many post-colonial African contexts, from Nigeria to Morocco to South Africa is defined in relation to "European" ideals.

“[Black women] are also not allowed the space to be beautiful in the traditional sense (with skin often being lightened).” ~Tiffany Mugo

“We don’t often see [black] women who sport their natural hair, skin—there is a mainstream idea of beauty and all in the mainstream must adhere to it.” ~ Nebila Abdulmelik

This means, light skin = beautiful, dark skin = ugly or even dangerous. More Eurocentric features are prized over those considered to be “African”. “Good hair” (straight and long) is more desirable than “bad hair” kinky, afros, even braids and other styles that are considered too ethnic. These perceptions of beauty are so widely accepted that skin lightening creams and other body modification products have become a huge money-makers in the continental beauty industry.

“For women of colour, the concept of ‘beauty’ is often imbued with racist standards of beauty that dominate Western media and culture. One merely has to open a glossy magazine or walk down the aisles of a supermarket in Harare and look at the faces you see on certain kinds of body lotion or shower cream—to realise that ‘beauty’ and ideas of beauty are political. … Famed Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o articulates poignantly the experience of being a black African woman, ‘I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.’” ~ Dudziro Nhengu, The Business of Beauty & Body Politics

While these ideas of “beauty” are not without complexities—they are just the beginning of the story as Tiffany Mugo, a feminist writer says, “Black women are often oversexualised or victims which is infuriating.” This hypersexualisation covers a broad spectrum ideas of what black woman should and should not be allowed to do, think, feel and be. From pervasive images of motherhood and women as nothing more than machines for reproduction to women as sexual objects that exist solely for male pleasure. These images affect women around the world but there is something striking about how these ideas of woman-hood play out in contexts like Zimbabwe or South Africa.

“Often it is the problem that black women are seen as not being empowered and any that are an anomaly rather than the norm. The ‘black woman’ [if we can use this generalised blanket term for how the diversity of black women is so often diminished] is a victim of culture (please see most stories on the girl child within Africa), the 'good woman' who is married and heterosexual and seeking to have children (often witnessed in local newspapers in form of how to guides and articles shaming women for seeking alternate paths).” ~Tiffany Mugo

What happens when we break the rules?

In Southern Africa the development industry has generated and perpetuated specific images about black women as victims who are incapable of being agents of change in their own lives. These images are often part and parcel of how development and non-governmental organisations write and think about the people whom they represent. The truth of the matter is that we live in a world where women are seen as less worthy than men. In this world, women (men, too) are subject to rules and restrictive binaries: good women” vs. “bad women””. These rules proscribe behaviour, defining everything from what is appropriate in terms of dress to how and with whom we choose to have sex. It’s hard to confront and overcome these rules whatever body you have, and this is truer for black women. For South African activist and co-founder of SAY-F (South African Young Feminist Activists), Wanelisa Xaba, as a woman “you become aware of how your body is read... It’s [particularly] complicated for black women because we’re criminalised or we’re hypersexualised, either way our bodies are being read. In Johannesburg a few years ago a woman was stripped in a taxi rank. And there was a lot of this ‘respectability politics of dress’, that if women have to dress in a certain way and if they don’t, they ‘deserve’ to be raped or attacked or shamed. It’s policing women’s bodies and [in South Africa I find] I’m monitored because I’m a woman but I’m also monitored because I’m black.”

For many of us, the consequences of stepping outside of the “rules” can be violence, backlash, discrimination and stigma.

Fighting back against stereotypes

It makes me mad. But in the madness, there are black women, across Africa, who are fighting back against these negative and destructive stereotypes. Nana Darkoa, the founder and curator of Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women uses her blogging platform to shatter stereotypes that African women are just passive actors when it comes to sex. Her blog is a virtual safe space where the complexities and challenges of African sexualities can be discussed by black African women. Zanele Muholi, a prize-winning visual artist and activist harnesses photography to reaffirm that there are many different ways to “be a woman” and to “be a black woman” whatever one’s sexual orientation or sexual identity. Fungai Machirori, a Zimbabwean photographer, journalist and JASS ally uses HerZimbabwe, a pioneering web-based platform to disturb the narratives about women in Zimbabwe and create a forum for women to share their stories and experiences.

So, yes, the picture is bleak in a lot of ways. But there are growing pockets of rebellion, women who are pushing for and creating a diversity of stories because at the end of the day that’s all we are asking for: the right to write, tell, create our own stories and the space to recognise, in whatever way, the people looking back at us in those narratives.

Photo: Clutch Magazine, "Pretty", a documentary series by un-ruly – a digital beauty platform dedicated to Black hair. The documentary explores how beauty differs across the globe.

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by JASS on April 30, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Written by Sreymom Loem

I have learned from my experience and I am going to encourage more women garment workers to stand up for our rights and power. Our rights have been gravely abused; women workers’ voices need to be heard. Women workers have always demanded for a common solution to the plight of garment workers. Laws should not remain only in paper; these must be respected by all Cambodian people – even the rich and the elite.

Rural Women as Factory Workers in the City

When we imagine the picture of the city, we have an exciting image in mind. But for me, that was not the case. Right from the start, I never had this feeling because I was determined to fulfill my mission – to earn money to help my family.  And like all Cambodian women from the rural areas, I am determined to earn for my family. While there were a thousand reasons why I decided to leave my hometown to work in Phnom Penh City, poverty was the main reason.

My family can't grow rice in the field because we don't have an irrigation system. Instead, we grew vegetables, but we didn’t make much profit from them because they sold for less at the market. In turn, basic goods that we needed were very expensive that my family couldn't afford them. During that time, my mother also got very ill.  That was when I decided to give up school after I passed secondary school in 2003.

So in 2006, I started to work as a factory worker in Phnom Penh City. I was just a teenager then; I was 17 years old. It was my first time to move to Phnom Penh to find a job. At that time, garment factories in Cambodia were growing—even women and girls from other provinces in Cambodia were migrating too. Most of the community people mistakenly believed that their children will have a good-paying job, maintain a good life, and build a good future. They all believed that the Cambodian government is starting to develop the country by constructing tall buildings and expensive bridges. 

And so did I. I believed it so much that when I got a job in a garment factory, I was filled with new hope that I would be able to save my earnings—US$61 a month—for my family back home.

Women Workers’ Daily Routine

At first, I found everything in the factory exciting. Everything was new—the environment and the machines. We all focused on our work and did not speak to each other while working.  

When I received my first salary – it added to my thrill! I couldn’t sleep for many nights after I got it. I saved a big percentage of my income for my family. I also bought new clothes for myself.  It was a very fresh experience for me!

My daily routine consisted of waking up very early in the morning – around 5:30 am because I had to be in a group (group transportation) to get to the workplace.  I was so afraid of being left behind. I was so afraid of being late too! If we were late, even by a minute, management would deduct 1,000 Cambodian riels (equivalent to 25c US$).   Even garment workers who often go to the toilet would have salary deductions too.

After a while, I began to realize how bad these working conditions were, and I wasn’t the only one. Other women felt it too. Having low wages, working under miserable work conditions, forced to work long hours, having heavy workload, lack of occupational safety in the factory, lack of fresh air, having dirty toilets, difficulty in making friends with each other or caring about each other, feeling alone, experiencing different kinds of abuse – these are the daily grind of a garment worker in Phnom Penh.

My living situation wasn’t any better. I lived with four to five people in a tiny room where we washed, ate and slept. I never took a bath before going to bed because I worried about my safety. Our male neighbors would always watch women take a bath because the dormitories did not have secure bathroom walls. 

Some women factory workers I know also experienced abuse from male workers in our workplace and in our house. I just kept silent; back then I was not brave to tell anyone so I continued living and working without any solution in sight.

Our employers refused to understand the challenges we were facing. They forced us to work more. Some of our friends contracted work-related diseases such as typhoid and heavy cough, but the management did not care at all.  

When auditors and inspectors would come, the workers were provided with masks, facility, clean toilet but one or two days after inspection, they would stop distributing the masks. Also, the manager tried to lobby workers to give good speeches in support of the factory when they were interviewed by the auditor. They forced them to give good comments about the work conditions in the factory. If workers refused, they would threaten them.

Breaking Out of the Factory 

I heard about the organization, Women Agenda for Change (WAC) – which is now changed to Workers’ Information Center (WIC). I know WIC from my friends who learned about workers’ rights through them.

My friends introduced them to me. Through WIC, I found out about different views from outside of the factory.  So, I started to change myself. I joined with them. They gave me the space to talk and share about the challenges that I faced. I learned a lot from them. They let me know about our rights, labor laws, what workers can do, why we are together, how and why we have to challenge the company.

It was WIC who tapped my leadership potential and passion. Every time I attended the WIC dialogues – I did not feel alone. I felt I had many friends whom I can share my experiences with, whom I can talk to – warm and closely. In 2010, I stopped working for factories and went back to high school to complete my education because the living and working conditions only got worse, as did the wage.  After a series of trainings, I volunteered with WIC. I realized that I like this volunteer work and it fit me.

Uniting with Women Workers

I have been working with WIC for five years now. As a facilitator – I am responsible for organizing garment workers’ communities, providing training and information, and providing health care awareness, coaching, and discussion. I use popular education tools (some of which I learned from JASS) that empower women workers to speak out, break the culture of silence, share information, and discuss Cambodian laws – especially labor laws.

I have chosen to strengthen my power and leadership skills by learning through my own experiences, by working with other non-government organizations (NGO’s), workers’ associations, different groups like cross-sector groups, United Sisterhood, and young women’s groups in Cambodia such as Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN), and JASS. I see a lot of women who have similar passion and agenda. It is amazing how we can learn to find common ways to build new and dynamic movements.

About the Author

Sreymom Loem joined a JASS workshop in Cambodia in 2014. She was one of the facilitators of JASS’ regional campaign One Day, One Voice (ODOV) in 2014. 

