Did Zimbabwean women’s organising constitute a women’s movement during the years 1995 – 2000? In a fascinating account of a significant period of women’s collective organising, Shereen Essof’s response to this question is positive. As a feminist scholar she interrogates the period during which she was a more than full-time woman activist out and about in Zimbabwe. Inspired by the vision of feminism and social justice she was part of a collectivity of women who were mobilizing and engaging women throughout Zimbabwe.
Published by Weaver Press, 2013 Distributed in Europe and the USA by the African Books Collective as hard copy and e-book
In SHEMURENGA Shereen Essof demonstrates the place of women’s movements during a defining period of contemporary Zimbabwe. A period that saw severe economic crisis, mass strikes and protests, land occupations, the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, culminating in the demand for a new constitution. The collectivity of women activists that Essof was part of, enabled women to voice their priorities for the new constitution. Through their participation in the reform process the power of women’s collective organising was recognized and realized.
There were two parallel processes to formulate a new draft constitution. One was led by the government, the other was led by civil society organisations under the banner of the National Constitutional Assembly. Both were male dominated with a minority representation of women activists in each. As neither space was ideal for women to explore their own concerns and consolidate demands, women’s organisations came together to form the Women’s Coalition in 1999. The coalition did not want to align with any of the two processes and had members from both the ruling party ZANU-PF and the new opposition party MDC. It organized an aggressive media campaign, embarked upon popular education and information sharing, through which it developed an identifiable constituency. It resulted in the drawing up of the Zimbabwe Women’s Charter, a long list of key principles and demands to ensure full citizenship for women in Zimbabwe, across all walks of life. Whereas the government led process remained male dominated, women from the Women’s Coalition managed to take leadership in the NCA driven process. After much posturing and political jockeying the Women’s Coalition mobilized its constituency for a ‘no’ vote in the 2000 Referendum on the government proposed draft constitution. The majority ‘no’ vote was a wake up call for the state. In the subsequent run up to the 2000 parliamentary elections the state embarked upon violence and repression against all opponents. The state was not the sole perpetrator of violence against women. It also happened across and from within the political parties. In the face of this kind of violence the Women’s Coalition was unable to adequately support women. It left many women activists exhausted and in need of time to recover. It became a period of withdrawal, resignation and emigration of women activists and women in leadership.
Reflecting now, Essof concludes that the impetus for women’s organising in this period has come from the state. This is equally true for the preceding post independence era of 1980 – 1995. In her opinion the women’s movement has viewed the state as an arbiter of development and a bestower of rights and strategized on this basis. The centrality of the state in women’s organising in Africa, is confirmed by African women scholars from other parts of the continent. In Essof’s account of women’s activism since independence she also provides evidence of women organising in opposition of the state. Examples she gives are the activism that emerged in response to the 1983 Operation Clean-Up, the counter actions to the repeated attempts to repeal the Legal Age of Majority Act and the protests against the stripping of women who wore mini-skirts in the streets. Given this contradictory relationship with the state, the fixation of the majority of women’s organisations with rights and legal reform needs to be interrogated. At the time of the 2000 referendum a radical women’s voice as transformatory and opposition politics was articulated based on women’s interests. The alliance that women were able to form with broader civil society, was cemented in constitutionalism. This alliance had its limitation in the longer run as it was based on the need of civil society for legitimacy and constituency, e.g. buying in the women’s vote without recognition of the rights of women as goals in themselves. This dilemma and challenge women activists have faced in diverse struggles and contexts in many parts of the world.
SHEMURENGA leaves us with new questions. What are the present configurations for women’s activism and bridging the political fragmentation among women that has occurred since 2000? What are the challenges and opportunities for a radical women’s voice as transformatory politics to manifest it self in the near future?