ON November 22, the optics in Zimbabwe’s Parliament spoke volumes; as if to say “there’s no democracy here, no tolerance, in fact, I dictate that you must stand for me”.
Parliament was a classic case of abusers and their enablers. Female opposition MP, Thabitha Khumalo – an asthmatic, collapsed. Another, Lynette Karenyi, also MDC women’s assembly chairperson, sustained injury to her left arm, she says perhaps from how she was pulled by police, she sustained back injuries and is still feeling significant body pain from being trampled on. X-rays indicate no fractures. She informed me: “Pain in my body I think kutsikwa … imagine hembe yangu kufugurwa” [to be trampled on…imagine to have my dress openly uncovered and laid bare].
guest column: Pearl Matibe
She recounted: “While still inside Parliament, I had fallen down where (Amos) Chibaya was and was now being trampled on. Outside, where I fell it was worse because my cream-coloured underclothes were exposed to the public.”
Later, she was taken away on an ambulance stretcher. Both were deprived of their rights and freedoms by the police. The conduct of House of Assembly Speaker Jacob Mudenda and President Emmerson Mnangagwa is in question.
The Speaker gave the impression of innocence on his part, but ordered police officers in, sat and watched. When consulted, they appear to be giving consent.
As the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Resolution 54/134) with the significance of awareness of violence against women, Zimbabwe must change its attitude towards women. The Mnangagwa-led government must respect women politicians, women opinion leaders and female journalists. Sitting in protest against Mnangagwa has ignited the issue of abuse against women; at the level of legislators it has sparked a blistering uproar about women in politics, women in opposition ideology and Zimbabwean women as a whole.
The Speaker ordered opposition parliamentarians to stand up for Mnangagwa. They refused, remaining seated.
A Zimbabwean commented: “Problem is thuggish behaviour by police sanctioned by a sitting Speaker of Parliament is being sanitised.” Some will see this as the government being intolerant of dissent as the stifling of voices was broadcast live.
Why should Zimbabweans care? Despite individual opinions inside Zimbabwe and abroad, this will be seen as a showcasing of dictators and those they oppress and more significantly, gender-based violence and lack of respect for constitutional rights.
By itself, remaining seated is legal. It is peaceful.
Problem One: Women still face gender-based biases and violence. There are accusations of prostitution, extra-marital affairs, not being able to do the job as well as a man can. Even at the international discourse table, I would caution anyone that makes reckless statements aimed at women. To the women in the opposition, this is, by now, a familiar story. Women have to deal with misogyny, all types of threats, and sexual harassment.
I can definitively say that what I learned, in confidence, is that there are Zimbabwean male parliamentarians, politicians and leaders that are involved in sexual harassment, the diaspora included. When they ask a female for her telephone number and she declines all their courting attempts, they resort to hurling hateful and denigrating speech, including bringing up personal details about their past marital or other relationships and despicable, sexual descriptions of their body structure.
If that male knows details about the woman’s past social life, they blurt it out, unceremoniously while the woman is speaking and in other conversations. They don’t want to be objectified or defined by their past marital status or non-marital status.
Just as the women in Parliament weren’t willing to be anything, but be themselves — and were slapped with the label “drama queens” as a result — so are Zimbabwean women at home and in the diaspora labelled “amateurs” or seekers of “extramarital affairs.”
These women didn’t go to Parliament to do what is easy. They went to do what is right; just as vocal women in the Diaspora are not doing what is easy. They’re doing what is right.
The Gender Inequality Index ranks Zimbabwe at 126 [Source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2016]. An October 2018 UK Home Office report on Zimbabwe women fearing gender-based harm or violence quotes the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) noting that “about 1 in 3 women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.”
Further, the actions of the Zanu PF side of Parliament supports the notion that alarm bells from women fearing gender-based harm or violence are not unfounded. That a woman is reasonably likely to face a real risk of persecution or serious harm and is not able to obtain protection from the State or quasi-State body. How the State acts is critical.
Their wish to remain seated was their right to demonstrate an issue that’s agitating them as opposition members.
It’s not posturing, it’s symbolic.
Problem Two: A Mnangagwa-led dispensation intolerant of dissent and complicity to violence at the highest level — the Speaker and Mnangagwa provided the evidence in Parliament, with footage. The police were the foot soldiers furthering the narrative that abuse of female politicians is common and sanctioned by a dictator that not only looks on, but gives instruction. The footage is unfortunate; it indicates Mnangagwa seemed to intuit his consent. The perception will be that the move by the Speaker and Mnangagwa’s implicit bias raised its ugly head, representing an iron-fisted dictator. This may seem like a minor detail, but it’s emerging at an important time in the country’s history.
In the public eye, Mnangagwa offered no words to heal. Only to wound. On Saturday, Larry Moyo editor of H-Metro tweeted: “ED says he will continue going to Parliament and if MDC Alliance MPs refuse to stand up for him, they will continue being kicked out.”
Excessive force and violence on women will inflict damage to Mnangagwa’s international image. The footage tells the international community that their doubts are not unfounded; that there are ample filmed indications of disturbing conduct. But instead of dealing with it, Mnangagwa sat, appeared unmoved by it, while the abuse continued. No intervention; Parliament was devoid of his leadership.
This is not how you garner Western support. Instead of assaulting a woman who didn’t stand up, it should have been seen as how there might be promise of the full potential of women and realisation of individual freedom to exercise their right to remain seated. The stance by the opposition legislators is an expression of their freedom of speech just as much as it is a profound, symbolic presentation in an attempt to bring awareness and change to what they see as the current legitimacy crisis.
These individuals are not sitting to be disrespectful, irreverent or unpatriotic; but rather, their actions are a representation of their desire to move towards justice and change.
