Patriarchy always fights back

Patriarchy always fights back. Faced with a challenge, it always puts up stiff resistance.

Last week, an old colleague in Harare who invests a lot of her time and energy fighting for the cause of girls’ and women’s rights wrote to me in a rather despondent tone. It was unlike her. She is usually focussed, upbeat and assured. But this time she seemed deflated. At the time, the storm caused by the controversial remarks of the Prosecutor-General Johannes Tomana (the PG) was at its most intense. The PG had made some reckless and thoughtless remarks concerning age of consent to sex for young girls and child marriage in an interview with The Chronicle, the Bulawayo-based state daily. This colleague was among a group that was calling for the PG to be brought to account.

“I’m told we (girls’ rights movement) are being used by those who want to get rid of Tomana. I don’t believe it though. What do you think?” she wrote in her message early in the morning.

“No, don’t buy the nonsense,” I wrote back.

“I’m deflated though,” she confessed.

I felt sorry for her, sorry because I know how much she is passionate about protecting and empowering young girls to have a voice but now here she was, a champion of the voiceless, she herself was beginning to doubt her own voice, indeed, to lose a her own powerful voice. In that moment, I knew what was happening. Patriarchy was fighting back and there in that moment, it had just struck a powerful blow, dispiriting a brave warrior, causing her to doubt herself.

“I know it can be deflating,” I wrote back, with an appreciation of what was happening. “But they deliberately sow these seeds to achieve exactly that. Remain steadfast,” I added.

“Will do, thanks”, she said as she signed off.

Thankfully, she recovered herself and has kept focus. But faced with a similar challenge to the spirit, many others don’t recover. They crumble in the face of dispiriting sentiments. Their resolve and their dreams wilt in a world of patriarchy, eventually meeting a miserable end.

The force that fights and sometimes defeats this resolve, the force that had pierced and almost deflated my colleague’s spirit that morning derives its energy from patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system of society in which men hold the power and women are generally excluded from it. It is evident in how power structures are organised, in the cultural practices that privilege men over women, in the attitudes and mentality. It is a system that says women are lesser beings than their male counterparts; the system that prefers boys in school and that girls stay at home.

It is the system that women’s and girls’ rights activists – both women and men – must challenge to achieve true equality and empowerment, but it is a stern opponent. Patriarchy is like a virus that mutates into various forms, evading capture. It appears in different forms – some subtle and some more obvious than others and it has been evident throughout the furore surrounding the PG following his remarks.

Blown out of proportion?

On the same day of that conversation with my friend in Harare, I received a message from a journalist, also based in Harare. Mukoma, the young man wrote to me, after listening to the Tomana audio tape, do you think the issue has been blown out of proportion or you are still of the view that he lost it and should face the consequences? That was his question.

There was something in the question that confirmed my belief that patriarchy was truly waging a serious fightback. I had noticed it in my friend and now I was feeling it again in this new conversation with a journalist. It was the view suggesting that maybe, just maybe Tomana had been unfairly treated by the state media; that perhaps a big meal had been made out of nothing; that, indeed, all this, to use the exact words, may have been “blown out of proportion”. I was also quietly observing it through sporadic posts on social networks.

But to my mind, this sentiment was not difficult to explain. This was patriarchy once again waging battle in the face of a threat. Patriarchy looks at Tomana’s statements and sees nothing wrong with them. Tomana’s remarks, after all, from the beginning to the end, are dripping with patriarchal attitudes. He spoke like a true patriarch and that language finds understanding in a patriarchal society.

“Of course he lost it!” I wrote back to the journalist. “There is no question about it. Everything that is printed is what he said”.

Then I added a few more words by way of tutorial.

“You guys should not fall into the trap of politicising everything. This is an important social issue over which the country’s highest legal officer has made some reckless and thoughtless comments … if you guys in the private media buy into the conspiracy theories and try to ‘understand’ this fellow to spite Zimpapers and Jonathan Moyo you will be making a big mistake …”

It was my attempt to warn against conflating the issue of what the PG had said about young girls and the alleged politics within Zanu PF. The latter only serves to obfuscate the former, marginalising and pushing it to the periphery, as if it does not matter. The PG’s remarks needed to be assessed separately, no-one had held a gun to his head to speak as he did. Bringing in the political angle would only serve to dilute an important social issue.

The discussion went further, after which the journalist signed off, with a thankful note expressed in the popular language of the street. “Maspaka chief”, he wrote.

But I had sensed what was happening. In fighting back patriarchy was repackaging the issue and finding allies and sympathisers within critical spaces, including the media, which is influential. The media itself is a male-dominated, often patriarchal space. It’s easy for the PG to find willing ears and it’s easy for those willing ears to receive and understand what the PG said, however despicable it might appear to others.

