The feminist discourses in post-colonial Zimbabwean literature poignantly illustrate the aspirations of women to whom the country’s independence in 1980 brought little cause for joy.
Desperate and disillusioned, women took up another weapon, the pen, and poured out their pain on paper.
What emerged was a literary discourse that made readers laugh and cry as they shared in women’s meagre successes, and serious losses, in a society that often confined them to the fringes.
Feminist writers in Zimbabwe include internationally-acclaimed authors, the late Yvonne Vera, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Others like Barbara Makhalisa, Lillian Masitera, Spiwe Mahachi-Harper, and Vivienne Ndlovu, also register their discontent at the way patriarchal societies clip women’s wings.
These authors testify to the extraordinary strength of women, although some fail in the end, as they fight for a gender-sensitive society.
Vera’s works – Nehanda (1990), Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (1992), Without A Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and Stone Virgins (2000) – reveal a consistent theme: the ills that women experience and their struggles to break free.
Men, in the author’s view, are the source of women’s problems, which include rape, incest and infanticide. Vera emphasises men’s refusal to accede to women’s call for emancipation.
Stone Virgins, Vera’s last book, had been dubbed Zimbabwe’s unofficial truth commission on Gukurahundi – a massacre by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of insurgent black dissidents in which thousands of innocent people died – between the early and mid-80s.
This work focuses mainly on the nightmare that women in Matabeleland endured during that epoch.
It responds to the report produced by the Chihambakwe Commission, which unearthed the horrors of that chapter of Zimbabwe’s post-independence history that had been concealed from the public.
It exposed the brutality in which innocent women were tortured, raped, and murdered.
Dangarembga’s internationally acclaimed Nervous Conditions (1988) – which was chosen in the top 12 of Africa’s best hundred books of the last century – is an eloquent portrayal of a society whose younger generation of women is putting up a fight against patriarchal domination.
Just like Masitera’s The Trail (2000), it notes how women’s failure to close ranks works against their own interests.
Mai Tambu’s words, informed by the philosophy of stoicism, capture a defeatist mentality: “This business of womanhood is a heavy burden. . . What will help you my child is to learn to carry your burdens with strength” (P 16).
Dangarembga and Masitera show that the older generation of women experience under colonial rule made them believe that nature intended them to have limited choices in life. Of Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga said: “I was trying to highlight a number of issues and various other struggles for instance, the oppression during the colonial struggle.”
Eva’s Song (1996), a collection of Makhalisa’s short stories, delineates the social ills women women face regardless of inroads they have made into traditional male citadels.
While in The Trail, Masitera advocates the empowerment of women by education, Dangarembga believes it takes more than education for women to fully realise their potential as noted through in Nervous Conditions, whose life is controlled by her husband despite her high education.
Society tends to perceive women as sexual objects. In a bid to gratify their obscene sexual whims, men use their physical and economic power to abuse women. These themes are vividly captured in Eva’s Song, For Want of a Totem (1997), Now I Can Play (1999) and virtually all of Vera’s works.
Masitera, whose works seem to be informed by radical feminism, says to ensure that her ideas were put across to the reader intact, she had to be stubborn because the issues are non-negotiable.
Prominent sociologist Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa, in Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature (1985), shows that the negative portrayal of women in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwean literature, mostly by male authors, delegitimises their struggle for basic human rights like education and health.
Because in Zimbabwe, barren women are often derided for their inability to conceive, women writers also seek to redress the perception that a barren woman is a failure.
Central to a woman’s existence is the belief that only having children brings respect.
To make her husband “a man” by giving him a child, she would do anything, no matter how immoral. For Want of a Totem, which challenges traditional beliefs that work against women’s interests, calls upon society to revise adoption laws and allow barren women to adopt children and in the process, curb the ever-escalating problem of street children. -postcolonialweb.org