THE “so near, yet so far” character of the talks to deal with the crisis in Zimbabwe reminds me of that scene when you visit folks in the countryside and you ask for directions to a particular place.
They will tell you the place is “Paseri pechikomo apo” (just behind the hill) and you think itâ€™s close. But 20 kilometres and tired legs later when you get behind the hill, you find there is nothing.
And when you ask again, you are told “maakutosvika” (you are very close) only to discover that itâ€™s another long walk into the wilderness. You begin to wonder whether you will ever arrive or indeed if the place exists at all.
So today we take a slight detour from this hard trip on what is, plainly rugged terrain. Weâ€™ll not spend much time and space on the â€˜toksâ€™. Let them talk.
Instead, at the centre is a sensitive subject that I have wanted to discuss for some time â€“â€“ the challenges faced by women in public life, more particularly, in politics.
Perhaps, even some of my friends might say, “Magaisa avakutenga nyaya isiri yake” (Magaisa is taking up a subject that does not concern him), but in my opinion, itâ€™s one of those issues that we often take for granted, yet reflects very much on the character of our society and the state of what little democracy we have or seek.
I recently had a most revealing and educative exchange with a fellow colleague. She is a bright and articulate woman who shall remain nameless. We talked about womenâ€™s participation in public life; about politics and public writing, for she herself is a writer of unique pedigree.
I asked her why she does not write more often; why, indeed, she does not participate more in politics and public life. She had tried, she said, because she is as passionate as every other Zimbabwean about her country. But she has often felt humiliated and terribly let down by her fellow countrymen and only because she is a woman who has dared to speak her mind.
She revealed the harsh and vitriolic criticism, bordering on hate mail that she has faced whenever she has publicly expressed herself.
“No”, I said to my friend, “Your problem is that you are too sensitive”.
I said to her that she has to develop a skin of elephantine proportions when she steps into the public arena because there are people who sometimes express themselves is uncultured terms.
“No, Alex”, she protested, “You do not understand”. Why? I asked, taken aback by her bold assertion at my limitation on a subject that I should know well, being a fellow public writer. “What is it that I do not understand?”, I asked her. Surely, criticism comes with the territory, I put it to her, matter-of-factly.
“You miss the point, Alex”, she continued. She was patient; the patience of a doctor who knows she is dealing with a patient who feels good but does not yet fully appreciate the nature and extent of his illness.
So she continued. “You do not understand, Alex, but I appreciate your position because you are a man”. The last bit got me a little disappointed. I thought my friend was venturing into that familiar territory of â€˜man versus womanâ€™; that she was now invoking the familiar feminist card and taking cover behind the veil of womanhood. I readied myself for a counter-attack.
But then, as she continued, her words shook the stem, yes, down to the roots of my own mentality and I realised that what my friend was talking about was not just criticism but a special type of challenge that women have to contend with. It is something that is more easily appreciable to a woman and takes time to sink into a manâ€™s system.
These are hazards that few of us men can easily grasp, because, often, we are the perpetrators. It reminded me of that Shona proverb that the axe will never know, let alone remember, what it did to the tree. Only the tree itself knows best and remembers the pain and suffering that it endures.
Even standing on the high pedestal of the “modern man” that I thought of myself, I realised that there are some things that can so easily be taken for granted; that there is so much hurt endured by women that I might never understand and that all these aspects do, indeed, colour in very ugly ways, the nature of our society, the calibre of our leaders and, indeed, the dynamics of our politics.
Because, you see, more often than not, criticism in respect of a woman is not so much about the products of her cerebral matter but more about her gender and much that is attached to womanhood.
The ammunition of choice is targeted not simply at her ideas â€“â€“ it often rounds on her person, on how many children she has outside marriage, on her single-motherhood status, on the alleged numbers of her sleeping partners, real or imagined. Or, perhaps, how easy she is to provide services of a personal nature.
It is, most regrettably and shamefully, targeted at the nether and sacred regions of a womanâ€™s anatomy, notwithstanding their irrelevance in the generation of ideas. “That is why you do not have a husband!”, is a familiar refrain although the same characters would not dare say, â€˜that is why you do not have a wifeâ€™ to a male politician.
There are many women in Zimbabwe who have taken roles in public life. They are writers, activists, politicians, business executives, wives of politicians, etc. They are brave women and when you think of the hate language they have to face each day, sometimes for offences of their male counterparts, you can see why theirs is a hard and rugged road and why, eventually, some choose self-censorship or at worst, to steer clear of public life.