Later, writing to a group of activists, I warned them that they were now up against a force bigger than Tomana the individual and this force was patriarchy and it would manifest in various forms in defence of Tomana and his statements. They had to be prepared for brickbats and humiliation because when patriarchy fights back it can be violent and vicious.

Eventually, I said, because the entire system is patriarchal in nature, it would protect Tomana. When he appointed his Cabinet in 2013 with a very small number of women, President Mugabe justified it on the reasoning that there were not enough qualified and competent women from which to choose. Yet patriarchy sees nothing wrong with a PG who holds such retrogressive and misogynistic views regarding young girls. But that is precisely what patriarchy does – it finds fault in women but excuses men’s weaknesses. It excludes women from spaces of power but protects men.

Patriarchy’s defence of Parliamentary space

When we were negotiating the constitution, there was a demand for equal representation between men and women in Parliament and state institutions. There were various propositions to divide seats equally between men and women. However, most of the proposals would have required existing male MPs to give up their seats in favour of female candidates. At that point the issue of equal representation began to receive stiff resistance.

In the end, women were awarded an extra 60 seats in the National Assembly, to be filled by proportional representation. But this would only be for two terms and it would result in a bigger and more expensive Parliament. What had happened there was that faced with a threat in its space, patriarchy had negotiated a way out to preserve its position. All the false pretences to a commitment to gender equality were exposed, as male MPs – and patriarchy – fought hard to retain their spaces of power. The result is we have a bloated Parliament and 60 women MPs who really have little political power because unlike the rest of their counterparts, they don’t have physical constituencies which matter a great deal in politics. Hence they are often referred to derisively as “Baccossi MPs”, as those who got into Parliament by the back-door, the ones who got freebies.

A few years ago, I wrote about the plight of women in politics in Zimbabwe. One of the things I identified was that whenever a woman dares to enter the political terrain and to challenge for positions of power or even comment on politics, it is their sexual life or the marital status that is questioned, not their ideas. With a few exceptions, men hardly face the same problems. This is what patriarchy does – women must be excluded from spaces of power and if they try to enter, patriarchy questions their morals, their behaviour, their sexual lives – issues that are not asked of their male counterparts. All this is designed to exclude and indeed, few have the courage to enter the political terrain because of the violence of patriarchy upon their persons.

Tomana as Voice of Patriarchy

So Tomana was clumsy and reckless but what he had expressed in raw and untrimmed language, certainly without the finesse and decorum expected of a man holding high office, was the voice of patriarchy. The father and mother in some cultures are happy when their child is married, even at 15, Tomana had said, in an ill-advised effort to defend child marriage. That was patriarchy speaking. There are a lot of men and women in this patriarchal society who actually believe that a girl’s duty to her father is to get married. She earns her father lobola, the bride price, and in exchange she will go on to bear children for her husband. And if anything, the younger she is, the better. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that there are people who “understood” what Tomana was saying and believe he was right. Patriarchy sees nothing wrong with these views.

This language of patriarchy also dominates the statute books, including the Criminal Code – after all these laws were made by men, with very limited female participation. This is why the law has lax provisions which permit adult men who have sex with 12 and 13 year olds to escape the higher charge of rape by saying the girl was capable of consenting and that she did consent.

Patriarchy in the justice system

Not only that but the judicial system which is male-dominated and patriarchal, is no better. Just this week The Chronicle reported another poorly handled case in which an adult male had sex with a 12 year-old but the matter was withdrawn by the girl’s father who said in an affidavit that they had settled the matter out of court. The police, prosecutors and the magistrate accepted this. But how does the justice system accept that rape, a criminal offence, can be settled out of court?

Yet this is not an unusual phenomenon. Sexually-abused girls have in similar cases been married off to their attackers as a way of resolving the issue. The father gets compensation and the bride price, and the abused girl goes off to live with her abuser. This is how patriarchy deals with the problem – it negotiates over the plight of the young girl. Those who are supposed to protect the girl deal with her as they would an asset. The practice of marrying off sexually-abused girls received support from the PG who thought marriage was a satisfactory solution for young and idle girls who have nothing else to do. Marriage after sexual abuse, to this version of patriarchy, is a seen as a favour to the young girl! As expressed by the PG, marriage is seen as a rescue facility for idle girls. It’s a paternalistic view that derives its authority from patriarchy.

This is why those who defend the PG and his remarks see nothing wrong with what he said. In a patriarchal society, it’s common and normal. They don’t think they are wrong because, in fact, they don’t know they are wrong. They don’t know any better. They believe the PG is right because that is how they are socialised. For them it makes sense that the problem of rape can be solved by marriage of the raped girl and payment of compensation to the father of the girl. That is how patriarchy solves the problem.

Like I said, patriarchy always fights back. We look at some of the instruments and methods.

