Identity

Published by: GenderIT.org  on 31/08/17

In the last week of July, Zimbabwe held its first Harare City Conversation, collaboratively facilitated by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and feminist organisations, Her Zimbabwe and Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). City Conversations are one-day exchanges, hosted by APC in partnership with local organisations, which bring together activists from gender, sexuality, reproductive rights, digital and women’s rights and women human rights defenders sectors to discuss, expand and localise the Feminist Principles of the internet (FPIs). Participants for this particular conversation included feminists in journalism, visual art, internet rights activism, digital security, movement building, as well as sex and sexuality rights activism.

The Zimbabwean context of private and public expression

The lines between individuals’ private and public life are growing thinner everyday as we spend more and more time on the internet. Feminists at the conversation agreed there is general lack of awareness of the consequences and potential risks that come with being online, especially with the painful reality that “the internet doesn’t forget”.

While internet penetration in Zimbabwe stood at 50.1% at the end of 2016, the country Regulators Quarterly Telecommunications Sector performance reports1 do not give gender-disaggregated data on use. However, recent regional statistics reveal a wide gender gap in internet use on the continent in spite of women constituting almost 52% of the continent’s population. Just a simple scan of Zimbabwe indicates that fewer women own personal gadgets, are computer, security and internet literate and/or openly and actively utilise the internet to engage.

In addition – as with a number of other African countries – patriarchy is continuously visible in Zimbabwe’s private and public spheres. Media rights monitors have noted that, in general, coverage by the mainstream Zimbabwean media of the voices of women remains low, biased and in some instances, sexist.

Even though they are in the majority, gender inequalities exist in the representation of women in mainstream arenas such as politics with Zimbabwean women participating less in governance issues and important national processes and discussions. Although a gender quota system was put in place to appoint 60 non-constituent female legislators as members of parliament (MPs) during the country’s last elections in 2013, only four female MPs were given ministerial positions in a cabinet of 30, with the other appointees conspicuously less active in policy debates than their male counterparts.

Participants noted that Zimbabweans’ conservatism has worsened with the growth of the ‘new’ Pentecostal churches that continue to censor and disempower women congregants by ‘ignoring’ sexual violations, placing value on virginity and submission for women, and demonising homosexuality.

At the same time, Zimbabwe’s constitution – which criminalises same sex relations – remains silent on the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights, even though it provides for equality and non-discrimination. This leaves the LGBTQ community at high risk of violence and in some instance, prohibits members from access to basic services like medical health.

Unbundling the FPIs within this context provided Zimbabwean feminists a moment to reflect on how their everyday offline realities reflect the extent to which the principles empower women to enjoy their rights online.

Colonial inheritances

There was a general sense in the room that Zimbabweans tend to lack the emotional intelligence to evaluate the impact of a single ‘click’ on an individual’s ‘private’ life. The alarming rate, at which ‘scandal’, which usually includes the leaking of nude photographs of women, sex tapes and conversations of lovers deemed to be in ‘immoral’ relationships, is evidence of this. Additionally, insistence on the sanctity of women’s bodies is constantly at play as decency and morality come to play once women’s bodies are seen on the internet.

In the cluster around agency, the FPIs speak to the importance of women’s consent in decisions on what aspects of their lives remain private or public. It lays responsibility on service providers to ensure that seeking consent and protecting privacy is sincerely incorporated into their business practice. A key consideration, as eloquently expressed by one participant, was the need for social media platforms, especially, to establish local partnerships that would simplify, promote and translate terms and conditions of their use into local languages in order to increase women’s ability to make decisions online and report abuse of their private content.

A key consideration, as eloquently expressed by one participant, was the need for social media platforms, especially, to establish local partnerships that would simplify, promote and translate terms and conditions of their use into local languages in order to increase women’s ability to make decisions online and report abuse of their private content.

Within the ambit of access, the FPIs highlight equal access to internet, unrestricted relevant information on sexual and reproductive health and rights and the use of technology for creativity and expression, as well as challenging sexism and discrimination. On expression, the FPI calls for use of the internet to amplify women’s narratives in resistance to existing oppressive governance, religious and other extremist ideologies and monopolies that have silenced women over time.

As such, it would seem access and expression are intertwined. The two also are evocative of restrictions imposed on African societies in the colonial past in respect to accessing information and free expression. As was observed during the conversation, Zimbabwe has a vast inheritance of colonial legislation – such as the Sexual Offences and the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act – that continue to dictate and contradict standards of sexual access and expression.

As such, it would seem access and expression are intertwined. The two also are evocative of restrictions imposed on African societies in the colonial past in respect to accessing information and free expression.Zimbabwe has a vast inheritance of colonial legislation – such as the Sexual Offences and the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act – that continue to dictate and contradict standards of sexual access and expression.

One of the contentious issues that was discussed was around the definition of pornography. As one participant observed, it is difficult for women whose private intimate images are leaked to the public to seek recourse to justice as they too are potentially liable for the production of ‘pornography’ through reporting such violations.

Online movements online, more than just pushing a hashtag

Currently the ruling and political elite in Zimbabwe are on a drive to curb free expression and organising on social media through threats against dissenting views on social media and surveillance of social pages of targeted individuals. Following years of criminalisation of offline dissent, citizens themselves have also begun to police each other online with reports being made leading to the arrests and/or questioning of individuals, or the disruption of organised resistance or action. Naturally, fewer women and sexual minorities would initiate or support politicised causes publicly.

Following years of criminalisation of offline dissent, citizens themselves have also begun to police each other online with reports being made leading to the arrests and/or questioning of individuals, or the disruption of organised resistance or action. Naturally, fewer women and sexual minorities would initiate or support politicised causes publicly.

It was agreed that that movements are not ‘just moments’ but sustained build-up of years of awareness raising for consciousness and sustained action. The significance of online social movement, #ThisFlag that started in May 2016 by a Pastor, Evan Mawarire in response to the continuing deteriorating socio- economic and political environment cannot be understated. Pastor Evan posted an emotive video online reflecting on the contradictions of the lived realities of Zimbabweans today against the promises made to the Zimbabwean people at independence in 1980. He ran parallels of this reality against the symbolism of the colours of the country’s flag. The video became the launch of a movement that commands a following of over 62,000 on Facebookand over 22,000 on Twitter. Daily members of the movement speak and organise against mis-governance in the country.
Image Source: Spoondog on DeviantArt. CC license Attribution No Derivatives Non commercial.

#ThisFlag movement has often been cited as having been in the forefront and most significant player in the organising of the country’s first citizen led nationwide stayaway in July 2016. Its impact cannot be measured in the absence of the context of the mobilising and organising that other sectors such as civil society, labour unions and feminist activists have initiated over the years. However, #ThisFlag popularised this resistance internationally and shone light on the multiple oppressions prevalent in Zimbabwe. Possibly the main reason why the movement is less visible just over a year after its launch is its failure to link up with older movements, that include civil society, the women’s movement and the state opposition in order to tackle relevant issues in sustained action.

Movements are not ‘just moments’ but sustained build-up of years of awareness raising for consciousness and sustained action.

Issues discussed during the Conversation confirmed that while a feminist internet is possible, the internet is an extension of the offline space; it is political and fraught with complex power dynamics. Yet amid all these challenges, a feminist internet still remains possible. The possibilities are in the ability of women and the queer community to identify the connections between offline and online realities, mark moments strategically and push for space for expression around rights on the internet and beyond.

The internet is an extension of the offline space; it is political and fraught with complex power dynamics. Yet amid all these challenges, a feminist internet still remains possible.

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