Slowly, but surely, I appreciated my friendâ€™s predicament and that of other women in her position. They face ridicule not for their ideas but about their private lives; they have to live with criticism of their looks as opposed to their views; they have to watch and listen to anonymous characters describing in precise detail their wild imaginations or fantasies about the womanâ€™s reproductive organs and how she uses them, etc.
I can understand why, for example, Grace Kwinjeh might be downcast â€“â€“ she was beaten very severely by shameless thugs last year and when she showed her pictures, some people were angry that the photographs had shown too much of her sensitive, albeit damaged, parts.
Yes, some even chose to overlook her horrific injuries only to comment about what they could â€˜doâ€™ with a woman endowed with her features, if given the chance.
When Beatrice Mtetwa was beaten by shameless hoodlums supposedly keeping the law, and pictures showing her nasty wounds were published, some people protested that it was bordering on pornography.
Her injuries, the subject of the photography, were overlooked.
Instead her feminine features became the subject of discussion.
When Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga is involved in the current talks, some choose to focus on her marital life and alleged personal escapades, instead of celebrating and encouraging her as the only one woman who at least has a voice in those secret talks.
When Everjoice Win comments on politics, it is not her ideas but elaborate suggestions of her as a husband grabber that take centre stage.
I can understand the plight of Gugulethu Moyo, who having been harassed and beaten up by the Army Generalâ€™s wife, has to endure personal taunts about her private life.
Or when Maggie Makanza comments on politics, it is her womanhood that is questioned. And when Petina Gappah writes on life and politics, it is often her gender and private life; not her ideas that are attacked.
When Jenni Williams stands up with her brave Woza colleagues, questions are raised on her private life, not the work she is doing. Notwithstanding her trailblazing movement in the search for democracy, Margaret Dongo also has to face questions about her private life.
There are many more women playing roles in public life â€” the likes of Bev Clark, Amanda Atwood, Janah Ncube, Nokuthula Moyo, Catherine Makoni, Tsitsi Matekaire, Thoko Matshe, etc â€” but many, if not all, have to face similar challenges that have very little to do with their ideas. It could take a whole book to list all of them.
Of course, we men are also subjected to acerbic attacks. Yet as if to bolster the above argument on the humiliating approach towards women, when a man is chastised, it is often couched in language that derides, not the man himself, but his female relations.
It is about the manâ€™s mother; the manâ€™s wife, the manâ€™s sister, his grandmother, yes, even his daughters.
They attack the man by casting aspersions on his motherâ€™s reproductive organs, by attacking his wife or grandmotherâ€™s looks. Itâ€™s never much about the man himself.
So there you see again, even when attacking men, the women are the silent victims.
But then you might say all this is irrelevant; just casual talk with no real harm.
Yet, in reality, that language is part of the fabric of our society. In many ways, it mirrors our attitudes towards each other. It is a reflection of the physical encounters between men and women in politics, especially manifesting in violence.
When a male victim is attacked, the weapon of choice is the stick but when a female victim suffers, the weapon of choice is the reproductive organ.
The man is beaten hard; the woman, often, is raped and sexually violated.
This most horrifying of physical violence, in many ways, is a manifestation of the kind of language and approach that women face in everyday public life.
The tragedy, however, is that those fighting for democracy and those thwarting it, tend to adopt similar attitudes and practices towards womenfolk.
I write this not because I like to take the high moral ground. Some of my best friends will tell you that I have erred and perhaps resorted to similar type when dealing with women. No; I am no saint. I have made mistakes and I will make many more in the future.
It is most vital that society develops an attitude of healthy and decent criticism.
But, surely, it should not be coloured by gender-prejudices or be of such personal character that most well-meaning citizens become marginalised. I will probably be accused of pandering to women or worse, of soliciting their personal favours.
But I can understand why some of our female counterparts, will often think twice, perhaps three times, before they decide to participate in public life.
This march towards democracy is not simply a movement in high-level politics.Â It is also about attitudes and values that provide a conducive environment to nurture a more decent, equal and tolerant society.
Old habits die hard â€” but with sufficient will-power they can see the last of their days.
You see, I have even managed to go through the whole article without mentioning Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai or Arthur Mutambara. Then, again, I have!
l Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, The University of Kent. He can be contacted at email@example.com