Re-packaging the narrative

The first way is to repackage the narrative in order to deflect attention from the main issue. Thus, in this case, the PG’s remarks have been repackaged as nothing more than products of the political machinations of those who are fighting the PG politically. The new narrative says that the PG was misunderstood, that all this storm is nothing but politics. Patriarchy sows the seeds of doubt in the minds of critics, so that at the end of the day, they are no longer sure that they are doing the right thing. They are told that they are being used politically, that in fact there was nothing wrong with what the PG said. This is what my activist friend had been told and this was at the core of my media inquisitor when he asked if I thought the matter had been “blown out of proportion”. The seed had been planted in their minds, that the PG had done no wrong and that he was merely a victim.

Transformation from Villain to Victim

The second way is that the political narrative transforms the villain into the victim and creates new villains. In all this, the notion is that the issue of the PG’s reckless remarks over young girls was not so important, but rather, what was more important was the angle that this was actually a political campaign against Tomana. Patriarchy has tried to repackage Tomana’s statements, to make them look innocuous and less important. Rather, Tomana is re-cast as the victim and not the attacker. A ‘plot’ against Tomana is invented, in which he is the target and victim. Auxilia Katongomara, the female reporter at The Chronicle who interviewed him is now demonised – she becomes the villain. She is a woman after all, and patriarchy has no regard for her. In fact, patriarchy looks at her and says, “How dare she?” She now has to defend herself! She might even begin to doubt herself! It is ridiculous but that is precisely how patriarchy operates.

Occupying spaces of power

Patriarchy thrives on occupying and defending spaces of power and it is least pleased when these spaces are taken by others. Patriarchy demands protection from powerful institutions and sees spaces of power as sources of its own power. This is why in his mind, Tomana thought state media, which is a source of power, had a duty to protect him and not the children whose plight they were highlighting. His supporters too do not believe the state media should have reported the plight of children but rather that the publication of Tomana’s remarks was politically-motivated. The girls had taken his space. This explains why Tomana has been on a clarification spree, trying to find spaces in the media to explain himself, but not to apologise or retract his statements.

Force and Violence

Patriarchy can be forceful and violent in retaliation. It is potent both in attack and defence. When it attacks, it can be very vicious. Thus one of Tomana’s defenders had the temerity to employ undignified language to attack and humiliate fellow professionals who have criticised Tomana. Any lawyer worth his salt would have known that Tomana was right, said the defender on Twitter, the social network. The gratuitous insult was designed to belittle and injure – to say all those lawyers who had criticised Tomana did not ‘understand’ him and were on that account, lesser lawyers. Conversely, those like him who ‘understood’ Tomana are worth their salt, they are proper legal minds. This kind of arrogance is not misplaced within the language of patriarchy. Patriarchy must demonstrate its superiority and in doing so it must humiliate and crush all those who differ, all those who do not understand it.

Friendly agents

Patriarchy is very good at recruiting friendly agents through which its position is carried and transmitted. These agents include the media, whose space is also occupied predominantly by patriarchy. It is hardly surprising that a number of journalists “understand” what Tomana said and believe his remarks were blown out of proportion for political reasons. The scandalous remarks that he made about girls are overlooked because patriarchy in the media is simply not interested. It’s more interested in the political angle to the story, which it believes is more important.

However, by far the most important agents of patriarchy are usually female agents. Patriarchy loves female agents because it can turn back and say, but these are also women speaking! Patriarchy is designed so that female agents are recruited to communicate its message. Female agents of patriarchy give it a pretty face. They make it look good, truthful and legitimate. This is not uncommon – a video went viral some months ago in which vanatete (aunties) were publicly berating and humiliating a daughter-in-law who had allegedly committed adultery. It was a nasty video which captured in vivid terms how patriarchy can speak through female agents. The men sat silently and watched. It was the females who threw the daggers at their fellow woman. The men were largely silent observers. When people watched it, they said, but how can women do that to their fellow woman – but what they did not understand was that this was patriarchy speaking and the women were merely its agents.

The common mistake most people make, of course, is to assume that that patriarchy is only a male thing; that only men can be agents of patriarchy. The reality is different. Women can be the most potent and effective agents of patriarchy. They can be its most effective tools because they give it a veil of legitimacy. They give it a female face and make it look reasonable. In that form patriarchy is actually at its most dangerous.

And this, too, is what we see in this case. When Tomana spoke, he spoke as an individual. But he also spoke as the Prosecutor General and more importantly, he spoke as a patriarch. His language was the language of patriarchy. The criticism of Tomana is no longer seen merely as a criticism of the man and his views but as an attack on patriarchy. And consciously or sub-consciously, patriarchy has been fighting a vicious comeback through its various agents and in various forms – some subtle and some more visible. It is hardly shocking that some of his backers are educated young men and women, some of them professionals. Patriarchy knows no educational barriers. But all this demonstrates the magnitude of the problem, of which Tomana and his remarks are merely representatives. The problem is cultural – a culture that is influenced predominantly by patriarchy. And it is that which we must, ultimately, confront.

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Post published in: Analysis

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