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Women in the Zimbabwean Revolution

Women in the Zimbabwean Revolution - Speech by Naomi Nhiwatiwa (ZANU-PF)

A speech by Naomi Nhiwatiwa of ZANU-PF given in Los Angeles, CA in July 1979

It is a very strange feeling to be a delegate from the United States of America. I was a ZANU delegate from the United States of America, therefore I carried the burden of the United States and I had to explain myself many times. I had to explain what is happening in the US and why. I told them that there were progressive people in the US who are sympathetic to our cause even though it appears that the majority of Americans seem to be supporting the Smith and Muzorewa regime. I want to thank you seriously for the moral support that you give us. It was very difficult for me to comprehend the nature of war until I got to Mozambique, and I do want to thank you very much. What you are doing, outside of the material help—your presence here is encouraging us to keep on fighting—because somewhere in this big world, somewhere in this powerful country there are people who are concerned for human rights, who arc concerned for justice, who are concerned for equality, who are concerned for the liberation of all mankind throughout the world. I want to bring you greetings from the comrades there. After I told them there were supporters, they really said that I should greet you.

The conference that I attended was the first conference that the Zimbabwe African National Union had organized to evaluate the status of women in the struggle. To start with, I want you to understand that one-third of the ZANLA forces, the forces waging war against Ian Smith, are women. I also want you to remember an incident that was in the New York Times. I don’t know if anybody read the incident. The incident reported a group of five women that were being chased by helicopters. It is said that these women were darting in and out of bushes as though they were playing a hide and seek game. That eventually they came out, they surfaced in the open, and the helicopters that were chasing them sprayed bullets and dismembered most of the women guerrillas, disintegrated their bodies, that one of them escaped, and one was going to be forced to be punished or killed. Indeed that situation happened, but I want you to know that while they were saying that—that these women with their rifles were no match to the helicopters—the super-helicopters were sent by the US, American-made helicopters that were maiming and disintegrating the bodies of women guerrillas that were trying to fight to defend their own country.

The war has been a very transforming experience for most of the Zimbabwean women. It might be very, very important to explain why finally we find the Zimbabwean women in the struggle, why the Zimbabwean women finally took up the gun. Why have women in the world finally decided to defend their homes with the gun, because we usually think of women as people who are supposed to maintain peace and the status quo. Why have women decided to take up the gun, and why the Zimbabwean women particularly?

I want to give you a little bit of history. Our social structure was such that it encouraged and perpetuated the supremacy of males, and women always served a subservient role. This is the African tradition. It is a patriarchal and patrilineal society. A woman got married to her husband. In turn the husband paid a small dowry and the dowry entitled the man to take the woman to his home, entitled him to have the woman bear children for him, entitled him to the children that the woman has carried for nine months, so that the woman never actually owned the children. It was very common then in our social structure to hear the husband say to his wife, “I do not want to see my children being treated thus,” and the wife, finally frustrated, would respond, “You take your children and let me go,” or something like that. That kind of communication happened because the men were in control and claimed to own both the children and the property.

Another way that women were oppressed in our social structure was that women were not allowed to speak loudly in public. Neither were they allowed to challenge their husbands even if their husbands were saying foolish things. They were supposed to keep quiet and maybe question him when they were at home. But if a man said something that was wrong, a woman was not allowed to challenge it. So women always kept quiet and kept their mouths shut even though things were going wrong. Maybe that’s why things went wrong.

A third area where women were oppressed was that women were not allowed to take a leading role, and the language itself that was used implied that women were a little bit less than men. For example, I don’t know whether you have the same language but at home the language is, “you think like a woman,” or “you talk like a woman,” “you are disorganized like a woman,” Sometimes I’ve heard in this country, “You drive like a woman.” Such language was an indication that women were actually thought of as less human beings than men. On the other hand, if a man said to his friend, “Man, you spoke like a man,” the man would feel very, very proud. However, if a man is told, “Man, you spoke like a woman,” it was an insult and something to be defended. So we find the Zimbabwean women being oppressed within the traditional framework by the marital arrangement, by not being allowed to take a leading role, and the use of the language itself that was oppressive. 

When the colonial, the imperial people came, we find a very harsh, a double oppression, made against the Zimbabwean woman. There were ways that a woman could assume an important role within the African tradition. If a woman was a medicine woman, that is, if she knew how to treat people, how to use the native medicine, then men and women would come and ask for treatment. The other thing was if she was a medium, if she was able to communicate with the ancestors, if she was able to communicate on the status of their affairs, then the medium was very important within our structure. Nehanda, the woman whom you have read a lot about in Zimbabwe News, was a medium. There were many other women who were mediums, but Nehanda used her power as a medium to organize women to resist the white settlement of Cecil John Rhodes in the 1890s. She went on organizing together with one of the earliest heroes, Kaguvi or Mukwati—she organized the people on a national level. Indeed she warned the people of Zimbabwe to go to arms because the people who had come into the country meant to destroy them. It was then that Cecil John Rhodes defeated the First Chimurenga. That was the First Chimurenga, and I want you to know that the First Chimurenga was organized by a woman, Nehanda Nyakasikana. The first martyr killed by Rhodes was Nehanda. She was captured and executed near Salisbury in 1896-7. So we see a Zimbabwean woman being executed during the First Chimurenga. We also see a Zimbabwean woman having played a major role.

Upon the arrival of the colonial people, the Zimbabwean woman suffered another setback in terms- of oppression. Indeed her oppression was increased. However, both the Zimbabwean men and women were oppressed. The Zimbabwean men didn’t realize how it was to be oppressed, to be treated as inferior. The situation was worse for the Zimbabwean woman because the white settlers took the land and property so it was difficult to provide food for the children. It was difficult to provide subsistence for her family. In addition, the Rhodes regime and its followers took many African young men from their villages and used them to construct roads in larger cities. These young men were separated from their wives for periods ranging from six months to three years. Some of these were forced labor, and these men were taken and kept in a hostel. They were not allowed to bring their wives to visit them, so you had young wives staying at home, raising children and attending to the elders. Sometimes a woman would be frustrated and would indeed desire to be with her husband; sometimes she would sneak into the hostels. When this thing happened, both the husband and wife were punished. The relation of husband and wife in Zimbabwe was punishable, and I want you to notice the psychological implications of this situation. A husband and wife relationship was punishable. It made bad luck for the husband. Thus it is very possible many Zimbabwean men looked upon their wives as sources of misfortune, or something that was going to cause them pain. Many times when a Zimbabwean woman decided to visit her husband in the cities or in the hostel, she was greeted with a word—I want you to notice the word —maorirlay. Maorirlay is a word that usually refers to when something wrong has happened in the community, and the spit-its come to chastise the community. It means, “What have I done,” “What are you coming to tell me, what is the wrong that is going to happen to me?” So when a wife tries to visit her husband who she may not have seen for two or three years, the husband would greet her with “maorirlay.” Then she would be required to go back home and till the grounds, to go and attend to the children.

Another setback that the Zimbabwean woman suffered was the additional teachings of the Europeans that required that a highly civilized person was one who adopted the European way. The missionaries took the same position. I want to check myself here, I am not saying anything against the missionaries. Neither am I saying anything against the teachings of the missionaries. I myself am a product of the missionaries, I was raised and trained in the missionary institutions, and every Zimbabwean that you hear talk all the time, they also themselves had a missionary influence. Most of the missionaries then really ran the educational system in Zimbabwe, because the colonial people intended to keep the Africans behind forever. However, while the missionaries did major work, we cannot overlook some of the implications it had for the Zimbabwean woman. The missionaries emphasized that a wife shall obey her husband, and to obey your husband was very important. Now notice how much obedience was required. The culture required a wife to obey her husband, the colonial imperial masters required a woman to be obedient and not to demand anything from her husband, and the Bible, even God himself, charged women to obey their husbands. In addition, women were supposed to behave, they were supposed to have a high moral standard. That was not required of men, African men were required to marry a virgin, even though he himself would have a lot of sexual experience. If it should he found that the African woman was not a virgin at the time that she was married, the husband or the relatives of the husband required that the parents of the girl pay the unfortunate young man who had to marry someone who had a sexual experience.