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by on April 30, 2015 at 11:30 am

Sister ko mabva matakura masofa acho mukati rega ndifambe ndakasenga (Sister, your body looks like you carried the couch with you into town).
Hure (prostitute)
Eish mukoma vari kunakirwa kumba uku (Eish, your husband/boyfriend should be having the time of his life, sexually, with you)

Those are just some of the things I hear when I am on the street. That’s what we all hear as women living in urban centres in Zimbabwe. When we take taxis to work, or when we cross the road, or when we stop at a traffic light to buy some air time for our mobile phones. Some people have it upside down; they call this kind of unwanted commentary "compliments." But they’re not. It’s street harassment and we are all familiar with it in some way.

In September 2014, a young woman at Harare's main bus terminal was sitting in a minibus taxi when she was attacked. She was dragged out of the minibus and brutally assaulted by a group of about forty people, mostly male touts (bus conductors). They beat her and stripped off her clothes while hurling abuse at her for the “crime” of “improper” dress. Some passers-by tried to intervene on her behalf. But a lot more people joined in with the angry mob—all outraged at the fact that this woman had had the gall to wear “inappropriate” clothing. And there I was thinking that wearing inappropriate clothes meant putting on a summer dress in the middle of winter, or donning a pair of shorts to a board meeting.

Even though the attack drew national attention, most of us figured that the response would be the same lacklustre one we’ve come to expect from cases of street harassment and assault. After all, in Zimbabwe, a sex offender can get off by paying a fine as little as $5.

What’s really interesting is how this case and another attack in December captured the imagination of those using social media—many of whom supported the attackers and wrote messages that reinforced the idea that women can and should be told what to wear; and if not, face violent consequences. But this is also how two men implicated in the crime were caught and arrested, after video footage of the assault went viral online.

In late March 2015, in an unprecedented court decision, a Harare magistrate sentenced the two men to twelve months in jail with the possibility of a four-month suspension on condition of good behaviour. I was shocked—the judiciary was actually taking a stand against this violent behaviour and sentencing those involved? The punishment should have been stiffer but it’s a good first step for Zimbabwean women. I felt like my experiences of harassment were being recognised; like I was not crazy to think this is not okay.

This verdict is good news for activists who face even higher levels of harassment and violence in public spaces. “Our laws have been formed in such a way that women can be protected in private spaces, for example the Domestic Violence Act,” says Winnet Shamuyarira of Katswe Sistahood. “But a lot of violence is taking place in public spaces so this is a landmark ruling in the sense that it sends a message to would-be violators of women that you can’t just take a woman and think that it’s a piece of flesh that you can just decide to abuse, harass and do as you wish.”

Zimbabwean feminists, led by Katswe Sistahood, took to the streets in protest of the September incident and other such violent acts.  Their actions sparked a national conversation, shining a spotlight on the violence that women experience every day, whether in the streets or the home such that when the attack in December took place, people were enraged by the continuous wars perpetrated on women’s bodies in public spaces. 

But is it good enough? Just days after the historic sentencing, 51 year-old Lessie Tenai was beaten to death by her partner and his two friends. Why? Because she was “wearing a miniskirt that was too short for her age.” This vicious attack reinforces the truth that the struggle for ownership of our own bodies goes beyond age or location—Tenai came from the rural village of Madzyiya.

The fact is, no matter who you are, where you’re from—urban or rural, young or old on the age spectrum—you’re in trouble. Katswe Sistahood activist, Mary, puts it like this: “The word ‘hure’ (Shona: for whore) is used to refer to any woman no matter what you do. If you’re buying fish, you’re a hure. If you’re going to the market, you’re a hure. If you’re doing anything at all—you’re a hure. No matter what we wear. So just say, ‘Yes, I am a hure. Now what are you going to do about it?’”

Even Vice President, formerly Minister of Defence, Emerson Mnangagwa, a man known for his less-than-progressive politics condemned the attacks on women, or at least tried to:

Some of us … who were there around 1918 [know that] women used to wear nhembe (women’s traditional clothing) but no one protested. The men would put on madhumbu and no one protested. Then came the whites with clothes that covered the whole body. If a woman parades herself in a miniskirt, leave her. That is what she wants. We went to war for freedom, fighting so that all people would be free. So the new Constitution speaks of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. What matters are her morals, not dressing, it is her right.

Aside from the moral policing—it shouldn’t matter whether a woman is “good” or “morally acceptable” at all and as we know from the statistics, it doesn’t—the substance of his comment hits upon some key truths.

Thirty years ago, Zimbabwean women took to the streets to fight for the right to be considered legal adults. The reason I’m allowed to drive a car or own a house is because of the battle those women who came before me fought. They were also called names, they were mocked and harassed but they won. Now, in 2015, Zimbabwean women still have a long way to go to actually enjoy all the rights of a legal adult—and that includes having the choice to wear whatever the hell we want.

Photo: An image from the MyDressMyChoice march in Kenya, Al Jazeera

This blog post was co-written with Winnet Shamuyarira of Katswe Sistahood.

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