Power of the Zimbabwean woman: Part One…..how colonialism disempowered women


I HAVE been following the line of argument by many people, especially those who claim to be gatekeepers of our tradition and culture.
I have discovered they often pull the ‘it is our culture and we must follow it’ card.
This can at times be frustrating to the party on the receiving end of this backlash, but what I have learnt is that as Zimbabweans, we should be patriotic enough to go back to our roots and see where we are going wrong.
For starters, our customs were never set in stone.
This is what made us very unique.
Our laws were never written down.
We changed them as we went along to have them fit the situation and the times.
It is that flexibility that made our traditions and heritage peculiar in a good way.
The Munhumutapa Empire, for example, was founded on commercial customs which assisted in the barter trade and it was one of the largest growing economic hubs due to its fluidity.
It went on for over two centuries and then the Rozvi Empire took over and within time the Ndebele State took over.
Just from history we can see how the collusion of fate and culture ensured that Africa, in particular Zimbabwe, continued to move and the advent of colonialism began the dilution of our fluidity.
In a documentary Our Culture; Africa, it is highlighted that culture is what makes us who we are.
And any study of African culture must take into account that Africa five minutes ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago and Africa 5 000 years ago is not a static feature.
A diverse Africa has influenced and been influenced.
What is said in this documentary is so true!
Africa, and in particular Zimbabwe, has not been static at all.
We have moved and been fluid and have allowed ourselves to be dynamic in the midst of different tragedies and triumphs.
My argument, however, is that over the last century, we have begun to be more and more static and this has resulted in unequal power dimensions between men and women, something which was not originally there.
Colonialism changed a lot in us, an article I will touch on next week.
A South African writer from Madima Moetse argues that some traditional leaders would have us believe that a ‘pure’ African culture has existed ‘for centuries’, of which they are the custodians.
Challenges to this position are frequently dismissed as purveying foreign or ‘white’ notions.
The universality of every person’s right to realising his/her full human potential is denied.
I would like to challenge this notion because our culture, right from the beginning, was diluted by colonialism and that is the current path we have continued on.
This argument of whether we still have our pure unadulterated culture has received little or no recognition by those who at times want to take advantage of the status quo, since it works to their advantage.
This week, however, I would like to take us back to our roots which did not oppress women and men, and whenever such oppression was challenged, the elders would come together and actually vote against such oppression.
Thus the challenges above confirm that culture is a contested site.
All cultures are fluid, ever-changing and contingent on historical conditions.
Rather than a singular African culture, it is more accurate to speak of African cultures in the plural.
In Zimbabwe we have different dialects which point to a multiplicity of culture and one thing that I have noted in studying various cultures is how the strength of the women was not easily recognisable to the colonialists.
You see, in our different cultures in Zimbabwe, while the woman seems disempowered, in the olden days this was not the case.
Women, through positions such as tete and mother and amainini even as a daughter, had a lot of power.
It just was not easily seen, the way in which the women’s movement in the West was oppressed.
Our society as Zimbabweans was centred on ubuntu/hunhu and because of this, everyone had a role to play.
The wife of the chief was actually more powerful than the chief himself, but with the coming in of colonialism, our African men, through the system of taxes and forced labour, were then made to change their idea of manhood and womanhood and thus the dilution began.
And we begin to see the alienation of a people from their culture.
In the next article, I will go back into history and show in greater detail the sites of power for African women which shows that we were actually more empowered then than now.
Let us remember that we are our culture and while we remain uniquely Zimbabwean, we are still meant to be the torchbearers of equality which was founded by our forefathers and mothers.


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