These were some of the difficulties that the Zimbabwean women had had to live with. While they had to survive, they organized into many women’s organizations. So in the whole life history of Zimbabwe you find many organizations. Most of these organizations were sort of grouping together, encouraging each other, but mainly they encouraged each other in the process of maintaining the status quo. Very few women challenged the status quo. They encouraged each other-, and protected each other, so that they did not violate the requirements of society. Later on, as the oppression persisted, during the period of political struggle, when the Zimbabwean people finally started to resist the oppressive regime by boycotting, by strikes, etc., we find the Zimbabwean women again in the streets together with their husbands, trying to overthrow the oppressive regime. Most of the Zimbabwean women were arrested and they were put in. jail, carrying their children with them. The government refused to keep the women in jail and they asked these women to pay bail so that they could go back to their homes. The women refused to pay bail. They decided to stay in jail until they served their sentences. The men went home and they found it very difficult to keep the house without their wives, so they came with money to pay bail for their wives, so that they could go home and keep the home. The wives refused to go home. They said they wanted to serve their sentences. Later on the men came again and they said that if they stayed there for a very long time they should not come back because the men had other plans. So indeed we see here the Zimbabwean women being threatened while she is trying to fight, to resist.

Throughout the history of the oppression we find the Zimbabwean women being consistent and persistent in all their activities. After the beginning of the armed struggle, the Zimbabwean women were very active in supporting the men. They made their clothes, they provided food, they were always very, very active. It was later, in the mid-60s, that we had our first women cadres trained, arid they Found out that indeed women performed just as well as the men in the ZANU-LA Forces. I want to tell you what the women have been able to do.

YOU probably have read of Chimoio, when Ian Smith sent a fleet of bombers to kill the refugees at Chimoio and hundreds of the Zimbabweans were killed. It was the Women’s Brigade that shot down. Ian Smith’s planes. You probably have read about the oil tanks being exploded near Salisbury very recently, it was a brigade that was being led by women that blew up the oil tanks near Salisbury, So even though the Zimbabwean woman has suffered double oppression we see her persistence and her courage to liberate her country. It is these motivating factors that the Party has observed. It has realized that since women can perform so well, it is very difficult for Zimbabwe to be totally liberated until the Zimbabwean women are freed and allowed to use themselves fully toward the liberation of their country, allowed to utilize themselves toward the development of Zimbabwe. That was the call for the conference, The conference was called to evaluate the status of Zimbabwean women and the role that they have played toward the revolution. It was called to develop strategies and ways of mobilizing women, and to help them to correct, to rectify, those elements within our social structures that prevented women from total development. The purpose of the conference was to encourage women to fill positions, particularly in the decision–making bodies. What we did at the conference was a major step for the Party because the Party realized it was very important that women be freed. President Robert Mugabe at the conference said that there is no country—and we’re going to take Trim seriously for that—he said there is no country that can be totally free until its women are totally free, We are taking this challenge, the Zimbabwean women are taking this challenge that indeed Zimbabwe will not be free until the women are free; therefore it is the responsibility of the Zimbabwean people to free the women so that Zimbabwe can be free.

We also realized that the responsibility lay within the women themselves. The Zimbabwean women have a responsibility to encourage each other to take the challenge and liberate ourselves. We see our role as that of educating the Zimbabwean men who have been conditioned by the social structure and by oppressive regimes to oppress their women. We see our role as educating the Zimbabwean men to help them in the process of helping women to be liberated and to help women to fully participate in the political struggle. And we see the role of Zimbabwean women as that of joining hands with other women and other oppressed people throughout the world; for indeed we are not free when there is a cruel system, an imperialistic, capitalistic system that is out there to destroy people, to rob the peoples’ land, and to kill innocent people throughout the world. Therefore we join hands with all those people who are struggling for the freedom of all people, towards the freedom of Black people, towards the freedom of women, towards the freedom of Black women, towards the freedom of people in the “Third World, and the freedom of all people who are under the oppression of capitalistic institutions.

I want to tell you something about what I observed in Mozambique—I think I aged ten years in terms of experience. I saw women who were determined to liberate themselves and determined to liberate Zimbabwe, and they did not envy my position. In fact they felt sorry for me. They felt sorry for me because I was not in the process, I wasn’t terribly active. Maybe the experience, the role that they were playing was indeed encouraging and they were determined to make sure that the puppet regime of Ian Smith went down. So the war that you are supporting is a real war because the people who are fighting it are very determined. I want to tell you that they are more determined! They will fight even if it takes ten years, they are going to keep on fighting till they win.

I want you to remember the children, because the Zimbabwean women are women, they have feelings. Most of the people there get married, most of them have children. Every woman wants to have the fulfillment of being a mother, most of these women combine both these roles. They get married, they have children, and they go back into the forest, they live in the forest and they keep on fighting. They realize that they must do both duties, that is the responsibility that the oppressive system has forced upon the Zimbabwean people.

More from this Writer

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

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