In the eyes of the world, there’s a notion that no one should be forced to stand for something they don’t personally believe in.
At any rate, what the Speaker may have overlooked is that Parliament after all is a colonial construct. Those who refused to stand up for Mnangagwa were expressing a fundamental right of freedom.
Zim women under Donald Trump
On October 3, US Congress passed the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act). It passed the Senate with a 93-6 vote. Part of this Act has an element aimed at reducing gender-based violence. In an “America-first” environment, Mnangagwa sitting watching women being abused by police yells to America: “ignore us even more”. With a Trump presidency that wishes to cut back on humanitarian help, focusing instead on programmes that have a direct benefit to Americans, the Mnangagwa-led Speaker of Parliament just scored an own goal. The future of US-Zimbabwe relations is truly at stake.
Research in the Journal of International Relations on Women’s Rights and US Foreign Policy states: “Human rights, and more specifically women’s rights and international female empowerment, have started to become a more integral aspect of international politics and foreign policy, particularly through Western nations pushing for gender equality in developing areas.”
Lest we forget, EU, US and Commonwealth election observer reports were diplomatic in their publications; some might claim that Mnangagwa rigged. Therefore, to be seen as forcing loyalty is not in his favour. He must dialogue with the opposition. The direction the Trump administration is taking on Southern African Development Community (SADC) policy forces Zimbabwe to re-examine the US policy threat as it puts its “America first” stability in first place; we need innovative vision.
Just as Colin Kaepernick refused to stand up during “The Star-Spangled Banner” on August 26, 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality in the United States, so did Karenyi, Khumalo, Chibaya and opposition legislators refuse to stand for Mnangagwa to demonstrate against his legitimacy in Zimbabwe. Any legislator deciding that it’s effective and fitting to peacefully refuse to stand up for Mnangagwa to spotlight attention to his legitimacy, should be allowed to exercise their right to do so whether others agree with them or not. They are simply stating they are against Mnangagwa as President.
This was the stage for Mnangagwa to show that he does not have continuing problems with democratic governance.
Problem Three: Parliament’s Standing Rules and Orders are not synonymous with “must stand”.
In other parliamentary procedures such as Roberts Rules of Order — the world standard handbook on facilitating group meetings — there is a simple principle of courtesy and not inhibiting other members in the room. The one with the gavel has control, however, the Speaker began to lose control of his own Parliament early when Karenyi had the floor.
Alternatively, the Speaker could have said: “For those willing and able, please stand” to add appropriateness and courtesy to members of the chamber. He was wrong when he imposed his personal political beliefs on the MPs. What followed is tantamount to abuse resulting in injury after forcing MPs to stand up.
There are now 121 females MPs, that’s 34,57% representation. On September 5, Zimbabwe’s Ninth Parliament was sworn in; 350 seats between its two houses of Parliament, the National Assembly and Senate. Although some in the public gallery were shocked and offended by their protest, the progress in the debate on attitudes to women has come to the forefront. Regardless of which side you’re on, the truth is that we need to reflect on the long-term larger issue of rights and respect for women.
Women have a valid, justified argument.
Women need violent-free, decision-making inclusive spaces that clearly demonstrate inclusivity of their diaspora counterparts—that’s an irreducible trend at the international community discussion table. The number of women in key decision-making roles will remain a factor in the foreign policy discourse.
What Zimbabwe lacks
A strong, well-trained women-led foreign service. A woman-led decision-making diplomatic service in US-Zimbabwe re-engagement is vital for success in a Trump administration. It has to be a marker that the country, political party or legislative body is making gender transformation and equity the top-most priority.
The biggest obstacle for Zimbabwe in any future US-Zimbabwe re-engagement will be its attitude towards women; not as amateurs, or seekers of extra-marital affairs or the result of squabbles within. Success comes usually not at pointing fingers at others or dictating, but from listening and understanding. The dominance of Zimbabwe’s patriarchal norms is unsustainable for a landlocked country in desperate need for relevance in a United Nations or family of nations.
It does leave concerned onlookers with troubling questions about how Zimbabwean women will become liberated and empowered women against an enormous injustice.
Reflecting on this, it should leave women everywhere unsettled, with lingering doubts about Mnangagwa’s leadership and the Speaker’s mishandling of rights in Parliament and abetting violence.
People must cease and desist from the public, clandestine abuse and condemnation of women. The harassment of women parliamentarians in Parliament chambers must end.
We have to be able to have an open debate with opposing views in a public, national, and political forum in Parliament, inside Zimbabwe and in its global diaspora. We need a country where individuals can freely express their opinions and convictions without persecution — freedom of speech and expression are fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in Section 44, “The State and every person, including juristic persons, and every institution and agency of the government at every level must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights and freedoms set out in this Chapter.” Parliament needs a gender harassment policy agreed to by all stakeholders.
To gain serious, considerable ground in any US or international re-engagement, Zimbabwe must increase the civic and political participation of women and more importantly how it includes women from the diaspora. Not grasping this is a serious mis-step in Zimbabwe’s foreign policy and future international relations and Washington, DC should be paying attention without conceit or snobbery and acknowledge ideas from domiciled women and diaspora women. More importantly, Zimbabwe must increase women representation at every level of public policy decision-making institution. It must seek ways to make this an absolute and clear goal in order to succeed on the international playing field.
Wherever you are — standing or seated — do so patriotically grasping the fact that both can co-exist in one country. Before anything else, we must address how we treat women, their ideas, their decisions and their participation if we have any hope whatsoever at success in international re-engagement with the US and international community. Let’s open up that dialogue on women at home and in the diaspora to build a stronger nation, not a further divided one.
Pearl Matibe has geographic expertise on US foreign policy, think-tank impact, strategy and public policy issues. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe